The Picture of Dorian Gray: The Two Faces of the American Academy

By most measures, American universities are the envy of the entire world.  Of the top thirty universities affiliated with Nobel Prize winners, for example, eighteen are in the United States.  According to the U.S. News and World Report rankings, of the top ten universities worldwide, only two – Oxford and Cambridge – are not in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, or New York.  Prospective students from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America flock to even the humblest American colleges, hoping to receive diplomas from the same system that once sheltered Albert Einstein, Eric Voegelin, and Leo Strauss.

American universities are rich, too.  Harvard’s endowment, for instance, is approximately 35 billion dollars.  If one adds together just the endowments (and not the tuition income, grants, subsidies, athletics licensing fees, patent and copyright income, alumni donations, and total asset value) of the top ten American universities, one arrives at a sum just about equal to the GDP of Senegal.  Universities are building and expanding, hiring new professors, publishing oceans of data in a virtually uncountable number of specialty journals, attracting new students, opening campuses overseas, and paying presidents and chancellors salaries in the millions of dollars per year.

American universities, that is to say, stride, Colossus-like, over a Rhodes of higher education.  They seem to be the masters of all they survey.

But this tale of wild success is only half the story.  While the faculty, administrators, and trustees bask in the splendor of their educational empire, the students under their care descend deeper and deeper into a maelstrom of insecurity, impecuniousness, immaturity, and the insatiable lust for sex, power, and diversion.  Addled with drug and drink, host to a staggering rate of venereal disease (half of the new cases each year occur among 15- to 24-year-olds), crushed under student loan debt, and, increasingly, unable to find anything better to do with their time than riot, the American university student – ignorant, ill-mannered, and enraged – would seem to be the diametrical opposite of the American university system he inhabits.

What explains this strange Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde phenomenon?

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, novelist Oscar Wilde reveals the effects of a life of debauchery on the soul, even when the body seems ageless and hale.  The protagonist, after whom the novel is named, has his picture painted by an artist and thereafter begins to live a life void of all the decencies of civilized society.  He jilts faithful women, cavorts with opium addicts, indulges every unholy passion, and even murders the artist who painted him as a handsome young man.  With each transgression of the moral law, the face on the canvas – really, it turns out, a mirror for Dorian’s inner self, his soul – grows more twisted and deranged.  Dorian’s body remains freakishly youthful despite the passage of many years, but the portrait ages and gnarls, a true representation of what is really going on inside Dorian’s heart of hearts.

The American university and the American university student: stand them side by side, like Dorian and his portrait, and you have the full picture.  Every sin of the professoriate, far from harming their careers, has, conversely, redounded to their great benefit.  Like Dr. Faustus after his bargain, the American professoriate is on the unstoppable up and up.  Every book and article written in praise of some perverted theory of gender or queerness gains wide acclaim for the author.  He or she wins awards, gives speeches, and gets an even bigger heaping of taxpayer money in his or her bank account each month.  (Melissa Click, for example, who threatened student journalists at the University of Missouri with violence this week, is paid $4,750 per month.  Her field of study?  Lady Gaga.)

How youthful dear Dorian remains!

Everything is power, the professors proclaim.  There are no eternal truths.  The United States is an oppressive society.  Capitalism is the enemy.  Everyone around you is a racist.  Scott Walker is Hitler.  I hate Republicans.  The only possible relationship to the university is one of thievery.  The only legitimate subjects of inquiry are the grievances of the perpetually aggrieved.

As for the students: a common lament among those who take universities seriously is that graduating seniors are statistically no better educated than incoming freshmen.  This is all true when “educated” is taken to mean “having greater facility with logic, language, math, science, and history than one previously enjoyed.”  But, as the now undeniable outbreak of full-blown Maoist Cultural Revolution on our campuses makes clear, the students have been soaking in every word their teachers have said.

When the professors criticized capitalism, for example, the students took to the streets, protesting the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and Wall Street (and, now, the very financial system that loaned the students the money to attend their four years of socialist re-education).  The professors went home each evening to jazz records and cocktails, but their charges were busy making signs redolent of Paris in 1968 and planning to burn down the capitalist system themselves.

When the professors told the students that they could be any gender they chose, the students swooned into a pandemic personality disorder.  Everyone, it now seems, is some variant of transgendered.  The professors, for the most part, got married, had kids, and moved into respectable homes.  Their students underwent perhaps the most pervasive and acute dissociation of sexuality and identity in recorded history.  Universities are asylums for the sexually confused, mainly because professors and administrators actively encourage them.

And when the professors told the students they lived in a racist, bigoted, evil land, the students began to agree with them.  The professors paid their taxes, voted the straight Democrat ticket, reported for jury duty, and dutifully plastered their office doors with Hope and Change stickers.  The students attacked the police, joined ISIS, trampled and burned the American flag, ran armed forces recruiters off of campus, welcomed militant imams and rabid anti-Jewish terrorists to speak (and even employed a few of them – is that you in the crowd, Mr. Ayers?), and learned that, simply enough, in all the world, there is no problem that cannot ultimately be blamed on the land of their birth.

Let us not be surprised that the young people at universities are shrieking, infantilized moral cripples, while their professors are the very picture of worldly success.  These two images are inseparable.  The professors have sown falsehood and profited from it.  Their students have reaped the bitter harvest and now literally scream for someone to placate them in their barbarism.

The American university and the American university student – together, they make up the full picture of Dorian Gray.