This Isn’t the Way to Set the Leaning Tower Straight

In 2009, after writing for decades about the animus toward elementary and secondary school curricula rich in culturally necessary—meaning, largely Western—content, E.D. Hirsch published a book called The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools. There the Core Knowledge founder, while lamenting its powerful turn against content, lionized public schooling, the very system that almost completely rejected his views.

Establishment education was dominated by a “thoughtworld,” Hirsch had previously written, an impenetrable barrier of group-think that treated content knowledge as oppressive. Not surprisingly, Hirsch had seen significantly more success in getting his Core Knowledge curricula into largely autonomous private and charter schools than into traditional publics. His 2009 book nonetheless defended the system that had rejected his ideas, and he eventually supported the federally coerced Common Core, a nearly content-free set of curriculum standards that paid only lip service to the importance of content. He seemed unable to avoid supporting government control of education, no matter how minuscule his influence over it versus that of his adversaries.

Wrong Solution

The same problem lies at the heart of Warren Treadgold’s The University We Need: Reforming American Higher Education. Treadgold bemoans the state of academia today, with its hostility to rigorous scholarship, especially of the dead-white-male variety, in favor of identity-driven, truth-denying postmodernism. Yet the antidote he calls for involves an unprecedented centralization of higher education, especially to assert influence over whom colleges employ. His thinking, like Hirsch’s, defies logic. It may also be with Treadgold, as it is with Hirsch, that he believes the fundamental structure of higher education is good and should be preserved.

The book, importantly, isn’t primarily about government policy but about problems in the scholarly work of American universities. It doesn’t cover in depth issues like high tuition prices or student debt loads, but rather what professors are teaching, how well they are teaching it, and the quality of their research.

These are not unplumbed depths—see William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale (1951), or the daily work of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute—but they are probably of especially powerful interest to a conservative academic who studied medieval history and literature and is an expert on Byzantium. Treadgold also has experience at a broad swath of institutions, including undergraduate and doctoral days at Harvard; teaching at elite research universities such as UCLA and Stanford; toiling at public and private institutions of lesser renown, such as Florida International and his current Saint Louis University; working at Michigan’s Hillsdale College, (a conservative bastion about which he does not have especially flattering things to say); and doing research fellow stints at two German universities. If anyone should know most of the rooms in the Ivory Tower, it’s Treadgold.

He observes that colleges and universities, with vanishingly few exceptions, are awash in a sort of rigor-free postmodernism and generic “leftism,” and subject to whatever is “the latest intellectual fad”:

Instead of facts, postmodernists spoke of “narratives” and “discourse,” which were imposed by means of power, whether just or unjust. Oppressors tried to impose their own unjust narratives and discourse to serve their own evil interests, but the oppressed and their defenders could combat it with their own narratives and discourse, which since they were just could not be refuted by appeals to logical arguments or facts. In theory postmodernism could be applied to almost any topic, from climate change to ancient Greece, as long as someone could identify the classes of oppressors and oppressed and could either make analogies with present oppression or trace present injustices to past injustices.

The author is far from alone in lamenting liberal dominance of the professoriate. But it is difficult to get a concrete read here on how repressive the resulting atmosphere actually is on most campuses. Sure, there are troubling examples of repression, but how many incidents do we know about because they are actually outliers—ordinary occurrences aren’t typically newsworthy—and media outlets like Fox News shine glaring spotlights on them, possibly giving an exaggerated sense of how bad things are? The author does not cite surveys or other broad gauges of student or faculty views, largely just repeating that colleges are tough places for conservatives, or just the intellectually serious of any political stripe.

Where Treadgold especially evokes thoughts of Hirsch is in his main proposals to set the leaning tower straight: new federal intervention, in the form of a National Dissertation Review Board and a National Academic Honesty Board. The honesty board is slightly less concerning: It would “judge claims of plagiarism or fraud in dissertations and academic publications.” But the dissertation board would do no less than put the feds in charge of grading all American doctoral dissertations. Every college participating in federal student aid programs—essentially every doctorate-granting institution—would have to “submit to the Dissertation Review Board in electronic form every dissertation accepted for a doctorate.” This would, according to Treadgold, ameliorate “the problems of an unbalanced academic job market, chaotic academic hiring, and inferior teaching and research.” 

There are hints in here of a command economy for academics—though Treadgold does not specify concrete ramifications for the dissertation grades. His idea relies on shaming, by seeing to it that published evaluations could be used to judge schools, programs, and graduates. Establish such a board, though, and it would probably only be a matter of time before some “get tough” politician sought to attach punishments to low grades. 

