Whit Stillman made his name in 1990 with Metropolitan, an Oscar-nominated low-budget charmer that remains fresh and enjoyable today. Stillman wrote and directed the film, which focused on a group of mostly well-heeled college freshmen who spend Christmas break frequenting elegant parties and late night bull sessions in what one character calls the “urban haute bourgeoisie” haunts of Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Big Data makes the past more present. Recently, a website provided a virtual tour of a picture exhibition that Jane Austen saw in 1813. This site demonstrates how information technology, including big data, can make us closer to the past than ever before. Indeed, we are becoming in some sense closer to past than the denizens of the past themselves. Few people in 1813 attended this famous exhibition, but everyone today is only a click away from a virtual tour. This increasing capacity has large implications in subjects as diverse as literary criticism and constitutional interpretation.
For instance, another example of our capacity to get closer to the past would be our ability to map all the uses of a word (like commerce) at the time that word was used in a document (like the Constitution). Few people could attend the 1813 art exhibition but no one in 1789 could systematically catalog all the uses of a word.
The loss of great literature in the schools and its replacement with something that is manifestly not great—and is meant in fact to put an end to the very idea of greatness—is no academic matter. As Plato taught us long ago, whoever controls the stories, what today we call “the narrative,” of any society, will inevitably control the society. If we give up our stories, we lose our surest means of teaching young people what is truly good and true and beautiful; we lose the best way of teaching them how to be human. Should we give that up because self-appointed educational experts apparently don’t know how to talk about a great book when it is put in front of them?
Most readers of this blog will already know the speech codes—viz. sex codes—that the Department of Education seeks to impose on universities, under the guise of preventing sexual harassment. Eugene Volokh has a lucid summary and the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Education a tedious tongue-lashing about what constitutes sexual harassment. The acts that keep Diversity Offices at full employment can range from telling a dirty joke to reading Anna Karenina. Similar directives go back into previous administrations, so, once again, the battle is not about a personality (even a powerful one such as Obama) but about the Administrative State.
It turns out, as Volokh notes, that sexual harassment at an institution of higher education might be found in any public or private discussion of sex, love, or eroticism. This means that the speech constituting the core purpose of higher education would have to be scrutinized by Washington bureaucrats. This is dangerous professionally—terrify your favorite male professor by sending him a DVD of David Mamet’s Oleanna, about a supposed episode of sexual harassment. And, more important, the vague codes enforce a debilitating self-censorship on professors and students that simultaneously increases the blandness and the freakishness of higher education.