Reforming Higher Education: A Reading List

As more students have headed to college and a degree is seen as a way to shape students as workers and as citizens, higher education’s mission has become more important. Its leaders, and their personal beliefs, have become more contentious, too.

In recent months, many conservative thinkers have publicly debated how to reform higher education—or, even, if they should.

Political liberals, as well, have joined in. From reform and technocratic changes to complete withdrawal and abolition, below is a selection of the more-insightful additions to the debate over higher education, and perhaps, a look at where future reformers will pull American higher education.

At a conference on The Virtue of Nationalism hosted by the Bow Group, Common Sense Society, and the Danube Institute, Roger Scruton suggests a solution to the politicized university is to get rid of universities altogether (starting at 3:15:00):

There are two solutions to this. One is to start new universities, outside the nexus of state control, which is what happened with Buckingham, founded by Margaret Thatcher, and where I do teach a course, and which is going in the right direction. Which does have well-known reactionaries like David Starkey talking openly from the platform. That’s a possibility, though of course it is a small gesture. But there’s the other way forward, which is to get rid of universities altogether. That’s to say, make sure that their sources of funding dry up. They are, essentially, state sponsored institutions. Withdrawing the grants that they enjoy would bring them right down to this level to which they are actually approaching. And I think that might be something we should think about.

On the other hand, we don’t want to lose all the scientific advances that universities produce, which are necessary to a modern economy. And it could be that we ought to ring-fence the humanities—which, after all, can enjoy all this bigoted leftism largely because they make no difference whatsoever to the general economy—and just give support to the sciences. Not an easy question though, so I don’t have an answer.


In National Affairs, Frederick Hess and Brendan Bell choose the less-radical route Scruton suggests and advocate the creation of “An Ivory Tower of Our Own:

In response [to the academic monoculture of the left], some academics and advocates have admirably pushed back, launching speaker series, skirmishing over campus speech codes, and suing and shaming in response to especially egregious cases of institutional bias. There are organizations like FIRE and the Heterodox Academy which have called out and challenged the ideological tilt in higher education. Such efforts are important and praiseworthy. There have also been vital efforts to erect campus centers that challenge orthodoxy, as with the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton.

While wholly welcome and sorely needed, these hubs are hamstrung by the reality that they operate as isolated outposts within largely uninviting institutions. As such, they provide perches for individual scholars and offer a redoubt of atypical thought, but they lack the infrastructure, critical mass, or organizational muscle to do much more than that.

What is needed, then, is a place where serious scholars can have the space to pursue questions and subjects that don’t fit the progressive orthodoxy at today’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning. We need an incubator where promising young intellectuals could pursue their research without being forced to conform to the prevailing ideology, and where they can find the scaffolding — employment, funding, networks, and publication outlets — to enable them to achieve independent viability. What is needed is an ivory tower of our own.


In The Atlantic, Alan Jacobs argues against cloistering into a conservative unversity; for him, the bigger issue is intellectual diversity:

What happens if someone hired to teach free-market economics at a conservative university reads Thomas Piketty and becomes a socialist? Presumably the same thing that happens to a professor at a Christian college who loses his faith in Jesus, or a professor of social justice who finds her eyes opened to new and different truths by a close reading of Atlas Shrugged. It’s a problem. But it’s a problem for all universities, not just conservative or Christian ones.

So the academic-freedom issue is something of a red herring. The larger issue that proponents of a conservative university must face is that of intellectual diversity. Were a few conservative universities to pop up, we might indeed see a net increase of intellectual diversity in American higher education taken as a whole, taken as a single entity. But we would surely get even less intellectual diversity than we currently have within any given institution. This would not be an altogether unappealing future for people, like me, whose stated positions on religious and cultural matters make them unemployable in perhaps 98 percent of American colleges and universities. But would it be good for the country as a whole?


In Arc Digital Media, Avi Woolf worries that turning away from the university betrays the hunt for knowledge, even though conservatives face a difficult uphill battle:

I have no illusions about the challenges involved, but I think abandoning this cause rather than adjusting our efforts towards realistic goals — as I recommended for conservative student groups — would mean we lose even more than we have already.

For starters, abandoning the universities wholesale (or at least the softer sciences and humanities) means abandoning that which we claimed was vital to understand the human condition. If we truly believe that it is, then it matters not whether Rome has actually fallen or provinces have been conquered. Wherever and whenever we can keep the flame alive, we should.


In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Adam Daniel and Chad Wellmon note a different threat to the pursuit of knowledge and the university’s well-being—the university’s insatiable appetite:

American universities’ democratic commitment has been both empowering and imperiling. It has compelled them to open themselves up to previously excluded publics, but it has also encouraged them to accrue a range of functions they were never imagined for — and are often ill-equipped to take on. The university’s appetite for always doing more could prove to be its undoing.

