Over-nationalization is the unseen engine of elite education’s progressivism problem.
A month before the start of my sophomore year of high school, a young black man four years older than me was shot and killed while attacking a cop more than a thousand miles away. The riots that followed arrested the nation, including our remote Northeastern corner. But we watched the burning of that St. Louis suburb from a distance, in every sense of the word. It was not real to us; it was not even conceivable; it did not exist in any way but on our screens.
The closest the unrest ever came to our Bostonian boys’ prep school was in January of the next year, when BLM protestors blocked off I-93 just outside the city, chaining themselves to barrels filled with concrete in a line across the eight-lane road. None of us minded much; our U.S. history teacher, who commuted by car from the suburbs, was held up and we got an unplanned hour free. But that one death was the start of something viral (as we all know well after the 2020 Summer of Love). In April of that same school year, another black man was killed closer to home—though still 400 miles to our south—in the custody of six police officers, three black and three white. Before we knew it Baltimore was burning too. It was around that time that we found ourselves in a reckoning.
Back then, it made even less sense to me than it does now. I had come from a town on the fringes of the Boston metropolis, a salt-of-the-earth New England place where 2 percent of the population had been black. From kindergarten through eighth grade I had a total of three black classmates, and never more than one at the same time. I don’t think it’s naive to say that there was no racial dynamic in the small world I inhabited; there was hardly any race. So, even after arriving at an urban prep school where a whopping 4 percent of my classmates were black, it made little sense to me that we were being thrust with such force into a national narrative that seemed a world away not just from my own experience but from the experiences of everyone pushing it on me. There was something unbelievable, something profoundly unreal about it all. “Performative” is not the right word—I have no doubt that the commitments were sincere despite the disconnect and dissonance involved—though it’s the one we most often toss around to describe the phenomenon in question.
One particular incident springs to mind. It was soon after the first shooting mentioned above, when false narratives about “hands up, don’t shoot” and other such mistruths still ran rampant. I don’t remember how the conversation started, but I said something to the effect that one death at the hands of a police officer—however tragic, or even avoidable—did not constitute evidence that America itself was racist, or that we lived under a systemically racist regime.
That set one guy off. He slammed his books down on the table where I was sitting and launched, one hand punching the air in classic Huey Long fashion, into a tirade on the epidemic of police brutality, on the terrible injustice of a gentle giant being shot six times in the back, on the undeniable wickedness of the society we were living in. Most of what he said was untrue on the level of pure fact: Michael Brown, for instance, had never once been shot in the back, though that claim did circulate among those who stood to gain from it in those first uncertain months.
But it was untrue in a less concrete sense, too. Here was a teenage male in anno Domini 2015 who (though he had some Middle-Eastern ancestry) appeared white, who came from a well-off family, who lived in one of the toniest suburbs in the inner ring surrounding Boston, who never wore anything but Vineyard Vines to the prestigious prep school he attended, pontificating on the sins of the White Man and his nation to an audience that shared almost all of these characteristics. What was he talking about? He didn’t live under a racist regime any more than the rest of us. Ferguson, Missouri—to say nothing of the fictional Ferguson he had constructed in his mind—was as remote and irrelevant to him as the Wars of the Roses.
Just last year, as another wave of riots dovetailed with a narrative of police brutality, students and alumni from prep schools like ours launched Instagram accounts to broadcast anonymous submissions accusing peers, teachers, administrators, etc., of having been racist in one way or another. Some were real, appalling stories of hate or bigotry; many were complaints that Heart of Darkness and Huck Finn were in the English curriculum, or attempts to settle a score with a particularly disliked teacher or classmate. One video posted to the account shows this same person dropping a particular word—yes, that word—repeatedly in a casual conversation recorded freshman year. A black classmate seated at the table with him is visibly uncomfortable. The video drew some of the strongest condemnation of anything posted on the account.
A bit of schadenfreude might have been in order, given how smugly he had moralized to me a year after the event in question. But this was a good-hearted, well-meaning guy—just a tad overconfident and not particularly bright. Back then, despite the theatrical bellicosity on display above, I considered him a friend. So it’s worth trying to understand the disconnect here—both that between rhetoric and action, and that between either one and experience. It’s less of a contradiction than one might think. In fact, it is exactly what should be expected given the way we were being educated—the way students of elite (and, to a lesser extent and typically a merciful step behind, non-elite) schools have been formed morally and politically for years.
