Campus Unrest Is Really About Power, Not Justice

Everyone knows the probably-apocryphal story about Gandhi, when asked what he thought about Western Civilization, responding that it “would be a good idea.” Could the same be said of the “radical” university? At least as far back as living memory takes us, the university campus has occupied a unique role in American culture as the prime locus of societal upheaval.

“Tenured radicals” preach the gospel of skepticism towards middle class values while coddled students, just barely out from under their parents’ wing, rebel against a world they don’t yet understand. In the Sixties this might have meant occupying (or bombing) ROTC buildings. Now we’re more likely to see signs delineating safe spaces alongside guest speakers being shouted down. But one senses, along with the decades-long continuity of self-aggrandizement and posturing, that perhaps this campus culture of revolt taken as a whole isn’t so radical after all. Perhaps professors and students both are complicit in defending a sort of cultural status quo. Perhaps they’re the unwitting vanguard of a banal and repressive cultural hegemony.

For all the iconoclastic destruction of symbolic representations of the past, such as Yale changing the name of its residential dorms or Princeton students demanding the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from various buildings, the question always remains: why stop there? Isn’t the school itself—its organizational structure as much as its architecture—tainted by its legacy? Indeed, aren’t most university campuses memorials writ large for oppressors past? Why not demand an entirely new school? Or no school at all?

The most interesting aspect of campus faux radicalism isn’t the charge that they’ve “gone too far” but interpreting what it means that they stop where they do. Objects are destroyed. Demands are leveled. But the institution itself rolls along, usually metastasizing. What this suggests is that the drama of these protests unfolds along a predetermined course and the ends it serves are radical in name only. In tying the logic of the campus protest so tightly to the university system itself—making demands that only the university can answer to, usually granting the administration with even more power in order to arbitrate the problems of the day and meet the demands of the students—what this campus unrests serves to actually do is expand the authority and power of the university itself.

Surprisingly or not, we can look to Friedrich Nietzsche, the often-unacknowledged predecessor of so many post-Foucaltean Leftists, to better understand our own situation. He faced a similar one in his own time. The issue for Nietzsche could be boiled down to the difference between Bildung and Wissenschaft, both words difficult to translate into English but with the approximate meaning of full character formation versus bureaucratized and hyper-specialized scholarship , respectively. The Prussian education system of Nietzsche’s time had decayed from a bold institutional experiment which invigorated German culture into a sort of administrative cargo cult where scholars and students merely went through the motions.

The result was a short-sightedness, “slavery to the present.” In his Anti-Education, a story based around a series of fictionalized lectures written when Nietzsche himself was a young teacher, we have Nietzsche describing a situation not all too dissimilar from our own: a metastasizing educational bureaucracy deadening the truly radical promise of classical education with its banal touch. And what’s more, Nietzsche observes that the very “educational crises” caused in large part by the institutionalization of learning is articulated in such a way by the university system that it appears as if more of the same is the only answer. He writes:

Given all this, who could possibly doubt that the exercise stamps each rising generation with everything that ails our literary and artistic public sphere: the hasty overproduction driven by self-regard; the shameful churning out of books; the complete lack of style; immature formulations that miserably sprawl or lack character altogether; the loss of any aesthetic canon; the reveling in anarchy and chaos . . . .

You might suspect that Nietzsche had been writing about our own educational system. In order to further explore this suspicion, it’s useful to try to imagine what a truly radical university might look like.

One could do worse than turn to Ivan Illich, the radical priest and author whose ideas and practical suggestions for Western society deserve more attention. In his book Deschooling Society, we’re given a truly radical vision of education in that it courageously follows its own intellectual premise to their own logical ends. In defending education, Illich sees schools themselves as the main hindrance to learning. Why? Because “school reserves instruction to those whose every step in learning fits previous approved measures of control.” Much as Nietzsche suspected about his own time, Illich claims that instead of being a source of Bildung, the modern American educational system has instead become a process of administrative control via certification. He writes that learning isn’t promoted by schools because

educators insist on packaging instruction with certification. Learning and the assignment of social roles are melted into schooling. Yet to learn means to acquire a new skill or insight while promotion depends on an opinion which others have formed. Learning frequently is the result of instruction, but selection for a role or category in the job market increasingly depends on mere length of attendance.

