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I was struck by a recent essay by Mark Edmundson, Professor of English at the University of Virginia, in The Oxford American. It was couched as an exhortation to college freshmen, but it was at least as much a lament. “The students and professors have made a deal,” Edmundson warns freshmen: “Neither of them has to throw himself heart and soul into what happens in the classroom.” Undergraduates (largely) think of the university as a place to pick up skills, credentials and sex; professors (mostly) think of teaching as a distraction from their real task, which is publishing research. Both want, above all, to get ahead. Edmundson is right to say that this compact denies students the highest benefit of education, which is to discover what you really think and what you really want from life. But what hit me was not the insight, but the fact that everyone on American campuses already knows it to be true. Edmundson reports a bon mot whose profound cynicism will shock no one: “The primary function of Yale University … is to create prosperous alumni so as to enrich Yale University.” The notion that American universities are only masquerading as educational institutions may or may not be true, but it is certainly a commonplace. And this speaks of a wider cynicism, a sense that masquerade is just the way of the world.

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