Trump and the mise­d­u­cated

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - GE­ORGE F. WILL georgewill@wash­post.com

In 2013, a col­lege stu­dent as­signed to re­search a deadly sub­stance sought help via Twitter: “I can’t find the chem­i­cal and phys­i­cal prop­er­ties of sarin gas some­one please help me.” An ex­pert at a se­cu­rity con­sult­ing firm tried to be help­ful, telling her that sarin is not gas. She replied, “yes the [ex­ple­tive] it is a gas you ig­no­rant [ex­ple­tive]. sarin is a liq­uid & can evap­o­rate . . . shut the [ex­ple­tive] up.”

Tom Ni­chols, pro­fes­sor at the U.S. Naval War Col­lege and the Har­vard Ex­ten­sion School, writ­ing in the Chron­i­cle Re­view, says such a “storm of out­raged ego” is an in­creas­ingly com­mon phe­nom­e­non among stu­dents who, hav­ing been taught to re­gard them­selves as peers of their teach­ers, “take cor­rec­tion as an in­sult.” Ni­chols re­lates this to myr­iad in­tel­lec­tual viruses thriv­ing in academia. Car­ried by un­der­e­d­u­cated grad­u­ates, these viruses in­fect the na­tion’s civic cul­ture.

Soon the re­sults in­clude the pres­i­den­tial mega­phone be­ing used to am­plify fa­cially pre­pos­ter­ous as­ser­tions, e.g., that up­ward of 5 mil­lion il­le­gal votes were cast in 2016. A pres­i­den­tial min­ion thinks this as­ser­tion is jus­ti­fied be­cause it is the pres­i­dent’s “long­stand­ing be­lief.”

“Col­lege, in an ear­lier time,” Ni­chols writes, “was sup­posed to be an un­com­fort­able ex­pe­ri­ence be­cause growth is al­ways a chal­lenge,” re­plac­ing youth­ful sim­plic­i­ties with adult com­plex­i­ties. To­day, col­lege in­volves the “pam­per­ing of stu­dents as cus­tomers,” par­tic­u­larly by grade in­fla­tion in a con­text of de­clin­ing aca­demic rigor: Ni­chols cited a re­cent study that showed A to be the most com­monly awarded grade, 30 per­cent more fre­quent than in 1960. And a 2011 Univer­sity of Chicago study found that 45 per­cent of stu­dents said that in the pre­vi­ous se­mes­ter none of their cour­ses re­quired more than 20 pages of writ­ing and 32 per­cent had no class that re­quired more than 40 pages of read­ing in a week.

“Un­earned praise and hol­low suc­cesses,” Ni­chols writes, “build a frag­ile ar­ro­gance in stu­dents that can lead them to lash out at the first teacher or em­ployer who dis­pels that il­lu­sion, a habit that car­ries over into a re­sis­tance to be­lieve any­thing in­con­ve­nient or chal­leng­ing in adult­hood.” A habit no doubt in­ten­si­fied when adults in high places speak breezily of “al­ter­na­tive facts.”

“Rather than dis­abuse stu­dents of their in­tel­lec­tual solip­sism,” Ni­chols writes, “the modern univer­sity re­in­forces it,” pro­duc­ing stu­dents given to “tak­ing of­fense at ev­ery­thing while be­liev­ing any­thing.” Many col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties, com­pet­ing for tu­ition dol­lars “too of­ten drawn thought­lessly from an in­ex­haustible well of loans,” mar­ket a “col­lege ex­pe­ri­ence” rather than an ed­u­ca­tion. The ex­pe­ri­ence “turns into five and, in­creas­ingly, six [years].” Ni­chols notes that “the fragility of 21st-cen­tury stu­dents” re­sults from “the swad­dling en­vi­ron­ment of the modern univer­sity” that “in­fan­tilizes stu­dents” who de­mand “trig­ger warn­ings” and “safe spa­ces.”

Much at­ten­tion has been given to the non-col­lege-ed­u­cated vot­ers who ral­lied to Pres­i­dent Trump. In­suf­fi­cient at­ten­tion is given to the role of the col­lege mise­d­u­cated. They, too, are com­plicit in our cur­rent con­di­tion be­cause they emerged from their ex­pen­sive “col­lege ex­pe­ri­ences” nei­ther dis­posed nor able to con­duct civil, in­formed ar­gu­ments. They are thus dis­armed when con­fronted by po­lit­i­cal peo­ple who con­sider ev­i­dence, data and rea­son­ing to be mere con­ve­niences and op­tional.

For all the talk in high places about eman­ci­pat­ing the many from “the elites,” po­lit­i­cal philoso­pher Wal­ter Berns was right: The ques­tion al­ways is not whether elites will gov­ern but which elites will. And a repub­lic’s chal­lenge is to in­crease the like­li­hood that the many will con­sent to gov­er­nance by wor­thy elites. So, how is our repub­lic do­ing?

What is most alarm­ing about the pres­i­dent and his ac­com­plices in the dis­sem­i­na­tion of fac­toids is not that they do not know this or that. And it is not that they do not know what they do not know. Rather, it is that they do not know what it is to know some­thing.

The re­pub­li­can form of govern­ment rests on rep­re­sen­ta­tion: The peo­ple do not de­cide is­sues, they de­cide who will de­cide. Who, that is, will con­duct the de­lib­er­a­tions that “re­fine and en­large” pub­lic opin­ion (Madi­son, Fed­er­al­ist 10). This sys­tem of fil­tra­tion is vi­ti­ated by a plebisc­i­tary pres­i­dency, the oc­cu­pant of which claims a di­rect, un­medi­ated, al­most mys­ti­cal con­nec­tion with “the peo­ple.”

Soon, pres­i­den­tial en­ablers, when chal­lenged about their em­ployer’s pro­mis­cu­ous use of “al­ter­na­tive facts,” will rou­tinely use last week’s “jus­ti­fi­ca­tion” of the il­le­gal vot­ing fac­toid: It is the pres­i­dent’s “long-stand­ing be­lief,” so there. In his in­tel­lec­tual solip­sism, he, too, takes cor­rec­tion as an in­sult. He re­sem­bles many of his cul­tured de­spis­ers in the academy more than he or they re­al­ize.

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