// you’re reading...


Cultural Curmudgeons

by Bruce Fleming

The most explosive book for 2014 in US intellectual circles was William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (reissued as a paperback in 2015), which I reviewed in this magazine as an interesting anecdotal potpourri more about the author and his life than about the woes of American higher education. What did come through loud and clear, however, was the author’s professorial exasperation with the degree to which his students were in sync with the Zeitgeist rather than rebelling, the way they went with the flow rather than against it.

Fun fact: The annual taxpayer contribution per student for Yale University is $69,000, compared with around $10,000 for the average public university. (Photo by Michael Palmer, used under CC BY SA4.0 Creative Commons License; Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Fun fact: The annual taxpayer contribution per student at Yale is $69,000, compared with around $10,000 for the average public university. (Photo by Michael Palmer, used under CC BY SA4.0 Creative Commons License; Source: Wikimedia Commons).

The flow in this case is the fact that an astonishing proportion of students at the Ivy League university where the author taught, Yale, go into high-paying jobs as economic consultants rather than doing what he thought they should do: pursue what he calls “passionate weirdness,” which involves majoring in things with little clear economic payoff, probably taking time off from college, courting the scorn of others, and being depressed, as he says he himself was. In majoring in things like economics and accepting high salaries from economic consulting firms on graduation like McKinsey, his students are merely sheep, albeit excellent ones. (Background note: the American so-called Ivy League consists of eight of the oldest private US universities that banded together in an American football league in the 1940s. All rank in the top 20 of US institutions; those of the same caliber but not in this football league, such as Chicago and Stanford, usually are added to the mix to make what is sometimes called “Ivy-plus” top-ranked private US universities. In addition, America has several dozen top-ranked stand-alone undergraduate colleges.) Deresiewicz’s idea of a meaningful life—to quote his title—involves going against the flow, not with it, though it’s not at all clear from the book that the reason so many of his students want to be able to feed themselves is due to their miseducation, rather than (say) common sense. What is clear is that his students frustrate him. And by extension, a lot of people around his students frustrate him too. So his book is a general cultural critique about the world in general going off the rails, students—and others—not doing what the professor thinks they should.

What’s striking for the student of cultural history is the fact that this book is one in a string of similar books by cultural curmudgeons. Most of it has been said before. Apparently the US needs a book like this every quarter-century or so where professors express extreme frustration with how unlike them their students are, how docile and unquestioning. In order to get published, a professor typically has to teach at a top-ranked school, so this is also usually coupled with the claim that in fact America’s “best” colleges—the Ivy League which stands for privilege in the American imagination—are bad indeed. People are sheep, or students are. Or late capitalist society makes everybody so. Everybody say “baaaaaah.”

The hugely popular jeremiad in this vein of a quarter-century or so earlier on many of the same themes—decline of culture and of the universities, clueless kids, and the wretched state of things in general—was Allan Bloom’s even more relentless tirade (reading it was like trying to drink from a fire hose) with a title as long and large as Deresiewicz’s. Namely: The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. (Here as well the claim is that the universities are to blame, though neither book substantiates that claim.) It came out in 1987, and was re-released on its 25 year anniversary in 2012, two years before Deresiewicz’s. Unsurprisingly, Deresiewicz cites Bloom approvingly in multiple contexts, including Bloom’s assertion that “Liberal education . . . requires students who are willing to risk everything” (84): what gets Deresiewicz’s goat is that his students risk nothing, blindly following the safe path of all their fellow sheep.


Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in Heidelberg, 1965 (Photo: Jeremy Shapiro, Used under CC BY-SA 3.0 Creative Commons License; Source: Wikimedia Commons).

The Amazon blurb for the re-issue of Bloom’s book claimed that it has “not only been vindicated but has become more urgent today.” Clearly Deresiewicz agreed, expanding its themes with his own tirade. Yet preceding both was the Dialektik der Aufklärung of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, written in the 1940s but only published in Germany to any effect in 1969 and in the US, as Dialectic of the Enlightenment, in 1973, just in time to become a seminal text of the international student protests of the Vietnam era. It has remained popular as well, taking its place alongside its more recent avatars. A more recent German edition also came out about the time of Bloom’s book, in 1988 (and went on to its 21st printing in 2013); Stanford University Press re-printed the English version in 2007. The same book can even arguably be counted a quarter century before the late 1960s, because it was first published privately in 1944 in German in New York, and a few years later in Amsterdam. But it had to await its moment to have an effect, first on the German student protests (“Unter den Talaren—Muff von tausend Jahren”, chanted the protesters—under the gowns sits the dust of a thousand years) and then the American.

