Is College a Cult?

The disturbing similarities are too numerous to ignore.

Higher education is in a bad way these days. One encounters many metaphors for its current state. It’s a bubble, about to burst. It’s a pyramid scheme. A college degree is a signal to prospective employers and little more. Rarely do these metaphors bode well for an institution through which over 60 percent of Americans pass on their way to adulthood.

Perhaps we should add one more metaphor that may help account for some of the others: Is college a cult?

During the years I lived in Japan, I regularly interacted with members of what many people would label cults. Train stations were popular locations for recruitment. I was not a spiritual seeker, but I sorely needed language practice, and these folks wanted to talk. Where most commuters ignored their overtures, I would stop whenever I had time to spare. My conversation skills benefited as much from the countless hours spent in conversation with Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of New Age sects like Tenchi Seikyo, Mahikari, and Happy Science as from those spent studying a textbook.

Did I unwittingly join a cult when I took a job at a small liberal-arts college?So I’ve studied lots of cults up close and personal, though I’ve never been involved in one. Then again, cult members are usually unaware that they’ve joined a cult. Did I unwittingly join one when I took a job at a small liberal-arts college? It would be a perverse irony, inasmuch as colleges and universities pride themselves on fostering robust debate and open inquiry and encouraging their students to challenge authority and speak truth to power—not exactly the top priorities that come to mind when one thinks of cults.

Hence my unease when I started noticing things that conjured memories of Shibuya Station circa 1993.

The parallels are suggestive. Parents have wondered about the ever-longer “orientations” their 18-year-olds go through at the start of their college journey. It often starts at check-in with a love bomb from aggressively friendly student volunteers. (These “peer assistants” somehow recognized my daughter, screamed out her name, and started applauding even before we’d parked our vehicle at her freshman dorm.) Soon thereafter, students are separated from their families, who are told, “It’s time to say good-bye.” They are assigned spartan living quarters, to be shared in many cases with complete strangers. From there, students are put through a ringer of immersive, morning-to-night activities for as long as a week. Free time is limited. Sleep deprivation is common. There are lots and lots of speeches. This transition partly takes place in small groups, carefully organized by the administrators who guide students through their acclimation. Here they learn new rules (in particular, about things you should and should not say). Discussions might simply be quirky or awkward (“What’s your spirit animal?”), though they may veer into more intrusive territory by encouraging students to talk about their sexual preferences. Some activities attempt to create an artificial bond, while others divide and induce shame in ways that a neutral observer might consider to be hazing.

Precious little of this busyness has to do with academics, to the chagrin of most faculty. Honor codes at many schools are now supplemented by more comprehensive pledges to conduct oneself as a good “citizen,” as spelled out in “community standards” covenants.

Compliance is maintained through a system of bureaucratic and curricular sticks and carrots, nudges, and social pressure. Welcome-week orientations have expanded into semester- or year-long “first-year seminars.” These are largely devoid of academic content and taught by staff who curate a “first-year experience,” with required attendance at lectures outside of class time on topics that reinforce the relentless messaging.

Campus compliance is maintained through a system of bureaucratic and curricular sticks and carrots, nudges, and social pressure.Bias-reporting systems are set up to receive complaints when someone falls short of expectations. Encouraging students to inform on their peers and professors for minor offenses kind of creeps regular people out, especially when reports can be made anonymously. These online platforms are coordinated by “Bias Education Response” teams, so named to put a pedagogical veneer on a system for monitoring and modifying people’s behavior, ostensibly for their own good.

It doesn’t take a history with cults to recognize the potential for abuse in such a system. Back in the second century, it was obvious to the Emperor Trajan. When Pliny the Younger wrote to tell the emperor about his procedures for surveilling the Christians in his part of the empire, Trajan balked. Although he agreed that “people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded,” certain methods had to be avoided. Anonymous tips, Trajan said, “create the worst sort of precedent and are quite out of keeping with the spirit of our age.” Nevertheless, the torture Pliny said he employed to get intelligence from informants received no reprimand. I suppose you have to draw a line somewhere.

