citizenship americaWhy is it that we are once again reading about students from a large American university perpetuating acts of mass violence? Why are we reading about immigrants lashing out at the country that gave them so much good? While it does seem highly likely that the Boston terrorists were Islamicist radicals given their Chechen background, there is a deeper problem here: that problem is a broken university system and a broken immigration system.

The University System

When Russel Kirk fled the University, he called it a behemoth. Things have only gotten worse since then. American universities are gargantuan democratic institutions that are easy to gain acceptance to. Classes usually consist of hundreds of students. Seldom do these students see or hear a professor,  since those are busy with research. Teaching is delegated to minions like assistants. The intimate, life long bonds and memories that are forged between college students and professors in America’s remaining private liberal arts institutions are not to be found on the typical American university campus.

While it is true that psychopathy or violent extremism is not beyond the capacity of any class of citizens, it is certainly not a trait we associate with the intelligentsia. If anything, the stereotype of the intelligentsia is someone so immersed in intellectual life that they are often subject to the criticism that they are incapable of action,  particularly violent action. One would expect these kind of people to be shut up on their campuses, studying, deliberating and contemplating.

This would be true if the American university system had not been forcibly and systematically democratized over the past few decades. To meet an American university student in the present age is almost assuredly to meet someone interested in consuming large quantities of alcohol and drugs. Someone who my late professor,  Alexandre Shtromas,  liked to call a “stupid American” (it sounds better in a thick Russian accent).

This party-mentality would not, in and of itself constitute anti-intellectualism. Sadly, it is coupled with frightful ignorance, woefully inadequate cognitive abilities and a total lack of interest in learning. Tragically, few institutions of higher learning are remotely interested in helping these young men and women by doing anything to form their characters or open their minds to the true, the good and the beautiful. Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind only scratched the surface of this phenomenon.

No wonder then that rather than looking, talking and thinking like Adlai Stevenson (and I am supremely confident that this reference will be completely lost on the majority of university students, as well as most Democrats under 30), the prototypical American university student looks, talks and thinks like a guest of the Jerry Springer show. When CS Lewis gave the lectures that became his Abolition of Man, he truly did paint a correct picture of the malaise afflicting democratic education. Everyone of any intellectual sensitivity has had some experience of this. My own personal whiff of democratic education came while interning for the late Senator Edward M Kennedy, where I listened to my colleague express his vague love for “Nitzkee”.

“Nitzkee” was of course Nietzsche. While some may say Nietzsche is the problem, I think this is a half-truth of little value. If anything, Nietzsche saw the problem coming. He saw the dawn of the democratic Last Man, who would attend university and fall in love with a “bold” philosopher of the Future, hammering away at idols whose twilight had come. He saw that this democratic Last Man would never actually follow in the footsteps of that philosopher, who was a master philologist, and read the classics with exacting care. He knew the democratic Last Man would not even be capable of pronouncing Nietzsche’s name correctly.

In this democratic university, the real students and the real professors would be but a faction, and a minority faction at that. The intelligentsia would be forced into the corner of their own institutions to make room for the “college means party, study means cliff notes” crowd. The democratic university would be open and find room for everyone, including–apparently–the psychopathic and dangerous. To those who may think I am over reaching, please consider this question: why do we live in an America where these heinous acts are perpetuated by young people who are students?

If the answer is that there are different types of students, then I suggest we recognize that by definition, a student is a lover of wisdom and learning, not a potential murderer. It is beyond comprehension how a person authentically dedicated to learning could wake up one day to commit murder on a mass scale, and it is further alarming that the phenomenon of student-mass murder has become so commonplace. The university system in America; that assembly line of mediocrity, has failed to such an extent that we now have students killing people. When the Catholic Church fails as a system by producing homosexual priests who sexually abuse boys, the media cries out (albeit with the politically correct condemnation of “pedophilia” rather than homosexuality amongst the clergy), yet when the university system fails in a similar manner: silence.

After all, only the modern American university system could produce a murderer who says “I don’t understand Americans”, as the Boston terrorist does. You would think that at the very least,  a university student of all people might have learned something about Americans. Even if he was not studying history, you would think that unlike janitors, bank clerks and cashiers, a student would have a higher chance of learning something about America and Americans by virtue of being in a university-even the illiberal university of specialization. But no. American university education produces a man who, two years prior to committing his heinous deeds,  claims to “not understand Americans.”


