A libertine education
James Matthew Wilson | Friday, April 27, 2007
Many years ago, as a new undergraduate student at a state university, I attended fraternity parties. Much to my surprise, I noticed time and again that the residents’ rooms were decorated with posters for Quentin Tarantino’s early film “Reservoir Dogs.” I found it a mystery that these same posters – of slick suited gangsters in shades, strutting in black and white down an anonymous city street – adorned the walls of so many young upwardly mobile undergrads. What had resonated with them in a film about a bank robbery run amuck?
This mystery lingered, largely because I failed to connect those posters with a comment one critic made regarding “Reservoir Dogs.” He had said the film was “all style, no substance.” Slick cinematography and an eccentric soundtrack complemented the smooth characters on screen, but all three amounted only to something purely aesthetic. The film impressed one with its surface appeal and shocked one with its insistence that surface and style is all there is.
In retrospect, I was naive not to see those posters as symbols of a way of living in the world prevalent now among American college students and quite common through our society in general. Style, appearance – in some sense “beauty” – cut off from meaning, from truth and goodness, summarizes not only the film, but the lives many students attempt to live in the ostensibly boundless freedom of college campuses. The frat brothers of Psi-Psi-whatever and their coevals craved a life consumed by the power and satisfaction of appearances, cut off – truly ripped free – from the implications it might have for themselves and the world in which they live. If life and death is a matter of style, one may choose one’s pleasures and pick one’s poison, with regard to the consequences only in so far as they inform that “style.”
My na’vetÃ© haunts me as all the more remarkable because of a controversy in which I became involved at the time. The University administration had authorized a code of speech and behavior intended to eliminate “hate speech” from the classroom room and to allow the University to discipline students involved in untoward or criminal behavior on or away from campus. This binding code at a public university sat poorly with many of my fellow students because it seemed to place the University “in loco parentis,” in the place of the parent. We students were adults not children, and no institution had authority to set itself above us in paternal fashion. We oozed the language of civil liberties and when we could “ooze” no more on our own, we got funding from the ACLU to subsidize our self-righteous, indignant excrescence.
From my present vantage point, the correlation between the posters on the wall, the “lifestyle” of pure style, and the contrived arguments of vocal young activists seems absolute. All three are party to an effort – an old one, and one which continues – to create a public sphere, an entire society, stripped of codes of responsibility. This has proven a hard task, because those codes – called ethics and politics, and sometimes morality – have a way of inevitably emerging from our experience. We often and appropriately define this emergence of codes as Natural Law: the more experience of life one has, the more firmly one detects the vast structure of laws that subtend and direct it.
The world is always going to hell, of course. Anyone with a sense of the drama of history can discern one aspect of civilization or another sliding from bad to worse. College campuses play a particular part in the drama, however. Because, as I say, codes of behavior inevitably arise – eventually – in everyday life, the average modern person lives a fairly docile, harmless existence. But higher education has become such a rite of passage in America that it has come to instantiate a “green room,” a strange liminal zone apart from childhood and adulthood.
The crossroads where the relative unaccountability of youth and the relative sovereignty of age meet, the college campus may now best be understood only as a place of passage. No one remains there long enough to allow natural laws to rear their dogmatic heads. A student takes a course, and when it is over, the lessons are left behind with only the inscrutable fingerprint of a grade for evidence. Students lease a dorm room or apartment and foresake it when the lease is up. Most evocatively of all, packs of students rent and destroy those towering old buildings that were once family homes, replacing the relative permanence of generations with the complete transience of a school year lived from keg to keg.
This characterization may seem harsh, and my tone no doubt emerges from my own disgust at such a condition as well as my own past culpability in its persistence. Then again, it is better to have the humility to regret the folly of one’s youth than to bear that folly like a trophy through some tedious adulthood, in which the emptiness of college hedonism so frequently mutates into the emptiness of perpetual acquisitiveness. This characterization also ignores a more grave matter. What is the connection between the practices of the typical American college student and the education that, in their spare hours, they are supposed to be receiving?
A liberal education is supposed to equip a student for a life of thinking, of contemplation, and of right action. If it serves any purpose at all, it must aid those who receive it in understanding their experiences and in discerning and pursuing the meaning that emerges from such understanding. How liberal education could coexist with a mode of life that judges questions of truth and goodness anathema, seeking exclusively the satisfactions of “style,” should strike one as a troubling question indeed.
The answer is, it does not. Much education in the humanities takes its cue from the evanescent libertinism of its students. Its curricula promise to “liberate” students from the various “parents” of tradition, authority, meaning and responsibility that so inconveniently intrude. Many students leave such courses no wiser than they entered primarily because the courses instruct they have nothing to learn, but rather should “unlearn” what they already know, unburdening themselves of the past and the codes it imposes. Students learn, that is, what they already intuited on any given Saturday night: the endless struggle for liberation must continue until one’s life has been stripped of everything but style.
Liberal education stood once as a kind of elevation above the mutilating twists of life’s passing infatuations. The denizens who occupy its corridors now have done well at demonstrating elevation is self-denial, edification ideology. Our syllabi of the literature of sexual transgression in eighteenth-century Ireland has saved many a student from dreaming there might be some more worthy end to human life than sex, transgressive, casual or otherwise. May more clerks turn treasonous against this institutional turn.
James Matthew Wilson is a Sorin Research Fellow and, as a final act of transgression, has just murdered The Treasonous Clerk. For information about the wake, write to firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are those of the authors and not
necessarily those of The Observer.