Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Coming Home: Reclaiming America’s Conservative Soul (ISBN: 9781641770569), to be published by Encounter Books on May 14.
The promise of higher education has become a trap for tens of millions of Americans. The promise: Every one of us and our children could go to college, earn a degree, and set off on a good career, secure in the knowledge that we had gained the tools necessary for a productive life.
The trap: Years (usually more than the advertised four) of indoctrination in the classroom and, more harshly, the dormitories, followed by decades of crushing debt, all made far worse by the realization that our degrees have qualified us for very little.
It wasn’t always like this. Supporters of the current system may argue that early colleges were mere playgrounds for the rich, but they were in fact set up for a variety of reasons—most of them having to do with training ministers and teachers. Few could afford college, and few needed to attend college to pursue a useful profession.
Still, many men of talent (Alexander Hamilton, for example) were helped by generous friends and neighbors to pursue higher education. For much of American history, college was an opportunity for privileged young people to gain an understanding of their traditions and of the great works of their civilization, as well as for significant numbers of talented but not privileged young people to gain that same understanding as they worked their way into the learned professions.
Historically, higher education was an extremely costly enterprise. As a frame of reference, worldwide GDP per capita remained remarkably constant at about $500 (in 1990 dollars) for well over two thousand years. Scarcity was the rule everywhere. Thus higher education in any society before the nineteenth century had to focus primarily on its most essential purpose: preserving knowledge, art, and, in sum, inherited culture.
While universities always have been places where scholars pursue new knowledge, their first task has been to preserve civilization by passing down cultural and intellectual resources to the few who will hold positions of sufficient power for them to preserve and enrich it, or destroy it.
New possibilities for a university emerge when a society can devote more money and release people from productive labor (particularly the production of food and essentials) for more years. American higher education emerged in tandem with three powerful trends: 1) previously unknown and widely distributed wealth; 2) the rise of democratic impulses for equality of opportunity; and 3) the modern acceleration of technological change, with its demand for ever new and increased technological skills.
In response to these circumstances, American higher education took on new purposes. At first continuing its civilizational purpose, universities began to stress the acquisition of new knowledge. In addition, higher education was expanded in scope and availability out of a desire both to prepare people to make a living and to educate them for citizenship. In a democracy, of course, every person is supposed to be informed and knowledgeable about the world because each person is involved in a deliberative political life. As the world became more complex, access to more education seemed appropriate to maintain the quality of American self-rule.
The new focus on higher education during the nineteenth century was undertaken in a spirit of community voluntarism. Improvement-minded communities founded hundreds of small colleges. Unlike higher education today, the result was not an integrated system. Politicized accrediting agencies didn’t dictate what could be taught and how. Instead, a stunning variety of institutions and methods grew up to meet the needs of various communities. From teachers’ colleges to divinity schools, to liberal arts colleges and the first law schools, institutions were fashioned to meet the emerging needs of their communities. Each local and usually private institution was both a repository of Western civilization and a preparatory ground for a useful life in a politically and economically dynamic world.
Public universities were an increasingly important part of the mix, especially after the Civil War, when the federal government encouraged the founding of land-grant colleges aimed at improving agricultural techniques. Some public schools mimicked pre-existing private universities in their attempts to expand knowledge in a wide variety of endeavors. But most saw their purpose, as with so many of the smaller private colleges, as preparing their own people to help their communities.
Higher education in the twenty-first century bears little resemblance to this American way of educating.
In the space of a short chapter, we cannot offer even a rudimentary account of this complex transformation. We must note, however, the importance of the federal government’s decision to subsidize universities during World War II and the Cold War to secure technological and military advances. In addition, changes in the sorts of knowledge necessary for economic success during the second half of the twentieth century changed incentives to attend college, along with university curricula.
Motivated by a deep presentism, American universities soon de-emphasized or dropped higher education’s first, civilizational purpose in favor of empowering individuals with knowledge necessary to meet their needs of the moment.
