American colleges — the un-educating of young America

A college student’s essay about ethnic food in America is a depressing window into the fact that American colleges don’t educate, they “un-educate.”

Several hours ago, I sat down to write a post about religion and culture. I got as far as picking a title for my post when I got a text from one of my Little Bookworms. Could I please help edit an essay for his food and culture class at college? Of course I can help edit. My post will have to wait.

Ninety minutes later, I’d finished editing the essay and gotten material for the post I’m writing now, the one about the way in which American colleges “un-educate” America’s youth.

The start of the “un-educating” process that occurs at American colleges is what I call “the ruination of writing.” When Little Bookworm left my house, I’d trained him to have a tight writing style that avoided excessive passive voice and blowsy, meaningless throat-clearing and fillers. A year and a half into a liberal arts degree, my Little Bookworm’s writing has degraded horribly. Think of his writing as a really disappointing mug of beer: It’s all foam. Search as you will, there’s no beer hiding underneath. What showed up on my screen was a mess of passive voice, throat-clearing, cant, meaningless fillers, repetition, and unnecessary “big” words (used incorrectly). His essay overflowed with academic foam, a meaningless froth of ugly, misshapen words and phrases all intended to hide a factual and intellectual vacuum.

I don’t blame Little Bookworm for the vacuum either. He’s a diligent student and, I happen to know, started researching this project months ago. The topic, of course, is typical for academia: Ethnic food and its role in denoting status within the culture. Little Bookworm’s bibliography is three pages long and he included lots of quotations and citations to facts. Or, rather, citations to “facts.”

Those “facts” are what really broke me as an editor. I didn’t collapse weeping in front of the screen, but a small part of me wanted to. It’s quite obvious that the “learned” academics who managed to get themselves published on the topic of food and American culture are singularly uninformed. They think they know their subject in-and-out, but they actually operate in a world of unknown unknowns. They are so bereft of any wider knowledge that they’re incapable of drawing proper conclusions about anything at all.

Reading my child’s essay summarizing these experts reminded me that many American colleges, especially smaller ones with fewer faculty members, no longer have either breadth requirements or survey classes. This has resulted in entirely “reductive” education, one that sees professors teach and students learn less and less about a great deal of nothing. A history student no longer spends the first two years in college studying the breadth of Western history, from the Ancients through WWI. (Back in my day, modern history always stopped with WWI.) Now, the students can only learn a professor’s area of expertise — and that area is very, very small.

The made-up example I like to throw around is the professor whose PhD thesis was about button-making in early 19th Century northern New Hampshire. That professor’s classes will be “Sexism and button-making in early 19th Century northern New Hampshire;” “Racism and button-making in early 19th Century northern New Hampshire;” and “Gender hatred and button-making in early 19th Century northern New Hampshire.”

While the above example is one I made up, it’s not an exaggeration. The New Real Peer Review, which exposes academic work, posted the following tweets in just the last few days:

And then there’s this, from Randa Jarrar at Fresno State (which my tax dollars support). Language warning, of course:

It’s fascinating that Jarrar, who’s genocidally hostile to Israel, does not realize that she wouldn’t last one minute in Gaza. She’d be raped and murdered in a heartbeat. Although I know only about her out-of-classroom antics, I suspect Jarrar is part of that class of academics who, when they teach, leave the unfortunate victim of their pedagogy less, not more, knowledgeable and intelligent.

Too many American academics, especially in the liberal arts, are distinguished by their ignorance, not their knowledge. Which brings me to Little Bookworm’s paper.

The paper tried desperately to make the point that American racism and political awareness determine whether ethnic foods are viewed as “high status” or “low status.” However, it comes from a place of profound ignorance. That my Little Bookworm operates from an information vacuum is understandable; that’s why he’s a student. What’s unacceptable is that the academics upon whose scholarship he relied also operated from an information vacuum.

Little Bookworm’s essay opened with the premise — an accurate one — that the American elite have long had a love affair with French food, with that love in America easily reaching back to the 18th century. French food was then and is now a “high status” food, one that people believe is worth a great deal of money. According to Little Bookworm’s sources, the reason behind French food’s status is that, at some unnamed point in the 18th century, when the church lessened its hold on France, French chefs got more frisky, creating gastronomical delights that sent them into the first tier of elite dining. Gag. Here’s the real story.