This book’s most influential essay was and is “Kulturindustrie: Aufklärung als Massenbetrug”—“Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” (Most translations have “The Culture Industry” but the German lacks the article, and seems thereby to focus on the ineluctable industrialization of culture rather than the result, one industry among many; “Massenbetrug” could also be understood as “Deception—or Betrayal—of the Masses.”) Horkheimer and Adorno set the stage for both of the later works considered here, and laid out some of the most fundamental themes of later books that resembled theirs: the infuriating sameness of what passed for culture, especially among the young; and the puzzling complacency of the masses in the face of what the authors saw as manipulation.

New readers coming to this essay for the first time should be warned: Horkheimer and Adorno’s essay is such a high-gear rant it makes the later books look tame, though it sets the stage for them. Its endless paragraphs are like thrusts of a giant piston that pummel the reader with the distaste of the authors for all the signs of American modernity, from the “gloomy houses in spiritless cities” to the assertion that laughter in the hands of the “pleasure industry” (mass culture like Hollywood movies) is the “fraud practiced on happiness,” to disdain for the “’natural’” faces of Texas girls showcased in ads (why Texas?)—“natural” written in scare quotes. Nothing they see pleases them, not cartoons (they don’t like Donald Duck), not sound movies, not Guy Lombardo or Benny Goodman. Over and over, their essay works same idea in multiple contexts, the authors letting loose a torrent of invective that only gradually allows the reader to hack through the brambles to find the core of the work, what really bugs them aside from Donald Duck. (They prefer Betty Boop.) (All quotes from the 1972 Continuum edition of “The Dialectic of Enlightenment” <http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Adorno-Horkheimer-Culture-Industry.pdf>)

And that is, that individuals in the democratic world of America go with the flow rather than against it, become a mass of “consumers” rather than feisty, contrarian individuals. The conflict between the individual and the collective that they think should be there seems to have evaporated; everybody is with the same program.

For all these writers, Enlightenment culture —a term central to Horkheimer and Adorno and important to Bloom—is adversarial culture, proposing reason in the face of superstition or authority, the individual as opposed to the power of what Bloom, quoting Martin Luther, calls Throne and Altar. Thus the university, focus of the two later writers, as the repository of Reason as opposed to Authority, is, or at least was and still should be, adversarial as well—tolerated, so Bloom claims, by gentlemen who understood it to be just as threatening to the authority of institutions as Socrates had been to the Athenians. (For Bloom the surprise isn’t that Socrates was put to death, but rather that the Athenians let him undermine their authority for as long as they did.) Now it’s gone beyond toleration to bland acceptance, which according to these writers is worse than resistance—a reaction that at least showed the university had some life in it. Horkheimer and Adorno see a similar deadness outside the university in all of culture, which is why theirs is the more fundamental critique.

The problem with post-Enlightenment modernity according to Horkheimer and Adorno—the central point echoed by both later writers, Bloom more clearly than Deresiewicz—is that the nay-sayers of yore have been co-opted by kindness, being allowed to do what they wanted or found reasonable, and so all is one gigantic blandness. There’s no conflict any more. (Bloom quotes a student asking dismissively about for-Bloom-so-problematic-premarital sex: “What’s the big deal?” Bloom is horrified.) People are too much in sync with society: the Enlightenment has won. For all of these writers, this is not only bad but a contradiction, because for them, Enlightenment culture is intrinsically adversarial culture.

Most people would think the absence of conflict would be a good thing, but all these writers miss the good old days when the individual opposed the collective rather than being subsumed within it. (In a German context we saw something of the same “Ostalgie” for the adversarial culture of the East before the Wall fell, and in the Russian insistence that the Russian soul was so deep because it was always in conflict with authority. What do you do now that you are the authority? It’s a problem.) Now people live the principles of Reason rather than debating them or having to use them as weapons against an uncomprehending world. The change is that the world has comprehended; everybody agrees; we can just go with the flow.