If the university is to flourish and continue to play a vital role in American life, it needs to reinterpret its democratic legacy. And it needs to do so with a frank acknowledgment of the fragility of the public it purports to serve. The university is what it is today, in part, because of the atrophy of other public institutions, which has left universities to fill a widening void. Higher education is in a precarious position; so too is the American republic. In order not just to save themselves but to fulfill their social role, universities need a more refined understanding of their responsibilities to the public — and of how to meet them in ways that are consistent with their own animating purpose. They also need an honest appreciation of their limits.


In Areo, James A. Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose offer “A Principled Defense of the University” instead of calling for its abandonment:

The modern university is undoubtedly among humanity’s crowning achievements, and, more than many other advances made over the last five centuries, it is in danger. Now, more than any time in the last century, at least, universities and even the concept of the university itself need defending on principle, so that they will not be washed out in the flowing spring tide of reactionary resentment that exploits legitimate criticisms against them.

The modern university is the engine of knowledge production in modern society, and as such, it is among humanity’s greatest achievements and most precious resources. None of humanity’s great institutions has been so successful at producing and sharing knowledge, being a center of culture, and generating opportunities for citizens and nations alike as the university. Nothing comes close, in fact, and this is because the university exists specifically to fulfill this vital function of modern liberal democracies.


In American Greatness, Roger Kimball doesn’t expect change from interest groups on campus, but perhaps in a larger change in the culture:

I used to think that appealing over the heads of the faculty to trustees, parents, alumni, and other concerned groups could make a difference. I have become increasingly less sanguine about that strategy. For one thing, it is extremely difficult to generate a sense of emergency such that those groups will actually take action, let alone maintain the sense of emergency such that an outburst of indignation will develop into a call for action.

What’s more, those groups are increasingly impotent. Time was when a prospective hiccup in the annual fund would send shivers down the spine of an anxious college president. These days, many colleges and universities are so rich that they can afford to cock a snook at parents and alumni. Forget about Harvard and its $38 billion, or Princeton, or Yale, or Stanford, or the other super-rich schools. Even many small colleges are sitting on huge fortunes…

Deep and lasting change in the university depends on deep and lasting change in the culture at large. Effecting that change is a tall order. Criticism, satire, and ridicule all have an important role to play, but the point is that such criticism, to be successful, depends upon possessing an alternative vision of the good.


In Heterodox Academy, Jonathan Haidt is concerned about the tension between truth and social justice—universities cannot honor both without “increasing incoherence and internal conflict:

Aristotle often evaluated a thing with respect to its “telos” – its purpose, end, or goal. The telos of a knife is to cut. The telos of a physician is health or healing. What is the telos of university?

The most obvious answer is “truth” – the word appears on so many university crests. But increasingly, many of America’s top universities are embracing social justice as their telos, or as a second and equal telos. But can any institution or profession have two teloses (or teloi)? What happens if they conflict?

As a social psychologist who studies morality, I have watched these two teloses come into conflict increasingly often during my 30 years in the academy. The conflicts seemed manageable in the 1990s. But the intensity of conflict has grown since then, at the same time as the political diversity of the professoriate was plummeting, and at the same time as American cross-partisan hostility was rising…

Now that many university presidents have agreed to implement many of the demands, I believe that the conflict between truth and social justice is likely to become unmanageable. Universities will have to choose, and be explicit about their choice, so that potential students and faculty recruits can make an informed choice. Universities that try to honor both will face increasing incoherence and internal conflict.


And in Quillette, Allen Farrington warns of a breakdown in culture that goes beyond education; college is economic and social insurance more than the search for truth:

Defenders of “education,” who more often than not have a stake in the present racket prescribed by the modern definition, like to pretend that they are part of a system upholding the classical definition. At Evergreen, this was obviously false—critical thinking was subordinate to dogma and Bret Weinstein was hounded from his job for having the temerity to defend it. The university was conceived to provide scholars with a secure redoubt in which to conduct their studies, which would be partly funded by letting willing students pick up a thing or two by being in close proximity. This was a very sensible proposition in the 1300s, but is looking like a fantasy today. There are no safe spaces for scholars, and students can mimic proximity to scholars for the cost of an Internet connection. Willing students can get 20 or 30 separate undergraduate degrees’ worth of (classically defined) education from MIT OpenCourseWare alone. But many just want a piece of paper that says they are an adequately socialised member of society, approved of by the cultural elite.

Peter Thiel has given a uniquely scathing critique of the insanity of this system. He questions whether higher education, as an economic exchange, represents much of an investment anymore—the student defers gratification to reap higher rewards in the future, or the student enjoys a four-year party as a consumption good. Thiel says he originally thought of higher education as consumption masquerading as investment, but now thinks of it as an even crazier combination of concepts: as insurance against failure in life in general, and as a kind of Veblen good that is priced uncompetitively so as to confer status on those who can afford it. This produces a ridiculous situation in which insurance is desirable, not because something disastrous is prudently insured against, but because the disaster would be the ignominy of failing to purchase insurance in the first place. It is effectively a Ponzi scheme. No wonder Thiel calls college administrators subprime mortgage brokers. They get a cut on selling pieces of paper that are only as valuable as we all pretend they are.

Anthony Hennen the managing editor at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.