By Robert Weissberg
This is the full version of Professor Weissberg's address to the 2012 H.L. Mencken Club Conference.
The American people are increasingly become docile, ever dependent on government largess, and there is no end in sight. Since a Nobel Prize winning geneticist of my acquaintance tells me that to understand humans, study dogs, so we’ll begin with dachshunds. Mencken described the breed, "A dachshund is a half-dog high and a dog-and-a-half long."
Dachshunds were designed as killing machines to borrow and eradicate dachs (a European badger), rabbits and, in the United States, prairie dogs. Its body is muscular with paws well-adapted to digging and it has a keen sense of smell. Its large lung capacity (a dachshund can dig for up to three days) allows it to dig underneath it’s pray to catch it by surprise. Packs of dachshunds were even used to hunt wild boar and wolverines. Their natural temperament is consistent with their killing mission: stubborn, tenacious and, very aggressive to both other dogs (including much larger animals) and humans (and this includes their owners though they can also be very loyal). Stubbornness makes them difficult to train and housebreak; without strong discipline, a dachshund can become destructive. Thus, by nature they are not pets suitable for small children. A 2008 study of 6000 dachshund owners found that 20% of their dogs had bitten strangers, a relatively high rate for all breeds.
Needless to say, little money is to be made breeding subterranean killing machines no matter how cute or adorable. Professional breeders have therefore wisely bred out their hyper-aggressive traits to arrive at an animal that more closely resemble a docile lap dog such as a toy poodle. It does not take much—just cull out the snarly ones and voilà in less than a decade you have a cute, tame wiener dog anxious to befriend the local dachs.
We don’t yet breed people into toy poodles but the contemporary university is doing all it can to accomplish the identical goal—create a citizenry that instinctively looks to the federal government for its protection and sustenance. What is perhaps most remarkable about manufacturing this “new person” is its ubiquity—it prevails on nearly every campus and is normal to the point of not even being noticed.
When I began my undergraduate college career at Syracuse University in 1959 campus life was government by the principle of in loco parentis—the school would substitute as your parent. Everything was closely regulated, and included where you could live, dorm room visitation, hours for female students and other restrictions. Syracuse even prohibited participating in non-campus political demonstrations. These were truly stifling rule and free spirits like me could not wait to escape them. In fact, high sounding rhetoric about saving the world aside, much of campus radicalism of the 60s was exactly about this—freedom to have female overnight guests.
The principle of in loco parentis is now consigned to the dustbin of history but, ironically, most universities now exercise even more control over not only the student body but the student mind. The parallel is the five-star all-inclusive resort. In a nutshell, those entering the typical university are now liberated from nearly every responsibility that once constituted “growing up.” As in the luxurious all-include resort, one exercises “freedom” by deciding which of the “free” all-you-can-eat buffets to visit and which of twenty entrees and thirty deserts to sample. In fact, this is one of the great lures of all-include—a vacation with as little decision-making as humanly possible.
Let’s just highlight a few obvious campus examples. Want friends who share common interests? In the pre-modern universities students themselves shouldered this responsibility. Now, of course, the Dean of Students heads up a vast bureaucracy that facilitates hundreds of university-funded, university supervised affinity groups, everything from a safe house for lesbians of color to supplying basement rooms for chess aficionados.
At the University of Illinois-Urbana where I taught for twenty-eight years a few students sharing some interest would apply for university certified standing and almost anything short of the Illini Klan (which actually once did exist in the 1920s) would get at least $500 and automatic access to free facilities and other group-creating benefits. Many groups are long standing and easy to find.
What is notable here is how “forming an affinity group” has become “getting the university to support the group” as if seeking friends autonomously outside university control was physically and financially impossible. It is here that the habit of dependency deepens. One can only be reminded of civil rights groups where the key question is not how best to solve a problem but, “How can we get government funds?”
This slow slide into dependence was made clear to me with an exchange of views with a student who complained that his university imposed secular values on his university-funded religious group. His aim was to adjust the university’s rules to escape this meddling. I advised him to just sever all ties to the university—raise funds privately, rent meeting space at the Holliday Inn and drop the University’s name or logo. When confronted with my advice, it barely registered—his rejoinder just assumed that independence was not feasible though, of course, the costs might only be a few hundred dollars a year for everything, a pittance for religious freedom.