Over the last half-century, the dominant trends in American universities have been in two directions. The first has been to advance the quality, reach, and applicability of expert knowledge. Increasingly, a degree was supposed to signify deep competence in some narrow field of knowledge rather than the sort of knowledge once considered necessary for a free and self-governing society. The second trend has been to liberate the individual from institutions, traditions, and even norms or expectations that might hamper the self-creation and self-expression now deemed everyone’s birthright. Rather than inhabiting and participating in a long civilizational story, the liberated student of today is expected to make his or her own story.
Higher education now aims to produce highly trained idiots (in the original Greek, the word meant a private person) who function in an economic system they cannot comprehend, defer to a government that protects their radical individualism, and, as deracinated global citizens, define their moral universe through abstract notions of equality and justice.
Few who are not themselves part of the problem need to be told that our current university system is in shambles. Free inquiry has been replaced by “safe spaces” and the shouting down of anyone who speaks out against anti-Western ideologies and the cult of victimization. Bureaucracies that smack of the old Soviet Union enforce a code of political correctness infusing every aspect of university life with suspicion and resentment. Having banished all but a tiny remnant of conservatives and even most liberals from the professoriate, universities become ever more determined to undermine all aspects of American culture and higher learning.Culturally and intellectually, the moral objective of American universities is transformational rather than formative—they seek not to preserve, improve, and pass down but to destroy and build anew.
Culturally and intellectually, the moral objective of American universities is transformational rather than formative—they seek not to preserve, improve, and pass down but to destroy and build anew. Even the sciences have become targets of an irrational hostility toward reality; as students in some engineering education courses are told, for example, the skills necessary to, say, build bridges that will not collapse are tainted by racism, sexism, and homophobia.
Much has been written on the depth and breadth of the disaster that is American higher education today. We are less concerned with rehearsing the damning evidence than with suggesting a response in keeping with conservative principles. Most relevant, here, is the duty of all associations—including those engaged in higher education—to seek the public good. Educational institutions must aim to improve their communities by preparing their young people to become full, productive members—to be better citizens, better neighbors, better spouses, and better parents. These institutions must be an expression of their communities while offering the special cosmopolitanism of a liberal education, in the breadth and depth of tradition and history.
Because our primary and secondary education has declined so far in its ability to prepare young people for productive lives, many of them look to college to complete what is basically vocational training. It is crucial that our communities do a better job training young people to become good carpenters, welders, or clerks. To do well in skilled trades and many other jobs does not require, and should not be made to require, the investment of four or more years and tens of thousands of dollars in university degrees, especially when those degrees are drenched in left-wing ideologies.
The problem is not simply that our universities have been taken over by bad actors. The problem is that it is impossible for any national university system to serve the common good.
To reclaim higher education for our culture, and for its own proper ends, it must again be the product of local communities serving local needs. We are not saying that the large research university should be abolished. But it is long past time for American taxpayers to stop supporting its maintenance, let alone its expansion. We currently spend billions of dollars subsidizing a system that rewards ideological malpractice, seeking to undermine our way of life as it enriches a few top administrators, enables self-indulgence among all too many professors, allows educrats to hector and indoctrinate our young people, and fails to serve our common interests.
Obviously enough, reform must take at least two paths, one dealing with private universities, the other with public ones.
First, where private universities are concerned, we often are told that what they do is a matter of purely private concern. Being privately funded, the argument goes, these universities have a right to teach whatever they want to whomever they want, charging as much as they want. In a sense this is true; but, as with much else, national political structures have brought a concentration of power into the wrong, politicized hands. Federal subsidies in the form of accrediting agencies that keep out genuine competition, grants, loans, special tax treatment, and government research funds all enable powerful universities to ignore their duties to their students while working to undermine the society that supports them.
Private universities have loaded up on administrative positions, launched tendentious, anti-intellectual academic programs, and engaged in counterproductive agitation in large part because they need not worry about the costs. However large the tuition hikes, students and their parents are lured into taking on massive, subsidized debt in the belief that college is “worth it,” provided the school has a high-enough ranking.
