26 January 2016

The Death of an Institution

T.C.U.’s great moment on the field last weekend coincides with a low off the field: It said it would erect a statue of Coach Gary Patterson. There are no statues on the T.C.U. campus of scientists, writers or philosophers, but generations of students will be expected to venerate a jock. It’s bad enough when large public universities present themselves as sports meccas first, educational institutions second. Now this worldview is spreading to a midsized private college at T.C.U., which has 209 staff members in its athletic department versus 43 staff members in its history department.
Per Wikipedia, TCU was founded in 1873 by brothers Addison and Randolph Clark.  They “nourished a vision for an institution of higher education that would be Christian in character, but non-sectarian in spirit and intellectually open-minded.”  TCU’s claim to fame, some 140-odd years later, is its sports program. More specifically, it’s famous for its football team.

In addition to Coach Gary Patterson, three other men are enshrined in bronze on campus:  the aforementioned Clark brothers and philanthropist Charles Tandy.  As noted, by Easterbrook, there are no statues of scholars.  More tellingly, there are no statues of religious leaders either.

Unfortunately, this appears to be but a totem of a larger problem.  J.F. Sargent, writing in Cracked’s inimitable style, points out:
Varsity sports are fucking a big, bloody hole right in the center of the American education system, and laughing the entire time. If we did away with all varsity sports -- yes, all of it, today -- the world would be a better place. I'm serious, why do we play sports in college at all? What's the fucking purpose? Aren't those supposed to be schools? Aren't we supposed to be teaching people about the real world? 
"But sports bring in money!" you spit desperately at your computer screen. No, they don't: Sports teams are actually massive financial drains on their colleges, with only 10 percent turning a profit. Most colleges end up more like the University of Michigan, which lost $7 million over two seasons. 
"But that's good for the college's prestige!" you cry deliriously, flapping your elbows like bird wings and rubbing peanut butter on your exposed chest (it's so easy to make you sound ridiculous when I'm describing you, and also you're fictional). Ah yes, you poor fool, you've fallen directly into my trap: Sports have no correlation with academic prestige. Ivy League schools consistently suck at sports, refusing to award scholarships for athletics or compromise academic standards, and that's never stopped them from being Ivy League fucking schools. So sports are less a source of prestige and more of an alternative to it. So unless you can tell me how the $450 million spent renovating this stadium at Texas A&M University wouldn't have been better directed toward, say, the faculty or academic resources, I'll just stick with the fact that college sports are awful and can go to hell.
Sargent’s point that schools use sports as an alternative source for social prestige is brilliant.  In fact, it makes perfect sense in light of the American social order.

Intellectual elitism, by its nature, is rare and difficult to attain.  Less than 3% of the population will be significantly smarter than average (i.e. at least two standard deviations smarter than average).  Less than 18% will be generally smarter than average (i.e. at least one standard deviation smarter than average).  Additionally, intellectually accomplishments aren’t easily understood by the less intelligent.  In turn, the less intelligent are less inclined to celebrate intellectual accomplishments due to their inaccessibility, thus making intelligence less socially prestigious than more easily understood status markers, like wealth, beauty and athleticism.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that as college enrollment has radically increased in America, schools have dumbed down their curricula, lowered their admission standards, and have used employment placement and sports accomplishment as their two main tools for recruiting new students since dollar signs and final scores are more readily understood by the less intelligent (i.e. common) than, say, the meaning of being a national merit scholarship winner.  The dumbing down of education is really the result of democratizing education.  It could never be the case that most people would possess an elite intelligence, and thus it was inevitable that expanding the offer of a college education to the masses would result in an institutional transformation that would bring colleges in alignment with the main concerns of the masses: money and sports.

TCU, and institutions of higher learning in general, provide us with a fascinating word of warning.  Institutions are but fragile shells. They are more likely to be transformed than be transformative, especially when those in charge of an institution forget this very simple truth:  an institution is a reflection of its members.

If you allow a large number of commoners to join a college, the college will soon reflect the interests and passions of the commoners.  If you allow hedonists to join your school en masse, it will soon develop a reputation for being a party school.  If you only allow those who are intellectually-minded and serious about pursuing a higher education, you will maintain your reputation as an institution of higher learning.

There are many implications to be drawn from this, two of which stand out from the rest.

First, if you wish to establish an institution that will function exactly as you intend, you must be extremely selective about who is allowed to join it.  In short, people matter.  It’s not enough for someone to be technically competent at filling a role.  They must also have a very similar set of beliefs, desires, goals and aims as you.  They must share an identity with you, your system, and your goals.  Orthodoxy is as important as orthopraxy.

Second, you must have an exit strategy.  There are only two good options:  shut it down or train your replacement.  Shutting it down is self-explanatory; I won’t belabor the point.  If you wish for your institution to continue on even after you can no longer run it, you must pick someone who is committed and trustworthy to replace you.  Not only that, you must train him to be as much like you as he can.  You must make him your disciple and, most importantly, emphasize to him that he is to do the same when it is his time to step down, and so on ad inifinitum.

I suspect that a lot good institutions fail because the founders of the institutions did not take pains to establish a strong tradition for their successors to follow and imprint on the subsequent generations.  They failed to establish and maintain a strong institutional identity that transforms those who join it.  Because they could not change others, others changed them.

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