Illich concludes that the most reasonable course of action in the defense of education is to replace schools with independent educational communities. In other words, he calls for the abolition of the university system itself—something a bit more radical than shouting down a guest a speaker or demanding the removal of artwork.

It’s strange that so many radicals who might otherwise call for the destruction of institutions like prison or political borders stop short of the educational administrative state. It again prompts the question: why stop here? Why make the exception of building an ideological firewall around educational institutions while almost all others get slated for demolition?

The question, of course, almost answers itself. At least since Rousseau, the left has sought social and political power through the forced and routinized education of the young. It’s a power grab. Even worse, it works so well that it’s ideologically captured the agents of its implementation. Illich writes that “Many self-styled revolutionaries are victims of schools. They see even ‘liberation’ as the product of institutional process. Only liberating oneself from school will dispel such illusions. The discovery that most learning requires no teaching can be neither manipulated nor planned.”

If we took Illich seriously, we might understand that a truly radical university would be one which abolished itself. After all, if learning can happen, and can actually happen more effectively—and to the consternation of doctrinaire educators, more unpredictably—outside of school, why defend the system we have? Someone who is truly radical wouldn’t seek out the university at all but cultivate a learning community outside of it.

Real world examples of learning communities outside of institutionalized education aren’t difficult to come by. In fact, as Illich points out, most learning has always happened outside of schools—especially in America, especially now. His own example comes from 1956, when there arose from the New York Archdiocese a need to teach Spanish to a large number of social workers and ministers very quickly. An open call went out over the radio in Harlem. Illich describes the results:

Next day some two hundred teenagers lined up outside of [Gerry Morris’] office, and he selected four dozen of them—many of them high school dropouts. He trained them in the use of the U.S. Foreign Service Institute (FSI) Spanish manual, designed for use by linguists with graduate training, and within a week his teachers were on their own—each in charge of four New Yorkers who wanted to speak the language. Within six months the mission was accomplished. Cardinal Spellman could claim that he had 127 parishes in which at least three staff members could communicate in Spanish. No school program could have matched these results.

Examples of de-institutionalized education abound, from various homeschooling projects to collective online learning to local book clubs. Each of these, in certain ways, is more radical than even the most dramatically Leftist campus just by virtue of having already detangled learning itself from the larger institutional concerns of academia—and even more by leaving space for individual discovery of the love of learning.

Would radical education be a good idea? Perhaps in some ways it would. What does seem obvious enough though, is that the campus turmoil so representative of the spirit of the university in the Anglophone world doesn’t represent anything particularly radical or particularly new. As thinkers like Nietzsche and Illich have taught us, the colorful spirit of campus revolt is really in many ways the means through which institutionalized education tightens its stranglehold on the faux-revolutionary imagination. Perhaps the real worry, as Illich writes, is that the hidebound logic of bureaucratic education slips its bounds and tries to foist its banalities on larger culture:

At some time in the last two generations a commitment to therapy triumphed in American culture, and teachers came to be regarded as the therapists whose ministrations all men need, if they wish to enjoy the equality and freedom with which, according to the Constitution, they are born. Now the teacher-therapists go on to propose life-long educational treatment as the next step.

An education, no doubt, standardized and certified by the university-educational complex, complete with therapeutic sensitivity training and top notch customer service. But one that is therefore entirely dictated by the social control mechanisms of an elite governing class with more fealty to conveying doctrinaire ideology than actually getting down to the often radical business of educating. It would seem, in fact, that their institutionalized control mechanisms would, as Nietzsche suggested, completely defang the essentially wild nature of learning while also diluting its seriousness. Perhaps at this point the most radical course of action a student could take would be to stop demanding things of the university itself; perhaps the most subversive act is to learn without the authoritarian “assistance” of the typical modern university.

