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America’s Anti-Agoge

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

“….Instead of softening their feet with shoe or sandal, his rule was to make them hardy through going barefoot. This habit, if practiced, would, as he believed, enable them to scale heights more easily and clamber down precipices with less danger.”

– Xenophon, The Polity of the Lacedaemonians

Be quiet! In your position, it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students who live in Silliman! Then why the fuck did you accept the position? Who the fuck hired you? You should step down! If that is what you think of being headmaster, you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not!”
Jerelyn Luther, the Shrieker of Yale

“I personally am tired of hearing that first amendment rights protect students when they are creating a hostile and unsafe learning environment for myself and for other students here.”

– Brenda Smith-Lezama, Vice President of the Missouri Students Association 

Much has been written this week of the protests at Mizzou and Yale universities now sparking more absurd copycats elsewhere.  Pundits have covered the dangerous illiberalism of campus political correctness and speculated that the students are the result of a generation of helicopter parenting. There were earlier essays recently on the “coddled” nature of elite university students generally and skewered Ivy League students in particular as the products of a deeply flawed, intellectually shallow,”meritocratic” rat race that serves as the gateway to the nation’s elite. There have also been conservative suggestions that the students lack the maturity to vote and a furious counterattack by social-justice faction lefties defending the students and their authoritarian anti-free speechsafe space” ideology.

While all interesting and moderately important, I don’t think any of this gets to the heart of the matter.

Up until today, every society in history has had a process, formal or informal, to prepare the next generation of leadership and inculcate virtues in them that would assure their society’s cultural continuity and physical survival. The ancient Chinese mandarinate was based on mastery of Confucian classics; the British Empire had its public schools and storied regiments where the sons of the gentry and peerage bonded; the samurai and daimyo of Tokugawa Japan continued to uphold bushido and cherish antique tactics in warfare centuries after Japan’s unification made such things more ritual than reality.

The definitive example of an educational rite of passage from student to member of the ruling class however, remains the Agoge of ancient Sparta. Established, according to Spartan legend, by the semi-mythical law-giver Lycurgus, the agoge (“the upbringing”) existed to mold Spartan boys through a ferocious training regime into the hoplite soldier-citizens who comprised the social apex of Sparta’s militaristic oligarchy. The agoge ceaselessly battered the students with physical exertion, corporal punishment, exposure to the elements and hunger in a bid to harden them  in mind and body. There’s much about life under the agoge that moderns, even admirers of classical Greece, would find distasteful or even appalling, but it was very effective at inculcating that ascetic toughness, communal discipline, martial prowess and laconic wit that Spartans prized.  For at least three centuries, the agoge helped sustain Sparta’s qualitative military edge and its hegemony over the Greek world and subsequently, its political independence for two centuries more. Not a record that was frequently matched in history.

America too has a system of education to prepare – or rather, certify – our future business, academic, judicial and political leaders based on matriculation at a small number of highly selective, elite universities and liberal arts colleges. Broadly speaking, this includes roughly the top 100 higher education institutions ranked by US News & World Report and narrowly, for filling the very top tiers of finance, law and government service, the Ivy League plus a handful of comparable schools. This would place Mizzou at the bottom of the barrel of our elite education system while Yale is at the very pinnacle. The kids going to exclusive, elite, universities are very bright for the most part, but even more so they are wealthy.

This upper class status includes the campus protestors screaming loudest about their wretched oppression. The hunger striker of Mizzou’s father is a multi-multi-millionaire while the Shrieker of Yale reportedly comes from the relative poverty of her parents $750,000 home. The aggressive authoritarianism on display at Yale, Mizzou, Amherst, Dartmouth or Claremont is less the “Rage of a Privileged Class” than the petulant tantrum of the 1%.  In other words, despite their heroic efforts at a public pathos orgy of political correctness to portray themselves as victims in grave danger as they bullied and assaulted professors other students, these are spoiled rich kids used to getting their way, pitching an unholy fit to get undeserved power over others who disagree.

However obnoxious and unlikable these petty tyrants are or how totalitarian their demands to end free speech and academic freedom, fire and expel all their critics or put social-justice commissars in charge of every university department, they didn’t educate themselves. The students embody, perhaps in a more militant form, what they were taught. The problem isn’t that this year has a random surplus of student radicals, or that sinister racist conspiracies exist in the administrations of our most left-wing universities as protestors claim or that these helicoptered students are all psychologically fragile waifs raised in a culture of self-love and psychodrama. No, the problem is that the system to educate our future leaders tends to inculcate deep hostility and loathing toward their fellow Americans, extolls anti-empirical, witch-hunting dogmatism as a virtue while rewarding narcissism and anti-social aggression in interpersonal relations. This needs to change.

