The ‘New Age’ university: at odds with American core principles

The last third of the twentieth century witnessed the rise and triumph of the post-modern or, better yet, the “New Age University,” whose core mission involves bringing America into a new age based on substantially altered principles and social forms. To say that this New Age University faces America’s political and cultural establishment in an adversarial stance would, however, be to overstate the case, since many of the nation’s leaders already take their philosophic bearings from its beacon light. Nonetheless, a great residuum of regressive institutions, ideals, attitudes, and habits, remains to be reconstructed, and the New Age University approaches its redemptive work with formidable energy and ambition.

The watch-phrases of the university in its preceding “scientific phase” had been progress, meritocracy, academic freedom, reasoned debate, and protected dissent. In contrast, the watch-phrases of the New Age university are diversity, multiculturalism, sensitivity, the affirmation of difference, and race, gender, and class. As to science itself, it is ambivalent, still capitalizing on science’s remaining prestige, but increasingly hostile to its intellectual rigors, dispassion, and even results.

In the New Age University, governance is increasingly in the hands of “progressive” cadres of faculty and administrators, ideologically vetted and advanced, and backed by external and internal constituencies empowered by ethnicity, gender, and most importantly, unimpeachably progressive thought. Faculty autonomy, though still an honored principle, is, when in conflict with the new orthodoxy, regularly trumped — though given the close attention to who gets hired and tenured, these conflict are becoming less frequent. Student life is also more heavily policed, with autonomous centers of student activity distrusted and often curbed. Some of this, of course, revives practices — though with very different ends — of the old-time denominational college.

The New Age University is egalitarian rather than meritocratic. Now involved in the education of nearly 50% of the adult population, and aiming at more, it has sorted its purposes into what might be called the exo- and the esoteric. The former, constituting its public face, presents higher education as a ladder of career mobility, offering great gains for no more intellectual effort than every man (and woman) is capable of providing (though generally at considerable, if highly subsidized, cost). With this exoteric goal in view, professional training is emphasized, while other standards and expectations are lowered to accommodate widened demand.

The university’s esoteric objective lies in its mission of social change, emphasizing group rights, entitlements, differential standards, attacks on tradition, and the discouragement, freezing out, or punishment, of dissenting views. Right reason is generally subordinated to right sentiment.

Indeed, the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of using race as a factor in university admissions, provoked the American Association of Colleges and Universities and twenty-six other higher-education organization to publish an unusually clear statement of New Age Mission on the opinion page of the New York Times. “Every student”, it piously announced, “should learn about the struggles for full inclusion in our democracy, that have been a crucial part of the nation’s history. Such study will help all students gain the intercultural and civic knowledge and capacities that are needed in a diverse democracy, and a deep knowledge of the continuing struggles — in this nation and the world — to achieve equity and justice for all.”

Another straw in the wind was the 43 to 3 vote of the Academic Senate of the University of California — taken at the request of UC president Richard Atkinson — to remove from the system’s academic-freedom policy provisions that cautioned professors against making their teaching a “platform for propaganda” or attempting to “convert” students. As the National Association of Scholars’ newsletter put it, “The former code of faulty conduct, which was drafted in 1934, associated academic freedom with scholarship that gives ‘play to intellect rather than passion,’ and conceived of scholarship as ‘dispassionate’ and concerned only with the ‘logic of facts.’ The revised version drops the requirement of objectivity, and accepts as legitimate any presentation of material that the ‘competent’ teacher chooses.”

The battle over political correctness has largely pitted the earlier ideals of the “scientific university” against those of the New Age model. Its outcome is critical because the core principles of the New Age University are not only at odds with those of the scientific, but also with many of America’s ideals of republican government.

In what ways?
1.) New Age ideals erode the concept of individual rights, autonomy, and meritocracy via diversity and group rights.
2.) They seek to supplant the concept of tolerance with “the affirmation of difference”, a euphemism for forced approval and coerced conscience.
3.) By sanctifying relativism they deny the possibility of moral judgment and critical thinking.
4.) They undermine the notion of fairness and rule of law, by encouraging the ideologically partisan enforcement of campus regulations.
5.) They poison the well of civic self-respect, through a heavy and constant emphasis on America’s collective and pervasive sins.

In fact, preoccupation with pervasive cultural sin is in ultimate tension with a basic assumption of representative government – that the people are sufficiently virtuous to govern themselves.

If there is ever going to be an effective recovery of the ideal of the university as a temple of science, that ideal is going to have to be somewhat rethought.

First, the concept of the scientific university must be strengthened by a more clearly delineated moral component, the absence of which has constituted its most conspicuous institutional weakness. No great institution can long survive emptied of moral content; human nature abhors moral vacuums, and if one set of moral purposes evaporates, another will seep in.

Second, those who seek to revive the scientific ideal will have to understand its practical limitations in the humanities and social sciences. This, in turn, will entail a reexamination of the modes of academic governance most appropriate to these fields, and the issue of why the established ones have failed to maintain norms of rigor, dispassion, and fair-dealing at anything like the levels commonplace in the natural sciences. Finding more suitable forms of governance will require a serious and imaginative rethinking of the constitution of academe.