Are Our Universities Crumbling?

April 13, 2020

Scott Yenor

Washington Fellow

John M. Ellis’ new book, The Breakdown of Higher Education, argues that higher education is so corrupt that it can only be reformed from the outside. One might observe now that if our politicians don’t do it, the coronavirus will! It remains to be seen whether there will be long-term changes initiated by the corona-induced move to on-line instruction, but, even so, changing the trajectory of higher education will probably require some political oversight. Ellis’ book is an indispensable starting point for thinking that through.

Ellis has been in the academy, mostly at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he is now Distinguished Professor Emeritus of German literature, since the mid-1960s. At this point in his career, when most people achieve a kind of stoical resolve about the corrupt ways of the world and turn philosophical and detached, Ellis calls for a radical dismantling of our universities. Can anything now be saved?

Free Speech or Civilized Heritage?

Ellis at times comes off as an old-time academic. He is interested in rational inquiry, weighing evidence, and a no-holds-barred exchange of ideas. It is all right for there to be America-hating, capitalism-hating faculty members on campus, as long as a thousand flowers can bloom. All need to endorse the norms of rational inquiry for the academic mission to continue. Today, however, what once was higher education has broken down and become left-wing indoctrination in identity politics. When the going gets tough, this old-time academic Ellis cites the defense of free speech in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty as the model for what the university should be and for the ills that it will encounter when it departs from the model of free speech. In using the one-time bromides of the Old Free-Speech Left against the New Left, Ellis makes what youngsters today call a “boomer” argument. But, unfortunately, sociologists do not blush.

There is another Ellis, however—one who has taken lumps watching one of the bastions of Western learning, our institutions of higher education, turn against its heritage. This is a betrayal, a sacrilege, a terrible act of ingratitude. Only in the West has slavery been abolished. Only in the West has the common life for the common man been so full of prosperity. But today’s academics ignore all of this and blame the West for all our modern ills. The Ellis angered by this development is more German, in the manner of Goethe, than he is Millian (wir sind Seelenfreunden, mein sehr geehrte Herr!). This more German Ellis worries that universities have broken down higher education and infused it with the wrong kind of education, both heavier and wrong-headed, in place of an education that leads to an appreciation of our rich heritage.

Products of the old education would have cheeks that burn red when the country was offended or disrespected. Today’s students may blush, but only at their own “privilege”; if their cheeks burn red with anger it is against the “white male” civilization that they should appreciate. At today’s universities, the students love and honor the wrong things because the institutions themselves love and honor the wrong things. Embracing the view of the world from this modern university means taxpayer-assisted suicide.

The old-time academic, Millian Ellis points to education based on the model of scientific progress. The German Ellis points to an education aimed at civic education and humane learning—a kind of learning that has a content, not just a process. For a defense of the latter, if that is what Ellis genuinely wants, a defense of free speech itself is not enough (if it is necessary at all). The Millian argument is a dead end when no one will listen. It is the recognition of this problem that has turned this reforming, old-time academic Ellis into a blow-it-all-up populist of sorts, even at his advanced age.

Just How Far Left is Higher-Ed?

Ellis runs the academy through a series of tests to defend his conclusion that it only will be reformed from the outside. The number of conservatives on campus is one canary in the coalmine. The professoriate has gone from leaning left (2 liberals for every conservative in 1969), to further left (5:1 in 1999) to lurching left (8:1 in 2006 and 11.5:1 in 2016). Ellis cites piles of other evidence. “Until about 2016,” campus radicals would deny that they had created “one-party ecosystems where right-of-center voices were rarely heard.” Such denials have stopped, indicating, perhaps, “a growing confidence that radical control is now complete” and leftist control can proceed “unashamed” without explanation.

Another canary in the coalmine is the quality of education as measured by skills and general knowledge. On this, universities graduate people “who know little and can’t think,” as Ellis relates in study after study. Arum and Roska, authors of Academically Adrift, find “no statistically significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, or writing skills” for nearly half of students. The National Center for Education Statistics sees a “sharp decline” in literacy between 1992 and 2003. The numbers are astounding: nearly 70 percent of college graduates cannot read reasonably complex materials (we’re not talking about Shakespeare, but something like an FDR speech) and explain what it means. Depending on the question wording, somewhere between 40 and 70 percent of college professors think their students are unprepared to think, write, and speak clearly. (And judging from much academic writing, the professors are not overly prepared themselves!)

The state of “general knowledge” and civic education is, if anything, worse than the acquisition of skills. Relating a series of depressing tales and studies, Ellis shows that the beating heart of today’s university curriculum involves making the case for radical social transformation. Go through the course offerings in History or English departments, as Ellis does; analyze their titles, the research agenda of the instructor, and the syllabi. It is easy to see that an agenda for social justice is increasingly crowding out all alternatives. Studies by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) confirm this: more than 80 percent of college seniors at the top 50 schools fail tests about basic facts on American history or American government. Confronted with these studies, the higher-education industry does nothing. Could on-line education be any worse?