Treadgold is silent on who would appoint the director and 20 full-time senior members of each of his envisioned boards, suggesting only that these bodies “could be attached to the Department of Education or the Library of Congress, or they could simply become independent government agencies.” All of these have consequences too great to be so casually proposed. 

For one thing, like all federal education governance, these would be unconstitutional; the Constitution only gives the feds specific, enumerated powers, and authority over education is not among them. Setting constitutionality aside (as we so often do), if the Education Department were in charge, the make-up of the boards would likely change with the occupant of the White House, whipsawing its evaluations to the left or right as secretaries appointed members who shared their politics. The Library of Congress, moreover, has no experience in conducting—or authority to conduct—evaluations of anything, including dissertations. Finally, if the boards were independent agencies, dominance by the status quo—the leftwing faculty Treadgold so opposes—would almost certainly be solidified, not surmounted. 

What Price for “Enlightened Intervention”?

Treadgold offers little to refute these objections. He introduces his ideas by saying that we need “enlightened intervention” by Washington, but it’s not clear if he means that creating these two  boards would be enlightened, or that the feds would have to continuously infuse enlightenment into the boards. Either one seems a triumph of hope over experience. 

As James Madison so understatedly wrote in Federalist 10, “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm” of government, hence hope for sustained, enlightened action is unrealistic. On a slightly more practical level, Treadgold suggests that the review board and appointed dissertation referees would not know the sex or the race of the writers, hence no automatic diversity preference, and they “should be able to see through a dissertation that merely parroted a fashionable ideology.” But based on Treadgold’s own description of the situation in the academy, many faculty would likely view “fashionable ideology” as essential to worthy scholarship. The main bulwark he offers against this is that referees should be heavily drawn from the ranks of retired professors.

Far better is Treadgold’s proposal to create a top-flight university that would be hospitable to conservative and moderate scholars. The aspiration would be for such an institution to eventually wield a level of influence akin to Harvard or Stanford, and the author has many interesting ideas for the particulars. These include placing the institution near but not in a major city, lest the city overshadow the school; having all single-occupancy dorms, which is conducive to quiet study; and having actual, not campus, police and courts handle any accusations of criminal activity.  

Creating the thing you want makes much more sense than trying to revolutionize a massive system in which those holding your views comprise an anemic minority. But there are still problems with this idea. 

First, it is not entirely clear that starting a school from scratch would be preferable to trying to improve and elevate an already existing institution. While the list of conservative-friendly universities is short, Treadgold discusses one that is already elite and at least relatively open to conservative ideas: the University of Chicago, though being located in Chicago violates the outside-the-major-city rule. Another institution that Treadgold discusses is Baylor University which, though not of the prestige level of the U of C, is a nationally recognized brand and within striking distance of—but not actually in—Dallas/Fort Worth.

More perplexing than the decision to start from scratch is the author’s hope that any conservative-leaning university could achieve a status roughly on par with Harvard or, frankly, any highly ranked university. If academia is dominated by people on the Left, then largely trafficking in leftist ideas will likely be necessary to attain peak prestige. Couple that with liberal dominance of the media, and the odds of a conservative-leaning university’s joining the elites seem remote.  

Why Not Cut to the Chase: Federal Student Aid

What Treadgold does not call for is the one thing that would impose serious discipline on academia: phasing out federal student aid and, hence, requiring institutions to earn the business of people who are paying with their own funds or those they receive voluntarily from others. He does helpfully suggest conditioning federal student loans on a prospective borrower’s demonstrated ability to do college-level work. But higher education has become monstrously bloated in large part due to lots of students buying things—from water parks to hollow classes—using other people’s money. 

Why this omission? Perhaps because, as unhappy as Treadgold is with the state of higher ed, he believes in its potential to enlighten students and society. There is also reason to fear that fields such as Byzantine Studies might disappear should people have to shell out more of their own cash for college, increasing their need to obtain “marketable skills.” Of course, many fields of study without immediate labor-force applications have intrinsic intellectual value, but supporting those endeavors should probably be the role of philanthropists, not taxpayers. 

Worries about academia’s marginalization of solid scholarship and of conservatives are understandable, but centralizing influence over whose ideas are propounded in the universities would be dangerous. Creating a better university makes more sense, but is unlikely to be revolutionary. Realistically, conservatives should accept that the Ivory Tower will be inhospitable for the foreseeable future, and they should focus on good public policy no matter who is in charge. In other words, require higher education to earn its bread.