Election 2008: The University's Long Shadow

Peter Wood

Congratulations to President-elect Barack Obama. The National Association of Scholars looks forward to working with your administration to improve American higher education.  

We expect we will differ with you on some points, but on one essential point we sense common ground. You understand the profound importance of higher education. And your election underscores that the ideas and attitudes fostered by the academy have consequences for the larger culture. So too the pattern of motivation laid down in years of schooling and the view of the world that comes to seem compellingly true because it is backed by both intellectual authority and shared experience. 

We have long been critical of the widespread failure to realize the deep significance of what happens in higher education among those who give lip service to traditional values. It is too soon to know whether this election cycle will shake tendencies to trivialize the importance of those years in the lives of young men and women when they first encounter thoughtful discourse about the nature of human society, but a reassessment is certainly overdue.  For many students, college sets in place their sense of what the larger world is really like. They have the opportunity to examine—critically—matters that at earlier stages of their lives seemed simply true and in need of no argument.    It is the time and place in the lives of many when they decide once and for all which of the great narratives will be their own.

Will it be the diversity narrative? That’s the one that emphasizes that who we are most fundamentally depends on our race, ethnicity, gender, and that our nation’s history is mainly a matter of identity groups overcoming their oppression. Will it be the cosmopolitan narrative?   That’s the one that emphasizes a personal liberation from the small-minded, parochial views of our natal communities, and one’s new identity as a “citizen of the world.”   Contemporary college life offers several other great narratives.   Sustainability is the newest.   That’s the one in which we find our life’s work in forestalling the impending ruination of earth caused by the heedless exploitation of the older generations.  

Somewhere far down the list of possibilities is the narrative that emphasizes the exceptional nature of American society and its radical break with prior human history in developing institutions that foster personal freedom.   Today, the main role played by this great narrative is to be the foil to the others. The diversity narrative mocks it as a lie intended to disguise centuries of group oppression. The cosmopolitan narrative smiles derisively at its naïve simplicity. The sustainability narrative groans in embarrassment that such profligate freedom could ever have been unleashed to cut down forests, plow the long-grass prairie, and pollute the waters and skies. 

It’s widely understood that life on American college campuses is centered on narratives that cultivate a certain disdain for the American past as well as some disturbing hopes for the American future. But having nodded in acknowledgement, too many give forth a complacent yawn.   Their assumption has been that when the boys and girls graduate from college and head into the world of adult responsibilities, most of them will set aside their unrealistic views of American society and get on with the work of the world. 

This seemed to be the guiding assumption of President Bush. To the extent that he paid any attention to higher education, it was through Secretary Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which took the central issue to be how to encourage colleges and universities to do a better job preparing students for the workforce. 

Surely this is a real issue, and even more so now that we are in a recession and jobs are scarce. One of the functions higher education has come to perform over the last 150 years has been to certify individuals as capable of performing various specialized tasks (engineering, farming, accounting, therapy, etc.) and capable as well of a diffuse range of intellectual and social skills (writing a coherent letter, explaining why one proposal is better than another, working with colleagues to solve a moderately complex problem.) We still do fairly well with the specialized tasks because individuals who want to pursue careers in these fields look out for themselves and get the education they need. But we have become very spotty in the ability of our colleges and universities to cultivate in students a reliable command of that more diffuse range of intellectual and social skills. 

 A great many students holding college diplomas don’t know these things, and worse, don’t know that they don’t know them. 

                Why?

It is not a question with a simple or easy answer. Parts of the answer, however, are visible.   Dare we bring up Bill Ayers? He stands in this instance for the successful effort to turn many schools of education into “sites of struggle” in the culture wars. Ayers is among many prominent education theorists who are strong proponents of a vision of America as fundamentally unjust and who view schools of education as a means of recruiting teachers to bring this perspective to their classrooms.  The result of this experiment running over several decades is that many of our K-12 schools pay a great deal of attention to laying down the premises of the counter-narratives of American history. Diversity and sustainability are simple enough in outline for primary school.  

One might think that Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy with its relentless regime of academic testing would have countered the rise of ideology in schools, but that is not what happened. Rather, the ideologists captured the textbooks and the tests.   The National Association of Scholars has published several detailed critiques of the current K-12 curriculum, including this by University of Arkansas professor Sandra Stotsky. 

