Outlaw Colleges

Why do so many otherwise right-thinking Americans embrace leftist ideas?  For generations, conservative intellectuals have blamed the skewed perspective of American colleges and universities.

This morning in the pages of National Review Online, Victor Davis Hanson offers a ten-point condemnation of the American higher educational system.

For those unfamiliar with the real history, it might be tempting to assume that conservatives turned against the higher-education system during the campus tumults of the 1960s and 1970s.  Free speech movements, hippies, sit-ins, campus radicals occupying dean’s offices…there was certainly enough reason for conservatives to look askance at campus culture in those years.  But conservative intellectuals and activists had worried about the state of higher education long before that.

In the 1920s, for example, religious conservatives worried that mainstream campuses converted faith-filled young people into atheists and skeptics.  As I describe in my 1920s book, the first generation of fundamentalists realized that college determined culture.  William Jennings Bryan, for example, often trumpeted the findings of James H. Leuba.  Leuba had studied the beliefs of college students, and in his 1916 book The Belief in God and Immortality, Leuba concluded that the number of self-identified religious believers declined during college years.  In speech after speech in the 1920s, Bryan used Leuba’s numbers as proof that college wrecked faith.

Bryan wasn’t the only one.  Throughout the 1920s, evangelist Bob Jones Sr. warned of the dangerous effects of typical college curricula on young people.  One of the reasons Jones founded his own uniquely religious school, he explained in sermons, was because too many young people became college “shipwrecks.”  He told the story of one hapless family who had scrimped and saved to send their beloved daughter to

a certain college.  At the end of nine months she came home with her faith shattered.  She laughed at God and the old time religion.  She broke the hearts of her father and mother.  They wept over her.  They prayed over her.  It availed nothing.  At last they chided her.  She rushed upstairs, stood in front of a mirror, took a gun and blew out her brains.

In the 1930s, too, conservatives fretted that college corrupted culture.  Beyond the ranks of religious conservatives, activists in patriotic organizations such as the American Legion warned that colleges had been subverted by anti-American socialist moles.  As I argue in my upcoming book, worries about the subversive state of higher education became a central tenet of their conservative ideology.  For instance, in 1935 New York Congressman, red-hunter, and American Legion co-founder Hamilton Fish attacked the state of higher ed.  He named names, including Columbia, New York University, City College of New York, the University of Chicago, Wisconsin, Penn, and North Carolina.  These elite schools, Fish warned, and many others, had become “honeycombed with Socialists, near Communists, and Communists.”  A less prominent American Legion writer echoed this sentiment.  “Colleges all over the land” Legionnaire Phil Conley warned in a 1935 article, had begun teaching “the overthrow of our government . . . through subterfuge and through destroying faith and confidence in our democratic institutions.”

Long before “The Sixties,” then, conservatives concluded that colleges and universities threatened to shatter the cultural cohesion that had made America great.  These days, too, conservative intellectuals often condemn the state of higher education.  Of course, just as with earlier generations of conservatives, today’s conservatives may find many different reasons to worry about what goes on in America’s campuses.  Publications such as Minding the Campus and from the National Association of Scholars offer conservatives forums for sharing their complaints about the state of higher ed.

In the pages of National Review Online, we read one summary of conservative complaints about college today.  Victor Davis Hanson calls the state of higher education criminal.  He damns “virtual outlaw institutions” that take students’ money mainly to line their own pockets and fuel the narcissistic lifestyles of fat-and-happy professors and administrators.  “If the best sinecure in America,” Hanson concludes,

is a tenured full professorship, the worst fate may be that of a recent graduate in anthropology with a $100,000 loan. That the two are co-dependent is a national scandal.

In short, the university has abjectly defaulted on its side of the social contract by no longer providing an affordable and valuable degree. Accordingly, society can no longer grant it an exemption from scrutiny.

Hanson offers a ten-point brief.  College can be saved, he argues, if these senseless traditions are subjected to radical reform.  First, abolish tenure.  Second, rationalize hiring.  Third, take ideological garbage out of the curriculum.  Fourth, add transparency to the admissions process.  Fifth, cut the fat out of administration.  Sixth, remove the useless teaching credential.  Seventh, add national competency tests for faculty.  Eighth, publish school budgets.  Ninth, eliminate expensive and unnecessary university presses.  Finally, open campuses to real free speech.

Taken together, Hanson suggests, these radical reforms promise to renew the promise of American higher education.  Without them, American students and their families will continue to be held at intellectual and financial knife-point by the highway robbers known as professors and administrators.

How bout it?  Have you experienced college strife?  For those readers who come from conservative religious backgrounds, did your college experience shatter your faith?  Or did college turn you from a patriotic youth into a skeptical adult?  And what about Hanson’s broader challenge?  Do colleges take students’ money and offer only a skewed ideological indoctrination in return?


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  1. Well, to answer some of the questions that you have posed, I will have to say “it depends.” 🙂 Hanson seems to indict all universities as though they are some sort of monolith. While some of what he notes does indeed apply to most schools, there are many universities that do precisely what he calls for. In Colorado, all of the state schools’ budgets are published with a line-by-line accounting. As professors, we made sure that we went to the library every year to check out what was being spent where! Like Hanson, we always would agree that administration was too big and too highly paid. Interestingly, at a private like Pepperdine, the administrative budget is pretty well obfuscated, but one only had to be observant to note where a lot of money was being spent on the non-academic side of the house.
    As a tenured professor, faculty member, chair, and administrator, I have never been a big fan of tenure. I like the concept of a 7 to 10 year contract with reasonable reviews of teaching, research and service for the renewal of the contract. There are some schools that use this model.
    Had to laugh at Hanson’s talk about professors lining their pockets – he was a visiting scholar at Pepperdine for a semester or year, not sure, and I am quite confident that he was paid handsomely. To put this professor’s salary in perspective – a recent CU football coach [still being paid after being fired], made more in one year than I did in nearly 20 years as a professor.
    College strife? I was a student at Goshen College, a Mennonite institution, in the 60’s, and being a conscientious objector to the American War in Viet Nam was cool 🙂 Well, the some Indiana folks didn’t think so. Faith – Mennonites have fairly consistently placed orthopraxis over orthodoxy.
    Transparency to admissions? What’s the point? Anyone who thinks that admissions is a level playing field is naive at best, and who would want a school that admitted folks on only a couple of academic criteria? Hanson should spend a bit of time in the admissions office to see the challenges faced to craft a class that fits the institution. Just one example – planned majors. A lot of schools could fill their class with business majors, but that would leave us science-types and a lot of others with nothing to teach!
    Credentialing teachers does need some reform, but again, may schools and states are already doing that.
    The curriculum – I suspect that the ideology of others out of the curriculum 🙂
    Competency tests – not even worthy of comment.
    University Presses – hardly a concern for the vast majority of schools.
    Real free speech – huh? VDH seems to be speaking quite freely!

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