Intellectual Leprosy – Or What Is University For?

January 2019

In the coming years, the university will be seriously questioned. This interrogation will stem from the growing distrust of the Western bureaucratic state (what liberal democracy has now become) and transnational corporate monopolies (the predominant form of capitalism today). Both have radically changed the Western world, wherein the political and the non-political, public and personal life, the state and private enterprise, the life of the mind and skills acquisition have all been corrupted or dismantled by bureaucracies and their administrators.

Thus, people have come to understand that “liberal” has little to do with their freedom, and “democracy” is not much interested in their will. The old definition of “liberalism,” as the removal of constraints from individual choice, is no longer tenable, because choice means conformity to progressivism, which is the shared ideology of the state and the university, and which seeks to overturn “unjust” distribution of power (aka, social justice). Such is good governance and good education today.

Further, progressivism replaces freedom with rights, which in turn belong only to groups. An individual is meaningless and without rights outside the group. The state and the university enfranchise groups they deem as “historically marginalized,” while they disenfranchise other groups they regard as “historically privileged.” Thus, the question of liberty vanishes, because freedom is not progressive. The coming years will see the individual fully stifled, while nationalism battles transnationalism (or, post-nationalism) to counter monopolistic capitalism’s devaluation of human labour.

Inside the university, progressivism is the orthodoxy. No matter what the discipline, the same mindset is inculcated – to overthrow privilege. This is not Marxism redivivus. Rather, it is the imposition of group-structure, i.e., “Neo-Tribalism” – in which groups vie for power by demonstrating their marginality. In a deindustrialized economy, class-structure has largely vanished.

Interestingly, this “brave new world” still awaits a vocabulary. The old sociopolitical lexicon is now useless. There is no left-wing, right-wing divide; no far-right to be feared; no Marxism; no “postmodernism” (a pointless term to begin with); no anarchism; no “political-correctness;” no liberalism; no conservatism; no democracy; and no freedom. Progressivism has defeated them all. Those who still deploy the terminology of these erstwhile paradigms are like the blind trying to describe the proverbial elephant.

Those who might want to live without progressivism will have a tough fight ahead, as they will first have to identify the reality they want as an alternative. To do so, they will have to understand that the world has not gotten complex – it has gotten simpler. Technology, which gives the illusion of complexity, functions to simplify everything, especially thinking. Second, progressivism offers nothing more than outrage at privilege, and so is limited in its scope. Third, progressivism cannot say what will come once social justice is finally achieved.

These three problems may develop an anti-progressivist agenda. However, progressivism also dominates the modern mentality, which makes anti-progressivism difficult to attain, in that those who reject progressivism yet adhere to, and use, its “logic” – in that they ignore individuality and profess some version of group-identity. Then, there is the problem of the Neo-Tribal divide, of those at the top, those at the bottom, those victims of progressivism and those left behind by it. There is no middle-class in progressivism.

There remains the possibility of relearning and using pre-progressivist paradigms, especially those of the medieval world. But this will require knowledge that has now been largely lost (starting with grammar, logic and rhetoric, and culminating with Christian thought).

Regardless, the university will have to justify its existence, since instrumentalism and idealism no longer guide it, though the pretense of such alignment lingers. The degrees still “sold” were fashioned for that very world of privilege which the university happily hates and has destroyed. Indeed, degrees themselves are parchment affirmations of that vanished world.

All the while, and without let-up, technology devalues, or replaces, human labour, as monopolistic capitalism overrides any and all sociopolitical configurations. It even overrides progressivism itself. Profit (consumption and production) has little to do with ideology – which is why capitalism can thrive in any civic environment (e.g., China).

And, here lies the essential contradiction of progressivism. It creates “debt-slavery,” by driving the young into the bureaucracy of education, where the university sells them its products (degrees) by way of debt. The young buy these degrees because they are told that they need them for jobs, which the state cannot provide, nor can society supply. But the state can boast of a successful “education system” with metrics of young people “finishing school.” All the while, banking monopolies, who own the debt, gain fresh customers (debt is very profitable). Who wins? In a technologized, deindustrialized society, what power is actually being redistributed? What education is the university dispensing? What benefit does the state derive by increasing the number of debt-laden young people each graduation day? Progressivism comes trailing paths of destruction.

A disturbing prospect emerges – progressivism can only create dominance and subjugation. There are those above and those below. How long can tax-money sustain all this? How long before the good-will of the people runs out?

Perhaps the words of Simone Weil may offer a way forward: “In every school exercise there is a special way of waiting upon truth, setting our hearts upon it, yet not allowing ourselves to go out in search of it. There is a way of giving our attention to the data of a problem in geometry without trying to find the solution or to the words of a Latin or Greek text without trying to arrive at the meaning, a way of waiting, when we are writing, for the right word to come of itself at the end of our pen, while we merely reject all inadequate words.”

Waiting for truth. But how can waiting provide an anchor to the unmoored university, state, society and individual? How can truth be awaited in a post-truth world, where the past is held to be forever wrong because it was built on that which supposedly does not exist (God) – which is nihilism? Progressivism does not need truth or freedom. What does the university become without either? This question too will have to be answered.

In another essay, Weil observed: “It is when we desire the truth with an empty soul and without trying to guess its content that we receive the light. Therein resides the entire mechanism of attention.” By “attention” Weil means education. To do otherwise, warns Weil, brings on “intellectual leprosy,” which is the best description of progressivism. The years ahead will be marked by the struggle to either spread or cure such leprosy. Thus, what is university for?