Mystification and Idealism in Higher Education

Teaching at a large land-grant university is always a little uncanny. Biking to places is rare in the US, especially with the ease which comes with also not having to navigate busy city streets for cars, and bike lanes that disappear into sections of interstates. My rides to and from work all the more remarkable because of uniqueness of Virginia Tech (where I work) and its buildings. With a substantial ROTC training core, the campus has a strong military vibe. Soldiers run drills through the training squares peppered across campus daily. They walk, in fatigues, to and from their classes in straight lines and can only make 90-degree turns (watching them turn around is like watching the snake in the old video game maneuver in sections). The buildings, made with the local rocks colloquially called Hokie Stones, are stylized American-castles. Rather than granite or stones jigsawed together, it is a mix of concrete and Hokie stones, fitted together in sharp angles and functional gray.

When my mind wanders, which is often, I end up fixating on the significance of such architecture and design. What do these grand buildings mean? Why are they here in the middle of sheep fields where the air can be souped with the odor of manure on humid afternoons? Why are those of us who live here do so with such a sense of purpose and pretension about our urbanity and sophistication? “This is unreal and artificial,” I might pontificate to myself, “it’s a theme park for adults-in-waiting. All these imposing buildings do not fit this otherwise plain country landscape. They would fall into desuetude in weeks if there were no students here.” They would be ruins to hubris, where “round the decay/ of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/ the lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), writing during the turn of the 19th century, saw colleges as part of the social function of education, wherein institutions inculcated ‘pupils a sense of ‘communion with others’ along with a body of scientific and literary ‘knowledge’. The aim is to always ‘preserve’ the social system whilst at the same time introducing social change. John Dewey (1859-1952) also proposed the same principle for organizing the modern society around the schooling and growth of the person. The aim was to foster a continued development of the individual to create a better and technologically advanced nation. Universities, as the end point of this process, represented the education of the professional and leadership elites. Makers of experts and the ruling class, who not only practiced the scientific way of doing things, but the possessed the right culture and moral knowledge.

Max Weber (1865-1920) talked about the demystification of society that came about as result of the Enlightenment. The absence or retreat of God (newly emerged as the dominant mode of social organization in Europe) created a gap in the source of social authority. People also found themselves disconnected and lonely in the crowd, unmoored from a common community and purpose that religion had provided. The nation state and its churches of higher education came to fill this gap, both as the place where leaders were taught and the culture and community of the nation could be forged. Charisma became credentials and mystification could commence again in a shared story of history, literature, and science. This was the sociological underpinning of German Romanticism and Idealism, on which the research universities in the US were to be modeled

This was context for much of the establishment of the large residential research universities in the US. With the establishment of Johns Hopkins University as a research first graduate university in 1876, and the transformation of Harvard University into a secular institution and graduate programs under the leadership of its influential president Charles Elliott (president from 1869 to 1909), the die was cast for a new type of college experience. Students were not to be brought into a church, but into the campus and into the collective of the community. The gods and idols were to be relegated to the past and the future was forwards into scientific progressivism.

At the same time, the architects of these universities also recognize the need for social cohesion and community. Even as rational minds were to forged through serious inquiry and debate, there was a need to serve the idea of the nation. Therefore, the collective experiences and rituals of schools spirit and university team sports were promoted, and vigorously taken up. Franchise sports is undoubtedly the one unifying religion in this country; fewer people might believe in taking Communion or being Born Again every year, but wearing a Yankees hat in Boston is going to get you hurt. I would also contend that this affiliation is at its most intense in university campuses with stadiums that hold tens of thousands every (American) football weekend, or the national obsession with March Madness.

It is meant to be the crucible of national culture, as Bill Readings diagnosed about the role of the university in the middle of the 20th century. In The University in Ruins, he calls the role of the liberal arts and the university as such in the middle of the century as producing a national cohesive culture. Through this process, they take over from the role of the priests as authority and bring the new classes of the social order into the educated community of the nation. They provide the vocabulary and the narrative through which the community will move forward to a more Godly or moral society.

There is certainly a lot to be said about this metanarrative approach to education. It is also important to point out that universities have never been moral institutions. When they were abodes of good employment and afforded a space to think and learn, they were cut off from the largest majority of the population. Now, even as they have opened themselves up to different populations, they subsist on massive levels of exploitation of faculty labor, defrauding the students, and operating as hedge funds with a public facing educational side-project.

This does not completely take away from the unique place universities and campuses provide in US societies for those who are able to find themselves in a good position and a good university. It remains one of the few places where students can idealize themselves and there is a sort of interregnum between the control of the family and the control of the workplace. It makes sense that most political movements and social transformations have some sort of roots in student politics.

Even as the pressures of finding a job and the sense of societal doom descent over everything in US society, it is still clear that students continue to lead much of the changes needed. In other words, they continue to be idealists and believe change towards the better can happen. The first place fossil-fuel divestment movements took place were and have been on college campuses. The young might seem self-involved and tuned out, yet they are do much more than their parents are on Global Warming. The same thing is also happening in terms of the way students recognize social norms and how to treat each other. Adaptable and less reactionary because they have less baggage, the people I teach are more naturally kind to each others’ differences , and recognize that trying to be funny or make jokes is just a lazy excuse for being a jerk.

At the same time, I also like to think this sense of idealism and mystification is an internalization of the grandness of university buildings set about in the middle of cow-fields. The scale of research campuses, I would like to believe, does more than act like billboards about the importance of the place. I think they might – at their best – actually make those of us feel the weight of the possibilities of knowledge and humanity even as we cannot voice them. On some level we know it was people in places like these who changed the world. Made it better. They crammed in libraries, spent sleepless nights talking about ideas and thinking about truths who have cured diseases, sent people into space, and unlocked the details of our genetics. We dare not speak its name – its hope of truth(s) – but they let us dream them nonetheless.

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