Holden Caufield Redux

Bashing the institutions that didn't accept your college application might be thought to be a national pass-time in our "class free" nation.There's something oddly satisfying about sneering at the elite schools and the "preppies" "elites" etc. that we suppose inhabit them. But, sometimes the reasons for sneering are more interestingly political and argumentative. Here's a nice example from the "left."

The multiple failures that beset the country, from our mismanaged economy to our shredded constitutional rights to our lack of universal health care to our imperial debacles in the Middle East, can be laid at the feet of our elite universities. Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford, along with most other elite schools, do a poor job educating students to think. They focus instead, through the filter of standardized tests, enrichment activities, advanced-placement classes, high-priced tutors, swanky private schools and blind deference to all authority, on creating hordes of competent systems managers. The collapse of the country runs in a direct line from the manicured quadrangles and halls in places like Cambridge, Mass., Princeton, N.J., and New Haven, Conn., to the financial and political centers of power.

Seems like the cause might be a tad oversimplified. There's plenty more ressentiment to be found here, but the conclusion of the piece seems interesting to me.

These elites, and the corporate system they serve, have ruined the country. These elite cannot solve our problems. They have been trained to find "solutions," such as the trillion-dollar bailout of banks and financial firms, that sustain the system. They will feed the beast until it dies. Don’t expect them to save us. They don’t know how. And when it all collapses, when our rotten financial system with its trillions in worthless assets implodes, and our imperial wars end in humiliation and defeat, they will be exposed as being as helpless, and as stupid, as the rest of us.

There's some sort of interesting argument here, involving a sort of argumentum ad "I told you so," or a sort of appeal to fear that provides emotional cover for the unsupported conclusion.

"My view that the products of the ivy league are stupid and helpless will be apparent when the whole system that they are trying to maintain collapses." 

1. If the whole system collapses, then the elites were stupid and helpless."

2. The elites are stupid and helpless.

To the degree that we fear that the antecedent of (1) might occur, we might conclude that (2) is true. But, there are other reasons that (1) might collapse other than the collective and stupidity and helplessness of the elites. So, even if we think it is likely that the whole system might collapse that should not provide us with reason to accept the conclusion.

There is sp,e other argument for (2) given throughout–but little of it seems particularly compelling. Some personal experience:

 I sat a few months ago with a former classmate from Harvard Divinity School who is now a theology professor. When I asked her what she was teaching, she unleashed a torrent of obscure academic code words. I did not understand, even with three years of seminary, what she was talking about. You can see this absurd retreat into specialized, impenetrable verbal enclaves in every graduate department across the country. The more these universities churn out these stunted men and women, the more we are flooded with a peculiar breed of specialist.

And some anecdotes about how everyone in high school was a phony and not that smart.

 I was sent to boarding school on a scholarship at the age of 10. . . These institutions, no matter how mediocre you are, feed students with the comforting self-delusion that they are there because they are not only the best but they deserve the best. You can see this attitude on display in every word uttered by George W. Bush. Here is a man with severely limited intellectual capacity and no moral core. He, along with Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who attended my boarding school and went on to Yale, is an example of the legions of self-centered mediocrities churned out by places like Andover, Yale and Harvard.

But, as far as I can see, there's not much more argument here than an oversimplified cause, a lot of Holden Caufield, and the interesting "I will have told you so" argument. 


8 thoughts on “Holden Caufield Redux”

  1. Perhaps the argument should be construed like this?

    1. Do not expect the Obama brain trust to fix our problems.
    2. They are the product of elite institutions that do not teach people to think and that produce mediocrities serving class interests.

    But, I’m still interested in the argument of the form:

    1. If really bad consequence happens, then possible cause p is confirmed.
    2. It is possible that really bad consequence might happen.
    3. Therefore, it is possible that possible cause p is true.

    Still trying to get the logic clear.

  2. You’re just criticizing his argument because you are operating in the “analytic” paradigm.

    Seriously, though. I think Hedges almost has a point, and then blows it at the end. A critical attack on our educational system and its contribution to social inequality and incompetent political and corporate management is laudable, if it is done right. Rather, Hedges relies on his own hastily generalized personal anecdotes, and his weak causal relationship between the inane specialization of theology professors and their liberal arts compatriots, and the non-reflective indoctrination of our corporate elite.