Competing only with one another, and only in the eyes of accrediting agencies and other gatekeeping institutions that share their own ideological views, colleges can stock their curriculum with classes in various forms of postmodern ideology and identity politics, seldom worrying about whether graduates will be able to find meaningful employment, let alone flourish as full members of their communities. Indeed, universities increasingly ignore altogether their duty to teach students because government contracts and research grants provide them with so much prestige and money. Most students, then, are coddled but not educated, trained in resentment not critical thinking, taught to despise their traditions rather than to enrich them.
The good news regarding private universities is that the prudent, reasonable solution to our problem is rather simple: stop the subsidies. We are not, and should not be, in a position to force sudden change on private universities—and certainly not through national political action.Most students, then, are coddled but not educated, trained in resentment not critical thinking, taught to despise their traditions rather than to enrich them.
That said, we can and should stop funding a model of education that is financially profligate and culturally destructive. How can this be accomplished? Ending federal grants and loans, or at least capping at a level well below current tuition charges, will encourage a return to fiscal discipline. Eliminating subsidies for research, or at least instituting that it be done in independent facilities, will refocus universities’ attention on teaching. Ending remaining exemptions on our huge university endowments, or at least requiring that the monies be spent regularly on university activities, will reconnect administrators with the students they are supposed to serve.
Taken by themselves, these reforms will not return private universities as a class to cultural sanity. They will, however, provide much more room for conservative principles to be heard on college campuses and for conservatives, in combination with open-minded liberals, to restore an openness to honest inquiry and exchange of ideas capable of enlivening university life.
Where public universities are concerned, it is long past time for state legislatures to reassert public educational institutions’ duty to serve their particular communities and the public good, not the desires of accreditors, administrators, and faculty. Nor should public universities gear their mission to students’ whims as expressed in short-sighted surveys or protests.
We are advocating not overt politicization of public universities but the opposite: these schools for too long have been allowed to become dens of radical politics precisely because they have lost sight of their intrinsic purpose—to help young people become ready for lives and careers within their communities.
Public universities are specifically set up, using public funds, for the good of the people of their state. The huge public research university, mimicking Ivy League colleges in every way possible while ignoring the needs of its state and local communities, is a travesty. These enormous institutions have hijacked public funds and the very idea of a public trust to serve their own financial interests, in large measure by claiming to serve a “public” that is global, ahistorical, and bereft of substantive interest or identity. Even smaller public colleges today seek freedom from public duty by claiming to serve everyone and every good thing.
Public colleges and universities must be reoriented locally. How is this to be done? To begin with, most public colleges have enforceable charters that are poorly drafted and often ignored; these could be rewritten and enforced by boards of trustees and, more likely, state legislatures.
State legislators bow too easily to the charge of philistinism when they seek to fulfill the duty to oversee the institutions they fund.
If there is to be public funding, there must be a determination that such funding support institutions that focus on the people of their own state in hiring, admissions, and curriculum. This last means that it is the duty especially of regional institutions to provide the kinds of vocational training that currently falls through the cracks, picked up neither by community nor regional colleges.
Budget discipline also can be used to slash the number of administrators currently pushing programs of political and cultural transformation on campus as well as the tuition students must pay.
The solution to the breakdown of university education is not further control from Washington. Improvement in education, as in most things, is to be found through decentralization and rethinking at the more local level. As universities have claimed to be all things to all people, they have become, intellectually and culturally speaking, less than nothing. Meanwhile, our children increasingly are told that their choices are lifetimes of debt or lifetimes of ignorance and unskilled labor.
We can and must eliminate this false choice by freeing higher education from the grips of a national establishment concerned with its own material and ideological interests so that the real interests of persons and communities can be recognized and served.
Reprinted with permission from Encounter Books, New York City.
Ted V. McAllister is the Edward L. Gaylord chair and associate professor of public policy at Pepperdine Univeristy. Bruce P. Frohnen is Ella and Ernest Fisher professor of law at Ohio Northern University’s Pettit College of Law.