If you entertain any doubt that we inhabit an age in which the inmates are running the asylum, kindly direct your attention to the charmless Connecticut city of New Haven. There, on the campus of Yale University, one of the most celebrated architects in the United States is waging a determined campaign not so much to educate the student-inmates at the Yale School of Architecture as to make them fall in love with him.
Yes, the longing to be loved runs deep, and teachers labor under it no less than the rest of us. Plato doubtless sought the approval of his student Aristotle, and Mark Hopkins--of whom it was so famously said, by James A. Garfield, "Give me a log hut, with only a simple bench, Mark Hopkins on one end and I on the other, and you may have all the buildings, apparatus and libraries without them"--not merely seems to have sought the future president's approval but, quite obviously, won it.
But until the 1960s overturned the apple cart of education, it was assumed that in the relationship between teacher and student, the former served not merely as educator but as exemplar, that the teacher commanded respect at the least, veneration at the most. Many more failed than succeeded, but teachers aspired to be models for their students, and students aspired to follow the intellectual and personal example of those teachers whom they most esteemed. When noted men and women were asked to name the teachers who had influenced them, invariably they cited those who had been the most demanding, who had set the highest standards of probity, independence and intellectual rigor, who had shown the most sincere and serious interest in them.
That changed in the 1960s. I am well aware that the 1960s are too often blamed for all the ills of the modern world and that I have been known to indulge in this generalization myself, but in this case it is valid. During that decade the student population in higher education began to grow at a startling rate, and student aggressiveness grew apace. Administrators and teachers were apprehensive (with good reason) about violent student protests; many were also sympathetic with student opposition to the Vietnam War as well as envious of the let-it-all-hang-out lives that students were learning to live.
Before long, teachers were competing with each other to win students' affection by wearing jeans to class, growing beards, smoking pot, carrying placards. Next, they were letting students determine their own academic agendas, sit on boards of trustees and otherwise become the dominant rather than subordinate element on campus.
Times have changed, students have become more careerist than they were 30 years ago, and the faculty has regained at least some of its traditional hold over the curriculum. But as is made plain by the case of Robert A.M. Stern, now in his first year as dean of the Yale School of Architecture, the new order is so firmly entrenched that even one so celebrated as Stern finds it necessary to court his students as sedulously as Abelard courted Heloise.
"Celebrated" is not a synonym for "distinguished," at least not in these end-of-the-millennium United States. Stern is a highly successful and visible architect, but the quality of his work--perhaps character of his work is the more pertinent phrase--is open to question. Looking at Celebration--the faux Victorian town in Florida he designed for Disney--or the countless exercises in high-end postmodernism he has done elsewhere, it is difficult to detect what, if any, are Stern's artistic convictions. Like the celebrity chefs of New Orleans, he is more famous for being famous than for any building or design to which he has affixed his name.
But whatever one may think of his work, he is--or until now gave evidence of being--a grown-up. There is not a reason on Earth why he should feel it necessary to kowtow to the whims and fashions of university students, yet there he is, in New Haven, doing precisely that. As described in a long story in the New York Times last week, Stern is engaged in an "obvious effort to win . . . over" Yale's 150 graduate students in architecture. He is, if you can believe it, "well on his way to reinventing himself as a happening dean," and the "key to the transformation is a bachelor pad, a duplex loft in downtown New Haven, for entertaining."
In the words of Stern's 31-year-old son, "He's trying to be hip and downtown, like I am," a perception affirmed by the great man himself: "In New Haven, I get to have my downtown feeling." He has stripped his apartment to its minimalist bones and filled it with a "role [sic!] call of classics" by the greats of modern design, "with a few rusty finds from Lafayette Street rakishly thrown in." Whether this will win him the adoration of his students remains to be seen--they seem, or so their remarks to the Times suggest, to be in equal measures petulant and self-righteous--but according to a friend, Stern "desperately wants to be successful."
Successful is as successful does. These days it has a lot more to do with style than substance, and Stern has proved over the years that he can fit smoothly into whatever style is Flavor of the Month. The style of Yale's students seems to be modernism, so modernism is what Stern is giving them. This may look like higher education, but deep down it's just pandering.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail is email@example.com.