October 17th 2020
Public concern about higher education is clearly widespread. The causes are many: ugly treatment of visiting speakers, a stifling political uniformity resulting in ideological extremism and hatred, and fringe radical ideas seeping out of the campuses into the wider world. Less publicly visible are numerous recent studies that tell us how little most recent graduates have benefited from higher education. They record astonishing deficiencies in reasoning, writing, reading, basic knowledge, and civics.
But with all this, the public is still uncertain. Most see the symptoms but don't quite know what to make of them, and so continue to send their children to college. Because they don't have a firm grasp of the extent or nature of the rot, they pay up and hope for the best.
Yale University (photo credit: Ad Meskens, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
How then can the public reach the clearer understanding of what is going on that they need to make sensible decisions? They can start by grasping the enormous difference between two kinds of people.
The first is the academic teacher. His job is to get students to think independently and analytically. Analytical thinking means looking at all sides of an issue so that students get the habit of examining both the strengths and weaknesses of an idea, always comparing them with those of competing ideas. Analytical thinking must be flexible thinking, always ready to respond to new evidence. It can't be static: it's always on the move. To power this constant movement, a motive force is needed: intellectual curiosity. That's what academic teachers must instill in their students. It's the force that will keep them exploring with open minds. That's how genuine academic teachers operate.
The second type -- the political activist -- is the polar opposite of all this. He doesn't want students to evaluate ideas, but instead to accept his and not question them. He doesn't want them to examine the strengths and weaknesses of competing ideas because for him there is no competition: one is right, the others wrong. He doesn't want intellectual flexibility but instead a firm adherence to an ideology. Greater understanding is not the point -- political loyalty is. Intellectual curiosity? Seeing things from different perspectives? All of that would be dangerous because it might lead to independent thinking that strays from the political ideology he is promoting.
It's hard to imagine anything farther removed from the mindset of an academic teacher than the political activist's. And herein lies the core of the problem of present-day higher education, the fundamental reality that the public needs to grasp: where fifty years ago the first type were the overwhelming majority among college faculty, today the controlling majority is of the second type. And since those are the very last people we should ever want as college faculty -- because what they want of students destroys higher education -- we have before us a national crisis.
In theory, an academic teacher could be politically left or right-of-center and still excel at teaching students to think for themselves, and a political activist could be either left or right oriented. And so, in principle there's no reason why both liberals and conservatives shouldn't want their children to be taught how to think productively and independently. This ought not be a partisan issue. But in today's world it is radical left activists who have successfully colonized the campuses to promote their ideology. Senseless radical ideas (e.g., defunding the police) are becoming mainstream in large part because academia breeds and exports them to the wider world. The colleges are doing real social damage.
The campaign trail and the ballot box are the proper place for political activists, not the college campus -- so what are they doing there? Long ago, the radical left despaired of succeeding at the ballot box, and so decided to cheat; they'd infiltrate the campuses and shut down the intellectual development of immature students in order to recruit them to their cause. It took about fifty years to realize that goal. To do it, they had to dismantle higher education, but political radicalism has no conscience: all that matters is its imagined Utopian goal -- the one it never reaches because all attempts so far have produced hell on earth.
What is to be done ? Some have suggested new rules to protect visiting speakers from abuse, or to stop classroom politicizing, but those remedies have a fatal flaw: they leave in place all those anti-academic political activists who now hold academic positions. The essential sickness of the campuses would remain untouched. Once you have grasped the stark difference between the two kinds of people who are involved, it's clear that there is only one way to restore higher education. The wrong kind of people must be replaced by the right kind. Political activists must be replaced by academic teachers. We can't keep paying huge sums for something we are not getting. We need higher education. We must stop funding the grotesque travesty that it has become and return that funding to its proper use.
John M. Ellis is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at UC Santa Cruz and the author of The Breakdown of Higher Education: How it happened, the Damage it Does, and What Can Be Done (Encounter Books).