None of these canaries, dying on quads instead of coalmines, can be resuscitated. Ellis discusses others, ranging from campus radicalism, campus violence, the irreproducibility problems in experiments, the corruption of the peer review process, and the narrowing of acceptable questions that can be asked in an academic context. In each case, Jeremiahs like John Ellis have been making arguments for years without any action to remedy the problems. Conservatives themselves have warned of this coming anti-American radicalism since William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale (1948) and other books. Conservatives have founded organizations like ACTA to expose the problems and engage trustees, one of Buckley’s recommendations. Things have only gotten worse. Why?

One has to admire the Left, on some level, for what they have done to the universities. They thought of everything. On the one hand, they have continued to cultivate the public image of the university as a bastion of scientific and technological innovation; each university contributes billions to our economy. Watch the commercials during a college football game and a viewer can be excused for thinking that white coats are mandatory for college students and all of them major in physics or medical research or mechanical engineering. Americans, even conservative critics of the university, know that a university education is essential for advancement in the modern world. All line up to send their kids.

On the other hand, universities have established faculty hiring processes, administrative posts, boards of regents, accreditation standards, and funding to build universities designed for social transformation around the ideas of identity politics. The (mostly) false image of the university generates public funding and acceptance; the reality of the university creates a new public. Ellis calls this “the iron grip of political radicalism.”

Ellis concludes that universities no longer serve the common good; in fact, their “true north” undermines a well-functioning republican form of government that is capable of loving itself and protecting itself. The bait and switch of promising one kind of education and then delivering social transformation along the lines of identity politics amounts to the embezzlement of public funds for private, partisan activity, punishable, perhaps, under the Hatch Act, Ellis suggests.

Reform or Revolution?

There is no hope that academe, broadly conceived to include its boards of control, will reform itself. It only can be reformed from the outside through the mechanisms of politics. What mechanisms? Free speech reform is not availing because the campuses need diversity of opinion and willing ears to make free speech effective. Affirmative action for conservatives on campus to cultivate such diversity of opinion? Conservatives on campus are likely to feel like Christians in Tehran, alienated from the broader transformational mission and hence ignored and harassed. Relying on the professionalism of STEM ignores the ways in which these disciplines will be vulnerable to takeover and corruption from the diversity apparatus on campuses. From an ideological perspective, STEM is today where English was in the 1990s—and forces regulating it at universities are demanding that it conform. The reproducibility problems, where scientific progress is seriously compromised because scientists themselves have a difficult time reproducing findings of experiments, documented in a National Association of Scholars study, relate especially to STEM research. If hard sciences are compromised, the university loses its raison d’etre and there is every reason to think that this is already retarding progress.

More fundamentally, none of these reforms would further the university’s formative mission toward an appreciation of our country.

Therefore, Ellis concludes, “any solution that does not directly address and attempt to correct the problem of an overwhelmingly one-party, radical, activist professoriate is no more than wishful thinking. The problem is one of personnel, not of rules of guidance.” Removing funding, Ellis concludes, is the only effective lever that the public has to implement such changes. His statesmanlike plan for action might work like this:

First, “[develop] the will for political action” with reports, episodes, media, and stories that show how the modern university does not serve the common good and in fact undermines it. His book is an example of this, as are the reports on which he draws. State legislatures could mandate reports on faculty diversity of opinion (as has Florida) or require entrance and exit exams to measure learning on civic education (drawn up by an entity like ACTA, not the system itself). This work is underway.

Second, state governments could begin the effort to discipline particularly nefarious departments or disciplines by abolishing targeted departments whose “sole purpose” is “always. . . political” or who openly claim, as part of their mission, a transformative agenda or whose methods and assumptions are so enthralled to radical politics that they are beyond repair. Identifying such departments would presumably proceed with a board, akin to a tariff commission, collecting: 1) mission statements; 2) a list of required classes for majors and accompanying syllabi; 3) the rest of the curriculum and syllabi; and 4) accreditation requirements (because many such requirements are made in collusion with the accreditation bodies). Nationwide statistics on the partisan breakdown of particular departments (like sociology, for instance) could help such a commission decide who to target for abolition. Zeroing out more than a few departments might make the others take notice. If not, more would have to go.

Third, national efforts to tie funding to education reform might be availing. Defunding all things connected to the expansion of the diversity and inclusion apparatus would also help.

Could there be honor in reforming universities along these lines? Would parents send their kids in droves to such universities? Ellis imagines an “Athens on the Great Plains,” where some enterprising educational reform attracts the liberally educated, advocates of free speech, and parents who want their children to be improved through higher education (as opposed to those who simply want them to “get ahead”).

Ellis has been teaching at universities longer than I have been alive, and my hair is thinning and turning white. I cannot help but think about how he began his career with great hopes, within world-class universities. I too have been filled with such burning zeal to impart liberal learning and an appreciation for our civilization since I started teaching in 2000. What, pray, will universities look like in 2050 when I turn 80 (Lord willing)? The country itself will not survive if their drift continues at the speed it has in the last decade. I hope I live to see an “Athens” arise in Omaha. If I do, it will be because men like John Ellis pointed the way and statesmen, sensing the danger and the opportunity, rose to the occasion.

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Originally published by Law & Liberty.