Colleges are failing in civic education, in part because they don't know what to teach, or how.
Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, James M. Patterson, and Jane Shaw Stroup have provided intelligent and spirited responses to my dystopian fable on higher education. They agree with much of what my fable attested to about the sorry state of liberal arts education in the United States. Both Dr. Merrill and Ms. Stroup have identified why sane people speak of a crisis in higher education: rising costs; plummeting standards; curricular chaos; burgeoning bureaucracies; weak and inept leadership; indolent, incompetent, overspecialized, and politicized faculty; growing threats to academic freedom and freedom of expression; misallocation of resources; and a surfeit of anxiety-ridden graduates many of whom are mired in debt and with insufficient value-added to find a good job after four or more years of matriculation.
Dr. Merrill and Ms. Stroup may well be more optimistic than I am about redressing anytime soon what the late social critic Christopher Lasch called the “new illiteracy” and the “atrophy of competence” in higher education. Dr. Patterson focuses on a special problem related to its corruption: the inability of young scholars, particularly gifted right-of-center scholars, to find tenure-track jobs in an academy that, pace Dr. Patterson, does a dismal job of defending the liberal arts and all too often has in place thinly veiled litmus tests for employment.
Positive developments are occurring, says Dr. Merrill, at several institutions. But none that she mentions are elite private liberal arts colleges like the so-called “Little Ivies.” Many of the reforms will prove only cosmetic, like Hamilton College’s Common Ground series, recently established to showcase meaningful conversation between Right and Left, but to which no truly controversial right-of-center intellectual will likely ever be invited. The public relations arm can now hype a commitment to intellectual diversity—but one that is belied by the reality of campus life.
Hamilton College, I believe, is well on its way to becoming the Oberlin College of upstate New York. Nor is it likely that the right lessons will be learned from far-Left Oberlin’s current shortfall of admitted students (mentioned by Dr. Patterson). More than likely, officials will try to reform by tinkering at the edges. Deans of the faculty want to become presidents; presidents want to enjoy their ample perquisites of office rather than exhaust themselves by conducting running battles with campus activists; trustees want to protect the brand by avoiding bad publicity. Faculty activists must be confronted, but they won’t be. More likely, the powers that be will attempt to buy off left-wing troublemakers, and the tin cup that is extended after almost every controversy that erupts on campus tends to runneth over. Much easier and safer for trustees to belittle as “nut jobs” the few conservative messengers who bring the travesty of what is going on to public attention.
Don’t expect encouragement, much less a mandate, from on high to hire qualified conservative professors to redress gross intellectual imbalances at their institutions. Don’t expect Oberlin to permit a variant of Princeton’s Madison Program. Amherst may not have an out-of-the-closet conservative on its faculty now that Hadley Arkes has retired. I cannot name one recently tenured member of Hamilton’s faculty or one recently hired to a tenure-track position who would identify as right-of-center politically. Some college officials may support an on-campus oasis of excellence like the Madison Program to keep the donations of conservative alumni coming. As long as the oasis remains on the margin, so the strategic thinking goes, it can be allowed to exist and can be quite useful.
I believe the flame needs to be turned up at the institutions that have such oases to make clear that the desirable goal is curricular as well as programmatic. Funds must be targeted to create teaching positions so that the leaders of these centers, who will also need to be insulated and protected from the cloak-and-dagger of the ruling majority faction, can fill these positions with the talented but suffering scholars whom Dr. Patterson has described.
Once when an undergraduate asked me what happened to the original on-campus Alexander Hamilton Center at Hamilton College, I quipped, “The empire struck back.” Best we remember that as we gird our loins for what is ahead. From what I have experienced, up close and personal, the activist faculty vanguard, including—and we should never forget this—its allies among the trustees (hardly a stout phalanx defending the traditions and culture that have helped make them rich) will not hesitate to resort to tactics low and mean to do you in.
That said, I stand today neither bowed nor humiliated, as Dr. Patterson suggests, nor at all tempted to wave the white flag, as Dr. Merrill and Ms. Stroup suggest. Quite the contrary. Win or lose, I intend to go out on my shield. We are fighting for the lives of our children and grandchildren. Nothing less than the sustainability (forgive the cultural appropriation) of an exceptional country and of a great civilization is at stake.
Ask yourselves this question: Who do you think is happier about the current state of higher education in the United States, Middle America or America’s worst enemies? Can a strong civic culture in this country be maintained when many, perhaps most, of its elite colleges and universities not only fail to require a single American history course for graduation, but their history departments fail to require U.S. history courses of their majors? Where an open curriculum prevails, I defy anyone to take at random the nameless transcripts of 30 graduating seniors and defend them as worthy of a liberal arts education, traditionally understood.