    But I’m not so sure that there is another fallacy to be found in the conclusion (other than oversimplified cause). Hedges thinks that he has demonstrated that elites are stupid at this point. The conclusion implies that people just don’t realize elites are stupid yet, but they surely will when society falls apart. That just seems like a sort of empirical prediction. The “I’ll have told you so” tone in this prediction is apparent, but I’m not sure it is fallacious. He did tell us so.

  3. I had a longer comment, but it apparently got lost in the system of tubes.

    The gist of it was that I’m not sure that the conclusion is fallacious (other than as being an oversimplified cause). The author argues that the cause is true, albeit poorly. The conclusion seems more like a prediction about what will happen, coupled with an “I’ll have told you so,” which does not seem fallacious, since author thinks that he already has told us so with his diagnosis of the cause of what will come.

  4. In the form you have it stated above, it looks like a case of affirming the consequent.  Now of  course that isn’t necessarily fallacious, provided that one does not read it deductively.  It seems on the whole that Hedges builds a substantial anecdotal case for his position, then alleges not wrongly that more evidence of the type he’s gathered will make it stronger.  Seems right in principle to me. 

    Yet, of course, I think he’s just misidentified the cause.  It’s not the ivy-ness of the degrees, but the relative incompetence of those with them.  If he’s trying to tell us that some people with Ivy degress do not necessarily have the best interests of all in mind, then no kidding, we knew that already.  That they have an ivy background seems to be a relatively irrelevant feature.  It’s not, in other words, the cause of their horrible incompetence, as their are plenty of deserving and upright ivy people. 

    At most, then, he’s told us that the Ivy does not necessarily produce an upright citizen.  No one ever really doubted that.  So perhaps in the end we have a case of the hollow man.

  5. Casey, I’m not sure that the “Ivy-ness” is in question. Hedges is attempting to make a broader point about the structure and emphasis of our educational system that produces and props into power incompetent individuals. I’m sure Hedges would agree that there are some people who attend Ivy league schools (like himself), who do not fall victim to the indoctrination of the managerial narrow-mindedness and self-serving nature of our supposed meritocracy, but I think he is arguing that as a whole this system is flawed and is the cause of our troubles. You, I think, are attacking him for making claims about individuals, when he is not. Nonetheless, I think he is unsuccessful.

  6. Hey Jem,

    Maybe I overemphasized this:

    “The collapse of the country runs in a direct line from the manicured quadrangles and halls in places like Cambridge, Mass., Princeton, N.J., and New Haven, Conn., to the financial and political centers of power.”

    So I would agree with you that some of these people are responsible.  I think my point was that their educational background isn’t directly responsible (“runs in a direct line”).

  7. I’m still up in the air about what this argument is doing and all of the comments are helpful.

    It seems to me that he is trying to argue against the perception (perhaps on the left) that Obama is really going to change things and is going to fix the incompetence rife in the government for the last 8 years.

    He does this by arguing that the new is the same as the old boss–a product of the ivy league, which is nothing more than a greenhouse for mediocrity and class privilege.

    His evidence for this last is a sort of false cause argument–everything has gone to hell under the ivy leaguers watch–and a variety of personal anecdotes (I can’t understand recent theological scholarship and all the kids at my high school were stupid and obnoxious, and a few others). This argument seems very poor to me–it ignores “successes” (haven’t some ivy leaguers  accomplished good things in government?) and it ignores the question whether “ivy-leagueness” is the cause or just a correlated fact.

    What he really might want to argue is that current crisis is the result of a failed ideology and the class warfare perpetrated by the rich/ivy-league. That seems fairly reasonable to me. But instead he chooses a sort of abusive ad hominem (ad Universitates?)

    Then the column ends on this odd hypothetical claim that seems designed to either a) convey to the reader how high the stakes are (non-fallacious) or b) scare the reader into granting the causal claim.

    Under the reading (a) it has something like the form “You’ll be sorry when your head explodes, so stop doing x.” While under (b) it would be read as “You’ll be sorry when you head explodes, so doing x causes heads to explode.

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