It’s true that race was a defining element of the curriculum and of administration-imposed culture during our time in school—it was, after all, the first Golden Age of BLM. But it was always Race, a grand theory of black-and-white History that presaged the 1619 Project when Nikole Hannah-Jones was still a first-year staffer at the New York Times. It was all abstract and theoretical, which would have doomed it before concerns about inaccuracy or divisiveness even came into question. Demand that a 15-year-old step back and see the whole world—to say nothing of seeing it as something that it is not—and you cannot be the least bit surprised when he fails to see the young black man sitting right beside him.
* * *
It wasn’t just on race, either. Homosexuality was another favorite cause of those who controlled the school’s direction—apparently for no other reason than that it was also a favorite cause of those who controlled the directions of other prestigious schools, and of society at large. Economics, too, was a focal point. There, even a national super-perspective was not enough; while the standard for judgment on social issues was the version of Ferguson contrived by BLM activists, the standard for economic issues was to be found in the socialist revolutions that had swept through Latin America a few decades earlier. The poverty of Boston’s struggling neighborhoods or the collapsed factory towns not far outside the city did not exist except as a minor imitation of the slums of Caracas and San Salvador. Our own lives, then, could only be at best pale imitations of the Latin revolutionaries.
These broad delusions about the way of the world fed into particular delusions about more immediate politics. One teacher, in a choice of words that left her backpedaling for weeks, said Election Day 2016 had left her “more scared than 9/11.” A number of faculty observed the ensuing inauguration as a day of mourning, dressing all in black; the chapel was repurposed temporarily as a safe space.
What bearing any of these hysteric fantasies had on the upbringing of young men meant to enter leadership roles in Eastern Massachusetts communities never became clear to me. Of course, if you start from the assumption that the school (and others like it) long ago abandoned the mission of forming community leaders, the situation makes more sense. If the long-term goal is to subject the local to the distant, to mold men perfectly suited for impersonal service to oversized governments and corporations, always obedient to an ever-accelerating Progress, then this is the ideal method.
And it did all seem programmatic, agenda-driven in an unintended, mechanical kind of way. There was a constant effort to reimagine the lives we had lived and the world we had lived them in to fit into the claims being made, rather than retooling the claims to reflect the reality we knew. For all their talk about “lived experience,” the grand-grievance pedagogues had very little interest in it. That education should be grounded in reality seemed never to have occurred to them; there was only The Narrative.
It was a four-year study in what Sobran called alienism: “a prejudice in favor of the alien, the marginal, the dispossessed, the eccentric, reaching an extreme in the attempt to ‘build a new society’ by destroying the basic institutions of the native.” The unnatural preference for something foreign—something that, on the most basic level, is not one’s own—becomes totalizing, and in the end “will settle for nothing less than the complete inversion of the normal perspective.” As actual experience—say, that of a promising, good-natured young man in Boston—loses value, even those whose experience is in question will abandon it and latch on to the alien things that have usurped its status. But precisely because they are foreign, he can neither know nor claim them fully. The disillusionment finds him ever more frantically pursuing the alien (this is progressivism, especially its woke variation, in a nutshell) and ever more insistently denouncing his own roots.
In its pure and final form alienism is “the subversive insistence that all’s wrong with the world.” In that, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy: To search sub specie aeternitatis for every evil in the world and then, most importantly, to arrange your findings into a comprehensive theory of the evil of the world can only have negative consequences. Over time, it leads not only to a neglect of the goods that are left out of the theory but a complete alienation from the good world we inhabit. All that is not wrong with the world winds up both unappreciated and, eventually, unpreserved.
Conservatives talk plenty about how this is bad politics and bad thought, but we rarely address the fundamental fact that it’s bad education. Reducing formation to a negative abstract, divorcing it from the tangible realm of young people’s knowledge and understanding, is only going to produce a generation of idiot hypocrites—people whose lives will never be meaningfully shaped by the ideas they espouse precisely because those ideas have not been shaped by their own lives. These people already walk among us; in fact, they already rule us.