Reader Discussion

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on January 03, 2019 at 11:31:31 am

Excellent points! Seems all campus protests lead to is an expanded campus bureaucracy. Protests against racial and social injustice leads to an Office of Multicultural Affairs that hires a staff who seek out more social injustice and has an interests in making sure more student protests are generated. It becomes banal. At my university, after a year or so of low-level turmoil on race issues, we were all required to add this statement to all our syllabi:

"Ball State University aspires to be a university that attracts and retains a diverse faculty, staff, and student body. We are committed to ensuring that all members of the community are welcome, through valuing the various experiences and worldviews represented at Ball State and among those we serve. We promote a culture of respect and civil discourse as expressed in our Beneficence Pledge and through university resources found at: http://cms.bsu.edu/campuslife/multiculturalcenter"

I was in the faculty senate at the time this was adopted (I voted no) although the statement is itself rather banal and innocuous. Seems to me silly--and is just an advertisement for the MultiCultural Center. Yet I can assure you that a great deal of time and emotional energy went into its construction. I voted no, not because I particularly object to it-- but because I don't think the Senate or Administration should be dictating what is on a syllabus. I also added to all my syllabi: "The first amendment of the US Constitution applies in this class." The best I can tell is that students ignore both statements.

I like the idea that liberal education that examines philosophy, religion, theology, literature, history, economics, psychology, sociology, may best be provided by a "learning community"-- small groups of people who examine Great Ideas because they want to. Kind of what St. Johns does-- and many "life-long" learner groups do. IHS and Koch Foundation supports lots of this kind of activity on campuses, although from you read in the mainstream press you'd never know it. However, widespread adoption of that model would certainly unemploy LOTS of college and university employees--so I suspect it will not occur.


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Cecil E Bohanon
on January 03, 2019 at 12:25:42 pm

Excellent and insightful analysis - yet, it is a commonplace. (this is not intended as an insult, BTW).

ALL institutions (excepting, of course, Congress) seek to advance / enhance their institutional objectives and prerogatives. guided by *clever* AND ambitious functionaries, they have proven quite adept at capitalizing on any and all manner of "crises."
They have taken to heart the leftists' dictum: "Never let a crisis go to waste."

Again, I resubmit my proposal of banning attendance at university until at least two years of either public or private work experience. As the essayist asserts: why send a child, clueless about the world, into this nest of vipers, who, like Eden's fabled snake promise knowledge but deliver delusion.

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on January 03, 2019 at 13:53:23 pm

Heck, I may be on to something here:


wherein we find Gen Z (whatever that is. What comes next, BTW) trending toward "trade schools."

I.m luvvin' it!

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on January 03, 2019 at 16:37:08 pm

This post is a tired and tiresome regurgitation of the same old anti-academic rhetoric we’ve been hearing from the Right for the last thirty years. The message doesn’t become more persuasive for having been repeated ten thousand and one times. Can Law & Liberty not do better than this? Is this why I’ve so far permitted your unsolicited invasion of my inbox? One more of these, and I click “unsubscribe.”

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Irfan Khawaja
on January 04, 2019 at 11:26:25 am

So, CLICK already!

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gargamel rules smurfs
on January 04, 2019 at 16:39:58 pm

I'd suggest more on the order of four years rather than two. Today's persons are too insulated from life's vagaries to have to deal with anything of real substance in just two years. Four gives more opportunity for true life lessons to be learnt.

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on January 04, 2019 at 17:43:05 pm

make my day

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on January 05, 2019 at 15:28:14 pm

Mr. Beauchamp’s article “Campus Unrest is Really About Power, Not Justice” presents evidence that suggests a quite different conclusion. Beauchamp is surprised that students (“coddled students”) and their “tenured radical” teachers do not seek to destroy the university root and branch. He attributes this to complacency and the enjoyment of bourgeois privilege. They are radical poseurs “defending a sort of cultural status quo.”

Perhaps the restraint that Mr. Beauchamp sees in students and teachers is not hypocrisy, but an admirably Burkean respect for institutions long established. If Mr. Beauchamp is correct in writing that “At least as far back as living memory takes us, the university campus has occupied a unique role in American culture as the prime locus of societal upheaval,” then perhaps profoundly radical students recognize it as an enduring force for change. Perhaps they think it would be unwise to destroy institutions that have contributed to political and social, as well as scientific, revolutions.

