September 17, 2019

JOHNS | What Three Decades of Academic Narcissism Have Wrought

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Writing on his time as a professor at Cornell University in the 1960s, Allan Bloom noted that students at this university had discerned that “freedom of thought” simply wasn’t “a good and useful thing, that they suspected that all this was ideology protecting the injustices of our ‘system.’” An invitation: Eavesdrop on any political conversation in the Temple of Zeus to see just how universal that mentality has become today.

In his groundbreaking and hugely influential 1987 work The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom attempts to dissect and identify precisely what he saw as pervasive problems in American academia. Although often appreciated as a historical work, we now live in its wake: The students Bloom wrote about have since entered academia themselves, educating an entire generation under that same ethos. Their students have then in turn educated their children — our classmates — under a twice-removed skepticism that lurches ever closer toward total rejection of the rigor and “freedom of thought” that inspired Bloom’s academic cohort in the 20th century.

To its credit, Cornell University still maintains some modicum of commitment to these ideals. But when it comes to defending the founding values of the University, campus undergraduates are out to lunch. This column argued in November 2018 that students ought to cherish and protect Cornellianism — that is, academic rigor, the liberal arts and a belief in a classical (even a romantic) ideal of the university. The response to that column makes clear the generational divide: Faculty and older alumni readers cheered and offered thanks; students were simply not enthused.

Can we blame them? After all, today’s students were educated in a post-Closing culture that consistently encouraged them to think this way — skeptical of freedom of thought and lukewarm at best on the actual mission of the University. To our generation, Cornell is just another one of life’s hoops to jump through, intellectual enrichment be damned. But we’ll still complain when we don’t get the grade we want.

In many ways, the country has slowly and subtly built this culture of narcissism, to the point of almost redefining the term. A 2008 meta-analysis from a team led by San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge found that “almost two-thirds of [today’s] college students are above the mean 1979-1985 narcissism score, a 30 percent increase.” Those students’ scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory were comparable to a similar study of 200 celebrities — a group specializing in performative narcissism.

But this trend didn’t just pop up overnight. It really began in the 1980s, just as Allan Bloom foresaw. Indeed, Bloom was not just predicting; he was in fact witnessing the predecessors of today’s student narcissists conquer higher education.

“Epidemics” and “crises” often can be manufactured fads of the social sciences, and it is better to remain cautious before hastily sounding the alarm over our generation’s narcissism. But the study has interesting data even outside the realm of psychology — Twenge, et al. found that 81 percent of students thought “getting rich was among their generation’s most important goals.” While not evidence enough to draw definitive conclusions, even as a snapshot this is troubling. Left to its own devices, the narcissism Twenge describes represents an existential threat to the liberal arts. The undergraduate mission of getting rich quick and dismissing intellectual pursuits for their own sake is slowly wearing down Cornellianism as surely as our shoes erode the steps up to Goldwin Smith Hall.

Former Duke professor Stuart Rojstaczer, who left academia to study grade inflation trends, found that since 1987, when The Closing of the American Mind hit the shelves, the percentage of “A” grades given to students began a steady climb — from about 30 percent in 1987 to about 45 percent today. Twenge, et al. have their own contribution to the data: They note that “in 1980, only 27 percent of college freshmen reported earning an A average in high school, but by 2004 almost half (48 percent)” did. Meanwhile, “the amount of studying has actually declined, as has performance on tests like the SAT.” Not only are universities throughout the United States coddling their students and protecting their GPAs — high schools are already molding an expectation of great grades without insisting on great effort. Bloom’s warnings about the threats to critical thinking in education were prescient, but they clearly fell on deaf ears.

The result? A generation of young people with unreasonably large egos who arrive on campus seeking unearned distinctions on the way to receiving their degree, building a preposterous sense of superiority and doing as little work as possible in the interim. Anyone who has spent more than a few days on a college campus knows just how pervasive the entitlement is, and how simultaneously grandiose and fragile students’ self-image has become. It’s just what the culture taught us. This isn’t simply an observation from the outside; I am by no means immune to these trends.

For the University, a re-embrace of the classics or centralization around liberal arts have been proposed repeatedly by conservatives as potential solutions — and they may be. But our generation is quite a distance from Bloom’s 1987 warning. Students are no longer arguing over the merits of these academic philosophies; they are at a loss for what these terms even mean. What policies could the University undertake to return to a more traditional model of education? The first step, of course, is to begin the conversation.

One thing is clear: Cornell University does not need a renewed effort to make academic life easier for its students, as some continue to insist. It instead needs to maintain its cultural and intellectual foundations and hold fast to its academic rigor, emphasizing that genuine education is still, as President Hunter Rawlings said,not a commodity — it is the awakening of a human being.” An Ivy League institution can never allow the mere conceit of knowledge to be confused with the real thing.

Michael Johns, Jr. is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mjohns@cornellsun.com. Athwart History runs every other Wednesday this semester.