How We’ve Gone from Institutions of Higher Education to Conformity Colleges

A new book by David Barnhizer diagnoses a serious problem.

Many Americans realize that our higher-education system is decaying, its standards in decline while costs continue to rise. Is this situation like a tooth with a cavity that can readily be fixed? Or is the decay so deep that we need something far more serious, such as a root canal?

David Barnhizer’s new book, Conformity Colleges, strongly suggests that we must have the latter. His subtitle explains that we suffer from “the destruction of intellectual creativity and dissent.” That’s an accurate diagnosis.

An emeritus professor of law, Barnhizer has written a no-holds-barred exposé of the tragic fall of our institutions of higher education. Our colleges, he states, “have turned into a one-sided process where true believers who see the world through an ideological lens have taken control.” Instead of graduating thoughtful, mature people who can employ reason to evaluate claims and arguments about the world, our schools produce increasingly large numbers of people who act as “social justice warriors,” single-mindedly following the lessons drummed into them in college.

Those in power have always sought to mould a populace where the people all believe the “right” things.The use of schooling to indoctrinate young people is an old tactic, our author reminds us. Those in power have always sought to mould a populace where the people all believe the “right” things, thereby cementing their control over society. Better yet, the people should be made intolerant of conflicting ideas to help deter outbreaks of dissent.

To an alarming degree, that’s how our colleges now function. Robust debate has given way to a “cancel culture” in which anyone who is out of step with the reigning orthodoxy is apt to be viciously attacked. Academic freedom is under siege, as even tenured professors can be put through a “living hell” (to quote Stanford medical professor Jay Bhattacharya) if they dare to speak out against what they regard as bad ideas—even when they’re talking about their areas of expertise.

So far have we sunk into the quicksand of conformity that “progressives” no longer feel the need to offer evidence for their claims. They know that fellow academics will automatically nod in approval, citing their papers in “scholarly” journals and spreading their ideas on social media. Dissent is heresy, an act to be punished. The result is intellectual stagnation—groupthink.

Barnhizer observes that the university shapes our future teachers through “education schools,” ensuring that the blinkered, conformist vision spreads like cancer throughout our entire education system. Because of their indoctrination in college, many of our K-12 teachers see their role not as instructors who are to pass along to young people the skills and knowledge they will need, but as “change agents” who are determined to see their students emerge with the “proper” attitudes. Thus, students graduate with a programmed set of beliefs but are often lacking in the tools for critical thinking.

The book abounds in examples to prove the author’s case.

One is the shocking experience of Yeonmi Park, a woman who risked her life in escaping from North Korea. In the U.S., she enrolled at Columbia University, where she found an anti-intellectual atmosphere almost as stifling as that she had left in North Korea. Barnhizer quotes her: “Going to Columbia, the first thing I learned was that every problem is because of white men. I literally crossed the Gobi Desert to be free and I realized I’m not free. America’s not free.” When she criticized her native country for its repression, she was called a liar. Depressingly, students at one of our most prestigious universities have been so indoctrinated with the idea that collectivist countries are good that they won’t even listen to someone who actually lived in one.

Barnhizer’s new book leaves no doubt that the Left’s march through the institutions has been overwhelmingly successful.Barnhizer mentions the famous remark by Italian communist writer Antonio Gramsci that the Left needed to make “a long march” through Western institutions, and his book leaves no doubt that the march has been overwhelmingly successful.

Some of the author’s evidence will shock even readers who are aware of the degradation of our educational institutions. It has spread as far as medical schools, where an intolerant, ideological mindset has taken root. Barnhizer quotes Kaytlin Reedy-Rogier, a lecturer at Washington University in St. Louis, who warned her students that if any of them dared to challenge her opinions, “I will shut that down—real fast. I have a hard time being neutral around issues of systemic oppression.”

So, medical students must absorb Reedy-Rogier’s views and are forbidden to question them. She displays the very antithesis of the scholarly mind in insisting that her views are unquestionably correct. Unfortunately, our colleges and universities are heavily populated with “educators” like her.

The substitution of ideology for objective teaching has led to a widespread degradation of academic standards. Barnhizer notes that many colleges have dropped the requirement that applicants take either the SAT or ACT, both reliable indicators of college readiness, in favor of “holistic” evaluations. They’ve done that because they are obsessed with student-body “diversity” and don’t care if a large percentage of their minority students are poorly prepared for college-level work. Consequently, administrators have approved the watering down of the curriculum and the inflation of grades so that weak students can graduate.

In the same vein, we find professors catering to those students. An example Barnhizer gives is Professor Asao Inoue, who thinks it’s wrong for composition instructors to require minority (especially black) students to write in standard English. To make things more “equitable,” he has adopted a “labor-based” grading system where grades depend on the amount of effort students supposedly put into the assignment, not on the quality of their writing. Many of our educational leaders agree and insist that grades be assigned to advance group “equity,” not to reflect individual achievement.

What if you are a professor so old-fashioned that you adhere to rigorous, objective academic standards? That puts your job at risk, as New York University chemistry professor Maitland Jones discovered. After a group of students complained to the administration that his course was too hard, the administration caved in and terminated Jones.

Once the “hate button” has been pushed, it isn’t possible to unpush it and get people to respect those who have different beliefs.A particularly frightening aspect of the book is Barnhizer’s point that the ideology being force-fed to our students is one that requires enemies. That’s because people aren’t apt to surrender their freedom to the vast government structure of control that “progressives” want unless they fear or hate some person or group. In 1984, Orwell invented the villain Emmanuel Goldstein, who was the object of the Two Minutes Hate.

Similarly, our ideology-driven educators have invented a number of villains for their followers, such as capitalists, “climate-deniers,” and Jews. As we have recently seen, those instilled hatreds can boil over into violence. Once the “hate button” has been pushed, it isn’t possible to unpush it and get people to respect those who have different beliefs. The animosities only grow stronger, and social cohesion frays.

Barnhizer makes it clear that American students aren’t being taught by scholars who expand their mental horizons but by propagandists who are absolutely certain that their views are right. They pass their close-mindedness along to their pupils, who come to see the world in simplistic good-versus-evil terms.

Education, he notes, should be the “trans-generation glue” that holds civilization together and promotes progress. It used to do that, but it has been subverted by people intent on obtaining power through their control over education.

What America desperately needs, Barnhizer argues, is a rebirth of educational integrity. Unfortunately, he cannot see that happening from within our schools. They’ve been overrun by true believers whose jobs depend on continuing to turn them into conformity colleges. He concludes that we need new institutions and leaders who will keep them from being corrupted.

George Leef is director of external relations at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.