From the conservative perspective, at least, academe is the source of some of the greatest challenges that America faces today. Higher education is not, in fact, an isolated ivory tower — it is where the nation’s elites, for better or worse, are formed. As a result, trends on campus have enormous consequences for the course of the country writ large. The university
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From the conservative perspective, at least, academe is the source of some of the greatest challenges that America faces today. Higher education is not, in fact, an isolated ivory tower — it is where the nation’s elites, for better or worse, are formed. As a result, trends on campus have enormous consequences for the course of the country writ large. The university matters — its influence has been evident in almost every major cultural debate over the course of the past decade.
For years, conventional wisdom held that the more outlandish and illiberal iterations of campus politics would remain confined to the classrooms. “Do young people, drunk on their first engagement in politics, sometimes express themselves in ways that are hyperbolic and bullying? Absolutely,” the writer Amanda Marcotte scoffed in Salon in 2015. “Most of them will probably grow out of it, and maybe even be a bit embarrassed at how they took things too far in their college years.” But today, many of the ideas that one encounters in academe — that small-l liberal norms surrounding free speech and debate perpetuate oppression; that words can be tantamount to violence; that the pursuit of equitable outcomes justifies explicit racial discrimination; that “white supremacy,” in the words of Biden’s UN Ambassador, is “weaved … into our founding documents and principles” — have become widely accepted in varied milieus from Silicon Valley to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This is not an abstract debate, nor is it merely a series of silly right-wing obsessions that distract from real political issues. To the contrary, it permeates almost every aspect of American life. In recent years, conservatives watched the nation’s newspaper of record force out its opinion editor over an op-ed from a sitting U.S. senator who took a position that most Americans favored. (In-house critics of the article claimed that its argument put Black New York Times staffers “in danger” — a familiar line from the campus script.) They watched a race-conscious vision of “equity” spread from university diversity, equity, and inclusion offices into public-school education, prompting a rapid elimination of gifted-and-talented programs and a push for lower standards — all in pursuit of more-equitable outcomes across demographic groups. They watched academic ideas about police and prison abolitionism — the kind of doctrine that an older generation might have waved away as boutique classroom silliness — become public policy. They watched the instinct to topple statues and rename buildings graduate from the campus quad to the national stage, with no limiting principle and no meaningful opposition, quickly moving from Robert E. Lee to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
The proponents of stripping the 16th president’s name off of a San Francisco high school (a move that the school board ultimately rescinded) clearly see themselves as the natural heirs of the civil-rights movement. Many of their moderate, center-left peers acknowledge the social-justice movement’s excesses and worry that overzealous voices will undermine the cause. The problem, from the conservative perspective, is that, today, the overzealous are the cause. When social-justice activists say that they “seek not reform but transformation” and envision “a fundamentally different world,” conservatives — particularly younger ones, who have direct experience with today’s campus radicalism — tend to believe them.
- The 50-Year War on Higher Education
- The Right-Wing Attempt to Control Higher Ed
- The Real Fight for Academic Freedom
- I’m a Conservative. I’m Dismayed by Right-Wing Campus Activists.
- The Dumbing Down of the Purpose of Higher Ed
- The Charade of Political Neutrality
- What Will It Take to Make College More Affordable?
To progressive ears, it might sound odd to argue that the left is on the verge of cultural victory, when Republicans are disproportionately favored by the Electoral College and the Senate, and when the Supreme Court has handed the conservative legal movement important victories on gun rights and abortion. But many conservatives are worried precisely because the right’s political power has done little to halt the progressive march through the nation’s cultural institutions. Ironically, many on today’s right share the neo-Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci’s belief that true power flows from “cultural hegemony”: “The state,” Gramsci argued, is “only an outer ditch, behind which there [stands] a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks.” Conservatives can win control of the “outer ditch,” but they have failed to puncture the walls.
If Gramsci was correct — i.e., if true hegemony is derived from cultural control — then debates regarding the university are about far more than any one specific classroom doctrine. They are about power — who wields it, and to what ends. Progressives understand this: From John Dewey to Paulo Freire, the left has long viewed the education system as one of the central mechanisms for the achievement of its political ambitions. If the right’s rhetoric and posture toward academe has become more aggressive in recent years, it is very likely because conservatives are finally coming to terms with it themselves.