Although I doubt many people at Little Bookworm’s overpriced school know this, in 1066 the Normans invaded Anglo-Saxon Briton. The Normans were not geeks parking with girls. Originally, they were Vikings (Norsemen = Normans), but over the years they’d settled into being French — they spoke French, they dressed in French clothes, and they ate French cuisine. When they conquered England, they brought those French habits with them. For centuries after the conquest, the British aristocracy was really a French aristocracy. The Hundred Years War began in 1337 because Edward III of England claimed to be the rightful heir to the French throne. Chaucer is so famous, not just because he was a brilliant poet in his own right, but because he was the first poet associated with the Court who wrote in English, not French.

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Even as the British court was French in every way for centuries, the common people continued to be Anglo-Saxon. We see that cultural schism most clearly in words associated with food. The Anglo-Saxons raised cows so their Norman overlords could eat beef; the serfs raised swine so their lords could eat pork; and native Britons were not allowed to hunt deer so that there was always enough venison for the king.

By the late 15th century, when Henry VII finally ascended the throne, the British treasury was almost empty, thanks to centuries of overseas wars and domestic unrest. Henry VII, however, was an admirable skinflint who successfully refilled the royal coffers. When Henry VIII became king, therefore, he had the wherewithal to enter into an expensive competition with Francis I. (By the time of Henry VIII, the British had given up their claim to the French throne, although they hung on to Calais, which Mary Tudor finally lost).

Poor Henry. For all his youthful beauty, charm, and brilliance, he never did succeed in losing that vestigial British sense that the French were classier than the British were. So it was they he almost bankrupted the British treasury his father had so diligently filled competing with the priapic Francis at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

The English Oedipal relationship with France continued into subsequent centuries. Charles I was married to a French woman, who kept the court lusting after French style. Decades later, after the Roundheads had beheaded Charles I, when the Scots insisted that his son, Charles II, was the true king, they denominated him “King of Great Britain, France and Ireland.” For the decade that Cromwell hung onto power, even as England was dressed in drab grays and ignoring Christmas, Louis XIV’s court at Versailles, although filthy, was dazzling the known world with its clothes, art, and food. Talk about causing an inferiority complex when it comes to matters of style.

The fact that England spent a significant part of the early 18th century at war with France did not change the British sense that, stylistically at least, the French had an edge over them. The British may have hated the perfidious French, but they loved French cuisine (which was really Italian cuisine that Catherine de’ Medici brought with her when she married France’s Henri II), and eagerly emulated French fashions. That they were so familiar with British trends despite the war was thanks in part to the influx of Huguenots that drifted into Holland, England, and the American colonies after Catherine de’ Medici began to expel them at the end of the 16th century.

It’s appropriate to remind everyone here that 18th Century America was a British colony, not only as a matter of law, but of culture. The British carried to the new world their inferiority complex when it came to French food, fashion, and culture generally. Also, in addition to those Huguenots, the Colonial Brits also had trade relationships with the French in New Orleans.

And that is why the Americans in their new republic thought that French food denoted class — they were simply following a 700-year-old British tradition. So it was that, once America came into being and the nouveau riche in a republic without hereditary classes sought to distinguish themselves from the masses, they instinctively looked to French food for that elevating cachet. It was, after all, what it had always been: the food of royalty.

Little Bookworm didn’t know any of the above. He just thought that, somehow, magically, in the 18th century French food became so delicious compared to all other food that rich people wanted to flaunt the fact that they could afford to eat it. And scandalously, neither his teacher nor the authorities on which he relied (at his teacher’s direction) educated him about the British world’s complex relationship with French food.

This same ignorance about larger historic trends also showed up in Little Bookworm’s discussion about Mexican food. According to the cuisine authorities Little Bookworm reviewed, Mexican food made its way into America thanks to the borderlands (California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas), blossoming into Tex-Mex, but being permanently stigmatized as a low-class food because of American racism towards Mexicans. Let’s redo that, shall we?

Yes, America’s southern border was always a place in which Mexican-influenced food thrived. After all, before those states became borderlands, they had belonged to the Spanish Empire and then to Mexico. It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that America took complete control over those lands. By that time, the new American territories were comfortable with Latin American food. But that food, while it may have been popular in San Diego and San Antonio, didn’t have much reach into the rest of America.

The real change came with World War II and the Good Neighbor Policy. As you, my knowledgeable readers recall, America was terrified that the Nazis would make common cause with Latin America and invade America from the south. One of the initiatives to block this threat was to ask Americans to make nice with Latin America, especially its immediate neighbor, Mexico. That’s why we got things like this:

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(The cute little “Mexican” girl was the very Scottish Sharon McManus.)