A more recent example is the effort to create a White Students Organization at Towson College. Students instinctively seek university support as if going it alone is impossible.
Consider recreation, hardly a commodity that only a university can supply. Surely there are local gyms, bowling allies, pool halls and Y’s happy to have student business. But, I’m sure that in most schools this responsibility is now part of “Student Affairs” and the all-inclusive resort model prevails. The same pattern holds for entertainment and spectator sports. Again, no need to make budgeting choices let alone “pay” since everything is “free.” Even dining services, the once dreaded encounter with Critter Fritter and SOS has been upgraded to discourage students from finding, let alone cooking their own meals (this continues the policy of “free” government subsidized lunches and breakfasts that begins in grade school). And let’s not forget the university’s “free” health care service that not only dispenses condoms gratis but supplies “free counseling” for the gender confused.
These examples of domestication could be multiplied but three points should be clear. First, this all-inclusive socialism with a smile undoubtedly needlessly drives up tuition. I suspect that if all these “free” benefits were removed, tuition costs would drop by a third. This would be a boon for poor kids who really don’t want to pay for lectures by Angela Davis or Julian Bond (their speaking fees, I am told, are $20,000). Nor do these kids require counseling for a sexual identity crisis. Surely if there is a need for some non-academic service, the private sector can supply it and better at a lower price. Bring back slum apartments and Ramen noodles!!
Lower costs will also reduce student debt, yet another contributing factor to government dependency. It is hardly accidental that Uncle Sam with his non-merit Pell Grants has almost entirely replaced Uncle Moe or Aunt Shirley as the source of college funding. More important, sky-high tuition now makes it almost impossible to work your way through school. Try finding a part-time job that pays $20,000 or more a more a year? These days, it is never too early to teach Americans to appreciate handouts from Washington.
Second, university-supplied services multiple the opportunities to indoctrinate students. University divisions of housing are among the most PC entities on campus. College dormitories offer excellent opportunities to spread the PC gospel via dorm policies (e.g., what you can post on room walls, choices of roommate), resident advisor-lead meetings (e.g., the importance of sympathizing with your transvestite roommate) and handling “offensive” behavior, for example, calling a rowdy a “water buffalo.” The ideological imbalance of invited speakers is equally well-known. I suspect that Deans of Student Housing are terrified if students were allowed to live without university supervision—they could actually choose their own housemates, tell racist jokes and put up Ron Paul posters without any fear of punishment.
But, of all the dependency-generating mechanisms, the most important is inhibiting the ability of youngsters to act independently. Imagine if today’s university sold off all of its non-academic functions. Good-bye dorms, health centers, divisions of recreation, free computer services, the campus book store, tutoring and writing centers, free concerts and lecture series, and all else. Even sell the library to Google. This would be a bare bones medieval style university, one consisting solely of professors, classrooms and whatever else was necessary for imparting knowledge.
Would campus life collapse? Would eighteen year olds starve absent a dining service? Hardly. It’s been my experience that nearly every college student has now mastered Craig’s list and all the other on-line venues to find whatever they need. This is not an argument for the virtues of free market capitalism though I personally prefer the free market over campus socialization. Rather, let youngsters learn to make important choices and then suffering the consequences. Let them visit Wal-Mart’s convenient care for their runny nose, not the university’s facilities and thereby learn about choosing a health care provider. Let them shop the marketplace and survive all the charlatans and crooks. After all, is this what we mean when we talk of “growing up”?
One last comment regarding the dachshund parallel. Like unsuitable dogs that are either neutered or kept from breeding, students who demonstrate “excessive” spirit of independence are culled out from university life as “trouble-makers.” If this comparison seems too harsh, imagine the fate of students who openly contested today’s campus orthodoxy (i.e., bit strangers) by mocking diversity or pointing out that Africa has gone backwards when colonialism ended. Like any good breeder with an eye on potential customers, university administrators would make every effort to keep this “trouble-maker” student from reaching the market. And, after a point, the word would get out—if you want to be adopted by a nice family, well paid and all that, don’t bite strangers.
So, perhaps one of these days the school president will give the following speech. Here ladies and gentlemen is the class of 2015. All have had their shots, been wormed, paper trained and ready to go. Each, I assure you, will make a wonderful addition to our fine society.