10 ways the Ivory Tower is eroding American values

(Editor’s note: This is the transcript of a speech delivered at a meeting of the Shaftesbury Society on April 17, 2015. A video recording of the speech is available here.)

Last month, six student government members at the University of California at Irvine voted to ban the American flag in some parts of campus. And although the ban was overturned, thousands of professors and students across California signed a letter supporting the flags removal.

Just last week, University of Michigan administrators stopped a showing of American Sniper at the campus theater because of pressure from Muslim groups and students who claimed the movie would make them feel “unsafe.”

There is some good news. In both cases, press attention and public outcry ensured that sanity prevailed. All too often, that does not happen. Too many students, professors, and administrators ignore the obvious problems on American campuses. Meanwhile, the loudest voices on campus are those of radicals and Marxists.

The bad news is that these are not isolated events. All over the country, university campuses are out of touch with American culture.

Before I name my 10 examples, I want to define the purpose of higher education. The American Association for the Advancement of Science describes a liberal education in this way: “Ideally, a liberal education produces persons who are open-minded and free from provincialism, dogma, preconception, and ideology; conscious of their opinions and judgments; reflective of their actions; and aware of their place in the social and natural worlds. Liberally educated people are skeptical of their own traditions; they are trained to think for themselves rather than conform to higher authorities.”

There are two problems that have grown out of this Enlightenment view of liberal learning. First, universities have failed to follow through on one of the main promises of this ideal. Students are not actually trained to think for themselves. And second, radical professors and administrators simply replace one dogma with another, instead of creating open-minded critical thinkers. In other words, professors spend their time tearing down American values only to replace them with alternate campus values.

I should also define what I mean by American values. I’m not just talking about Conservative values or Christian values but widely accepted America values. So I’m not going to talk today about gay marriage, or abortion, or even traditional sexual morality. I’m going to talk about a much broader understanding of culture.

So, without further ado, I’ll present my list:

1) By replacing a broad general education curriculum with post-modernism and relativism. General education on college campuses has become a joke. Most universities offer a smorgasbord instead of a real, cohesive introduction to liberal learning. According to an American Council of Trustees and Alumni study of 1,100 colleges and universities: Just 18% required American History or Government; Only 38% required Literature; Only 60% require a MATH class; And a measly 3% require economics. A few examples of courses that students can take to fulfill general education requirements at UNC-CH include: Love, Sex, and Marriage in Soviet Culture; French New Wave Cinema; Recreation and Leisure in Society; and The Geisha in History, Fiction, and Fantasy. At NC State, students can take: Eating through American History; An Introduction to the Honeybee and Beekeeping; and Time Travel.

Why have universities eschewed a traditional curriculum? I have two suggestions. First, too many professors believe all knowledge is equally useful and valuable. (Who are they to say that a survey of British literature is more important than modern Bollywood cinema? They’re just professors with years of experience and PhD’s! What do they know?) And the professors who are willing to make judgments about undergraduate education are those who believe that what’s really important is that students be exposed to race-class-gender “narratives.”

2) By lowering academic standards to the point that they are meaningless. For a very long time, a college degree signified a mastery of the collected knowledge and wisdom of Western tradition. No more! Today, low standards have made learning and wisdom impossible goals. Here in North Carolina, the UNC Board of Governors recently lowered the minimum SAT required at three system schools to 750 combined in math and writing. And Carolina’s recent athletics scandal underlines the message: knowledge and learning are not valuable. Especially when compared to athletic success. Why else would scores of professors turn a blind eye to this kind of cheating scheme?

3) By attacking religious liberty on campus. For the past 40 years, universities have tried different tactics to keep religion off campus. In the 1980s, universities tried to keep religious groups from using empty classrooms—until the Supreme Court shot them down. In the 1990s, universities tried to keep religious groups from sharing in student funds. Again, the Supreme Court came down on the side of religious students. But in 2010, the Court changed its tune, when it decided that a private Christian club on a public university campus did not have an absolute right to Christian leadership. “All-comers” policies, meant to prevent discrimination, now mean that Christian groups can’t insist on Christian leadership. The same goes for Muslim groups, Jewish groups or other religious groups on campus. Fortunately, laws in Ohio and now in NC now protect religious liberty on campus. But two out of 48 states are not enough.

4) By conducting witch-hunts against scholars who disagree with the campus dogma. In 2013, a professor at Drexel University investigated the sources of money given to research that is skeptical of the climate change conventional wisdom. The purpose of his study was clearly to intimidate and silence opinions that are outside of the academic mainstream. This year, Dr. Willie Soon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics was dragged through the mud because of corporate funding. The left’s strategy here is to avoid engaging in a conversation about ideas and instead engage in slander and bullying.

