The regrettable decline of higher learning
What do campus microaggressions, safe spaces, trigger warnings, speech codes and censorship have to do with higher learning?
American universities want it both ways. They expect unquestioned subsidized support from the public, but also to operate in a way impossible for anyone else.
Colleges still wear the ancient clothes of higher learning. Latin mottos, caps and gowns, ivy-covered spires and high talk of liberal education reflect a hallowed intellectual tradition.
In fact, today’s campuses mimic ideological boot camps. Tenured professors seek to indoctrinate young people in certain preconceived progressive political agendas. Environmental studies classes are not very open to debating the “settled science” of man-caused, carbon-induced global warming — or the need for immediate and massive government intervention to address it. Grade-conscious and indebted students make the necessary ideological adjustments.
Few sociological courses celebrate the uniquely American assimilationist melting pot. Race, class and gender agenda courses — along with thousands of “studies” courses — have been invented. A generation of politicized professors has made the strange argument that they alone have discovered all sorts of critical new disciplines of knowledge — apparently unknown for 2,500 years — to ensure that graduates would be better educated than ever before.
Universities have lost their commitment to the inductive method. Preconceived anti-Enlightenment theories are established as settled fact and part of career promotion. Evidence is made to fit these unquestioned assumptions.
Two unfortunate results have predictably followed.
Students now leave campus largely prepped by their professors to embrace a predictable menu: the glories of larger government, income redistribution, greater entitlements, radical environmentalism, abortion, multiculturalism, suspicion of traditional religion, and antipathy to the international role of the United States in the past and present.
Unfortunately, this costly indoctrination comes at the expense of what is increasingly less taught: traditional mastery of foreign languages, great works of literature, philosophy, history, mastery of grammar and composition, and the Socratic method.
Careerism often drives campus politics. If poor, minority or first-generation college students could obtain the traditional tools of success — English and mathematic literacy, acquaintance with American history and protocols, oral and written language mastery — they would succeed as individuals without need for the college industry of collective victimology that assumes a permanent lack of parity.
Employers and the adult world no longer equate a bachelor’s degree with proof of a well-rounded education. Yet chastised universities usually oppose any objective measurement of their effectiveness. They certainly want federally insured student loans, but they do not want proof of their competency through national exit tests, which might help ensure that all graduates leave college able to compute, read and write well. How odd that standardized tests are permissible to judge entering students but not to certify exiting ones.
Colleges are schizophrenic in lots of other ways. They claim they are special institutions that should be free to form their own curricula, enjoy ancient rites such as faculty tenure, not worry much how much they charge students or treat part-time faculty, and establish radical new legal protocols that run contrary to the Constitution.
When colleges create “safe spaces” designated by race and gender, they butt up against U.S. law. Assuming the guilt rather than innocence of students accused of bad behavior does not stand up in court.
Most Americans who work in a mall or shop are not awarded lifelong guaranteed employment. Nor are our newspapers censored with “trigger warnings” in fear that readers might become hurt by depressing news stories.
Universities ask the public to subsidize these strange rituals by making endowments tax-exempt. The government extends federally guaranteed loans and ensures write-offs for charitable giving.
In the past, there was a clear bargain. The university said, “Leave us alone to do our business that we know best, and we promise to turn out the best-educated and most inductive generation of American youth.”
Universities are now breaking their word. Students, if they even graduate (about four in 10 do not, even after six years), are not “universally” educated. Instead, they are the least prepared yet most politicized graduates in memory. Arrogance and ignorance are a bad combination.
If the university cannot fulfill its original compact of broadly educating youth while keeping within bounds of American laws and protocols, then it will either have to change or slowly become irrelevant.
The market is already sensing a void — and thus opportunity. Online degree programs proliferate. Private vocational and trade schools sprout up around college campuses. Even Ivy League degrees have become mostly empty brand names, like Gucci or Versace, that convey status and open doors but hardly guarantee that graduates are knowledgeable or inductive thinkers.
All of these growing alternatives to borrowing a collective $1 trillion for university education reflect that it may not only be a bad deal, but a rigged one as well.
(Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of “The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern” You can reach him by e-mailing [email protected].)
Victor Davis Hanson