Commentary

Colleges Are to Blame for the Contempt in Which They’re Held

July 12, 2017

The Chronicle’s story about the new Pew Research Center survey on American attitudes toward higher education displays a photo of Middlebury College students turning their backs on Charles Murray at the March 2 protest that culminated in assaults on Murray and Professor Allison Stanger.

The photo deftly captures the essence of the Pew report. The survey of 2,504 adults found a dramatic shift in the percentage of Republicans who see colleges and universities having "a positive effect on the way things are going in the country." The finding has been widely reported: In just two years, Republicans have flipped from a majority (54 percent) saying higher education has a positive effect on the country, to a majority (58 percent) saying the opposite.

I am heartened by the news. It has taken a lot to break through the complacency of these voters. In my role as head of the National Association of Scholars, I’ve given speeches at countless grassroots events, written or published hundreds of articles, and spent hours on talk radio in an effort to persuade ordinary Americans that something is terribly amiss in higher education. The Pew survey suggests that at least some people have begun to listen.

Of course, the real credit for this turnaround goes to those students at Middlebury and their counterparts at dozens of other colleges and universities. It goes to Melissa Click, the professor who was caught on video saying, "I need some muscle over here!" to expel a student reporter from a protest at the University of Missouri in November 2015. And it goes to college presidents such as Hiram Chodosh, at Claremont McKenna; Peter Salovey, at Yale; and Laurie Patton, at Middlebury whose fecklessness in the face of students’ outrageous violations of the norms of the academic community has shaken public confidence in higher education’s basic ability to provide an environment where ideas can be freely debated.

I wouldn’t want to leave out the debt to Kate Aronoff, the student leader at Swarthmore College whose activist group, Mountain Justice, took over a board meeting. Swarthmore’s president at the time, Rebecca Chopp, later called for dialogue, to which Ms. Aronoff replied by way of headline, "F*** Your Constructive Dialogue." [Asterisks are mine.]

That was in May 2013, and while I doubt that many of the Pew responders called it to mind, it was a key moment in the breaking of the dams that had restrained the self-indulgent crudity and swinishness of students who impose their own views on their communities. President Chopp’s half-hapless, half-obliging handling of the situation was also a forerunner of the behavior of the throng of college presidents who make an art form of acquiescence.

My thanks to all the social-justice warriors, race hustlers, faculty ideologues, and administrative enablers who have brought about this change in public opinion. I couldn’t have done it without you.

But I don’t want to organize a victory parade on the basis of one small poll taken in the wake of several years of really atrocious behavior.

The Pew question demands a gestalt answer, and the gestalt answer for me is that American higher education, taken all in all, has put itself in opposition to America’s best principles, its most admirable aspirations, its open-mindedness, and its capacity to a create a generation of worthy civic and political leaders. That opposition has public consequences, the most important of which is the malformation of students who mistake their anger for clear thinking and who have developed contempt for their country and their countrymen.

Anger and contempt will, of course, be met with anger and contempt, and what colleges and universities have provided is a radical intensification of our partisan divide.

“American higher education, taken all in all, has put itself in opposition to America's best principles.”
All of this could and should be said without references to the 2016 election. But when higher education moved decisively to support Bernie Sanders and later made itself central to the anti-Trump "Resistance," its abandonment of impartiality became patent. The real question is, Why do only 58 percent of Republican voters believe higher education negatively affects the country? I know the answer: The other 42 percent are not yet paying attention. "Kids will be kids," they say. "Give them time. They’ll outgrow it." "Truly radical activists are only a minority. Antifa isn’t the hub of campus life." Those who say such things underestimate how effectively the radical vanguard intimidates everyone else.

The parallel question about Democrats matters at least as much. Why are only 28 percent of Democrats in the Pew poll worried about higher education’s effect on the future of the country? Shortsightedness. It might be energizing to believe that the university is wholly on your political side, but the danger of raising a generation steeped in the politics of resentment, power for its own sake, and loathing of intellectual disagreement ought to alarm liberals. This can come to no good end.

Our colleges and universities may get some things right — even that is disputable — but they are getting civic education wrong. They are graduating students whose "activism" is rooted in an odd conjunction of utopian wish and apocalyptic fantasy. A significant portion of those campus activists are nihilistic, bitter, mean-spirited, and, of course, self-righteous. Their worst impulses, those impulses to put the pursuit of power ahead of the desire to learn, are encouraged by the identity politics of the faculty and the expediency of college administrators.

The Pew poll suggests far more than it can plausibly show. It suggests that Republican voters have at last begun to relinquish their fond hope that our colleges and universities are, despite numerous defects, still a net good for the United States. The exorbitant costs, the student-debt crisis, the immolation of the humanities, the trivialization of much of the curriculum, the turn to making an accusation of "sexual harassment" into proof of guilt — none of that was enough to cancel the patience of conservatives with an institution they are by nature inclined to love. But Middlebury? Taken in company with the other such fiascoes, yes, that was enough.

Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars.