It seemed to the members of my book club that academia is losing its way. It is riddled with paradox: safe spaces which are dangerously insular; the idea of ‘no absolutes’ (as an absolute); aggressive intolerance for anything perceived as intolerant; and censorship of ideas deemed too offensive for expression. It’s a form of totalitarianism and it’s beginning to infect British universities, too.Mind-numbing totalitarianism, at that.
[T]he university experience in America is now not one that will adequately prepare students for real life. In real-life democracy, people disagree — and normally they don’t die or suffer emotional injury because of it. In normal life, there’s no reason not to like someone with whom you disagree politically. On campus, opinions are often ontology: you are what you think. But this is dangerous logic: if I hate what you think, I must hate what you are.Yes, and too many students have never learned how to properly express an opinion, let alone frame an argument. Columbia's Mark Lilla diagnosed what went wrong.
[C]lassroom conversations that once might have begun, I think A, and here is my argument, now take the form, Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B. This makes perfect sense if you believe that identity determines everything. It means there is no impartial space for dialogue.Neither is there any possibility of evaluating claims, or of contesting propositions. William Voegeli sees the incoherence that follows.
“Pursuing our own absolute truths” is an excellent summary of identity politics. On no other basis can modern liberals combine moral fervor with moral flexibility. Because my truths are subjective, they become unassailable—but at the same time, I’m under no obligation to base my truth on any proposition about the nature of things, because we accept that the final word on such realities belongs to no one. Speaking as an X, I possess a truth borne of my experience that no non-X critic can fully appreciate or fairly challenge.That's not going to turn out well for higher education. Clay Routledge contemplates one problem.
The fact that some academic disciplines, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, are increasingly blurring the line between dispassionate scholarship and ideological activism is a deeper and more difficult problem to confront. And it is a problem that too few academics and academic professional organizations appear motivated to address.Then comes Thomas Barlow, asserting Americans Used to be Proud of their Universities.
Many on the left not only blame conservative media for shifting views among Republicans, they also argue that conservatives are anti-education. First, keep in mind the concerns about campus culture and the ideological biases of certain fields I just discussed. Now, add worries shared by many Americans regarding the economic value of many degrees, the rising cost of a college education, and financially debilitating student loan debt. People shouldn’t assume that faltering faith in American colleges and the academic class reflects a disdain for education. Maybe Republicans see real issues that fall within the liberal blind spot.
American institutions have been squandering capital pursuing hysterical but unverifiable scholarship in a host of faddish and politically contentious disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. At the same time, judging by the bracing culture of outrage on U.S. campuses, they have ramped up production of a new version of an old product: The graduate who is energized not by knowledge but by ideology.His essay echoes Professor Lilla's point.
Thus, while their counterparts in Asia have been discovering how to control the world through mathematics and software, a good portion of the present generation of American students have wasted their energies on arguments about gendered restrooms, male privilege, and whether controversial conservatives should be allowed to speak or not. Meanwhile, even the politically indifferent on U.S. campuses collude in an imprudent fantasy. Heroically, in this era of failing newspapers and unemployed journalists, the country’s universities and colleges still graduate more communication and journalism specialists than computer scientists—despite a recent uptick in computer science enrollments.
Americans should be worried. History shows that changes in the intellectual wealth of nations matter, and that a divergence in the priorities of higher education systems of different countries can have serious consequences.
A campus culture that prioritizes political agitation over the disciplined search for truth will tend to produce citizens who rank feelings over reason, and whose lives are increasingly burdened with perceptions of past injustice. By contrast, a university system focused upon technological achievement is more likely to teach its citizens to prize rationality, objectivity, and value creation. After all, even a mediocre programmer must understand both the laws of logic and the constraints of reality, neither of which seems to be a requirement for participation in some modern liberal arts degrees.It may not have been given to me to complete the task of reclaiming higher education, and yet I see that others have taken it up.