Thus many students come to college primed for the more sophisticated counter-narratives they will study in classes.   Much has been said recently against the proposition that college professors actively indoctrinate students. A year ago, two professors at a Harvard symposium presented data they said showed that most professors are actually moderate. (NAS president Steve Balch raised an eyebrow at their methods.) The University System of Georgia released a study in August that purported to show that students see little bias in class. (I found fault with that study.) A new book, Closed Minds? by three George Mason professors argues that campuses are not “saturated by politics” at all; rather professors shy away from political controversy. (NAS’s Glenn Ricketts has doubts.) This week New York Times reporter Patricia Cohen took notice of the George Mason book and other research to argue the case that the faculty, though overwhelmingly liberal, don’t force their views on students. 

I’ve never thought “indoctrinate” was the right word for the transmission of values and worldview that occurs on campus. Although there are plenty of professors who are eager to persuade students of the merits of their own political outlook and are willing to transgress the traditional boundary between instruction and advocacy, the real issue is not so much the pontificating professor as it is the campus as a self-enclosed social world in which some narratives have high status. The student eager to show that he or she “gets it” and isn’t some sort of clueless dolt adopts the postures that need to be adopted. 

We could say these are just postures destined to be as readily discarded as they were donned. We could say that, but then we have to think about why it is that students in large numbers aren’t learning that diffuse range of intellectual and social skills that were once synonymous with earning a college degree.  

To do so, we need to weigh such factors as the abandonment of a coherent curriculum in most colleges and universities in favor of the current mishmash of aimless majors, identity group studies, and nonce courses. This amorphous curriculum is not a happenstance of history or the marketplace. It was a central demand of the academic left as it as took power in the humanities and social sciences.   If students don’t know much about the larger narratives of western or American history, this is the fundamental reason. If their grasp of philosophy, literature, and science is refracted through identity politics, that is likewise the result of what the NAS has called the dissolution of general education.  (“I studied African philosophy, gay literature, and the exclusion of women from science.”) 

But it is more than just entropy in the curriculum that leaves students indifferent to that range of intellectual and social skills that were once the prized distillation of a liberal education. It is rather the dimming of desire for such achievement. After all, if your master narrative of going to college is to acquire scorn for your society’s shameful history of oppressing identity groups, or liberation from the norms of parochial America to be a citizen of the world, or anger at a culture that exploits the earth, you don’t have all that much use for the mere formalities of the civilization you are discarding. 

Even if you are not actively discarding it, but just going along with the flow of conventional opinion. 

The result in either case—enthusiastic ideological commitment or passive acceptance—is that a student takes a minimalist approach to those aspects of learning that don’t actually bear on grades or credits.    Why learn to write formal essays when emails will do? Why bother with emails when instant messages get the point across? The diminution of some kinds of effort by students is a reflex of the low standing into which traditional notions of cultural attainment has fallen. 

Of course, that bothers conservatives, but seemingly not enough to take the cultural inversion in higher education all that seriously. John McCain’s position statement on higher education is entirely of a piece with the Spellings’ Commission. Lead idea:   “America is facing increased competition from overseas like never before. Higher education is as much a part of that competition as the job sector, and we must rise to the challenge and modernize our universities so that they retain their status as producers of the most skilled workforce in the world.”

Yes, indeed, higher education has a lot to do with preparing a skilled workforce. But it has even more to do with transmitting to the next generation the core legacy of a civilization. Men and women don’t just work, like ants in an ant colony. Nor is the prospect of building a more competitive ant colony much of an inspiring ideal. Men and women work for the ideals and purposes that they find meaningful and compelling, and the deep wells of meaning are family, religion, and civilization. Higher education connects with all three, but most centrally civilization. It is in college that we have our first and best opportunity to weigh the claims of civilization against the possible alternatives.  

McCain’s loss can be traced to many causes and surely his failure to grasp the nature of the problem in higher education is very far down the list. Or is it?   The failure of Republicans and conservatives to spend any significant effort as stewards of the key institution that transmits from generation to generation our civilization’s highest claims would seem to be a pretty damning act of neglect, and one likely to have massive consequence.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports this morning, “When Barack Obama takes the oath of office next January alongside his running mate, Joe Biden, it will be the first time in history that the president, vice president, and both of their spouses have worked in higher education.”   Obama articulates many of the ideas and the ideals of the academic left, and surely many see in his presidency an implicit promise that he will bring the values and styles of the American college campus to American society at large.

To the extent that this is true, it may thrust a new importance on the National Association of Scholars. We were until yesterday the principal voice for traditional ideals of scholarship in a free society. Now it seems we may be unofficially something more: a key voice for traditional ideals of intellectual culture during an era when the campus culture we have opposed appears ready to break its bounds and move into society at large.

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