Going with the flow is bad, for all these writers. Deresiewicz’s point is that the people around him are sheep. Bloom’s as well: that all of America has a closed mind, with no sense of the ineluctable contradictions between the individual and the mass that, in his view, Nietzsche so damningly and agonizingly expressed. And his students are the most exasperating because they, at least, should be demanding the rocky road rather than the smooth. Deresiewicz wants his students to find themselves by dropping out or taking subjects that will be financially unremunerative. They will have to “endure the pity and scorn” of almost everybody and “go through periods of depression” (129). To be sure, he insists that they are miserable at their Ivy-level universities even going with the flow, but it’s unclear which misery is greater: going with the flow, as they do, or against it, as he recommends. Deresiewicz is the grandson of Horkheimer and Adorno, with their scorn for the uniformity of “consumers” of the products of the culture industry (the word indicates passive ingestion rather than interactive response, such as people had to the products of “liberal” democracy). For Deresiewicz, “passionate weirdness”—which is the rocky road of individual self-definition he recommends—has (apparently) given way to passionless conformity, sheep going to work for the economic consulting firm McKinsey. For Bloom, the dying of liberal education and the rise of economics as a major legislates an “illiberal, officially approved undergraduate program.”

According to Bloom, the Enlightenment university of the last three centuries no longer has a purpose unless it teaches the conflicts through the Great Books and ends in the unresolvable conflict between individual and mass of Nietzsche. This is so because its principles have filtered through to the world outside. With no conflict, the young (and, Horkheimer and Adorno remind us, everybody else too) merely drift along, apparently happy and with no attempt to define themselves as individuals. Things may look good, but none of these thinkers is satisfied with the result. Even the students at Yale, who should be passionately weird, are focused on remunerative jobs. (I think all these writers should read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Valentine to the somnolent Princeton of the post-World War I era, This Side of Paradise, to be disabused of the notion that American elite universities used to be hotbeds of intellectual foment.)

For Horkheimer and Adorno, the fundamental problem is the fact that the conflict Hegel and Marx taught moved history along, namely the dialectic, has been resolved—or appears to have been resolved—in what they call (in their jargon-laden prose) “the false identity of the general and the particular.” General and particular are by definition not identical; the paradox is that nowadays they seem to be. Things are eerily quiet. There is no “spontaneity” in audience response: all is controlled by the “monopoly” of the “culture industry.” In the broadcast system, programs are “all exactly the same” and “no machinery of rejoinder has been devised.” The telephone has given way to the radio: telephone, an earlier medium, was “liberal” and required a response, so that the participant “played the role of the subject”; the radio, the new medium, is “democratic” and does not tolerate any response. (Thus “liberal” is good and “democratic” is bad.) People can’t answer back; all are passive “consumers.” Worse, they don’t seem to want to answer back—things have gone that far.

How worried should we be? Horkheimer and Adorno concede that the culture industry seems pleasant enough, because people seem to like its products. But, they insist, this isn’t a good thing. Laughter, with which the culture industry bathes all its products, is a hollow mockery of real laughter: real laughter makes “monads” of the audience; in the calculated laughter of the culture industry in a “false society”, by contrast, laughter is a “disease that has attacked happiness.” So everybody thinks they are happy, but according to Horkheimer and Adorno, nobody is. They note that in Kant’s Enlightenment-era philosophy, the individual still had to contribute, but “the culture industry robs the individual of his function.” Products of the culture industry are all formula, what Horkheimer and Adorno call, citing Nietzsche (as Bloom also does), “stylized barbarity.”

Plus they really dislike the products of industrialized culture (as we may also translate the title): “A jazz musician who is playing a piece of serious music, the simplest of Beethoven’s minuets, syncopates it involuntarily and will smile superciliously [the adjective makes clear how much the authors hated their New World refuge from the Third Reich] when asked to follow the normal divisions of the beat.” The works of the culture industry do in fact exhibit a style, they note—contrary to what some people claim, but it is the style of “domination” and “monopoly.” If the products of industrialized culture are so bad for the people who “consume” it (like food) , why are they laughing? Why do they go back for more? This is what we might call the “McDonald’s problem”: it’s bad for you, but everybody wants it.