Mr. Beauchamp writes that “coddled students, just barely out from under their parents’ wing, rebel against a world they don’t yet understand” but stop before they seek the destruction, root and branch, of their colleges and universities. He believes them to be arrogant and interested. Perhaps they have learned the first Platonic lesson. Perhaps they know that they don’t know. Perhaps their restraint is evidence that he himself errs in the arrogance he ascribes to them -and perhaps in his own claim to understand the world.

I am, I suppose, what Mr. Beauchamp would call a “tenured radical.” (I think Mr. Beauchamp would find my radical credentials unimpeachable, but I will not trouble you by reciting them.) I begin each of my American Political Thought classes with a reading of Edmund Burke. I begin there out of my respect for Burke, and Burkean conservatism, and I hope that at least some of my students will share my regard for Burke’s thinking. I have taught a number of courses on Conservative Thought. I teach some people I regard critically (Ayn Rand, for example) but for the most part I choose people whose work I admire: Burke, Benjamin Disraeli, Russell Kirk, C.S. Lewis, the Southern Agrarians, the and (on some occasions) country music lyricists. I teach these people with respect and affection.

Like the other tenured radicals I call my friends (and, to use Walt Whitman’s term, camarados) I advise conservative graduate students, direct them to conservative foundations when appropriate, and recommend them to fellowships sponsored by conservative institutions. I trust (and my trust has been largely repaid) that my recommendations will be read and received in a scholarly rather than partisan spirit. Some of my students have gone on to serve in conservative institutions and administrations. I attend talks by conservative speakers and welcome opportunities to talk with conservatives and other people on the right, in both scholarly venues, and private conversations.

This is what the academy looks like. Radicals who teach conservatives. Conservatives, like many of my teachers, who raise up radicals. We find common ground in learning. Like all good “post-Foucaltean [sic] Leftists” I too read Nietzsche. In the Gay Science he wrote
All those who go on their own way
Carry my image too into the breaking day.

There is some common ground between me and Mr. Beauchamp too. I explicitly disavow trigger warnings (if you teach politics seriously to diverse and cosmopolitan students, nearly everything would require such a warning.) I tend to agree that contemporary students are a bit coddled. I would note, however, that the coddling is not simply of the left. Conservative students are lavishly funded by conservative organizations. Conservative students, and on occasion (but only on occasion), objects of conservative evangelism are fêted with lavish dinners and receptions. They hold meetings where attendance is restricted, eager to secure their own “safe spaces.” I was once loudly challenged when I appeared (at the invitation of the speaker) at a Princeton seminar sponsored by Witherspoon Institute “What is she doing here?” There are no corollaries on the left, which has never been a source of festive largess for students (or faculty.) Is this coddling? Yes. Do I object? No. I would, of course, like to see the seminars more open.

The portrait of the academy that Mr. Beauchamp offers is a silly bogeyman, promulgated by the vulgar imaginations of talk show hosts and given a thin veneer of veracity by the bitter and the opportunistic.

Conservatives should not be eager to flock to the banner of Ivan Illich or to seek to escape “if learning can happen, and can actually happen more effectively—and to the consternation of doctrinaire educators, more unpredictably—outside of school, why defend the system we have?” Having confronted both the limits of my own efforts at private learning, and the errant arrogance of autodidacts, I think there is considerable evidence that cultic learning communities have their vices as well as their virtues. I see, every day, how much “wild” and “unpredictable learning” rises from reading, in an ordinary classroom, the canon of political philosophy. These diverse forms of learning are, however, not mutually exclusive. Learn where you will. Learn from your priest, your rabbi, the organizer in the Union Hall and the preacher on the street corner. Learn where you can.

The academy itself, though it has many failings, is still a place where students confront people and ideas of all kinds. It is a place of quotidian courage, where people dare to confront ideas they fear, and put their own beliefs at hazard, every day. It is a place where most people have a sense of honor and look for the truth without fear or favor. We disagree, often passionately, but we listen. That is learning. We do this because we love learning, but most of us also hope that learning will lead to the building of a more just world. We disagree about the contours of that world, to be sure, but here too we have learned that we may come to think differently. Do we seek power? Of course. Pace the critics of the Ivory Tower, we hope to bring learning to the world at large. Learning seeks both power and justice, for justice requires power to remake the world

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Anne Norton
on January 08, 2019 at 08:02:48 am

Response to Dr. Norton: "Fools rush in where wise men fear to tread" comes to mind as I write here.

