The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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The Obama Administration and the Monopoly on Education
Bruce S. Thornton - 03/04/09
college graduate

Part two of a symposium on the educational impact of Obama and the New Progressivism. Read part one on the economic prospects and part three on culture.

What changes might we expect in higher education from an Obama presidency? The answer is easy: none. What we will get is just more of the same. The ideology that underlies Obama’s “progressive” political philosophy in areas such as health care, the economy, or defense has in fact long dominated America’s colleges and universities. Indeed, this ideology has been entrenched for so long that the last eight years under Bush passed with barely a ripple on the vast ocean of politicized mediocrity. The slight improvements in campus life that did occur––rollbacks on unconstitutional speech codes, for example, or exposures of politicized curricula––were the work not primarily of Republican politicians, but of organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

To take one example, affirmative action policies have been only slightly modified by recent Supreme Court decisions, and so we can expect these policies to continue. In other words, an Obama presidency will most likely not expand or strengthen them because they are already working quite well for someone with his political perspective. The fact is, admissions and hiring processes have incorporated subjective criteria––essays documenting “challenges” the student has faced, for example––that can outweigh more objective criteria such as test scores or GPA. Something like “overcoming racism” or other proxies for racial identity can be put in the scales and thus deliver the same result as an unconstitutional quota. So too with hiring. On my campus, despite a California state initiative banning the use of race in hiring decisions, our recruitment procedures are rife with explicit racial awareness. We still gather data on the race and sex of applicants, we still record the race and gender of search committee members, and we still must have an “Equal Employment Opportunity” commissar whose imprimatur is needed for a hire to proceed. All the state initiative achieved was the substitution of the title “EEO officer” for what used to be called the “Affirmative Action officer.”

Likewise with the Big-Brother intrusions into campus life created by sexual harassment law. Eight years of a Republican administration did nothing to mitigate the self-censorship and damage to academic freedom fostered by a law that enshrines the subjective, transient perspectives of the thin-skinned, malevolent, or neurotic as the determiner of actionable sexual harassment. The machinery of these laws––the campus inquisitions, re-education programs, and disciplinary mechanisms––is firmly in place and needs no help from Obama in order to keep performing their most important function: policing and punishing politically incorrect speech.

These stealth affirmative action and Orwellian sexual harassment policies, however, serve the deeper ideology that now controls the university at every level, regardless of which party is in power. That ideology is “diversity.” The scare-quotes are necessary because what is called “diversity” on most college campuses is quite the opposite: the imposition of a unified leftist orthodoxy on every level of the university, including hiring, promotion, programs, and curricula. In the imposition of “diversity,” superficial differences of skin color, ethnicity, sex, or sexual preference are used as camouflage for a uniform leftist-progressive world-view. That’s why registered Democrats in many university departments outnumber Republicans 9 or 10–1, when one can even find a Republican to count. So much for the university’s traditional mission to foster independent thought, critical analysis of received wisdom, and a diversity of intellectual viewpoints and perspectives, let alone Matthew Arnold’s goal of promoting “the free play of the mind on all subjects.” Ask the ousted Harvard President Lawrence Summers how that worked out for him.

Once again, Obama only has to let continue the same process of politicization that has been developing since the Sixties and that informs his own political ideology. The orthodox dogma that underlay Obama’s campaign rhetoric––all the world’s ills can be traced to American misdeeds, Western crimes like racism, imperialism and colonialism, or the greed of lupine capitalists exploiting the Third World “other” and ravaging the environment––this dogma can be heard every day in thousands of classrooms across the land. Whole departments such as Women’s Studies, Culture Studies, and Ethnic Studies exist to preach this doctrine of Western criminality. In the traditional disciplines such as History or English, the same melodrama of Western wickedness informs the courses taught, the books chosen for class, and the perspective shaping the presentation of the material. As a result, most students will graduate with scant knowledge of the great tradition of English literature or even the basic facts of American history. Anybody who doubts this should go down to his local college bookstore and scan the titles ordered for classes.

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