Learning and language are intimately related. People speak well—clearly, concretely, and accurately—about the things they know, and poorly when they pontificate about things they don’t. Broadly-educated people speak well about many things; they are dilettantes rather than pedants, the two kinds of intellectual according to Miguel de Unamuno. Primo Levi, a professional chemist as well as one of the great writers of the 20th century, defined the intellectual as a liberally-educated person:
the person educated beyond his daily trade, whose culture is alive inasmuch as it makes an effort to renew itself, increase itself, and keep up to date, and who does not react with indifference or irritation when confronted with any branch of knowledge, even though, obviously, he cannot cultivate all of them.
Liberal education equips one not just for the busyness of work and service (that is vocational training), but for the intelligent consideration of everything in the range of human experience, and of the whole of that experience. The philosopher Michael Oakeshott has suggested that liberal education is learning to recognize, discriminate between, and display genuine understanding of “the languages of understanding”—“the language of the natural sciences, for example, the language of history, the language of philosophy, or the language of poetic imagination.” Conversely, linguistic incompetence in the ordinary sense—the habitual and persistent use of vague expressions, clumsy phrasing, tired imagery, empty abstractions, and the like—betrays a mind that has not been liberally educated.
This brings me to academic administrators. I shall speak about the ones I know: those who run the University of Tulsa (TU), where I have taught since 1988. This gang clear-cut the liberal arts a year ago (a subject I’ve written about in City Journal and the Nation), eliminating programs in philosophy, religion, languages, history, anthropology, theater, dance, music, mathematics, physics, and chemistry, among others. But programs like nursing, cybersecurity, computer information systems, and data management are expanding. This shift away from the humanities and natural sciences and toward vocational and technical training is a nationwide trend in universities, accelerated by COVID-19 and the move to online courses.
As administrators and trustees go, TU’s are especially punitive and foolish. But their language does not differ in kind from the combination of post-modern, therapeutic, politically correct, and managerial jargon other administrators use nowadays to run and market their universities. They like to talk about breaking down academic silos, unlocking unbounded potential, protecting our university’s secret sauce, employing high-touch student services, engaging in continuous improvement, and showing true commitment. These last two are especially important. The academic restructuring that destroyed the university was called True Commitment; faculty are now required to assemble twice a year on Continuous Improvement Day. These locutions could have been plucked from Nineteen Eighty-Four. In fact, no one should attempt to read our administrators’ writings or listen to their speeches without first having studied George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (1946).
Orwell’s classic essay addresses the general debasement of English, whose decline recalls the alcoholic who drinks because he fails and fails because he drinks: our language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Orwell quotes five passages of political writing from five different authors whose
mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.
Political writing, Orwell says, tends to be as stale and formless as “tea leaves blocking a sink.” It is bad writing, and not just because its style is atrocious. Using “long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else” minimizes mental labor. That’s the point: politicians and university administrators dislike mental labor and will do anything to avoid it. “They [the ready-made phrases] will construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent—and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.” This last is a considerable advantage, as ready-made language is “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Around the time True Commitment was announced, TU’s president, who has since resigned, wrote emails to the faculty and staff that included the following requests and observations (these are chosen almost at random):
I ask that you come with an open mind and a belief that anything is possible when we work together. . . . Great things lay ahead. Creating the momentum to carry us to new heights builds in the same way a puzzle comes together, piece by piece.
The first quotation starts with a henhouse strip and unaccountably switches to the past tense; the second is painfully awkward and mixes incompatible metaphors—“a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying,” Orwell observes. The same president’s 2017-2022 Strategic Plan for the University of Tulsa, “Building the Foundation for a Great Story and a Greater Commitment,” recycles henhouse strips in a socially-conscious way. Its sections include “The 4th Industrial Revolution and Innovation in Everything we Do,” followed by “The 4th Civil Rights Movement and Justice and Everything we Do.” Our students will embark on a voyage of narrative self-creation while being taught technical skills and trained in some version of social justice. But will they learn how to write and think?
The Plan promises “an accepting and inclusive community of engaged learners who actively sculpt their own learning and development,” led by faculty and staff who “mentor and empower you and your peers . . . by cultivating an insatiable intellectual curiosity and inquisitiveness.” But the immediate sequel presents a far more pressing question than what we expect our students to learn:
How do we want TU students to feel?
• Accepted: Physically, emotionally and spiritually safe, valued for who you are and your potential now and forever
• Engaged: An active participant in your own learning to develop unique gifts and talents, not talked down to, you have a voice and a desire to be heard
• Empowered: So that your unique gifts and talents can be further developed for your personal growth, collaborative potential and the opportunity to bring value to others
• Self-discovery: Cultivate your intellectual curiosity and inquisitiveness
This so-called TU Commitment has superficial plausibility as a business decision, because creating feelings—and who knew self-discovery was one?—is far cheaper than teaching.