For that matter, the fact that people buy what is bad for them is the heart of the conflict between liberals and conservatives in the Modern Age. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein famously think, in Nudge, that people should be urged but not forced to do what is good for them: their favourite example is the little bull’s-eye on the plastic inserts in urinals that encourages men to pee in the urinal rather than on the floor. If you can get people to do the right thing believing it was their idea, you can influence their behaviour.

Horkheimer and Adorno do consider, in the second paragraph of their essay, the possibility that people get what they want. They paraphrase the objection of others that, after all, “the standards [are] based on consumers’ needs, and for that reason [are] accepted with so little resistance.” They also consider the objection that the uniformity of mass culture is the result of the fact that it’s produced in few centres and distributed to many: the movie, once finished, will be the same projected in any theatre. Both objections make sense to me, but the authors sweep both away with the airy assertion that this is really a “circle of manipulation and retroactive need”. It’s all about power, economic and otherwise. OK, people make money from mass culture, and green-light movies that they think will be profitable. Is that bad? Plus the whole concept of “industrialized culture” (my preferred translation) suggests, in keeping with their Marxist framework, that this is simply the result of great forces beyond the power of the individual to influence. In fact even when they were writing, the New York Philharmonic played Beethoven, and Balanchine created some of his greatest works for what later became the New York City Ballet. Mass culture isn’t all culture: it’s a point that seems to have escaped the so-new-to-the-New-World Horkheimer and Adorno.

Consider the phrase “retroactive need”: it’s an interesting concept, and one that prefigures the main point of Vance Packard’s seminal book about advertising from 1957, The Hidden Persuaders. Packard challenged the views of classical economics as laid out by Adam Smith (in The Wealth of Nations) that consumers had needs that were met by producers, by turning this on its head. Packard’s point was that advertisers, such as those portrayed in the more recent hit TV series “Mad Men”, actually created those desires. People don’t know what their needs and desires are until people out for their money tell them what these are.

Packard suggests that nobody ever thought to advertise before on such a scale: the capability of people to have their wants suggested to them was always there, but nobody exploited it. Or perhaps it simply requires a society rich enough to take care of needs so that we could move on to more malleable wants. Packard is clear that this is a “new” phenomenon, based, he suggests, on utilization of psycho-analysis, that only became popular in the 30s and 40s.

But Horkheimer and Adorno aren’t focused on the creation of need in advertising. They seem to assume that if the products of this new kind of industrialized culture are offered, people will take them. What they don’t say is why this is bad. Do these cannibalize other kinds of culture, or just fill a void that previously wasn’t recognized? They don’t say, and apparently don’t know. All they know is they disapprove. (They don’t contrast mass-market culture to more individualized forms of culture; the argument is that this is the only thing there is because of historical forces grinding inexorably.) These things are ugly and uniform and shallow—and create obedience. Not to a totalitarian ideology, which they saw in Germany: but to something still pretty bad, monopolistic economic forces.

Surely this (at least in retrospect) seems the weakest aspect of their argument. So what if people want more Hollywood movies? They can still read a book, and they can just say no to the movies they don’t like. The power of the purse is still power; the individual can rebel simply by not buying. Remember the “New Coke” that nobody bought and had to be abandoned? Remember (for that matter) the hapless Ford Edsel? Remember countless expensive movie flops that people simply refused to buy tickets for? We know from the failure of giant and expensive turkeys of all consumer products that the audience frequently does say no. And Horkheimer and Adorno don’t track what else they are saying yes to. So what if they buy something the authors disapprove of? Remember the strange American fads in recent decades that made no sense? Pet Rocks? Troll dolls? Apparently consumers act in unpredictable ways. (Indeed nobody expected Bloom’s endless right-wing rant, which basically disapproved of everything the younger generation did, from their music to their politics, to become a bestseller, which it did.)

Horkheimer and Adorno’s argument isn’t that the USA will become the Third Reich, that while the people are kept silent and sated—though laughing—with bread and circuses, the political leaders can work their evil will. The culture industry for them isn’t a means to an end. It is the end—the paradoxical end of what was supposed to be the dialectic of the Enlightenment. In the post-Enlightenment world, culture was supposed to be the nay-sayers. They don’t show that there aren’t nay-sayers nowadays, only that things like movies that have to make money aren’t going to be the ones saying nay. By extension, Bloom and Deresiewicz think nay-sayers should be in universities, but don’t find them there either.

