Part IV: Assessing the Deeper Damage
The most obvious and damaging effects of the contemporary university on America are cultural. University students once were young people seeking to become full participants in a civilization grounded in the wisdom of philosophers, poets, saints, and statesmen over many centuries. Today students have been turned into crybullies seeking “social justice,” defined as universal adherence to codes of conduct rooted in fantasies regarding the “social construction” of race, sex, class, and ethnicity. Of course, most students are more victim than perpetrator in this increasingly prevalent madness; they want only to get the credential necessary to get a decent job. Aside from drinking, their main occupation is pursuit of that credential while avoiding charges of committing a “microaggression” or being expelled for being accused, even against the weight of the evidence, of sexual assault. Small wonder young men in particular increasingly pass up college altogether. They know they are not welcome.
The crybullies did not create the current situation. For all their bluster, today’s student radicals remain mere creatures of their mentors, products of a toxic atmosphere created by decades of increasingly univocal faculties and administrations that have rejected the very idea of education in favor of ideological indoctrination. The latest and most radical assault on learning at the university concerns Title IX, the federal statute banning sex discrimination in education. On the basis of a “dear colleague” letter from Obama administration functionaries, yet another set of university functionaries are plastering campuses with posters portraying all men as potential rapists and enforcing a standard of “proof” subjecting male participants in sex acts to prosecution on the basis of bare accusations. This latest step is merely part of an aggressive campaign of race- and sex-based indoctrination long festering on campus and especially in the dormitories that only reaches public consciousness when one of its victims fights back in court. It is part of an Orwellian reality intended to be spread throughout our society by the products of an educational system literally unhinged from reality.
The latest assault is just the latest in a series of waves of revolutionary change beginning with the vulgar Marxism and attacks on traditional codes of conduct during the 1960s and institutionalized through the race- and sex-based quotas that eliminated all but a vanishingly small coterie of nonpoliticized scholars beginning in the 1980s. Now essentially unchallenged on campus, radicals have chosen to extend their indoctrination beyond false claims of liberation, enforcing “enlightened” and “progressive” codes of conduct. In the name of freedom, the most personal of human interactions are to be made subject to constant oversight and reconfiguration.
Campus radicalism has been rendered unstoppable through its institutionalization in the university’s integration into governmental structures. The university has become a primary conduit and gatekeeper for distribution of federal research grants and student loans. In this role it is both subject to and enforcer of federal regulatory policies it habitually uses as props for yet more radical programs. In the process the university has discarded its natural end (to provide an opportunity for liberal learning) in exchange for providing technocratic training to turn young people into good citizens of the administrative state. A key outgrowth of this change in fundamental purpose has been the elimination of all but a tiny minority of aging academics who are not self-consciously progressive in ideology and outlook. The elimination of any serious opposition or even questioning of all but the most unnuanced extensions of progressive ideology has meant that students hear essentially nothing positive about their culture and civilization, or about their duty to prepare themselves to take their place as learned adults within that civilization. Instead they are taught to see themselves as participants in an illegitimate power structure that serves only to mask power relations. They are trained to act as if their proper role is to constantly fight over control of that power structure so that they may reconfigure it to suit their own needs; they are trained to fight their oppression of the moment.
From an institution by its nature conservative, the university has become an institution thoroughly wedded to progressive ideology and the power of the central state. It now is incapable of teaching students, instead merely reinforcing their sense of entitlement and training them in a fashion reminiscent of trade schools even where the subject matter is the most abstract imaginable. The training is intended to make graduates minimally useful to future employers but maximally useful in the pursuit of social justice defined as the extension of state power throughout society.
Prospects for internal reform are bleak at best. There simply is no critical mass of faculty or administrators opposed to current policies or their extension. What is more, students of contrary mind are too few, too cowed, and too transient in their presence on campus to mount significant opposition, and outside leaders, whether sitting on boards of trustees or in state legislatures, have neither the time nor the interest (nor the stomach for conflict) necessary to make much of a difference on campus. The most likely future for the university is more of the same—or rather less as federal monies dry up, regulations continue to expand, and students (especially male students) reject university education altogether. Our shrinking population already has put the squeeze on university admissions offices, which increasingly look overseas to balance the universities’ books.
The only “action plan” for the long term is to reduce the size and scope of government generally and so also reduce the size and scope of power exercised by those currently in control of the universities. In this way it may be possible that the paradigm of the university as social justice arm of the state may lose its power. With fewer dollars to dispense will come less control over the decisions of students and their parents and, perhaps, room for those few colleges seeking to provide a liberal education to prosper and multiply.
Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at The Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.