Growing up as an immigrant in Cambridge Mass., I had two foreign friends: one from China,  the other from Mexico. Like me, they had come to America as very small children and spoke English without an accent. The vast majority of our friends were natural born Americans. We grew up within a common American culture–for better or worse–despite being from radically different racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds. I never once saw my Chinese or Mexican colleague isolate themselves amongst a ghetto of Chinamen and Mexicans. As for me, I spent so little time amongst the Polish community in Cambridge that by 1991, when my family moved back to Warsaw following the fall of Communism, I actually had to re-learn Polish.

Now I read that the terrorists who bombed Boston and then continued their murder spree in my hometown “didn’t have even one American friend.” How can this be? What has changed in Cambridge? How can an immigrant live in America for ten years and say he doesn’t understand Americans and doesn’t have American friends? How can this person have–as the media reports–a Greencard? A Greencard is not simply “permanent residency”, it is a commitment to the path to citizenship. A Greencard is to Citizenship what the Precana is to Catholic marriage: it’s a commitment towards a vocational goal, not something people do to kill time.

Obviously,  the deluge of immigrants that flooded America in the past two decades have not been sufficiently integrated and clearly immigration procedures are lax. This is not merely the fault of the Federal government. It is above all a failure of Americans to treat their citizenship seriously. Using another analogy to the Catholic Church; just as Pope Benedict XVI lamented over Catholics who lived as if there were no God, too many American citizens live as if they were actually permanent residents. They fail to be active in their communities, fail to maintain the associations that Tocqueville praised as fundamental to America’s success, fail to educate their children in the American heritage, and thus facilitate an America that is not a welcoming yet culturally firm nation, but is merely a big airport with separate waiting rooms for diverse ethnic groups.

Perhaps America is not yet so far gone as the French or Belgians, who are fast becoming minorities in their own countries, but America is certainly on its way. It was already on its way when Pope John Paul II greeted a clueless American ambassador to the Vatican with these words:

The Founding Fathers of the United States asserted their claim to freedom and independence on the basis of certain “self-evident” truths about the human person: truths which could be discerned in human nature, built into it by “nature’s God.” Thus they meant to bring into being, not just an independent territory, but a great experiment in what George Washington called “ordered liberty”: an experiment in which men and women would enjoy equality of rights and opportunities in the pursuit of happiness and in service to the common good. Reading the founding documents of the United States, one has to be impressed by the concept of freedom they enshrine: a freedom designed to enable people to fulfill their duties and responsibilities toward the family and toward the common good of the community. Their authors clearly understood that there could be no true freedom without moral responsibility and accountability, and no happiness without respect and support for the natural units or groupings through which people exist, develop, and seek the higher purposes of life in concert with others.

The American democratic experiment has been successful in many ways. Millions of people around the world look to the United States as a model in their search for freedom, dignity, and prosperity. But the continuing success of American democracy depends on the degree to which each new generation, native-born and immigrant, makes its own the moral truths on which the Founding Fathers staked the future of your Republic. Their commitment to build a free society with liberty and justice for all must be constantly renewed if the United States is to fulfill the destiny to which the Founders pledged their “lives…fortunes…and sacred honor.”

How many more massacres, how much more division will America have to face until her people wake up and solve the immigration crisis by taking citizenship seriously and taking education seriously? Why does a foreign born Pontiff know America better than her Ambassador and possibly her President at the time? The Cambridge I grew up in was an academic town teeming with intellectual life. It was also and above all a welcoming place where a kid could enjoy comic books, save up his allowance to buy Transformers toys, and spend hours circling Fresh Pond dreaming up stories. It was probably many things for many people, but it was not and cannot become Baghdad.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
8 replies to this post
  1. “but it was not and cannot become Baghdad”

    I consider that comment racist.

    (Now can I have a position on the Harvard faculty?)