* * *
I can’t tell you where these things came from, at least not definitely. I’m not sure anybody can; genealogies of ideas are generally guesswork at best and fabrications at worst. (I’d like to blame New Yorkers, and I’m sure I could find a way. After all, it’s the hyper-elite schools in places like Manhattan where this kind of thing is most pronounced.)
But I can tell you where it didn’t come from. It did not come from the folk-traditional, quasi-parochial community of working-class Irish Catholics who formed the school’s historical constituency. It certainly did not come from the streets of Boston or the blue-collar exurban towns where, even in recent memory, such ideas would be laughed away if anybody dared to bring them up. It did not even come from the Jesuits, the notoriously left-wing religious order that operates the school, nor from the classical and Christian model by which they educated their pupils for well over a century.
Whatever the particular source, it seems certain that it was external. The suggestion is reinforced by an examination of the school’s (and the community’s) condition in the relatively recent past, when it was not turned so far outward and the alien held a distant second place to the proximate and communal.
The men of those classes still had accents distinct to the region—and, within that, distinct even to the particular towns and neighborhoods they hailed from. The bulk of graduates would continue on to Boston College; the best would go to Harvard, and the brave or restless would journey off to distant Worcester to study with the next-closest outpost of Jesuits at the College of the Holy Cross, more than 50 daunting miles to the west. Law school was a common fate, rivaled by the seminary and the priesthood. Businessmen, too, abounded among the alumni, though not the kind with which we are familiar today. These were pillars of the community—a community that actually existed—who, for the most part, traded in real things and operated with a social conscience.
It was a strong, productive system—perhaps too much so. Achievement is not satisfied with stasis, and the men of promise produced by elite but provincial schools eventually found themselves bucking against the boundaries of definite communities. Whereas earlier on engagement with the broader nation and the world was done as necessary, and for the benefit of community (or even self), eventually the universal stage became the primary theater for such men to try their talents, the benefit of the community close to home relegated to a secondary concern at best. Eventually even the self would take a backseat—quite unintentionally—as the universal systems escalated beyond individual capacities to direct.
If a decisive point must be settled on, it was 1952, a year whose graduates the school informally acknowledges as the Great Class of ’52. These were boys born in the throes of the Great Depression, who had known hardship that even their immigrant forebears a generation or two before could not have imagined on coming to America. Despite—or perhaps because of—the poverty of their youth, this generation of strivers was the first to achieve broad and remarkable success well beyond the confines of Boston and New England. Its perhaps most successful member, who paid for a multimillion-dollar arts building that opened during my freshman year, was a real-estate mogul based in Southern California.
The men of ’52 themselves were (by and large) socially conscious, and conservative in an instinctual sort of way. They would want nothing to do with what’s being taught in the classrooms today, and certainly did not intend to bring it about. Nonetheless, the accomplishments of these men consisted of opening door after door that had previously been closed to them, and open doors go both ways. Something pernicious snuck into Boston as these ambitious young men made their way out.
Maybe this is a bit reductive. After all, the political and economic forces at play in this dynamic period may well have rendered deracination irresistible. And the local element did not disappear immediately or completely; even today, you can find some alumni among Massachusetts leaders, if you have the time and willingness to look. But as the overall goal of educating promising young men changed entirely, so did the means employed. Now the new, universalized (and unintentionally corrosive) form of education is entrenched. The local has no champions—and will find none anytime soon, since the means of producing them have been abolished.
The transition can be illustrated by looking at just two men: The most prominent alumnus in the school’s entire pre-1952 history was Richard Cardinal Cushing (class of 1913), the great archbishop of Boston who built a bridge between the city’s WASP elite and its Catholic lower classes; post-’52, it’s Joseph Dunford (class of 1973), Barack Obama’s third chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It would be difficult to find two men at once so similar and so different. The paradox is tied to the parallel between the decline of the Cardinal Cushings and the rise of the General Dunfords. One replaces the other, and something substantial is undeniably lost in the replacement. Now, I don’t believe General Dunford is any worse a man than those who came before him; in fact, by all accounts he is a remarkably good one. It is the world he inhabits that has changed so much in the span of 60 years: from one where men of outstanding energy and potential become the bishops of their home cities, to one where they become leading lights of the military-industrial complex. (Last year, the retired four-star joined the board of Lockheed Martin.)
