The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 21, 2014

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Higher Education and the Liberal Arts

The generic American institution of higher education was turned into what Russell Kirk called “cow college”—or, more famously, “Behemoth U.”—led by the empire-building “President Boomer.” Instead of guiding students through a liberal course of study, Behemoth U. obscured the possibility of intellectual “health” by watering down curricular requirements: sociology became the most popular subject in the 1950s. Behemoth U. left individual students isolated and adrift, proving too big for a manageable intellectual community of friends that would foster paideia, true wisdom. In seeking to fit students for the modern world, Behemoth U. made them unfit. By seeking to educate everyone, it risked educating no one. By structuring a student’s education according to his tastes and not to the traditions of his civilization, such education pragmatism played into the hands of academics who had already foregone all notions of absolute truth. American higher education was coming to reflect the hollowness of those tasked with defending its noble purpose.

student demonstration at Columbia, 1968

The next great assault on higher education occurred twenty years after World War II, when the agnostic collectivists Buckley warned against were succeeded by a more radical generation. Seemingly spoiled by peace and prosperity unknown to their parents, students of the Baby Boom generation of the late 1960s resented the imposition of even the modest discipline remaining in American universities. The final abolition of the university’s responsibility to stand in loco parentis with respect to its students naturally abetted a new wave of political radicalism. Marxist students, organized in Students for a Democratic Society, harnessed student anomie and reluctance to serve in Vietnam to a broader radical agenda. Opposing discipline and demanding curricular and student life changes to suit their wishes, they engaged in often anarchic violence: occupying administrative buildings, disrupting classes, and intimidating professors whose teachings they disapproved of. Most faculty and administrators lacked the fortitude to fulfill their responsibilities and put the young upstarts in their place; in any case, they themselves were often men of the Left who had little difference with the radicals in principle.

Conservatives for their part condemned the violence, sought to defend the civilized norms of academic life, and in general made use of the occasion to reflect on the besetting problems threatening to eclipse the entire enterprise of liberal learning in modern America. For example, conservatives observed that the growth of university enrollments to more than 40% of the college-age population inevitably meant that many attending university were not qualified to do so, and so an inchoate resentment was necessarily unleashed: the germ of student unrest. This theme has returned in the recent work of Charles Murray. Others in the period, men and women of the center-left who would soon be known as neoconservatives, were so dismayed by the capitulation of the universities to the radicals—and the threat this posed to liberal learning—that they moved toward the right. In publications such as Commentary, these “liberals mugged by reality” would produce much valuable analysis and criticism of the “affluent society” that produced and permitted the anarchy found on American campuses in the 1960s.

As the feverish carnival of the late 1960s wound down (in no small part because Richard Nixon ended the draft, and so students no longer faced the prospect of conscription into the war in Vietnam), student radicals who had been denouncing the university now began to join it—by going to graduate school and becoming professors themselves. So began the Left’s “long march through the institutions.” (Lately, some historians have begun to recognize that there was an “other side” of the 1960s—the rise at that time of conservative student organizations. But this dimension of our recent history remains marginal in mainstream accounts.)

Realizing that they might have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, some universities restored a semblance of core liberal arts curricula in the 1970s, but these reforms were short-lived: Stanford University’s “Western Civ.” program being a notable example. By the 1980s, the student radicals, now middle-aged, had received tenure or became administrators. But by this time postmodernism and deconstruction had become more fashionable than Marxism. Reason and rational discourse itself was considered a mere instrument by means of which white males oppressed women and racial and sexual minorities. Instead of carefully engaging classic works that had “selected themselves” into the canon by virtue of their excellence, the tenured radicals required students to read works representative of demographic groups previously not represented in core curricula, i.e., women and racial minorities. These postmodern multiculturalists wanted assigned readings to be determined according to interest-group representation rather than intellectual merit: after all, it was claimed, conceptions of merit merely reflected race, class, and gender allegiances.

anti-racism student protest, 2008

Whole new disciplines—e.g., “Women’s Studies” and “African-American Studies”—were invented to further these new commitments. Defending and promoting the Western tradition was indeed far from the minds of professors in these disciplines, but still farther was the notion of a course of study that ended in the attainment of truth that would be good for its own sake. Political ends were paramount. Universities were to perform the service of promoting social reform through affirmative action, research supporting progressive causes, etc. The “liberation” the proponents of postmodernism aimed at was that of liberating students from the allegedly racist, sexist, and imperialist Western heritage. Existing disciplines in the humanities—English, History, and the Classics—were corrupted by being brought into conformity with the new ideology. As a result, coherent liberal arts curricula based on Western Civ. were replaced with an amalgam of disparate “representative voices.” Their goal was less education than indoctrination, not the broadening of intellectual horizons in order to close in on truth, but the indiscriminate opening of minds—“raising consciousness”—in order to attenuate or even eliminate personal, particular attachments to family, community, and religion.

What resulted from radical reforms of higher education—besides dramatically declining standards—was a new form of “illiberal education” that enforced a politically correct orthodoxy which condemned anything possibly offensive to the sensibilities of women and minorities. “Political correctness” was an expression used in the heyday of Joseph Stalin and his American fellow travelers to describe faithful adherence to Marxist orthodoxy and the Party line (used, of course, with a lack of irony characteristic of Communists). Modern leftists appropriated the term for college speech codes and an atmosphere of ideological conformity in the classroom that would ensure the student body’s adherence to approved opinion. Political correctness inhibited free enquiry and speech codes often punished those who dared to question radical pieties. These abuses gave rise to a whole genre of exposes of universities’ violations of free speech and free inquiry and an entire organization devoted to combating the anti-intellectual strictures of political correctness.

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