Did the Good Neighbor Policy work? Well, Mexico didn’t invade, and Argentina didn’t go fascist until after the war ended, at which point it became a haven for Nazis escaping justice.

Along with Mexican music and Mexican clothes, Americans started eating Mexican food, which had the advantage of being cheap and readily obtainable with war-time rationing. It wasn’t a favorite in the Midwest, but it was seeping into American culture slowly but steadily.

And yes, in the 1980s there was TexMex. But decades before that, starting in 1951 or 1952, there was Taco-Tia — which admittedly opened in San Bernardino (the borderlands in California), but by the early 1960s had turned into Taco Bell and started spreading throughout America. My mother, an eccentric woman, refused to eat Mexican food. I therefore first had Mexican food one memorable day when I was about seven. One of my father’s former students proudly invited my father to the Taco Bell this former student now owned. The new owner gave me my first taco. That it came from Taco Bell may explain why I’ve never really been a fan of Mexican food.

So what about class and cuisine, with academia’s favor subsets of racism and discrimination? Well, aside from the Anglo’s peculiar relationship with French food, ethnic food in America has followed a consistent trajectory. New immigrants come, settle in poverty-stricken enclaves, and open restaurants that hold no real appeal to anyone, because the restaurants are as poverty-stricken as the immigrants themselves. An Irish, or Italian, or Polish, or Chinese restaurant 100 or more years ago would be in a rat-infested basement and cater to bachelor men without a wife to care for them. The ingredients would be the poorest of the poor.

Then, as those Irish and Italians and Chinese ascended the economic ladder, they took their food with them. Instead of a restaurant in a squalid tenement, they’d open it in their working class neighborhood. Instead of a dirty trestle table, there’d be a nice table, although maybe one of the legs is short and propped up on a matchbook, with a checked tablecloth. Bachelors would still eat there. The restaurant owner would save money by putting the family to work, but the ingredients would be better than they were in the tenement. The restaurant might look so nice that bachelors of different ethnicity would check it out — the Polish bachelor might try an Italian meal, especially if the price was right.

Things changed even more after the war because . . . money and the GI Bill and cars and freeways, not to mention the fact that America’s troops overseas had been exposed to foods far from the small-town Midwestern or Southern meals they knew growing up. A middle-class suburban family might go out every Friday night and could choose from a variety of affordable ethnic food: Chinese, Mexican, German, Italian, etc. And as long as it wasn’t chi-chi French, it was affordable because the family still worked for free or because the restaurant owner was able to hire the cheapest, fresh-off-the-boat labor from the home country. The same held true for the explosion of college students with money from home, hungry not only for food but also to be a little bohemian. They were too hip to be as fussy as Mom and Pop, so they might venture into the lesser part of town, with the more exotic foods and the lower prices.

Sometimes, some exceptionally gifted chef in one of these ethnic restaurants might start aiming upwards. No more checkered table cloths and empty Chianti bottles with dripping candles. Instead, it would be white damask table cloths, white-jacketed waiters, and red flocked wall paper for the carriage trade. Dress it up enough, sell yourself as something special, and even the elite will abandon their Pâté aux pommes de terre, Escargots de Bourgogne, or Rouille de seiche in favor of a to-die-for Saltimbocca alla Romana or Moscardini lessati alla genovese. Americans are an adventurous people and willing to try new things. This is especially true for the nouveau riche if one can convince them that the new things will instantly stamp them as people of exceptional wealth and discernment.

But there are also such things as niches. While a talented Chinese chef may aim for the carriage trade, it’s the wise master of Chinese cuisine who knows that catering to the masses will pay the bills. Same for Mexican food. If you price it for us, we will come and we will eat and eat and eat. It’s not about our relationship with foreign governments. It’s not about racism. It’s not about snobbery. It’s about a capitalist, free-market system that makes starting a restaurant a reasonable economic choice for immigrants and, as the immigrant and his family ascend economically, sticking with that restaurant because there’s community nearby filled with people who like affordable, delicious food, with an exotic, non-American flair.

But none of the above is anything Little Bookworm learned, nor will most other kids learn these things at their American colleges. So I tore my hair out over a frothy mass of fried air (as the Italians call meaningless, florid speech), devoid of common sense and actual facts, and aimed only at proving that, when it comes to food, the adventurous Americans who support every type of ethnic restaurant around are actually racist food snobs.

And this seems like a reasonable video with which to end this post: