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A core challenge of higher education

Overcoming American Political Disfigurement

Speaking at the University’s 271st Commencement on June 5, President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 urged the Class of 2018 to champion the value of a college degree. Implicit in any such correct urging was the plainly considerable benefit of University graduates being able to engage with the world both intellectually and emotionally. Indeed, without such an absolutely overriding benefit, this value would merely have a more or less identifiable cash equivalent, a plausibly recognizable and tangible validation by the commercial marketplace.

But it would also be one that could quickly discount the indispensable higher educational foundations of democratic governance. 


More specifically, by further emphasizing professional preparation over authentic learning, major U.S. universities would make it increasingly likely that grievously unsuitable candidates could once again become president of the United States. To be sure, the University is already well ahead of its peers (or almost-peers) on this metric with its commendable traditional stance on “pure” learning, but the educational challenge going forward will be broadly generic and national in scope.

Evidence abounds. Today, many Americans are still able to regard Donald Trump as a capable or even exemplary president. This more or less enduring preference can be explained only by considering the wider society and culture from which such a plainly unprepared president was somehow extracted. Significantly, this context pertains as much to certain highly educated U.S. voters of wealth and privilege as to more typical Americans who possess little or literally no formal higher education.

For such a telling juxtaposition of privilege with philistinism, the 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had coined a specific word, one that he foresaw could eventually become more generic and more universal. This German word was Bildungsphilister, or “educated Philistine.”

Bildungsphilister is a term that could shed needed light upon Trump’s continued support among many of the presumably well-educated. During the actual presidential campaign, Trump commented on several occasions, “I love the poorly-educated,” but in the end much of his support also came from the not-so-poorly-educated.

How has the United States managed to arrive at such a fearful and dismal place in what was formerly a still-ascendant national history? What has been the particular responsibility of higher education? It’s a distinctly reasonable question, especially as the Trump presidency is quickly and unambiguously transforming a rapidly declining and self-poisoning country into a finely lacquered collective corpse.

Once upon a time, when at least some Americans still sought to consult serious books and real ideas, Ralph Waldo Emerson called upon his fellow citizens to embrace “plain living and high thinking.” Now, this always-sensible plea for enhanced personal and social equilibrium has been expressly cast aside. Now, in fact, there is no longer even any pretense of a vibrant “life of the mind” in these United States.


Let us be candid. Even in our very finest universities, the last or residual claims of literature, art, music, history, and philosophy have often been supplanted by professional or job training. This includes purportedly academic training for lucrative jobs in finance or “wealth management.”

Once upon a time, Plato had vastly higher expectations for his “philosopher-king.” Still, even if we should no longer seriously expect a philosopher-king in the White House, ought we not still be entitled to a man or woman who manages to read and think? Something, anything?

Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None” warns prophetically: “One should never seek the ‘higher man’ at the marketplace.” But the marketplace was precisely where an anti-intellectual United States found Trump. In due consideration of Nietzsche's earlier insight, what else should we have expected?

The current U.S. president is not merely marginal. He is the literal opposite of both Plato’s philosopher-king and of Nietzsche’s higher-man. He is a manifestly wretched inversion of whatever might once have been ennobling or laudatory in American or more generally human governance. Furthermore, we are steadily, visibly moving backward — not in mere increments, but in starkly enormous leaps of insufferable declension.

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Trump is no Thomas Jefferson.

How many Americans were incredulous or offended that a presidential candidate could wish to have been associated professionally with Duck Dynasty? If there were any at all at the Republican convention, it is hard to recollect more than a tiny murmur of consternation. For the most part, the proud juxtaposition of presidential politics with a determined illiteracy now seems quite “normal,” cathartic, perhaps even commendably “democratic.”

The current president does not understand that U.S. history deserves its proper pride of place. How many Americans have ever paused to recall that the country’s founding fathers, back in the 18th century, were not expecting or conceivably even imagining automatic weapons? How many Americans today even know that the early Republic was the religious heir of John Calvin, or the philosophical descendant of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes?

There can be very little doubt that we as a people now unhesitatingly embrace the full range of cultural and intellectual declension. In other words, we go down, in the blithering Trump era, with nary a murmur of detectable resistance or discoverable courage. Above all, perhaps, we continue to think aggressively against meaningful higher education, bombastically, strangely pleased, somehow, that almost no one here ever takes the trouble to read or learn anything of substance.