This is the crisis of formation—the epidemic of miseducation—that precedes and undergirds all others.
What is fundamentally wrong with our elite education system is that it has transitioned from making men who can lead manageable systems, organizations, and communities to making men and women who can serve uncontrollable systems efficiently. The “servant leadership” promoted by the Jesuits has taken on a whole new meaning. Abandonment of the things a functioning aristocracy can actually control—and of their responsibility to control them—to participate in the extra-communal, impersonal machinery of national politics and global economics has not just robbed our communities of their leadership class; in removing our leadership class from its communities, it has made the new elites simultaneously powerless, bitter at their powerlessness, and dangerously certain of their paramount importance.
Such a system is incompatible with a conservative social order, and in fact goes a long way towards undermining it. Wokeness, or progressivism, or whatever we want to call it, is not some new intrusion into the world of elite education, though we seem only recently to have begun a serious conversation about it. It has been there for a very long time, and its acceleration was entirely predictable—if not inevitable.
In part this is just a matter of logistics. Nationalizing the life of the mind—especially in the particular context of the United States, and especially as concerns those students meant to proceed to leadership positions—necessarily opens channels. Bad ideas can spread more quickly and more easily. Educational institutions that are more closed (though they should not be fully so) and more focused on their immediate contexts are less susceptible to being blown one way or another by the prevailing winds.
But there is still a more substantive cause: An educational system that looks only and always upwards and outwards can hardly expect to keep its graduates planted on the ground. The turn towards the broad and abstract runs the risk of dissolving connections to people and place, tempting the erasure of limits of all kinds. The disappearance of these traditional means of forming identity and community inspires our would-be aristocrats to look even further outward, drawing meaning from sources that are not theirs but which they claim simply because they seem capable of weathering the current storm (perhaps because they are positioned at its eye). Energies and intellects that are not directed toward the personal and the good will, by aimless inertia and lack of other options, turn to the alien and outré. And as the alien gains ground, what once was meets a calamitous extinction.
* * *
I met a friend from school for drinks not long ago. I write for a respectable publication now, and he’s about to start a well-paid job in some kind of consulting. In a material sense, and in a particular social sense—concerning something like status—we are immensely better off than those who came just two or three generations before us.
We had come to the school by different avenues. His grandfather had attended when it was still a place for Irish boys with more brains than money, instead of the inverse; by the time he came of age, attendance was a sort of family tradition. I showed up on a scholarship with no connections to speak of. My late grandmother, who grew up in the city not long behind the ’52 generation, was immensely proud because she still thought of it as the place where people like us could go to join the ranks of the leadership class.
But it is not quite that any more, in part because the leadership class as such has gone extinct. There are only higher and lower functionaries now. But it is not just the hope of entering an aristocracy that has vanished; it is the entire world in which that aristocracy existed. The very city our grandparents called home has collapsed into vicious cycles of poverty and crime. The Church they held so dear finds its pews emptier week by week, and parish after parish in the region is being forced to close its doors. Even outside the city there is little hope of rebuilding lost communities: home ownership has become the province of the already-rich, local government has been neutered by a combination of poor leaders and jealous higher powers, and all the many malign forces mentioned above drive those who should be a local elite into self-imposed exile. The culture and ethos that inspired and united our forebears have evaporated, replaced by a cosmopolitan liberalism imported via Cambridge and the tech corridor. All these things are more closely connected than most of us want to admit. A century of all kinds of liberation has left us free of every bond—to God, to neighbor, to the ground we claim as home.
So we talked nostalgically of a communal history that we never really knew, of the world whose death our grandparents watched while young. We talked with some amusement of our troubled times in school. We talked about the future at least as much as the near or distant past, and had to admit that neither of our prospects looked particularly bleak. But however well off we found ourselves, 400 miles from home, neither could help but voice the sad gut feeling that something meant for us had been denied.
Slamming $15 cocktails in a ritzy Georgetown bar, we mourned the loss of a city where men like us would populate the churches and command the halls of power and guide the course of a commerce that could still be guided at all. And we thought—though there was little hope of this—that the city ought to mourn the loss as well.