Horkheimer and Adorno apparently think that things like popular movies and music shouldn’t exist at all. They like high culture, and accept low culture, the equivalent of folk dancing. It’s the fact that there is culture between high and low at all here in the New World that sticks in their craw. These things that look like culture but aren’t are not the products of “liberalism.” Liberalism, remember, is the good thing—the 19th-century thing—before its principles were co-opted in 20th-century democracy). To be sure, “its categories and contents derive from liberalism”, only they have been watered down based on what people will buy. The authors are nostalgic for German universities and orchestras that escaped the market system in early modernity; this period is over. Princes and feudal lords protected the arts, then political powers. But now all is controlled by the market. Or is it: controlled by the people buying these things? They tut-tut at the “misplaced love of the common people for the wrong which is done them”: the common folk prefer Mickey Rooney to the “tragic Garbo.” So it’s unclear which is the driving force: is the really bad guy the market or is it the consumers? Perhaps both work in tandem, the market anticipating what people will want and providing it for them.

Which of course is what capitalism is supposed to do—only Horkheimer and Adorno demur; if it’s “wrong” for the people to get it, in their view, then capitalism shouldn’t provide it. They are as nostalgic as Bloom for the period when the arts rebelled against throne and altar—and the conflict was good. Now everybody gets along: that’s a problem. Why? They never say; that’s left as a question for their spiritual heirs to tackle, Bloom and Deresiewicz. People are sheep and have lost their souls.

What is clear is that the products of the culture industry are, for Horkheimer and Adorno, beneath contempt: the authors mention cars only to dismiss as “illusory” the apparent distinctions between models from Chrysler and General Motors, something that “strikes every child.” (They’re nothing if not disdainful; later writers don’t seem to be able to afford the disdain and have to be more worried.) But cars for the masses only filled the void of coaches or horse and buggy for the few—and were buggies or coaches less uniform? The problem seems to be that the middle classes have access to cars: there are more of them; how many varieties can you have? (As Henry Ford said, you can have any colour so long as it’s black.) Does this show deadening control or the simple necessity of the lowest-cost assembly line? Horkheimer and Adorno aren’t buying the easy answer: it’s not practicality or economy of scale, it’s control. All of it is “forced into uniformity”—though by what they don’t say. And how this affects those who’d rather not go to Hollywood movies, or who go knowing they’ll be formulaic but are fun anyway, they also don’t say. People shouldn’t be doing that. It’s an attitude—this disapproval of the non-intellectual masses—that runs strong through Bloom and Deresiewicz, their spiritual children.

1953 edition of The Lonely Crowd (cover art by Edward Gorey). (Source: scan from hardcopy, fair use).

1953 edition of The Lonely Crowd (cover art by Edward Gorey). (Source: scan from hardcopy, fair use).

I, by contrast, am more forgiving, and suggest that the alternative to these once-a-quarter-century releases of spleen by these cultural curmudgeons is to shrug and say: if people do it, it’s because they like it. Perhaps they feel the pressure of all those “other-directed” people out there, to use a phrase from another influential book, this one from 1963, about the loss of individuality in American society, The Lonely Crowd of David Riesman and Nathan Glazer. (The cover of the more recent reissue of this shows a photo of sheep, a pre-echo of Deresiewicz) Cultural curmudgeons concede that nobody is forcing the people whose actions they disapprove of—to major in business, say, or to go to the movies. All agree that this is bad, but how to fix this? They have no idea. All of these writers criticize individuals, and simultaneously show that individuals are simply the pawns of forces far larger than they are.

Because they argue that the phenomena they excoriate are the result of societal forces far larger than individuals—for Horkheimer and Adorno, what capitalism has created; for Bloom the inexorable result of the post-Enlightenment world; for Deresiewicz, the peer pressure that pushes people to making filthy lucre—they won’t get very far criticizing the way individuals act. For Horkheimer and Adorno, the explanation is Marxist—though the modern world seems to have transcended Marxist analysis as class conflict—that’s what they can’t forgive it. The development of mass culture is a stage in the development of economic systems. Bloom accepts a version of this explanation structure—seeing the “Enlightenment university” of the past much the same way Horkheimer and Adorno do, as a refuge protected against larger forces that now have ceased to protect it.

