Academia: The World’s Leading Social Problem

(Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from a presentation given at a February 2012 conference on “Emergent Orders in Higher Education,” directed by John W. Sommer and sponsored by the Fund for the Study of Spontaneous Orders.)

 Nineteenth-century liberals believed that:

  • An economic system consisting of property rights, rule of law, and freedom of contract led to “the wealth of nations” and was a sound foundation for peace between nations as well.
  • Personal virtues such as hard work, perseverance, ingenuity, initiative, self-discipline, personal responsibility, good manners, and wholesome living could put any individual on the path to a life in which he or she could become “healthy, wealthy, and wise,” or at least relatively prosperous.

While each proposition represented mainstream thought in the United States and Britain in the nineteenth century, for the next hundred years most of the intellectual and pedagogical activity of university professors in the humanities and social sciences was dedicated to undermining respect for those ideas. 

At no point were those propositions ever disproved by evidence. Instead, a deep tribal animosity developed among intellectuals through which ridicule, slander, and libel became accepted as adequate grounds for rejecting the insights that had made Britain and the U.S. the first societies in human history in which the masses were prosperous.

This century-long attack on important truths that benefit humanity, replacing them with contradictory information, constitutes one of the greatest crimes against humanity ever committed. 

Had Anglo-American intellectual life remained firmly based on those principles, even harmful intellectual memes taught at European and Soviet universities would have faced much stiffer resistance in the world of ideas. And classical liberal ideas would have seen far more vigorous successes in actual life. 

Western and Soviet universities in the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s trained the minds from Africa and Asia that created new post-colonial governments in the decades that followed. Had those minds been trained in classical liberalism how many might have replicated the stunning prosperity of John Cowperthwaite’s Hong Kong or Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore? How many nations might have avoided ideologically driven catastrophes ranging from Nyerere’s Ujamaa to Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge?

If university professors had not deliberately sabotaged classical liberalism, how much wealthier the world’s population would be today!

Sadly, the truth needed to make the world a better place is a “public good” that private markets cannot easily supply. Foundations have spent many millions of dollars financing private, market-oriented think tanks in an effort to compensate for the damage being done by academia. But while these think tanks have had an influence at the margins, the vast majority of college-educated Americans continue to rely on the information provided by elite universities and mainstream media rather than the think tanks that espouse classical liberal thought.

Can market forces provide the creative destruction needed to solve this problem?

Numerous for-profit online universities are booming today. Some focus on providing academic coursework needed in order to obtain legally required “credentials.” Others specialize in offering technical skills such as accounting, business, or technical certifications. There are also for-profit courses being offered by small, entrepreneurial organizations for in-demand skills like web design, web marketing, social media, and various back-end programming skills.

But none of these business models cuts into the elite university domination of liberal arts coursework. Insofar as intellectual elites in our society tend to graduate from elite universities with liberal arts, no amount of technical or credential-oriented education will alter the authority and influence of academia on society at large. 

This is the case even though several niches are available that could undermine the current academic hegemony in the liberal arts. One would be a program to develop effective writing skills. Barbara Minto has spent the past twenty years marketing her two-day writing courses to corporations for fees starting at $10,000 per day. Typically, clients hire her to teach freshly minted MBAs and liberal arts graduates how to write effective business prose:  memos, summaries, letters, etc. Apparently many corporations do not find graduates adequately prepared to write professional business communications.

Closely related to the niche in developing the ability to write is developing the ability to think. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, authors of Academically Adrift, documented that 45 percent of students they surveyed “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college and 36 percent “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college. Those students who do show improvements tend to show only modest ones.

The students were evaluated using the Collegiate Learning Assessment (which is designed to measure gains in critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and other “higher level” skills taught at college).” This core niche of thinking and reasoning could be addressed by an entrepreneurial start-up. A school that developed students’ abilities, rather than simply screened students for existing abilities, could make a splash. In different ways, both the Olin College of Engineering and the Acton MBA program attempt to achieve such a goal within their specified domains.

No one has yet attempted to create a new liberal arts college with this goal in mind. And the project would not be easy. Something like it was recently undertaken at Shimer College. Shimer is a small “Great Books” college in Chicago that has been in a financially precarious situation for decades. Although the board had the financial capacity and interest to put Shimer on sound financial footing, the students and faculty are leftists. When they got wind of a “right-wing” scheme to take over Shimer, they protested vociferously. Ultimately, a coalition on the board formed that voted to fire the president (in fact, however, the board was more classical liberal than “right-wing”).

Later, one of the remaining classical liberals on the board attempted to recruit me as a candidate for the presidency. A leader of the coalition that fired the previous president was initially interested in my “left-friendly” approach to classical liberalism. However, upon reading my essay “The Conspiracy of Silence around the Romance of Evil,” in which I blamed academia for not talking openly about the fact that the ideology of Marxism was responsible for the 100 million communist murders in the twentieth century, I was told they were no longer interested.

The illustrious Princeton professor claimed that Leninism, not Marxism, was responsible for the twentieth-century calamities, and that it was “ideological” of me to believe otherwise. Perhaps Shimer is anomalous, but I expect that many liberal arts colleges in the U.S. would rather fail than relinquish their ideological convictions.

Unless and until an institution competes head-to-head in academic performance with the elite institutions, “entrepreneurial” education will not be taken seriously.

It may thus be necessary for a group of donors to finance a new liberal arts college that focuses specifically on high-end writing, analytical, and quantitative skills in a manner that threatens the hegemony of elite institutions.

We need new elite institutions that are once again deeply committed to the ethos ethos of freedom of thought and expression illustrated by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty:

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.

We need universities where the entire faculty passionately supports the open airing of ideas with which they disagree. Ridicule, questioning of motives, or accusations of “racism,” “sexism,” etc. should never be acceptable behavior in conversations dedicated to the search for the truth. Because of the current sad state of higher education, we should assume we must create a new institution in order to create a new, freer social and intellectual order.

Such new institutions would strengthen the existing small outposts in the academy that reflect classical liberal ideas.

Classical liberal economists have won numerous Nobel prizes in the past forty years. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in think tanks and in classical liberal programs at existing universities.

Similarly, development economics has become significantly more market-oriented in the past twenty years than it was throughout the post-war period, even though many development economists are reluctant to emphasize the importance of economic freedom in alleviating poverty. And the field of positive psychology is rediscovering the role of the virtues in providing individuals with the internal stability needed to be a happy human being.

The conclusions of these thinkers are almost always tactfully framed so as not to offend the anti-capitalist, anti-virtue status quo. We need to create a tipping point of social acceptance so that scholars arguing for free enterprise and the importance of virtues are no longer on the defensive. We need to reinvigorate a Millian ethos of respect for freedom of thought and expression by means of new institutions that exemplify the best such Millian traditions across the disciplines.

This process of the re-invigoration of the life of the mind at universities will accelerate if and when the great body of classical liberal work developed in the past hundred years is finally taken seriously. Gradually the bigoted perspective toward classical liberalism that has dominated the academies for the past hundred years will be revealed as the irrational tribalism that it is.

If we can solve the fundamental social problem, the pathology of academic life that prevents constructive thought from coming to the fore, we will enable ourselves to solve all other social problems more quickly and effectively. When those universities that produce the elites that govern our planet—intellectual elites, professional elites, and cultural elites—once again enlighten, rather than confuse, young people, we will once again begin to make serious progress toward a peaceful, prosperous world for all driven by the vision and ingenuity of billions of healthy, empowered, optimistic individuals.