There is more. Human beings are obviously the creators of their machines, not their servants. Yet, there does exist today an implicit and grotesque reciprocity between creator and creation, an elaborate and potentially lethal pantomime between the users and the used. Nowhere is this lethality more evident than among the loyal followers of President Trump. They follow him, however, because the wider American society had first been allowed to become a veritable desert of serious thought and dignified learning.

Our simplifying context offers reassurance. It provides a ubiquitous solvent, easily dissolving almost everything of consequence. In higher education, the traditionally revered Western canon of literature and art has sometimes been replaced by more pleasingly visible emphases on “branding.” Apart from their pervasive drunkenness and enthusiastically tasteless entertainments, the once-sacred spaces of higher education have been widely transformed into a corrosive pipeline, a deceiving pathway leading to mostly nonsensical or otherwise unsatisfying jobs.

For many of our young people, learning has become an inconvenient but mandated commodity, nothing more. At the same time, commodities exist for just one purpose. They are there, too often, like the next batch of celebrated college graduates, to be processed — that is, to be bought and sold.

For President Trump, this blatantly deformed condition represents not a conspicuous liability, but rather the very optimal definition of American democracy.

A few years ago, before I retired from teaching at Purdue University, I asked my class of 50 students if they would want a degree right away, without having to take any further studies or coursework (and therefore, without any further opportunities for “higher education”). Forty-seven students enthusiastically accepted the offer.

Soon, even if we should somehow manage to avoid nuclear war and nuclear terrorism — an avoidance not to be taken for granted in the unraveling Trump era — the swaying of the American ship will become so violent that even the hardiest lamps will be overturned. Then, the phantoms of great ships of state, once laden with silver and gold, may no longer lie forgotten. Then, perhaps, we will finally understand that the circumstances which sent the compositions of Homer, Maimonides, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, John Milton, William Shakespeare, Sigmund Freud, and Franz Kafka to join the works of forgotten poets were neither unique nor transient.

In an 1897 essay titled “On Being Human,” Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, had inquired thoughtfully about the authenticity of the United States. “Is it even open to us to choose to be genuine?” he asked. This earlier University president had answered “yes,” but only if we first refused to stoop to join the injurious and synthetic “herds” of mass society. Otherwise, Wilson had already understood, our entire society would be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead also with that rusty demise of broken machinery, more hideous even than the inevitable decomposition of each individual person.

In all societies, as Emerson and the other American Transcendentalists had recognized, the scrupulous care of each individual soul is most important. Meaningfully, there can be a “better” American soul, and also a correspondingly improved American politics, but not until we first acknowledge a prior obligation. This is a far-reaching national responsibility to overcome the staggering barriers of crowd culture, and to embrace once again the deeply liberating imperatives of “high thinking.”

“High thinking” is what higher education should ultimately be all about.

With luck, the Trump presidency will manage to end without a catastrophic nuclear war, but even that “happy ending” could represent little more than a temporary reprieve. Unless we begin to work hard at changing this society’s much deeper antipathies to both intellect and reason, we will repeatedly have to face the dreadful kinds of metamorphoses that Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard famously termed a “sickness unto death.” Accordingly, as Americans, our real work must begin not with politics directly (all politics are epiphenomenal, or merely reflection), but, at least in part, with a convincingly resolute “fixing” of higher education. At the University, such fixing could then give even more credible and palpable significance to the inherently fine motto, “Princeton in the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity.”

Much more importantly, however, it could become a beacon to other great universities, encouraging a more general attentiveness to Emersonian high thinking and (eventually) to electing a proper American president.

However ironic, Freud had maintained a general antipathy to all things American. In essence, he most objected, according to Bruno Bettelheim, to this country’s “shallow optimism,” and its seemingly corollary commitment to a disturbingly crude form of materialism. America, thought Freud, was very evidently “lacking in soul.” See Bruno Bettelheim, “Freud and Man’s Soul,” especially Chapter X.

Louis René Beres GS 71 is the author of many foundational books and articles dealing with international relations and international law. A professor emeritus of political science and international law at Purdue University, Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, on Aug. 31, 1945.