“When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims,” Orwell notes, “one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” The April, 2019 speech in which our provost (and now interim president) announced the restructuring consisted mostly of thick, malformed plumes like this:
For any student who arrives this fall, they may enroll in any program that we have held out as available through the admissions process. In time, this academic restructuring will allow us to deploy resources more effectively, to better promote interdisciplinary work, to free resources to invest to strengthen and to grow remaining programs and to support faculty development.
A good bookkeeper (if not exactly a librarian), the provost kept her eye on the bottom line: “Our commitment to research . . . is unwavering,” she reassured us. “It is part of our secret sauce. This research elevates our institution as prospective students and donors consider whether to choose TU.” Later she spoke like a manager trying to extract more labor from workers. Her statement that “high-performing institutions are comprised of high-performing people” reminded me of the story told by Frederick Winslow Taylor, the founder of the scientific management movement, about how he bullied a pig-iron handler at the Bethlehem Steel Corporation into increasing his workload by almost a factor of four:
“Schmidt, are you a high-priced man?”
“Veil, I don’t know vat you mean.”
“Oh yes, you do. What I want to know is whether you are a high-priced man or not.”
“Veil, I don’t know vat you mean.”
“Oh, come on now, you answer my questions. What I want to find out is whether you are a high-priced man or one of these cheap fellows here.”
TU needs a faculty of willing, embarrassingly cheap Schmidts if it is to deliver on its promises to students. It’s no coincidence that every mandatory sexual harassment, bias, and micro-aggression training session we have suffered invariably portrays professors as hip thirty-somethings who fist-bump their students. That’s who we are supposed to be—must be—if we are to turn TU into the kind of job-training center and mental-institution with the amenities of a summer-camp that True Commitment envisions. That “vision,” ginned up by education consultants and marketed as “disruptive innovation,” is political in the broadest sense. It is the culmination of the woke-capitalist takeover not just of our university, but of the American university in general.
The poet Osip Mandelstam, whose late verses survived tyrannical erasure only because his wife Nadezhda and Anna Akhmatova learned them by heart, was at some point told by the literary organs of the USSR that they had no need of his work. (He died in the trash heap of Stalin’s Gulag.) The new university has no need of the old guard either, and not just because the young guard is cheaper. The old professors were individuals of character, quirky and peculiar in the way that all good teachers are. Like Tocqueville, Kierkegaard, and Mill, they thought the point of education was to become a self—an active, reflective center of responsibility—and finally to become oneself. They taught undergraduates to read, think, and write; to calculate, measure, formulate hypotheses, and conduct experiments; to draw, sculpt, paint, act, dance, and make music; and everywhere to sort signal from noise, pure wind from meaningful speech. They argued with them and dissected their papers and performances, demanding almost as much as they demanded of themselves. Warmly devoted to their students, in class they nevertheless regarded feelings as worthless promissory notes, and accepted only the hard coin of reason. They showed by example what it means to be freed by a liberal education to think and speak and judge for oneself, and to live according to one’s own considered desires and tastes.
The new university has no place for such charming eccentricity and rigor. Its business model demands pedagogical uniformity, from which ideological conformity inevitably follows. Promised that they will feel accepted and emotionally safe—“valued for who you are,” not who you might, with effort and discipline, become—students must never be challenged on the most fundamental level. They must never be made to experience the discomfort of being measured by standards they may fail to live up to—the only sort that are of any use. They must encounter no sharp edges or hard spots, just rubber bumpers all round. The old Socratic professors do not fit in here, and cannot be made to. Incorrigible individuals, they refuse to be ground down smooth or to trade their eyes for cold discs.
Where all this will end is anyone’s guess. But the auspices have long boded ill for the University of Tulsa. A few weeks before the provost’s Town Hall speech, our president sent an email with the subject line “Fortune favors the brave.” The phrase, he explained, “can be traced back to Roman history. It’s especially fitting for this period in TU’s history. The time for bravery is now.” This is not the henhouse strip he was reaching for. “Fortune favors the brave” first appears in the extant literature in Virgil’s Aeneid. It is uttered by the hotheaded Turnus, who uses it to rally his army in an attack on the forces of Aeneas. Turnus is subsequently slain—and his people defeated—by the eponymous hero.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
 Jacob Howland, “Storm Clouds Over Tulsa,” City Journal, April 17, 2019; Jacob Howland, “Corporate Wolves in Academic Sheepskins, or, a Billionaire’s Raid on the University of Tulsa,” The Nation, June 18, 2019.
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.