We have built an American anti-Agoge that cultivates values, ethics and habits in future leaders that are politically repulsive in their authoritarian rejection of Constitutional rights and are antithetical to ruling wisely or well. At times they would seem to conflict with a life as a functionally competent human being. Half of all Yale students in this pressure-cooker require at least some mental health counseling. This is an astounding statistic. Imagine if Polybius or Livy had written that half of the sons of the Patrician class were at least slightly mad. A toxic ruling class that is certain that they have been victimized by the citizens they govern and who lack the normal resilience to withstand minor stresses of life without concocting conspiracy theories or taking to their bed is a recipe for disaster. In a liberal democratic state such as ours, dependent as it is on the values of an open society to function politically, this state of affairs is a sign of political decay and creeping oligarchy.

What is to be done?

We did not arrive at this juncture overnight and fixing a fundamentally broken academic culture will take time, but here are a few simple suggestions to start.

  1. Legislation to Secure Academic Freedom, Due Process and Free Speech on Campus:  This will defang the PC bullies, social justice warriors and their allies in university administration by hamstringing their ability to coerce and punish dissent. Obviously, this will be easier in public universities but these provisions could be attached to receiving Federal funds, including guaranteed student loans.
  2. Draconian Reduction of University Administrative Positions relative to Tenured Faculty: This will save a great deal of money better spent elsewhere in by axing bureaucracy while de-funding and disempowering the diversity commissariat on campus that is the source of much illiberal mischief. Again, this is a matter more for state level action initially.
  3. Restore a Core Undergraduate Canon rooted in Real Courses in Real Academic Fields: This will reduce the Melissa Click problem of academic sinecures for full-time radical political activists posing as professors with Fifty Shades of Gray “scholarship”. The money saved by getting rid of an army of administrators in #2 leaves a lot of room to hire mathematicians, biologists, historians, economists, physicists, philosophers and linguists who earned a doctorate in something real.
  4. Require Elite universities Receiving Federal Funds to allocate 20% of their Student Body to Students from Middle-Class, Lower Middle Class and Working Class backgrounds, Geographically Balanced: I have mixed feelings about this in principle, but it would definitely break up the overwhelming UC-UMC Superzip monoculture at our gateway institutions and bring new talent and perspectives into our ruling class that the university administrators at present work extremely hard to systematically exclude. It will also increase social mobility and provide competition for the progeny of our game-rigging “meritocratic” elite.


None of these will usher in a utopia. Much of radical academia will muddle through doing what they have been doing until retirement, but the system itself will be on a trajectory for better health rather than for getting steadily worse.

9 Responses to “America’s Anti-Agoge”

  1. Donald Vandergriff Says:

    Another great one by Mark. I love this one and it is right on target.

  2. Eric Says:

    I think you hit on the hit when you give a monetary incentive for the protection of academic freedom. Universities have essentially become “big business,” salaries of university presidents rival CEOs of major corporations. The success indicator is how much money the president can bring into the institutions from industry, government (heavily DoD research contracts)and alumni gifts. Pure sciences and engineering are not a problem as core undergraduate education goes, but most of the social sciences are now larded with tendentious ideological beliefs taken as fact and in the humanities, for example in history departments, there are chairs for women’s history, various minority histories, and labor history while chairs for various regional studies, military history, and business history have gone away in many places. Nothing wrong with studying women’s or minority history but, it is limiting history to a narrow spectrum. I think it will be a difficult fight to make changes as so many academics and bureaucrats are entrenched in the present order.

  3. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    Thanks, Mark, for this post. It’s great.
    I think CDR Salamander would agree, too, except that he would go further in essentially firing anything related to the diversity grievance industry. This is even infecting the military academies…

  4. Gray Hat Says:

    Excellent both in spirit and in insight.

    One correction: tempting though it might be to have recourse to a “cannon,” I think you meant “canon.”

  5. zen Says:

    D’OH!Curse thee, spellcheck! LOL thank you Gray hat, will fix

  6. Tucker Hughes Says:

    Great points! It’s worth noting that some of the more elite colleges have recognized the value of your fourth recommendation. For example:


    I’m not sure that anyone is even trying to tackle all of your recommendations though.

  7. Eddie Says:

    I have an idea for how your agenda can be implemented.

    SCOTUS is set to strike down affirmative action in 2016 (1). A ready-made solution is already working in Texas at the Univ. of Texas that allows the best students from every high school in the state to attend the best state university (2).

    “Campus officials attribute the results directly to the new state law granting automatic admission to students in the top 10% of their high school classes without regard to test scores, as well as to more aggressive recruitment activities.”

