Thursday, May 24, 2007

Harvard of the World?

In Tuesday's column, David Brooks explored the contentious immigration issue by comparing the United States to Harvard.

"Harvard is tough to get into," he wrote. "To be admitted to a school like that, students spend years earning good grades, doing community service and working hard to demonstrate their skills. The system has its excesses, but overall it's good for Harvard and it's good for the students beginning their climb to opportunity." He then avers, "The United States is the Harvard of the world." For this reason, he thinks that the immigration bill, on the whole, is defensible inasmuch as it creates incentives to develop "bourgeois virtues" of hard work, good behavior, and self-sufficiency.

I read this analogy to Harvard and nearly choked on my illegal-immigrant subsidized breakfast cereal. One thing we can be certain that Harvard students don't really need to know, and won't need to learn while they are at Harvard, is anything much about the United States. Our elite universities are rife with what Roger Scruton has called "oikophobia," the hatred of one's own land, culture, and history. As he's written in his recent book A Political Philosophy, no one in such elite settings "can fail to be aware of the educated derision that has been directed at our national loyalty by those whose freedom to criticize would be been extinguished years ago, had [our forbears] not been prepared to die for our country.... [Such loyalty] is now habitually ridiculed or even demonized by the dominant media and the education system. National history is taught as a tale of shame and degradation."

How ironic, then, that it is most often this self-same class of intellectual elites who demand most vociferously the most generous and least oppressive treatment of illegal and future immigrants, and how unfortunate that Brooks settled on the metaphor of "America as Harvard" as proof of the sufficiency of the pending legislation. For all its shortcomings, the Progressive Left of the early 20th-century at least believed enough in America, in its history, its tradition and its ideals, that such thinkers as Horace Mann argued on behalf of a common education in American institutions and ideals that ought to be required knowledge of all citizens, whether newcomers or old hands (I say this, fully acknowledging the deep anti-Catholic animus of much of this educational regimen). Can we be remotely sanguine that the current calls for amnesty and freer flow of migration would result in strong civic loyalties among new immigrants, given the national self-loathing of the intellectual elites that control most of our most prestigious institutions across the nation? In the absence of real reflection upon the need for, and further, commitment to inculcating, a set of civic understandings with which we might rightly expect all new citizens to understand and to endorse, I find much of the current debate to be woefully lacking in serious exchange about what it means to be an American.

I am reminded of my first College-wide faculty meeting I attended at Georgetown, in which a discussion was held of a new "Americas Initiative" aimed at fostering a continental-wide exploration of the connections and interconnections of the "Americas." All of the faculty who rose to speak expressed their hope that the Initiative would emphasize how America was being transformed by migration from south of the border, and that it was imperative that our students learn more about these diverse cultures that they would be in a better position to comprehend our changing demographics. I rose - having been at the University perhaps for two or three months - and observed that all of these migrants were coming here, to the United States, and ought not we to take that as an indication that there was something admirable about our way of life that we ought to be conveying to those newcomers? Further, this being the case, wasn't it incumbent upon the University to make sure we were educating our students in a deeper understanding of the American tradition so that they would be in a position to articulate and endorse this tradition in the event that they were in a future role where such knowledge would be necessary? Afterwards, several faculty approached me to congratulate me for asking this question, and admitted that they wouldn't have had the courage to ask it themselves. Why is it that we have tenure?

While the Left seems to me to be playing a dangerous game - a game with the future in which we deny our past, or mis-convey it - anti-immigrant voices largely seem to me to be not much better. Many of these people don't pause to reflect how much of our economy - and especially, that part of our economy needing physical labor - rests upon our blind eye toward massive numbers of illegal immigrants. I suspect that most of those people on the Right calling for the deportation of illegal immigrants, and the closing of our borders to such people, would also be the first people complaining when the price of food, housing and many other products would ineluctably rise. The very proponents of free markets who have ushered in an age of globalization now lament that we are overrun with illegal immigrants doing the physical labor that we no longer wish to do, or no longer wish to pay for. In our denigration of "drudgery" - physical labor that no self-respecting elite would every endorse for their progeny - we have subtly invited an illegal underclass to keep our prices down, inflation under control, and our economy humming, and now - a bit like Claude Rains - we are shocked, shocked, that all these illegal immigrants are now underfoot.

The Left wants our immigrants but hates the America that attracts them; the Right doesn't want the immigrants but loves the prosperity they undergird. And all the while, supposedly there's a debate going on.


Anonymous said...

How long do you think that Harvard would put up with it if a substantial number of individuals who had not been admitted to the university started showing up at classes, handing in assignments, eating in the dining halls, etc? Or, even worse, do you think that Harvard would be happy if the hoi polloi started giving public lectures from its hallowed halls? Brooks has never seemed more naive and parochial, which is quite a feat for him.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your insights.

The one opening in this debate I've seen surrounds investment in civic education more new immigrants. Funds are/were in provided for in recent immigration bills and are not very contrversial. I taught some of these program through the Close Up Foundation from 2000-2006.

The staff generally felt that teaching these programs made us appreciate the American system more. Besides, our students were often VERY passionate to learn what made America work and have tangible memories of disordered societies and lack of liberty.