by Victor Davis Hanson
Many of our once revered and most hallowed institutions are failing us. To mention only the most significant ones: our top-ranking military echelon, the leadership of our federal investigatory and intelligence agencies, the government medical establishment—and of course the universities.
For too long American higher education’s reputation of global academic superiority has rested mostly on the sciences, mathematics, physics, technology, medicine, and engineering—in other words, not because of the humanities and social sciences, but despite them. The humanities have become too often anti-humanistic. And the social sciences are deductively anti-scientific. Both quasi-religious woke disciplines have eroded confidence in colleges and universities, infected even the STEM disciplines and professional schools, and torn apart the civic unity of the United States. Indeed, much of the current Jacobin revolution was birthed and fueled by American universities, despite their manifest hypocrisies and derelictions.
Never in U.S. history have elite universities piled up such huge endowments, which soared during the lockdown. Harvard has $40 billion, Yale $30 billion, Stanford $28 billion, Princeton $25 billion and so on. The tax-free income from these huge sums ensures equally extravagant budgets that are somewhat insulated from market realities—at least in the sense that the larger endowments grew, the more likely university costs rose beyond the annual rate of inflation, and the greater aggregate student debt rose.
Just as importantly, spending per pupil is rarely calibrated to whether graduating students leave better educated than when they arrived—the ostensible purpose of universities.
There are certainly no “exit tests” for certification of the BA degree, in the manner of, say, a bar exam, that might set a minimum national standard for any acquisition of knowledge. Such standardized reassurance would rescue the BA degree from the growing general public perception that the campus has become politically warped, therapeutic, a poor measure of real knowledge, and is now largely a cattle brand of a sort that qualifies its holder for some sort of non-physical labor.
The result over the last few years of this relatively new higher-education marriage of big money and radical ideas is a strange disconnect. On the one hand, never have elite (though often indebted) college students been so demanding of apartment-style dorm living, latte bars, and rock-climbing walls, while virtue signaling their compensatory proletariat bona fides.
Never have universities been more able financially to subsidize and guarantee their own student loans. And yet they have outsourced that responsibility to federal guaranteed student loan programs. The result of that moral hazard of never being held accountable for rampant inflationary spikes in tuition, room, and board costs, is that universities over the last 30 years spent like drunken sailors on non-essentials: from diversity czars to in loco parentis therapeutic “centers” to Club Med accommodations—even as at the core test scores dived, grade inflation soared, and graduates increasingly did not impress employers.
So, universities themselves are largely responsible for the current $1.7 trillion in aggregate student college debt. Such a staggering encumbrance is not just the concern of higher education, but affects the entire country in manifest ways, well aside from emboldening our global rivals and enemies. Even communist China is spending far more of their higher education budgets on the sciences, math, and liberal arts than therapeutics, social justice crusades, and diversity, equity, and inclusion audits.
Students with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan obligations are likely to marry later, delay child rearing, cannot purchase a home in their 20s or even 30s, and more easily slide into prolonged adolescence. The country itself is experiencing a glut of the over- but not necessarily well-educated: history’s menu for radicalized and angry youth who feel they are properly credentialed with various letters after their names but suspect they lack the training and skills to enter the workforce, be productive, and earn commensurate good pay.
There is also something terribly wrong about well-compensated, tenured professors of the social sciences and humanities—whose own lives are conventionally materialist and bourgeoise—spooning out the usual radical race/class boilerplate to indebted students who in a sense have borrowed heavily to pay a large percentage of faculty salaries.
Few of today’s woke 20-somethings will graduate with rigorous instruction in language, logic, and the inductive methods with a shared knowledge of literature, history, science, and math. At far less cost, they would likely find better online classes in those now ossified subjects than in the courses that they went into hock in order to finance.
Never in U.S. history has the university been so at odds with not just the general pulse of America, but with its major traditions, institutions, and very Constitution. Most recently, Americans have been urged by university law schools and political science departments to eliminate the 233-year-old Electoral College, to pack the Supreme Court after 150 years of a nine-justice bench, to end the 180-year filibuster, to admit two new states to gain four progressive senators, and to question the constitutional cornerstone of two senators per state.
It is chiefly the university that scolds Americans that their customs, traditions, and laws have little moral weight, that they are merely constructs reflecting “white supremacy,” detached from either a natural law common to all humans or customs carefully cross-examined and honed after decades and even centuries of use in the public square.
Once abstract campus theorizing about open borders, hiring and admissions based on race, zero bail even for repeat felons, critical-legal-theory district attorneys, and Green New Deal energy policies have now all seeped out to warp the daily lives of Americans.
Yet unlike free speech movements of the 1960s, in 2021 it is the university that now wars on the First Amendment, castigating unwelcome expression as “hate speech” if found inconvenient for its agendas.
It is the university where the relevant amendments to the Constitution governing due process and confronting one’s accusers is jettisoned when the accused is of the wrong gender or race or both. It is the university that has renounced the legacy of the civil rights movement of the 1960s that once championed open housing, desegregation, and racially blind criteria.
Instead, many colleges now allow students (at least those self-identified as “marginalized”) to pick their dormitory roommates on the basis of race, to declared certain areas of campus racially segregated “safe spaces,” and to discriminate in student admissions and faculty hiring. If Martin Luther King, Jr. were to return to Harvard, Yale, or Stanford and to repeat verbatim the speech I heard (at age 11) that he gave in 1965 at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, about equality, shared humanity, and the need to excel at whatever task one takes on, regardless of his station (“Be the best of whatever you are”), he would likely be jeered and derided as an integrationist and assimilationist.
One final irony? From the university we hear calls to either end or reform radically our major institutions and cultural referents: recalibrate the First and Second Amendments, scrap the border, tear down that statue, rename this plaza, do away with existing classes of gender pronouns, heckle speakers, and destroy the lives of unwoke faculty. And yet from such critical faculty scolds, there is oddly zero self-criticism or indeed any self-reflection of their own shortcomings.
Do academics ponder over why the reputations of their universities are eroding in the public mind? What exactly is the campus responsibility for graduating students with bleak job possibilities and unsustainable debt? Why is the clueless 21-year-old graduate now the stock joke of popular culture and comedy? How did the enlightened institutionalize a two-tier system of privileged tenured grandees resting on the backs of exploited contingent and part-time faculty? Why are critics of a supposedly non-transparent American society so secretive about their own admissions, hiring, and budgetary policies? And how did the locus of cheap anti-corporate boilerplate become so deeply reliant on siphoning corporate cash?
The racialized civil strife of 2020-21, and indeed the entire woke and cancel-culture revolutions originated ultimately from campus fixtures who never suffer the real-life consequences of their abstractions. And meanwhile, China, the greatest threat that the United States has faced in 30 years, smiles at our universities’ importation of most of the bankrupt and suicidal ideas abroad, from Frankfurt School nihilism and Foucauldian postmodern relativism to Soviet sclerosis and Maoist cultural revolutionary suicide.
Unless the university itself is rebooted, its rejection of meritocracy, its partisan venom, its tribalism, its war with free speech and due process, and its inability to provide indebted students with competitive educations will all ensure that that it is not just disliked and disreputable but ultimately irrelevant and replaceable.
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Victor Davis Hanson is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an American military historian, columnist, a former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush. Hanson is also a farmer (growing raisin grapes on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author most recently of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, The Case for Trump and the newly released The Dying Citizen.
Photo “Stay Woke” by JMacPherson. CC BY 2.0.