I am informed through a "google" search that you are a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, holding the Chair of the Department of Political Science. You are a published author. You have posted your comment at this site as a scholar among other distinguished scholars. Your words and credentials inspire respect.,

I, on the other hand, am for the most part an "autodidact". If I am guilty of "errant arrogance", I am not aware of this defect, although I do suffer from the opposite trait and often lack courage necessary to engage in discussion.

In this context I am posting my unsystematic response, that of a "plain person" to your comment:

The University of Pennsylvania Department of Political Science, as described by you (and perhaps you intend to describe the entire academic community) is free of the blight of a new "hegemonic discourse" that has settled upon some departments at other universities, that is the "meteoric rise of intersectional critical theory", as that theory is described by Professor Charles C. Camosy in a post appearing at churchlife.nd.edu.

Prof. Camosy's understanding of this new theory originates in his work in moral theology. He does however mention the fact that "Intersectionality discourse does not merely dominate academic conferences and journals - it norms administrations, classrooms, and student life at our most prestigious universities."

His "portrait of the academy" is subject to criticism such as you present here but surely it does not present a "silly bogeyman" nor is it "promulgated by the vulgar imaginations of talk show hosts and given a thin veneer of veracity by the bitter and the opportunistic. It seems to me - as a respectful onlooker of his and your points of view - quite the opposite.

Much could be said. I will attempt to address only one point, that of "power" as you see it being used to "bring learning to the world at large" and as he sees it "deployed liberally in intersectional circles to discipline and punish those who do dissent or deviate from intersectional critical theory".

Those outside the world of the academy will benefit from your explanation (and those of others who are within) as to the difficult question of "Whose justice?" will inform those who seek to gain "power to remake the world".

I read that you "hope that learning will lead to the building of a more just world". Evidence exists that such a desire has misfired in the past and has produced the opposite of the intentions of its adherents. The desire for power, given the fact that "we disagree about the contours of that world" is a fraught topic. How can freedom of thought be preserved when power to enforce the contours of one particular ideology includes power to systematically exclude those who are in disagreement ? Where will they present and argue their point of view? Will they be relegated to the shadows? Will they be thereby encouraged to act wrongly?

I am reminded of John Henry Newman's words, speaking of England in the time of Elizabeth": "One might notice a person, head down, eyes lowered, passing quickly by. 'He is a Roman Catholic would be the explanation' - quotation from memory is inexact to a fault but it conveys his meaning.

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on January 14, 2019 at 07:16:46 am

[…] Seemingly related, from Scott Beauchamp, […]

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Business plan for a new elite university | askblog
on March 17, 2019 at 10:02:56 am

Scott, Thank you for your sacrifice and service to our Country and protecting us from those who desire to do us harm.

“ ‘He is a Roman Catholic would be the explanation’. “

It is important to note, that Charles C. Camosy, “portrait of the Academy”, is erroneous in that it fails to recognize that even a plauralistic society, that desires to render onto Caesar, what belongs to God, will always end with tyranny.
God, The Most Holy, And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, Is The Author Of Love, Of Life, And Of Marriage.
“When God is denied, human dignity disappears.” - Pope Benedict XVI Christmas Address 2012.


It is a misrepresentation of our Catholic Faith to suggest that there is a division in The Catholic Faith between Liberals and Conservatives, as a Catholic must first and foremost, be Faithful to the entire Deposit Of Faith. (see Catholic Canon 750 which affirms that “It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion”, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost.)

One cannot deny the essence of being a son or daughter, brother or sister, husband or wife, father or mother, without denying the essence of God, nor can one reorder man according to sexual desire/inclination/orientation, in direct violation of God’s Commandment regarding lust and the sin of adultery, in order to condone sexual acts that necessarily deny the Sanctity of the marital act, which is Life-affirming and Life-sustaining, and can only be consummated between a man and woman, united in marriage as husband and wife.

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on September 13, 2019 at 16:17:15 pm

Forgot all about this until now, but I did unsubscribe.

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Irfan Khawaja

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.