Bloom too believes in conflict, though he expresses it in terms of the individual rather than in Marxist class terms. Bloom thinks Nietzsche’s unavoidable contradiction between the masses and the Superman to be the last word on the subject: all morality is subjective, and only a powerful individual can assert himself against the morality of the masses. For Bloom, Nietzsche is the intellectual Superman: he sees where all this tended, and expresses its anguish. The masses are in fact, for Nietzsche, sheep, but that’s because they no longer believe in throne and altar: God is dead. That’s inevitable, but in fact that’s not a good thing, because it leaves only the Superman as a force to replace what is gone, and there aren’t many of those. Democracy and Enlightenment are the victims of their own success. As Hitler’s interest in Nietzsche showed, Nietzsche had a right-wing totalitarian side as well as a Left-wing (all is subjective) one. (Bloom thinks it odd that American intellectuals see Nietzsche’s Left-wing side but deny his proto-fascist Right-wing one, which is so clear to Germans. For Bloom, all American thought is German in genesis.)

Horkheimer and Adorno can save their breath in excoriating the taste of individuals: everything is based on impersonal historic forces. But if we leave aside the theories of the inexorability of this state of affairs—which vitiates their argument completely, as no individuals can push back against social forces—we do get a description of things that is as timely as Deresiewicz’s. It is found, however, not in Horkheimer and Adorno’s panicked response to modern mass culture, the perspective of outsiders, but in the more recent perspective of an insider, in a slim volume by the former director of London’s Covent Garden Opera House and Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center, Curtains? by Michael Kaiser. (The curtain of course signifies the end of the spectacle, and to say that “it’s curtains” for X means X has just died, or is condemned to die.)

Kaiser makes explicitly the argument that Horkheimer and Adorno imply: that the high arts will die as other things proliferate and take their place. Of course, Kaiser makes clear that Horkheimer and Adorno were too mournful too soon, reiterating that many of the great US arts organizations blossomed during a postwar florescence—institutions such as the opera companies of Chicago and San Francisco and the Kennedy Center, as well as dance companies during what is called the “dance boom” of the 60s through 90s filling halls and creating huge popular interest. In the visual arts, Abstract Expressionism (sometimes called the New York School) gave way to pop art and conceptual art, and New York became for decades the centre of the art world. (Nobody knows what the centre is now, or if there is one.)

The viewpoint of Horkheimer and Adorno was outside high culture: they seemed to assume that middlebrow popular culture such as movies would cannibalize high culture or replace it rather than, as it seems to have done, filling a void that before simply wasn’t recognized. But they didn’t argue this, or show it happening. And their crystal ball was cloudy. Their vision of a powerful monopoly of culture industry giving people the illusion that they were amused in order to control them with cinema completely failed to predict the rise of high art cinema, both in Europe (Bergman, Fellini, and the French New Wave) or in the US: the amazing American New Wave of the 1970s with Scorcese, De Palma, Altman, Kubrick, Spielberg and Lucas changing the face of the movies.

Horkheimer and Adorno were thus creaky in theory (who past the 1980s can take Marxist ideology seriously?) and wrong in the immediate effect of what they noticed. But they apparently were not wrong in their perceptions: that things that were “fun” got more adherents than things that were not, and ultimately took over. Kaiser thinks that the plethora of local and mid-level high arts organizations will soon be dead, cleaned out by mechanical reproduction of the top of the heap players; he thinks for example that video simulcasts of Metropolitan Opera productions will replace local opera companies. Part of the hollowing out of the middle third of the pyramid—if the international-level companies are at the top and the wide bottom is pop music—comes from the fact that there is virtually no arts education in the US any more, so popular music is the expression form of choice. (Predictably, Horkheimer and Adorno as well as Bloom bemoan this as well.) Very few students play an instrument past elementary school, and if they do, it’s as part of a marching band at football halftimes. So they don’t go to classical music concerts.

All arts managers in the US today are aware of their greatest challenge: the graying of audiences for classical music and the complete lack of interest in it on the part of the young. Museums fare better, but they too have dumbed down, putting on audience-pleasing megashows, or design and popular culture shows such as that a few years ago of motorcycles at the Guggenheim in New York or the Brooklyn Museum’s show of Jackie Kennedy’s dresses.

So Horkheimer and Adorno were wrong about most things, but not about this: more people enjoy feel-good shows geared for the lowest common denominator than like wrestling with painful or problematic issues. And, we can now see, ultimately these more challenging things die. This is the point of both of the later books that derive from this way of thinking, those of Bloom and Deresiewicz, as it is of Kaiser. Both books by professors, focusing on their students, excoriate people who would rather not suffer. In Kaiser’s terms, people would rather listen to rock music, or to feel-good concerts of big-name tenors set in a football stadium, than wrestle with a new contemporary opera at the local opera company.

Both Bloom’s and Deresiewicz’s books are ostensibly about the lamentable state of students today, but, like Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s, are actually about the deficiencies of liberal democratic culture. In all cases it turns out that culture and the universities (which Bloom explicitly links) are themselves the passive conduits of larger forces, not the cause of what makes the students so frustrating to their professors at all. And what does this tell us about the perspective of critics such as the authors who start their critiques with their immediate surroundings, universities, but quickly widen their target to forces beyond the control of students, professors, or these same universities? Reading these eerily similar books back to back suggests larger truths that neither alone is able to do more than hint at, truths about the position of cultural critics and their ultimate inability to change that culture. For culture by definition is beyond the control of individuals, or even institutions like universities: once we start talking in its terms, we’ve rendered the individual powerless to do more than fulminate, more than to give us a good show.

The later authors can’t quite reach the level of dismissive invective of Horkheimer and Adorno, but both come close. Both Bloom and Deresiewicz are in a lather, piling indictment on indictment, getting a second wind so many times it’s like listening to movements of Rachmaninoff symphonies that you think are over a handful of times before they actually are. All are denunciations of the state of culture in liberal democracies, but the more recent ones start the widening circle with a complaint about students. One wonders what Adorno and Horkheimer would have written if they too had taught in a post-60s American university.

I think that instead of being miffed at everybody else for not doing what they themselves want to do, these cultural curmudgeons should just do what they want and leave others alone. Students have always been different from professors: if you are one of the latter, take your salary, say thanks, and go home to read a good book. Don’t tongue-lash your students. Accept that “inner-directed” people, to use Riesman’s phrase again, are the minority. Stop trying to generate a world in your own image; accept that you’re the minority. You may not be Nietzsche’s Superman, but at least you aren’t among the slaves. So don’t rail at the fact that nobody around you even understands the point of a Superman—be it if you can, and if you can’t, go read Nietzsche and nod in agreement. It’s a free society, after all: nobody’s stopping you, and the books are probably in the public library or can be ordered online. Nostalgic for the world where you’d be considered “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” (to quote Lady Caroline Lamb on Lord Byron)? Now you’re just eccentric. Not as sexy, agreed. But you’re hardly going to change the world so it gives you the reaction you want.

Look at the endless titles of Bloom’s and Deresiewicz’s books, already a sign that the books can’t begin to achieve what they want, and aren’t even sure what that is. What’s striking about them further is how badly they give the actual sense of the book whose titles they are. Not the fault of the authors, certainly: titles are hashed out by publishers and publicists with some input from authors that is usually ignored. So it’s not the fault of the authors if the titles don’t actually tell us what the book argues. But they don’t.

In the case of Deresiewicz, as I have pointed out in this magazine, the central conflict is between the first title, that denigrates his students at Yale, and his unsupported belief that they are not being served well by the institutions they attend and which cost more than $50,000 a year. He thinks they’re overwhelmingly conformists out for the golden ring of careers in finance rather than seekers after “passionate weirdness”. What he isn’t clear about is whose fault this is. Have they been corrupted by the institutions? He believes so but offers no evidence. Or is it by each other? Or by societal expectations? What he sees in any case is hoardes of students majoring in economics and getting high-paying jobs with McKinsey. They’re too focused on career and not enough on education.

Allan Bloom, writing from his vantage point at Cornell and then the University of Chicago, both of which are Ivy-plus universities virtually identical to Yale, has much the same complaint. It’s higher education that has impoverished the souls of students. Really? Or is it the students themselves? “It is a general rule that the students who have any chance of getting a liberal education are those who do not have a fixed career goal, or at least those for whom the university is not merely a training ground for a profession” (370). And he bemoans the rise of the MBA degree. “The effect of the MBA is to corral a hoarde of students who want to get into business school and to put the blinders on them…. The specific effect of the MBA has been an explosion of enrollments in economics, the prebusiness major” (370). Bloom is writing before the truly precipitous drop in majors for such subjects as English, philosophy, and the foreign languages had completely played out; Deresiewicz is writing after. (For the record: I was a philosophy major, graduating in 1974.)

