Thirty-seven years ago I began my academic career at an elite liberal arts college in upstate New York as a rather naïve, rough-hewn, and starry-eyed instructor in history without Ph.D. in hand. My level of excitement on landing a job at Hamilton College correlated inversely with my $14,500 starting salary.
Coming from an elite graduate program that placed me under demanding mentors, I looked upon institutions of higher learning not as safe spaces immured behind ivy-covered stone walls, but as arenas into which students and faculty spiritedly marched, armed with evidence and argument, to engage each other in the battle of ideas. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that in reaching seniority, I would find myself increasingly invited to places where the task at hand was to hold on to a kind of academic Bastogne against the Panzer divisions of the campus totalitarians.
Make no mistake: We are losing this Battle of the Bulge. Defenders of the Great Tradition, holed up in the keep of the old citadel, face an array of hostile forces that demand nothing less than unconditional surrender. In response to the crisis, rest assured: I have no intention of playing the role of Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe. I have more to say than “Nuts.”
That many of the most egregious recent offensives have been launched on liberal arts campuses—Middlebury, Evergreen, Claremont McKenna, and Oberlin among them—should not surprise. A proud, 200-year tradition in liberal arts education at Hamilton College has unraveled slowly but surely, with the active participation of leadership that seems more interested in comity than quality, form rather than substance, and fashion rather than prescription. Elite liberal arts colleges have endowments of such size that they can continue merrily down the path of destruction, largely oblivious to the criticism of right-of-center alumni, safe in the knowledge that their richly budgeted public relations and developmental arms can spin a sow’s ear into a silk purse.
Although larger schools of higher learning, public and private, have experienced similar problems, the very size, multiple campuses, and different set of institutional arrangements with which universities can channel and refine internal politics have made sectors of these universities less susceptible to capture by les enragés than are the liberal arts colleges. Thus the focus of this Liberty Forum essay will be on what I know best. Teaching for 37 years straight at one, and only one, such institution has its advantages in trying to understand the rather remarkable process by which a creative polyphony of disciplinary voices aimed at teaching students how to think mutated into a cacophony of self-centered emissions aimed at stupefying students into what to think.
This is not a new concern. In 2009, Hamilton College played host to a conference convened to address whether a crisis existed in liberal arts education. Why had the liberal arts become so illiberal, and how pervasive was the corruption? Predictably enough, student activists hurried to the scene of what was deemed a “controversial event.” They sat in the front row and tried to exercise the hecklers’ veto—or really the “ahem” veto—by interrupting what the panelists had to say with a repetitive chorus of hacking coughs. Also predictably enough, the president of the college and the dean of the faculty, from their seats in the audience, raised not a discouraging word. Not until one panelist paused the proceedings to excoriate the students for their infantile behavior did the disruptions end.
In introducing this event, the organizer had asked the audience to conduct a thought experiment, and turn back the clock 50 years to engage in what his left-wing colleagues might call a “reimagining.” A version of his thought experiment in the form of a fable might go something like this . . .
Comes the Army of the Grand Axis
It is approximately the midpoint of the 20th century, and the newspaper of record in the United States has published an article extolling a liberal arts college on a green and lovely campus in upstate New York, for a study it conducted to answer this vital question: “What basic musts in the way of intellectual and moral equipment should a college give its students to prepare them for effective living during the next 50 years?” The study, five years in the making, determined that 45 percent of every student’s class time during the first two years of matriculation would be devoted to fulfilling six objectives: written and oral command of English; fluency in a foreign language; a command of logic and its application to the understanding of the natural world; understanding and enjoyment of the creative arts; knowledge of the principal ways human beings have constructed and interacted with society; and, most important, “an understanding of the intellectual bases of ethical judgment.”
Bracing stuff, that. Now move the clock ahead to the present.
This very same college is no longer a bright shining little city on the hill, but a captured satellite of an alien imperium. The victors, chieftains of an eclectic army calling itself the Democratic Peoples’ Army of the Grand Axis, were able to take over without casualties to their troops. They did not have to breach the walls of the citadel. Indeed, in many cases, the guardians of the city—the trustees encharged with defending it from enemies domestic and foreign—waved the white flag and negotiated compromise and a quick surrender. The stoutest defenders of the old city had rested their hopes on the wisdom of the guardians but discovered too late that they had been betrayed.
The guardians not only opened the gates of the city to the Grand Axis, they handed it the keys. The besiegers stood at the gates, claiming to hold the high moral ground. They preached the identity politics of a Progressive culture. Once inside the city, they made no secret of their ambition to destroy what was, to sow salt into the ground, and to rebuild the city on an entirely new foundation of critical theory.
Embarking on this refounding, they brandished as their idées fixes two of the central tenets of postmodernism: No objective reality exists apart from the self’s representation of it, and everyone is ideological. With these weapons in hand, the various units under the command of the Grand Axis had no need to respect the culture of the other whom they threatened with annihilation. If no standard of judgment exists outside the subjective self, then their earthly struggle to impose their ways upon the other boiled down to matters of will and power. The ideology of the Grand Axis, like all ideologies, insulated its advancing forces from criticism. If we are all ideological, said the aggressors, we need not take the defenders seriously. “Are ye with us or agin’ us?” is what the Grand Axis demanded to know.