With ever greater frequency, campus-wide emails are sent out by provosts and presidents addressing some perceived crisis or threat to the community. The provocation might be as momentous as a presidential election or as minor as an errant comment on social media. Their tone—simultaneously unctuous and infantilizing—is what may give former cult members a feeling of déjà vu. It conveys a sense of empathy and omni-competence: “We share your grief, your anger, your fear; and we are doing something about it.” These messages seem to presuppose that students are emotionally brittle. Whether administrators truly believe the student body is psychologically feeble is unclear. Resources dedicated to “cry closets” stocked with stuffed animals, and “puppy rooms” with live animals for stressed students, would suggest that administrators perceive a real problem. If, on the other hand, they recognize student claims to feel unsafe as a form of manipulative political theater, then catering to them is tantamount to enabling a persecution complex. Encountering controversial, even repugnant ideas does not cause mentally healthy adults to shut down or manifest symptoms of hysteria. College campuses, it would appear, either appeal to neurotic, paranoid, emotionally frail individuals or create them. Neither alternative is reassuring if you worry you’re dealing with a cult.

But this is to leave out the other aspect of what people mean when they think of cults, namely, that they hold really weird beliefs. When it comes to incubating odd ideas and indulging idiosyncratic obsessions, colleges can more than hold their own. This cannot all be laid at the feet of administrators and student-services functionaries. Faculty share responsibility on this score.

When it comes to incubating odd ideas and indulging idiosyncratic obsessions, colleges can more than hold their own.Citing examples is like shooting fish in a barrel. One professor identifies Jesus as a masochistic “drag king.” An education department proposes abolishing the word “field” because it evokes memories of slavery. Hundreds of scholars conduct a witch hunt against a philosopher for publishing a heavily-footnoted article in a peer-reviewed journal, on the grounds that she “enacts violence and perpetuates harm” by using “phrases like ‘male genitalia.’” Entire courses are devoted to zombies and cryptozoology. University-supported research papers find that pigeons are connoisseurs of modern art and that unicorns might exist in another universe. While some of these cases are relatively frivolous, others—expressions of unhinged anti-Semitism, for example—are more disturbing.

Unless you have drunk the Kool-Aid, a lot of this sounds kind of crazy. But the issue is not really that faculty and administrators make bizarre claims and advocate absurd policies. The value of college consists in part in the space it creates for exploring unorthodox ideas, no matter how weird they may sound. Rather, what’s reminiscent of a cult mentality is the fact that campus-dwellers seem oblivious to just how weird they sound to the vast majority of people outside the academy. Arguments could be made for many of the views they espouse. Lots of weird things happen to be true. That they take umbrage in having to justify them, however, stems either from a staggering lack of self-awareness or a contempt for those who expect them to explain and defend their ideas like everyone else. Indeed, they seem to think the peculiar impression they make is a sign of something pathological within everyone else. Psychologists call this projection. To describe this as cultish is perhaps unfair to cults, since cults can’t as easily avoid the feedback loop of opprobrium that reminds them of their weirdness and, moreover, lack the social capital to cancel their critics.

So, am I part of a cult?

John McWhorter has argued that the preoccupation with social-justice issues among progressives on campus is best understood as a religion. Woke anti-racism, he says, has all the classic elements of a religion: scriptural texts, prophets, priests, holy days, creeds, and rituals. It features special vocabulary, a nose for heresy, a missionary imperative, a robust sense of sin, and a Manichaean view of the world as divided between good and evil.

There is a key distinction, however, between a religion and a cult. I do not mean that the former is biblical and true while the latter is unbiblical and false, as many anti-cult evangelicals would frame it. The salient difference is that a cult is a fringe phenomenon. Cults stand on the margins of the mainstream of society. By definition, cults and cult members are outsiders.

Will the rest of society become more like the campus, or will campus culture yield to external forces?College students and faculty are not normally outsiders, especially not those at the more prestigious schools where the fervor of “the Great Awokening” is most palpable. Nor, thankfully, do colleges witness much of the abusive behavior associated with cults. Sociologically speaking, colleges are not cults.

Those who are worried but cautiously optimistic about various trends that inhibit free speech and constructive disagreement believe that graduation and experience in “the real world” will provide the most effective exit counseling. Others note that students are increasingly bent on transforming the workplace and remaking society in accordance with their own uncompromising ideals.

Who has it right, the optimists or the pessimists? Will the rest of society become more like the campus, or will campus culture yield to external forces?

In the fourth century, one movement emerged from the welter of Mediterranean cults and became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Can something similar happen again? Or has it already? It’s too soon to tell.

Patrick Gray is professor of religious studies at Rhodes College (Memphis, TN). His publications include Varieties of Religious Invention (Oxford University Press, 2016) and The Routledge Guidebook to the New Testament (Routledge, 2017).