The titles of both books suggest that the universities are to blame, but if the students are soulless sheep (to combine the titles of both) they seem to go willingly, even eagerly, to the slaughter. As willingly, in fact, as the movie-goers that Horkheimer and Adorno so despised went to their falsely amusing formulaic products of the consumer industry. And Bloom’s argument is actually that universities as we know them now are the flower of democracy. So it’s paradoxical that he’s actually arguing that in order not to “fail” democracy they can’t go with its flow, but oppose it.

So for none of these is the individual the deciding factor: people can be manipulated, most easily by giving them what they want. But is this even manipulation if you manipulate by anticipating desires and fulfilling them? Maybe if the MBA had not been introduced? What if students had to take Great Books—this is Bloom’s suggestion, and certainly implied by Deresiewicz—at least not economics! This is a matter of curriculum. That leads to McKinsey, at least for the later writer. Yet the troubling fact is that nobody is making these sheep-like students take these courses. For the writers, this is paradoxical. What’s the matter with kids today? (This is the title of a song from the American musical “Bye, Bye Birdie”—and it’s echoed in the “Dear Officer Krupke” song from the more famous Bernstein/Robbins musical “West Side Story,” where the teen-aged gang members insist cynically they are “depraved on account of they’re deprived.” ) Bloom, the earlier writer, suggests that their souls were impoverished by the universities. However his argument is not that universities have failed democracy but that in fact democracy has produced these universities. He doesn’t know what to make of this.

That’s the paradox of all these books: what we have was ineluctable, but it’s bad. Worst of all, people don’t even see that it’s bad. In fact they rather seem to like it! They chose to major in economics, or go to Yale, or go to the movies…that choice is the logical endpoint of capitalism, or the Enlightenment, or democracy, or Modernity. It’s unavoidable, but it’s bad.

Is it true that it’s better to be Socrates unsatisfied rather than a pig satisfied? All these authors suggest that the natural tendency of the ubiquity of reason is that we all be satisfied pigs—or sheep, for Deresiewicz. But it’s having the tail wag the dog (to continue with animal metaphors) to suggest that the way to go is to teach students to be discontented. And are all movies bad for you?

Surely it’s a good thing that people get to decide what they want? Universities can’t do tell them; arguably societies can’t do it either. And nobody wants a Fourth Reich to do it for them. So where does that leave us?

That’s the book that remains to be written.


Bruce Fleming is Professor of English at the U.S. Naval  Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, having previously held teaching positions  at Vanderbilt University, the University of Freiburg, and the National  University of Rwanda. His most recent books are Running is Life: Transcending the Crisis of Modernity (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America 2010) and Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide (Fairfax, Virginia: Potomac Books 2010). In addition to his scholarly work, he has contributed opinion pieces to the New York Times, Wahington Post, Baltimore Sun, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Books referred to in this essay:

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno
The Dialectic of the Enlightenment
New York: Continuum , 1972; Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007.

Max Horkheimer und Theodor Adorno
Dialektik der Aufklärung
Frankfurt/Main: Fischer Verlag, 2013. (first circulated under the title ‘Philosophische Fragmente’ at the New York Institute of Social Research in 1944)

Allan Bloom
The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students
(with a foreword by Saul Bellow).
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987. (Reissued as a paperback in 2012.)

William Deresiewicz
Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life
New York: Free Press, 2014. Paperback 2015.

Michael Kaiser
Curtains? The Future of the Arts in America
Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2015.

F. Scott Fitzgerald
This Side of Paradise
New York: Scribner (1920), 1998 (numerous subsequent reprints).

David Riesman, with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney
The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963.
Revised edition, 2001.

Richard H. Thaler and Cass Sunstein
Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008
Revised and expanded edition: New York: Penguin, 2009.

Vance Packard
The Hidden Persuaders
New York: Pocket, 1958. (Reissued, with an introduction by Mark Crispin Miller, in 2007, Ig).


(c) 2015 The Berlin Review of Books


Comments are disallowed for this post.

Comments are closed.