  2. Mr. Rieth: You don’t provide a date for the quotation from Pope John Paul II, so I don’t know which of our ambassadors to the Vatican was greeted with those ringing words (which sound a bit like a lecture to me, but I guess when you’re the Pope, you get to do that sort of thing). Here is the list of individuals who served in that capacity during Pope John Paul II’s tenure: William Wilson, Frank Shakespeare, Thomas Patrick Melady, Raymond Flynn, Lindy Boggs, James Nicholson, Francis Rooney. Could you tell me which of them was the “clueless American ambassador to the Vatican” you had in mind, and perhaps explain how you arrived at that judgment? Thanks…

      • As regards the “clueless” comment, it was based on Congresswoman Boggs’ philosophical acrobatics which attempted to synthesize feminism with anti-abortionism, all the while working to support a clearly prochoice movement. I cannot help but think that the moral and philosophical clarity with which the Pope spoke of the Founding was lost on her.

        Mother Jones has a wonderful quote summimg up this cluelessness: “If you ask me why, deep down I’m commited to these little dots of nothingness called an embryo, I don’t know.”

        Such philosophical barrenness is appaling, and it seems to be the result of Congresswoman Boggs progressive thinking which characterized her public life. That she was nominally pro-life is nice, but with that kind of defense of life argumentation it’s no wonder the Pope felt it necessary to give the ambassador a lecture on the Founding.

        Here’s the Mother Jones article about the group:

        Additional elucidating reading on the subject, courtesy of Dr. Harry Jaffa, is here:

        • Mr. Rieth: On further review, I’m not certain you’ve established Ambassador Boggs’ cluelessness. Your reference to her “progressive thinking” will no doubt persuade anyone who believes that all progressives are, by definition, clueless, but I’d expect a higher standard for someone who writes for The Imaginative Conservative; one almost gets the sense that you use “clueless” as shorthand for “disagrees with me”. Further, and as I’m sure you know, the arguably risible quote you cited from Mother Jones magazine was actually attributed to Professor Sidney Callahan, not to Ambassador Boggs–by not making that clear, you have allowed readers to infer that it was said by the ambassador. I’m sure that wasn’t your intention, which is why I’m pointing out your oversight.

          • Mr. Schifflet,
            You are right, it did not come out clear. The Mother Jones citation is about the whole group of pro-life feminists, and the quote struck me as particularly illustrative of the problems with such an endeavor in general.

            I did not establish Ambassador Boggs cluelessness, but I did establish Pope John Paul II’s clarity. I understand that as an ambassador, Boggs had a professional duty to represent the State department. However, her public life up to that point was fairly rich in history, and from what I have gathered, it was rather poor on substance – albeit high on form. She appears to have known all the right people and become a reliable supporter of the most uncontrovercial causes imaginable – except when supporting causes which only someone unfamiliar with the Founding could have supported (like the ERA). She reminds me of the Very Nice Lady from the Simpsons shouting “won’t anyone think of the children?” Not an easy opponent to criticisize. Her personal history is also tragic and insulates her further.

            Her Catholicism seemed to have been limited to supporting Kennedy, which is the special eastern variety of Catholicism that serves as a badge of ethnic identification (like east coast Jews who have not experienced what Strauss called “t’schuvac” (my spelling is doubtless wrong, I’m looking for the Hebrew word for “return” – see Strauss/Progress or Return)).

            I cannot really find a trace of a speech, or other public statement on her part that reveals she may have understood America as well as the Pope did. If I’m completely wrong and someone points me to a Boggs Congressional speech that demonstrates otherwise – mea culpa.

            That said, given President Clinton’s very public cluelessness about the Founding, not to mention President Obama’s Second Inaugural where he “discovered” that the author of the Declaration of Independence, despite categorizing homosexuality alongside slavery as an abomination agaimst nature, was actually laying the groundwork for gay marriage – I’ll stick with my assessment of Boggs and Co. as clueless.

            The Pope was pleading with America to show leadership to a world in need of order, and it was a shame that foriegn pontiffs understand our Founding better than America’s political elite. This happens because our education system does not teach critical patriotism only “critical theory”.

  3. Thanks for the commentary. A little autobiography — about your roots, where you grew up, etc. — is always very interesting, and helpful in comparing with others, whether my own experience or that of an even younger generation — the Columbine killers or the Boston terrorists.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: