Thursday, December 19, 2002

I have often described the modern liberal arts university as an institution suffering from a lack of a substantial social purpose to serve. But that purpose (at least in the case of the elite schools) may have been found at last. David Brooks, the perspicacious anthropologist of modern society who unearthed Patio Man, has turned his attention to academia, and the result is a fascinating portrait of today's top tier of college students.

On the plus side, these students are extremely hardworking, ambitious, industrious, mature, self-confident overachievers, a gender-integrated version of the famous Japanese "salaryman" cohort that led that country's economy to such heights in the seventies and eighties. They run themselves ragged pursuing opportunities, organizing activities and advancing their careers, caring little for frivolities like dating and romance. Their studies are in fact just a sideline to their resume-padding extracurricular pursuits. "It is through activities that students find the fields they enjoy and the talents they possess, writes Brooks. "The activities, rather than the courses, seem to serve as precursors to their future lives."

Brooks sees some less positive aspects in this culture, though. The students he observed are not really intellectually engaged, or even unusually intelligent; they have instead been selected for their having "master[ed] the method of being a good student", and treat excelling in their studies as another task to be accomplished with their trademark diligence. Moreover, the "tyranny of the grade point average" stifles specific passion in favor of bland generalism, and "punishes eccentricity". Ambitions are narrowly focused on the few professions that offer well-trodden, steeply upward-inclining career paths, at the expense of all sorts of unusual or creative possibilities. As a result, these students lack "any clear sense of what their life mission is", or even "of what real world career paths look like".

These would be very serious criticisms indeed, if a large fraction of college-age youth ended up in such a setting. As a forge for America's leadership and managerial class, though, an environment that directly cultivates hands-on leadership and management (not to mention workoholic devotion to accomplishment) doesn't sound bad. (Societies--even highly successful ones--have certainly done worse; think of the English "public school" culture of institutionalized physical brutality that molded the functionaries of the British Empire.) America does not lack its share of independent-minded visionaries; developing a corps of hardworking careerists devoted to making things happen, on the other hand, would at least constitute a tangible contribution the nation's success. And it's about time the country's top liberal-arts colleges finally returned to providing one.

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