I graduated from Oberlin College ten years ago, and if the college was in many ways an exemplar of the sort of economic inequality and unfairness that define the waking American dream, a charming oasis of unostentatious but everywhere evident family wealth amid a lot of Cass Gilbert architecture plunked obscenely in the middle of one of the poorest counties in Ohio, then it was also a fine example of what a college or university ought to be. Yes, it had its share of bureaucrats, and yes, there was an occasional adjunct, though usually just visiting for a year right out of graduate school, but there were precious few deans; I never once met a “director” of anything other than, maybe, campus dining; the departments were run by faculty; the office of career services was a distant backwater, an uncomfortable fishbowl near an underutilized computer lab; we got stoned and complained mightily about the fascist administration of then-college president, Nancy Dye, about the progressive, radical spirit of the school disappearing in the assault of Ivy-League-ism, but in retrospect I most remember that everyone seemed genuinely to believe that the purpose of the whole shebang was for everyone to read a lot, think a lot, and learn a few things. There were a bunch of professors, most of them seemingly well-paid, and not very many students as far as the ratios went. It was very expensive, but you could multiply the number of kids times the number of dollars per kid and come up with a reasonable cost for operating such an institution for a year. Select any random college employee, and you could figure out without too much trouble what it was that he or she did all day.
So you can imagine the revelation of entering a business school at a large public university almost a decade later. Great gouts and floods of ink have already broken the dam and overrun the banks of the conversation about “the rising costs of higher education,” and I won’t bother repeating all the data that others have collected, collated, and explained better than I ever could. But I can’t help but share my anecdotal astonishment at the number of inessential administrators running around. Even the dean (especially the dean?) of the business school drifted from here to there on campus in a slightly overlarge suit that seemed expressly tailored to contain both a man and his aura of uselessness. Of the dozens I encountered, only one manager, a sensible, lovely woman named Linda, far down the hierarchy of pay and title, ever managed to get anything done; I mean, she got everything done, from our schedules to the hiccups in our travel arrangements when we went to conferences abroad.
I don’t mean to cast aspersions on their characters. One of the bad habits in the radical’s critique of any institution is to presume evil intentions on the parts of people who simply, unthinkingly serve. Most of the people involved in the spiraling scam of university administration are just doing their jobs, however hopelessly unnecessary they may be to the actual operation of an actual organization dedicated to the real teaching of students. Making some assistant director for recruitment the object of moral ire is like hating on some corporate spend analyst in the bowels of Enron. How many of us would give up our livelihood at the vague prospect that our employer might be causing an indefinable and distant harm? The assistant director of recruitment just wants to make his quota for the year, save enough money for a vacation, pay his rent, go to a nice restaurant from time to time. Does he realize, in some general way, that he’s implicated in the personal debt crisis, or the Taylorization of learning? Hey, he went to grad school, too. He’s no dummy. But you gotta feed the monkey.
This isn’t to say that there’s no moral blame; it is to say that you’ve gotta amortize that blame over an awful lot of associate deans and provosts and boards of trustees. We are uncomfortable with the idea of distributed guilt, but there it is. What makes the problem intractable is precisely its lack of some monstrous secret master, some center, not to mention the essential ordinariness of all the participation by all the beneficiaries of a rent-seeking education apparatus that largely apes finance and government by siphoning money from the general wealth and moving it to certain select cadres of the population. That last bit, of course, makes the whole thing even more confounding, since the scam is so non-particular; you can’t even blame the institutions of education, which are only comporting themselves to an even broader social and economic pattern. The modern university is to contemporary American society what that vice-provost for media relations is to the university: a functionary, just doing its job.
So I’ve been thinking about David Petraeus, a former military commander in Iraq and Afghanistan and the director of the CIA for a year before an inconsequential sex affair involving a sycophant biographer and bankrupt Tampa con artist caused him to resign. He was hired by CUNY to teach the sort of bogus celebrity seminar that appeals to college administrators because it predominantly involves reading Economist articles and consulting group reports and considering how to reproduce them in the form of PowerPoint presentations, in other words, exactly what an assistant director of does for much of the day. This is a slightly more advanced version of the kind of education foisted on primary and secondary students, with the slide show template filling in for the bubble sheet. It’s mostly notable in that it requires no thought; it’s an exercise in formatting. For this, the university offered to pay the general $200,000, later reduced to $150,000, and then, when a load of malcontents refused to shut up about it and administrators got worried about bad press, finally, they knocked it down to a one-buck honorarium.
This original scandal was mostly about money. Adjuncts were starving in the outer boroughs, while some four-star jerk was going to get paid $10,000 an hour to show up and gallop through material prepared for him by his own underpaid assistants. What was fascinating about this episode was less the imbroglio itself than the reaction of the participants; most notable to me was the initial incomprehension and painfully slow dawning of the problem on the administrators who brought the general to the table to begin with. Their first reaction was visceral disbelief. But, but, he’s David Petreaus. Former 4-star general and CIA director David Petraeus! These are people for whom status and career recognition hold intrinsic value—name and title function as a kind of irreducible gold standard of human worth. The idea that one might not richly compensate such a guy just for showing up was so alien to them that they could not, at first, understand what the fuss was about. The relationship between this and the underpayment of temporary faculty was thoroughly beyond them.
But eventually they did come around to the idea that there was, at least, some sort of fuss, and they grudgingly reduced his pay. With the economic argument now largely undercut, opposition to Petreaus’s appointment found a new target in the idea that he is an abominable war criminal who presided over unspeakable violence and torture in the illegal occupation of other countries, and who now sullies the university with his very presence. Since I am, and have always been, deeply opposed to US military action abroad, the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan in particular, I’m innately sympathetic to this view, but I also believe that we err in assigning this sort of direct and unique moral culpability to Petreaus, that we commit, in effect, the mirrored error of his boosters, who generally proclaim him the hero and genius who rescued one, possibly two American wars from utter catastrophe.
Petreaus strikes me as a skilled bureaucrat who rose steadily through the ranks of America’s largest and most byzantine bureaucracy, but I find it hard to believe that a man who assigns Brookings Institution readings and Washington Post op-eds as anything other than object lessons in bad prose can be any kind of genius. His legendary success in Iraq was no success at all, not even by America’s own self-interested, self-designed, and self-applied metrics, and his supposedly ingenious reinvention of America’s Iraq occupation was never more than a tactical redeployment cribbed from a centuries-old colonial playbook. Remember the glowing reports of military brass gathered in dark conference rooms watching The Battle of Algiers? We’ve been to this theater before. His proponents would cast him as some kind of Eisenhower; his opponents as some kind of latter-day Heydrich. In reality, he was a functionary, and for all the horror perpetrated under his command, he was only the latest in a long line of commanders going back many decades. The war in Iraq, let’s not forget, began not under George Bush, but under his father; the US never ceased its low-level conflict under Clinton; Bush Jr. just re-upped; Obama continued it, although it seems as if he may have been out-foxed by the Iranians into withdrawing at last. The US project in the Middle East dates to the passing of influence from Britain to America after the Second World War; we’ve been fighting conflicts and proxy conflicts in the region for half a century. Petraeus may indeed be a criminal, as the internal auditors at Lehman were criminals, but in our zeal to condemn, let’s remember that all of these guys just showed up for work and did what they were told. Better men would have resigned; good men would never have found themselves in such a position to begin with; but there aren’t that many good men in the world, and most Americans do what they’re told.
None of this absolves Petreaus of responsibility or culpability. He was, after all, a general, but the main characteristic of his life and career is not the vicious contemplation of how to bring violence, misery, and death to peoples around the world, but rather the stubborn inability to think about that violence, misery, and death, to consider it in any way other than the unfortunate but necessary ancillary outcome of some other thing that had to have been done. The very same unthinking allows the President of the United States of America stand before the United Nations and say that the US harbors no imperial agenda because it frequently invades other countries. This is taken as evidence of extraordinary hypocrisy or cognitive dissonance, but both interpretations require an element of cognition that’s wholly lacking. The principal characteristic of these sorts of pronouncements is their lack of deliberateness and their lack of thought. These are just rote recitations of obligatory memorization; is it any wonder that a society led by such cliché machines chooses to measure intellectual achievement through standardized tests?
I think this is the really salient point. A brutal and unfair society requires a population that conceives of the intellect in terms of taking instruction. Even in my own student days, when testing was far less important, I can recall teachers and exam proctors stalking up and down the aisles between desks warning us of the dire consequences of not carefully reading the instructions. A culture thus educated develops mental habits that revolve around taking and interpreting commands. Its sense of duty and ethics isn’t is this right, but rather, am I doing this right? In this regard, the appointment of a David Petreaus, or a John Yoo, or a Condoleeza Rice to prominent positions in the academy are less significant because these people are monstrous than because they are expressly not so. When Yoo is asked about the torture memos he authored and replies that he was just providing the executive with what it requested and required, people tend to see obfuscation, but I see an instructive kind of honesty: he just can’t imagine that one wouldn’t provide what his boss required of him. He didn’t torture anyone.
This by the way, was Arendt’s misunderstood point—she had the bad luck to coin a very quotable phrase that distracted from it. What enables evil is not so much the capacity of ordinary people to be converted to dark purposes, but instead the incapacity of people to think about purpose and consequence. Our dilemma is that this form of thoughtlessness is exactly what the reformers of education at all levels seek. Unfortunately, for the most part, they too are unable to think about what they’re doing. The people who hire a Patreaus only perceive that his instruction might in some way help some students do what he did, and what they themselves have done to a lesser degree: enter an institution, serve it, and move upward through its ranks to their natural place in the overall order. Does it occur to them that this is Huxley’s dystopia, a life of servitude in a predetermined class interspersed with the occasional recreational bunga bunga and some Coors Light Lime? No. They haven’t read it. But you can divide into groups of four and prepare an in-class presentation for the next time we meet. Here is a Harvard Business Review article summarizing the case. Use it as the basis for your work.