Little did the defenders of the old city realize that the city’s guardians had been paying tribute to the Grand Axis for some time. These bribes, intended to preempt disorder, only egged the Grand Axis on in its campaign of destruction. Why had the guardians so misjudged the Grand Axis? Because in the beginning, its vanguard mainly showed its true colors in obscure and restricted places: workshops, individual classrooms, or arcane periodicals. Thus although the guardians claimed to be supportive of (or at least not hostile to) capitalism, the anti-capitalist tirades of the Grand Axis never came within earshot of the guardians—or, perhaps more accurately, the guardians preferred to feign not hearing what was being said for the sake of peace.
The Grand Axis claimed to be on the right side of history. Many of the guardians, nagged by self-doubt, sold out to the Grand Axis. Under it, a reconstructed city emerged, with impressively gilded walls. The guardians did everything they could to satisfy the whims of the occupying forces, to subsidize their need for travel and leisure. Attention to appearances, however, masked the rot at the core.
Under pressure from the Grand Axis, the guardians marginalized the old city’s stoutest defenders or created conditions that encouraged them to leave. Without a critical mass of traditionalists to conserve what was precious in the old city, it could not defend the basic musts. Administrators of the reconstructed city quickly learned to tow the party line; failure to do so would unleash the Grand Axis’ undergraduate epigones in a plague of relentless agitation. Diversity and democracy became the most potent shibboleths of the forces of occupation. Preaching diversity permitted the construction, person by person, program by program, department by department, of a popular-front-style majority faction to rule every corner of the old city and to bring into being the Grand Axis’ vision of the future.
If any obstacles remained in the way, it could resort to a crude MOAB, the high-yield massive ordinance air blast bomb that targeted the old inhabitants’ alleged racial or sexual bigotry. In most cases, however, weapons of mass destruction proved unnecessary. The city’s Fifth Column helped the Grand Axis take power by staging incidents wherein defenders of the basic musts were arraigned on charges of rank bias and hatred. To such charges, the guardians invariably responded with a rash of concessions since, in their own rent-seeking companies belonging to them outside the city, they had already performed similar obeisances to fulfill the mandates of the big government imperium that included the Grand Axis. The guardians’ bid to keep the peace by feeding the protection racket of the Grand Axis only served, however, to make it hungrier for total domination of the old city.
Before long, it was possible for the Grand Axis to achieve a numerical majority in this or that department of the old city. Once in the majority, the vanguard wedded democracy to diversity so that it could shape the content of almost every important departmental committee on policy or appointment.
Soon there were many departments under the sway of units of the Grand Axis until, after years of occupation, there remained in the city only one outspoken conservative holdout. Under the new regime, however, this person was not elected or appointed to any committee, despite his exemplary record of accomplishment in teaching and scholarship. Indeed, on fabricated charges, the Grand Axis stripped him of his departmental duties and attempted to ostracize him.
The guardians sided with the Grand Axis and called him names and questioned his very sanity. The lone conservative was a “wing-nut,” an “extremist,” “anti-social,” “paranoid,” “psychotic,” “an intriguer,” and “mentally unstable.” When he pressed for due process so he could refute the charges against him, he learned that under the Grand Axis, conservative defenders of the old city had no right to due process.
Legend has it that he was once asked by a friend who had long since departed the city, “Have not the followers of the Grand Axis finally quieted down?” To which the old warrior replied, “They have not. They have merely paused and are probably weeping. For, like Alexander, they are wondering what worlds they had left to conquer.”
In the reconstructed city, professors forsook the basic musts. Indeed, they betrayed the very ethos of a traditional liberal arts education. The Grand Axis voted to institute an open curriculum, a not-so-clever way of saying that within the reconstructed city there would be no curriculum. Since a radical egalitarian ethos had propelled the Grand Axis to victory, its votaries had no desire to privilege one discipline over another even as they elevated their followers and their politicized programming to disciplinary status. In the open curriculum, what came first was the personal feelings of students; any attempts to teach them about high standards of critical thinking might generate complaints that could endanger the Grand Axis’ ruling agenda.
Because of the adverse incentives of the open curriculum, the number of students who sought double majors (once almost nonexistent in the old city) soared to something approaching 30 percent of juniors and seniors. Transcripts leaked from the offices of the new regime revealed a disturbing number of cases in which over 70 percent of a student’s courses centered on only two disciplines, which could be as closely allied as Hispanic Studies and Africana Studies. Able to choose new courses largely designed by the Grand Axis, many students preferred to take no math, science, history, or economics. In fact, the Grand Axis sold to prospective students and their parents who toured the reconstructed city the notion that it no longer was a citadel of high standards and academic excellence but rather a kind of wonderland, a place to find true happiness by pursuing your passion however narrow, perverse, or illiberal it might be.