5) By disinviting or disallowing controversial speakers from coming to campus. Last year, Brandeis University disinvited Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a women’s rights activist and native of Somalia, from speaking on campus because of her criticism of Islam. Scripps College disinvited George Will from speaking on campus because of a column he wrote on campus rape. And at UNC-Chapel Hill, just a few years ago, students chased anti-immigration speaker Tom Tancredo offstage in a university lecture hall. A student mob shouted chants and attempted to intimidate a group called “Youth for Western Civilization” into disbanding. One student threw a brick through a window. All of which brings me to my next point.

6) By placing limits on students’ and professors’ free speech. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education does great work on this topic. My first two examples come from their website: At Cal State Polytechnic, a student was banned from handing out flyers advocating for animal rights because he didn’t have a permit. At Marquette, a professor has been suspended because of opinions he expressed on his blog. And here in North Carolina, it took UNC Wilmington professor Mike Adams seven years in court in order to win a promotion—all because the university administration didn’t like his Townhall columns.

7) By telling students that it’s OK to be intolerant of groups with opinions that conflict with the campus orthodoxy. Lisa Wade, a professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, published an article in early April arguing that an understanding of economics makes you a bad person. She came to this conclusion after surveying students’ willingness to give money and sign petitions supporting leftist causes. Not surprisingly, she found that an understanding of economics made students less likely to do either. She used this as “evidence” that they were less generous and more likely to cheat, lie, and steal! A second example: Earlier this year, a professor at the University of Michigan took to the Internet to explain why she hates Republicans—and why that’s OK!

8) By setting up kangaroo courts (with aid from the federal government) that give students no rights to due process. The University of Virginia rape hoax is the best example of this mentality. After “Jackie’s” accusation was published in Rolling Stone, all fraternities and sororities on UVa’s campus were disbanded for a semester—based on what turned out to be false allegations and before any investigation even began. To make things worse, when students do get to university courts, the courts must use the “preponderance of the evidence” standard. This means that if it is “more likely than not” that sexual assault has occurred, then the defendant will be found guilty. It is the lowest legal standard possible—why are we applying it to a very serious crime? Fortunately, there is some hope for students in North Carolina. The SAE Act now protects students by allowing them to have legal representation in campus courts for all non-academic violations. The bottom line is that campuses—at the behest of the federal government—have established a legal code where evidence is secondary to public relations.

9) By mocking personal responsibility, hard work, and achievement. Grievance majors (a term that I borrowed from Professor Mike Munger) are part of this trend. Students can now major in women’s studies, AfAm, or gender studies where students are taught that they are victims who have no agency. To whom professors say, “it’s ok if you don’t succeed—just blame the patriarchy!”

Also part of this culture is the “check your privilege” movement: Where if you’re white, Christian, male, straight, or wealthy you 1) Don’t get to weigh in on topics outside that “experience” and 2) Probably didn’t earn whatever successes you think you have in life. Another symptom of the problem is grade inflation, where everybody gets an A and a participation ribbon. (This is despite the fact that numerous studies show that SAT scores have declined during the same period, that students study less, and that they learn very little in terms of critical thinking or reasoning during their college years!)

And lastly of course, we have affirmative action, the message of which is that skin color is more important than accomplishments. All of this sends a signal to students that there is no such thing as personal responsibility. If you fail, it’s someone else’s fault. If you succeed, it’s someone else’s credit. What incentive, then, is there to better yourself, to learn, or to be a virtuous person? None!

10) By doing nothing at all. (This is the one that most faculty and administrators are guilty of, by the way.) By ignoring the toxic culture on campus. By allowing the inmates to run the asylum. By allowing the squeaky wheels in the gender studies department to dominate campus dialogue, to run the faculty senate, and to be the public face of the university. By not standing up and saying: this is unacceptable.

So, what can you do about it?

First, stop giving money to your alma mater. Just stop. They won’t spend it wisely. And even if you try to attach strings to your donation, the school will find ways around them. Universities have a very bad track record for honoring donor intent. And when the development people call you, tell them why you’re not giving this year.

Second, when you read an outlandish story of what’s going on a college campus, broadcast it! Particularly if it’s about your own alma mater. Send it to your fellow alumni. Help them open their eyes to what’s going on.

And lastly, it’s time for a shameless plug: follow the Pope Center on Twitter, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to our weekly newsletter, Clarion Call. Thank you!