    Republicans enjoy unified control of 25 states, including several with top public institutions (NC, MI, TX, OH, WI, FL) and legislative control over 14 more (PA, VA, MO) or split control (WA, CO).
    (3) It is time to use that advantage for something other than corporate giveaways and pursue meaningful reform along the guidelines you are looking for (in other words, the exact opposite of what the buffoon Bobby Jindal did to LSU in Louisiana that angered even Republicans).

    This push to enact #1, 2 and 3 of your agenda would perform a public service in splitting the Democratic party from the illiberals, forcing Dem state and local leaders to go on record defending the illiberals or standing up for the Constitution.

    It would dull the presidential year turnout advantage for Democrats and allow grown-ups (e.g. Republicans & Democrats not beholden to illiberals) to unite on something taxpayers would be happy about for once.

    Most of all, it would give further support to the efforts accelerated by former TX Gov Rick Perry and FL Gov Rick Scott to rethink the value and importance of a 4 year degree (aka the allegedly impossible $10,000 degree that is quite possible and may be actually preferable) (4).

    In the mid-term, the onset of CTE (Career Technical Education) amid the desperation of businesses, econ development groups and local leaders to fulfill skilled trades and skilled labor jobs will further deflate the higher-ed bandwagon that has helped inflate the egos and accounts of this anti-Agoge.


  8. Bryan Alexander Says:

    There’s much I can say about this rich, provocative post. Other commentators have beat me to some of them, so I’ll be as brief as possible:

    1. “The kids going to exclusive, elite, universities are very bright for the most part, but even more so they are wealthy.” Definitely. We’re really starting to realign wealth and academic achievement in our Gilded Age 2.0.
    2. It’s worth noting that kids (18-22-years old) are now a niche in American higher education. The adult learner is more numerous. But those tend not to be “our future business, academic, judicial and political leaders “.
    3. I’m not sure this describes the total curriculum: “the system to educate our future leaders tends to inculcate deep hostility and loathing toward their fellow Americans, extolls anti-empirical, witch-hunting dogmatism as a virtue while rewarding narcissism…” In particular, that doesn’t map closely on to my sense of most STEM curricula. Do you think what you describe is a feature of humanities and non-quantitatively-intensive social sciences, or really is spread across the campus via student life?
    4.”Draconian Reduction of University Administrative Positions relative to Tenured Faculty” – this might be a bigger problem than it seems, due to a persistent category error. American higher ed counts all non-teaching and non-researching non-faculty as “staff”, but also as “administration”. Their numbers have expanded over the past generation, but for reasons that are often hard to resist. Think, for instance, of IT departments, which were microscopic in the 1980s, and are now industrial-strength. Consider the student life apparatus, an essential and in-demand feature of traditional-age undergraduate experience. Not to mention librarians, custodians, financial aid officers, registrars, etc. Cutting out a few top-level VPs or deans won’t make much of a dent in the overall “admin” world.
    5. “Require Elite universities Receiving Federal Funds to allocate 20% of their Student Body to Students from Middle-Class, Lower Middle Class and Working Class backgrounds, Geographically Balanced” – as much as I like this idea, it runs into the problem that those populations have seen their K-12 teaching suffer of late. Moreover, their communities and families offer less support. Cf Robert Putnam’s deeply disturbing _Our Kids_.

  9. zen Says:

    Thank you folks!
    Eric – Yes there is a direct correlation with revenue (and “flagship” operations, like football teams)and university administrative behaviors. The creep of corporate/MBA thinking culture is also getting deeply ingrained. Changing the financial incentives will help change behavior.
    Tucker – very glad to read that!
    Eddie – the top 10% plan is also viable due to the assumption that public universities were created to educate the children of the taxpaying public first and aspire to be “public ivies” a distant second. GOP governors could implement many of these ideas to political advantage but I also fear the temptation to gut parts of university education that are working well to satisfy the crazies or crony capitalists will be very hard to resist.
    Bryan – Your point on adult ed is important and I missed that demographic entirely. I do think the political extremism tracks more with humanities and studies students at elite universities, few of whom have to worry about paying bills, now or in the future. STEM tends t keep ideological frenzies marginalized to the departmental periphery – there just are not points of entry for courses on “feminist electrical engineering” or “LGQT particle physics” and most activists of this type are at sea in upper level STEM courses, so they avoid it more. We would have to have a separate discussion of k-12 quality, it is so large a topic, but I will say public systems do graduate some kids who can make the intellectual cut of our top universities but the admissions process is heavily weighted against them, on average, not even including the cost factor

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