In building an army, the Grand Axis mustered into its ranks many members of historically underprivileged groups. But once inside the reconstructed city, many of their members experienced the practical operation of the open curriculum as a cruel hoax. Informed by the soft bigotry of low expectations, the reconstructed city tended to silo disadvantaged students, whom the Grand Axis wanted to keep firmly within the fold, into courses of low standards and deep politicization. Professors in these courses dispensed A+ grades like lollipops to those who regurgitated what the Grand Axis professed.
In building anew, the Grand Axis called the old city’s defenders the agents of Eurocentric structural and institutional hierarchies. Academic standards plummeted in the name of inclusiveness. Whereas in the old city a grade of B- meant a worthy and respected performance by a student, in the reconstructed city the same grade placed him or her at the very bottom of the class. Ds and Fs were reserved for those students who had the gall to challenge the Grand Axis’ orthodoxies.
Biases against conservative students manifested themselves in certain courses. The courageous ones complained of a chilled atmosphere that required self-censorship in order to survive and graduate. Most students quickly realized that professors attached to the Grand Axis wanted them to parrot one or another of the fashionable discourses of oppression at the intersections of class, race, gender, and sexuality.
The Basic “Musts” Must Go
With the open curriculum firmly in place, the Grand Axis eliminated required courses in Shakespeare for English majors. It did away with any requirement for native-born undergraduates to take one course in English, or one course in any other discipline for that matter. In fact, to please several of the most strident leaders of the Grand Axis, it abolished the English Department and replaced it with a more ecumenical entity called “Literature and Creative Writing.” Members of the Grand Axis who ran this new entity found the old English Department requirements too elementary, so they did away with the mandatory composition classes, long venerated by those who had once lived in the old city.
Under the Grand Axis, the reconstructed city touted itself as a national leader in teaching students how to write. But the old ones knew better. No comparative data—none—existed to support the Grand Axis’ propagandistic claim, which nonetheless was widely circulated by the powerful information ministry. To be sure, under the Grand Axis students were required to take several writing-intensive courses to graduate, but the faculty who taught many of these courses had little if any training in grammar and style, and as the old ones pointed out, there is a dramatic difference between a writing-intensive course and one in which the writing is graded intensively. Thanks to the Grand Axis, even a calculus course or two qualified as a writing-intensive course.
The triumph of the Grand Axis caused many old professors to leave the city. The Economics Department lost its lone libertarian. (Official sources claimed, however, that it was merely a retirement.) In the reconstructed city, economics students selected from of a menu of courses on political economy, the economics of sustainability, and something called “social entrepreneurship.” In some circles, a certain nostalgia prevailed for the labor theory of value. Wall Street sources complained that majors who left the city to look for jobs never heard of someone called Friedrich Hayek.
The study of history also changed under the Grand Axis. In the old city, professors regarded it as a discipline that provided a sure but difficult terrain on which to discover vital information about the nature of human beings. The Grand Axis, however, had other designs. It wanted to put history toward partisan ends, to use it to advance its imperial ambitions, to create a useable past. As a result, the History Department moved away from teaching courses in American history. The Grand Axis preferred mandatory courses in non-Western history.
You Shall Spit on the Graves of Your Ancestors
Not long ago it was said that one-third of all history majors in the reconstructed city graduated without having taken even a single U.S. history course. Students who left the reconstructed city proved unable to defend the heritage of their country; the Grand Axis wanted them to spit on the graves of their ancestors. Why study history anyway, when the new regime offered a wide array of popular alternatives in sexual programming? Students met porn stars and held workshops to discover the intricacies of sex toys. Why waste time studying the complexities of the Constitution, said one female undergraduate champion of the Grand Axis, when you can master the mechanics of a high-tech vibrator?
As long as the Grand Axis ruled the reconstructed city, none of its leaders ever attempted to define the word “diversity.” But in ruling in its name, the Grand Axis abolished merit scholarships and the requirement that applicants for admission submit their SAT scores. The ministry of information touted over and over again the rising SAT scores of the student body in the reconstructed city. But less than 60 percent of the admitted students submitted SAT scores, and those in charge of institutional research for the ministry of information confessed to never undertaking any counterfactual studies as to what the average SAT scores might look like if all the admitted students were required to submit them.
In a recent development, the Grand Axis imposed a diversity requirement in the open curriculum. All departments must now show proof of their commitment to “diversity” even though the word was never defined before a supermajority of the faculty voted to implement the requirement. The language of diversity came to figure in all advertisements for faculty hiring put out by the Grand Axis. It knew that this specialized language would be used as a litmus test to exclude those whom the Grand Axis did not want to enter the reconstructed city.
Let it be said that long before the death of the lone conservative in the old city, he had predicted its fate.
It’s true that liberal arts curricula and academic disciplines are neglected at too many colleges, but some top public universities are countering these trends.
The issue is no longer the preservation of liberal arts curricula at elite liberal arts colleges. By now, these institutions have made their choices.
Whether Americans will lose their faith in a college education is far from certain. Even if they did, a Reformation isn’t necessarily in the offing.
Some colleges have allowed oases to exist, but these are programs. The desirable reform of the liberal arts is curricular not just programmatic.