Some years ago I interviewed more than a dozen heavy hitters in finance, law, business, and non-profits. One question asked was, “How much weight do you put on the undergraduate transcript in hiring someone?” Not one of these very successful people put much weight on it at all. They’ve learned not to trust it. Most preferred to rely on their own testing materials and interviews to assess the quality of job applicants. Increasingly, companies are asking for writing samples from applicants because there is no guarantee that even in the Ivy League, graduates will have exited with a firm grasp of the fundamentals of grammar and style.
Several said they found transcripts useful but only to the extent that they raised red flags. Why, for example, had this or that applicant avoided certain disciplines like math, science, history, or even English? Why had he or she taken so many courses that, to judge by their titles, seemed to be of such dubious academic rigor? As long as the brand holds, elite colleges will attract intelligent applicants. But a high school senior’s intelligence does not necessarily translate into intellectuality, erudition, or high performance in college. At many elite institutions, a steady dose of critical theory for at least some of the students who are warehoused in various “studies” programs, created because leaders lacked the backbone to say “No,” seems to be equipping students for life with a nihilistic nescience. No one should assume that the Brown University or Hamilton College graduate of an open curriculum has experienced a broader, deeper education than, say, the Thomas Aquinas graduate of a core curriculum. No one should assume that four or more years at the highest ranked colleges and universities have strengthened the character of the graduate.
Indeed, what I see at many liberal arts colleges among a disturbing number of students is a deadly combination of arrogance and ignorance. Undergraduates who have never taken a truly demanding course in college—no science, no math, no economics, no history—haranguing everyone within earshot about how they should live their lives and berating them even more pointedly if they utter a peep of protest.
Unfortunately, only a small minority of colleges and universities signed on to the University of Chicago’s principles of free expression that Dr. Merrill mentioned. One would hope that more alumni would be raising hell about their almae matres’ quiescence in this matter. At the same time, leaders of college and universities across the country are becoming concerned about the terrible anxieties that are afflicting our precious snowflakes. The swelling educratic bureaucracy at the most affluent places fosters the infantilization of students. On a weekly basis, I get more emails at my institution from the “wellness” instructor than from any other staff person. During last semester’s final exam period, I noticed in the library available for students to relieve their hardships stuffed animals, puzzles, dolls, cookies, and milk. The only palliative missing seemed to be a box of Pampers.
Lest we forget, we live in the age of the “selfie.” On this point, Christopher Lasch, for whom I served as a teaching assistant in 1979, when his best-selling The Culture of Narcissism earned him a trip to Jimmy Carter’s White House, addressed the cultural causes of the problems that Dr. Patterson laid out. Wrote Lasch:
The new narcissist is haunted not by guilt but by anxiety. . . . Liberated from the superstitions of the past, he doubts even the reality of his own existence. Superficially relaxed and tolerant, he finds little use for dogma of racial and ethnic purity but at the same time forfeits the security of group loyalties and regards everyone as a rival for the favors conferred by a paternalistic state. His sexual attitudes are permissive rather than puritanical . . . . He extols cooperation and teamwork while harboring deep antisocial impulses. He praises respect for rules and regulations in the secret belief that they do not apply to himself. Acquisitive in the sense that his cravings have no limits, he does not accumulate goods and provisions against the future, in the manner of the acquisitive individualist of nineteenth-century political economy, but demands immediate gratification and lives in a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire.
One of the above-mentioned interviews I conducted was with a Horatio Alger-like individual who had risen from Appalachian poverty to build an empire in construction, technology, and horse-breeding. He told me that the one question he asks each applicant for a job with his firm is: “What adversity have you overcome?”
On that score, Dr. Patterson paints a far too rosy picture of what life was like for graduate students in history and other humanities in the late 1970s and early 1980s. When my wife-to-be announced to her father that she was going to marry a history graduate student, he shouted “This is a disaster!” Economic growth might improve the job market, as it did during the Reagan years, but Dr. Patterson does not exaggerate the terrible toll taken on those millennials who have attained PhDs in outstanding graduate programs under superlative mentors, only to find a secure job in academe on which to build a viable family life a pipe dream. I am working right now to help find stable employment for several brilliant young conservative professors, all married, also outstanding teachers, who have subsisted on a diet of nothing but one-year appointments.
By the way, I haven’t noticed any shortage of openings in academic administration, or of tenure-track jobs for specialists in race, gender, or sexuality. Given the social justice and diversity language increasingly used in job advertisements throughout the humanities, the odds against conservative professors or, better said, professors whose work scents of conservativism, obtaining one of those coveted tenure-track positions, are prohibitively high. The game is rigged.
One final point about Dr. Patterson’s response: Hamilton College has no faculty senate, and although a supermajority of the faculty buckled the knees of the president by voting 77 to 17 to demand a do-over of the original agreement that established an on-campus Alexander Hamilton Center, the decisive blow was leveled by certain elements of the college’s board of trustees—an unprecedented intervention in the history of Hamilton College for what was a programmatic, not a curricular, initiative.