Can Oliver North Fix Higher Ed?

The Marine officer turned polemicist has written a very bad book.

I suppose there are some people eager to read what Oliver North and his co-authors have to say about the current state of American higher education. After all, we’re told on the dust jacket of American Gulags: Marxist Tyranny in Higher Education and What to Do About It that, collectively, they’ve authored more than 109 books, some of them bestsellers. I have to confess that this is my first encounter with their oeuvre, and I’m not sure that I’d look forward to a second.

In a word, the book is a disappointment. Released in late May by Fidelis Publishing, American Gulags’ title leads us to expect a fresh, if somewhat overwrought, perspective on one of the principal fronts in today’s culture wars. We’ve all read first-person accounts of cancel culture, progressive professorial pontification, and Kafkaesque administrative proceedings, and we’ve all heard about the blowback, working its way through various red-state legislatures. To be sure, as many have observed, the plural of anecdote is not data, but there is data for those who are interested. Our authors seem not to have consulted it. Indeed, if I had to judge on the basis of the dated character of many of their anecdotes and references, this latest book is a relatively hasty update of Liberal Tyranny in Higher Education, published by co-authors Goetsch and Jones in 2009.

A more fair-minded characterization of the professoriate would describe it as overwhelmingly left-leaning but not “Marxist.”What seems new is, in the first place, the substitution of “Marxist” for “liberal.” While I didn’t count the number of times the former adjective appears in the book, I did keep track of the references to “Marxist professors,” “Marxist faculty,” and “Marxist faculty and administrators.” For the record, those expressions appear 50 times—that is, roughly once every three pages. But saying something frequently doesn’t make it true. A more fair-minded characterization of the professoriate would describe it as overwhelmingly left-leaning but not Marxist, at least not if the latter term is to be deployed with any precision. While we perhaps shouldn’t demand too much accuracy in a book not written for an academic audience (about which more shortly), connecting “Marxist tyranny” with “Gulags” in a title does call for some responsibility and care on the part of the authors.

Let me say a little about the kind of responsibility and care I’d demand. First, since there is so much responsibly collected data available, I’d demand that they make use of it. Second, there are terms that may make sense as a kind of shorthand in Fox News soundbites (e.g., “cultural Marxism”) but don’t in a book, where terms should be defined and explained so that they illuminate rather than overheat and obfuscate. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that our authors use their words carefully. Calling colleges “tyrannies” and “gulags” cheapens our language and dishonors the victims of those very real and truly oppressive institutions.

Third, when North et al. use anecdotes, I’d ask that they not exaggerate their significance so as to misrepresent what they’re talking about. For example, the authors assert that “fat studies programs may be the best example of higher education straying from its stated purpose [in order] to advance a Marxist agenda.” Leaving aside the question of how “fat studies programs … advance a Marxist agenda,” there are, so far as I can tell, no fat studies programs in American colleges and universities. Yes, there is a Fat Studies academic journal, but no one can major or minor in fat studies (again, so far as I can tell). Our authors extrapolate from conservative articles that give examples of a few courses offered around the country, leaving their readers with the misimpression that such programs are proliferating. Those few courses may be a few too many, but that’s a far cry from their being the “best example” of anything.

Indeed, a focus on these kinds of “studies” programs itself distorts the picture of higher education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2019-2020, only about 0.3 percent of students graduated with a degree in “area, ethnic, cultural, gender, and group studies,” down from a “peak” of about 0.5 percent earlier in the decade. The most popular degrees (business, at 19 percent, and health professions, at 12.6 percent) squarely earn the authors’ approval. The only “questionable” degree to make the top five is “social science/history,” at 7.9 percent.

The book contributes to a caricatured understanding of “Christians and conservatives” that many already harbor.I wish that North and his co-authors were more scrupulous for two reasons. First, the book contributes to a caricatured understanding of “Christians and conservatives” that many of my colleagues across the academy already harbor. Entertaining that caricature is unworthy of them, but this book does absolutely nothing to dispel it.

Second, the book doesn’t accurately inform its principal audience, the “Christian and conservative” grandparents and parents of college students, as well as the students themselves. In the spirit of full disclosure, these are my people: I’m a Christian and a conservative parent of recent college graduates, both of whom were homeschooled for almost the entirety of their pre-college education. The picture the authors rather sloppily paint overstates the dangers associated with higher education and misstates those dangers’ character. There are many studies I could point to, but I’ll focus on one—a survey of thousands of University of Wisconsin System students, about which I’ve written previously for this site. In that very interesting survey, the professoriate comes off reasonably well. Responding to a question that asks, “How often do your instructors encourage students to explore a wide variety of viewpoints … in classes where viewpoint diversity is relevant,” 58 percent reported that this occurred “extremely often” or “often.” Similarly, when asked the same question about how often instructors discouraged “students from exploring a wide variety of viewpoints,” 75 percent reported that they never or rarely did so. This isn’t perfect, and I can’t claim that the Wisconsin experience is common across the country, but it doesn’t sound like a gulag to me. At the same time, the survey suggests that students—especially conservatives—quite frequently self-censor, more out of concern for peer opinion than for consequences from their professors. The loudest and most aggrieved set a tone to which others acquiesce. If there’s a problem, it isn’t simply “Marxist professors” or even “Marxist professors and administrators.” Indeed, there are recent stories about administrators speaking out on behalf of academic freedom and freedom of speech. If you misrepresent or misunderstand the problem, you’re not going to formulate appropriate countermeasures. “My people” aren’t well-served by this caricature.

That said, given the heat of the book’s rhetoric, the solutions it proffers are relatively small-scale, not at all matched to the systemic claims it makes. Where the title leads us to contemplate burning the system to the ground—why should any academic gulag deserve to survive more than a day?—the body of the book recommends staying rooted in a Christian faith tradition through student organizations and a good local church (though Catholics don’t merit a mention in all this); developing connections with national conservative student organizations that provide resources and speakers to campuses (the Young America’s Foundation gets pride of place here, with no mention of the Hertog Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, or the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, all great resources for conservative students); cultivating good debating skills; and learning more about the subject than your opponents. So far as it goes, this is all good advice. As should be clear, I wish the authors had followed their own guidance on the last point.

The loudest faculty and students are surely the ideologues, but there are scrupulous teachers to be found.In the end, I think American Gulags does more harm than good. I’m not going to claim that college is for everyone or that it’s an unalloyed good for those who attend and complete their degree programs. But those who read and are persuaded by this book are primed to get as little out of their college experience as possible. Yes, they might earn a marketable credential, which I will not deprecate. But of the opportunities to gain intellectual breadth and depth, or to cultivate the capacity for individual and collective self-government, we hear nothing from North and his co-authors. The loudest faculty and students are surely the ideologues, but as Jonathan Marks has pointed out in Let’s Be Reasonable, there are scrupulous teachers and scholars to be found almost everywhere, if you know where to look. If North and his co-authors had their way, their readers would be even less willing to engage, generously and inquisitively, with the opportunities on campus.

I can think of no better way to conclude than by quoting C.S. Lewis, beloved and respected among my people:

If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether.

“No philosophy” is not a defense against bad philosophy. Name-calling and mere debater’s tricks and devices will not suffice. Christians and conservatives need much better guides to the terrain than North and his co-authors.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University in Brookhaven, Georgia, where he has taught since 1985.