Conservatives Shoot for College, but Hit Students

It’s not worth getting mad about, but it gets me mad anyway. We’re accustomed to seeing conservative pundits spouting off about how terrible college is these days. This week, Victor Davis Hanson takes this college-bashing tradition in a sad new direction in the pages of National Review. Instead of just bashing “college,” Hanson turns his spite on college students themselves.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, conservatives have long been anxious about the moral state of American higher education. As I argue in my book about the history of educational conservatism, we have heard these worries for almost a full century.

In the early 1920s, for example, anti-evolution celebrity William Jennings Bryan railed against trends in American higher education. In one public dispute with University of Wisconsin President Edward Birge, for example, Bryan offered the following memorable proposal. If universities continued to promote amoral ideas such as human evolution, Bryan suggested, they needed to post the following notice:

Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to witness the spectacle.

Elite schools, Bryan warned, had begun actively to teach “moral laxity and corrosiveness.” Universities needed to warn parents that they no longer taught students right from wrong. This sense of conservative outrage at higher-educational trends was a driving force behind the culture wars of the 1920s.

Darrow and Bryan at Scopes

Attacking science and college…

It wasn’t only Bryan and it wasn’t only evolution. Since the 1920s, conservative intellectuals have voiced their sense that elite universities had gone off the moral rails. Consider the case made by some patriotic conservatives in the 1930s and 1940s against the anti-American direction of the elite higher-educational establishment.

In 1938, for instance, Daniel Doherty of the American Legion denounced elite institutions as mere “propagandists.” Universities such as Columbia had taken to “attacking the existing order and [to] disparagement of old and substantial values.”

These intense antagonistic feelings toward elite universities were widely shared among conservative thinkers in the 1930s. Bertie Forbes, for example, syndicated columnist and founder of Forbes magazine, warned that elite schools were “generally regarded as infested” with subversive and anti-moral professors.

I’m especially sorry to see Hanson join this reactionary tradition because I really like some of his books, especially Wars of the Ancient Greeks. And I’m double sorry to see Hanson take this tradition in a mean-spirited direction. Not only are universities themselves moral cesspools, Hanson warns, but students have ingested enough of the amorality that they themselves have become carriers of the moral infection. As Hanson writes,

The therapeutic mindset preps the student to consider himself a victim of cosmic forces, past and present, despite belonging to the richest, most leisured, and most technologically advanced generation in history. . . . Today’s students often combine the worst traits of bullying and cowardice. . . . The 19-year-old student is suddenly sexually mature, a Bohemian, a cosmopolitês when appetites call — only to revert to Victorian prudery and furor upon discovering that callousness, hurt, and rejection are tragically integral to crude promiscuity and sexual congress without love.

…really? I can’t help but wonder where Hanson is getting his information. There probably some college students out there who embody Hanson’s calumnies. But among the students I work with, the vast majority are hard-working, earnest, thoughtful, open to ambiguity and contradiction, and often self-sacrificing.

It’s one thing to bemoan the intellectual trends that are dominating elite universities. But I wish the conservative college Cassandras would leave the students out of it. As anyone who works with college students knows, they don’t deserve this sort of abuse.

William F. Buckley and a Party already in Progress

There it is again!  Every now and then we see some commentator who starts her historical discussion of conservatism in American education in 1951, or 1968, or 1980. 

This week we got another dose: In her Salon.com article about the conservative attack on liberal-arts education, Katie Billotte claimed William F. Buckley “pioneered these attacks [on liberal-arts higher education] in his 1951 book God and Man at Yale, and his claim that universities serve as indoctrination camps for liberalism has become a standard talking point on the right.”

Billotte made her claim as part of a rebuttal of a Joseph Epstein article, “Who Killed the Liberal Arts?”  Her argument, and Epstein’s, are both worth reading.  But once again, we must point out that conservative attacks on the nature of higher education must be traced back at least to the 1920s.  The first generation of Protestant fundamentalists, for instance, complained bitterly about the ideological and theological perversions of liberal-arts higher education.  Texas Baptist fundamentalist leader J. Frank Norris, to cite just one example, warned in 1921 that college students went wrong when they studied “in Chicago University where they got the forty-second echo of some beer-guzzling German Professor of Rationalism.”

The tradition of conservative attacks on leftism and radicalism among liberal-arts educators in higher education was not limited to religious conservatives.  For example, in 1938, American Legion National Commander Daniel Doherty took an audience at Columbia University to task for becoming “the Big Red University.”  To a chorus of boos from his Columbia audience, Doherty warned, “The name of Columbia is besmirched from time to time when preachments containing un-American doctrines emanate from those who identify themselves with this institution.”  The problem, Doherty felt, stretched far beyond Columbia.  Later in 1938, he accused,

It is well known that many of our institutions of higher learning are hotbeds of Communism.  They disseminate theories and philosophies of government which are entirely alien to the American concept and American principles under which we have prospered more than a century and a half as no other people.

Such sentiments were standard fare among conservative activists and thinkers long before William F. Buckley criticized the trends at his alma mater.  Indeed, Buckley himself may be presumed to be familiar with the work of Albert Jay Nock.  We know Nock spent time at the Buckley home in Buckley’s youth.  And Nock’s attitude toward higher education, at least as expressed in his Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943) leaves little room for Buckley to “pioneer.”

Nock remembered his own liberal-arts education fondly.  Since his time, however, Nock claimed a far-reaching “educational revolution” had destroyed the liberal-arts tradition (85).  The “purge” was “based on a flagrant popular perversion of the doctrines of equality and democracy” (88). 

The conservative protest against the theological and ideological tendencies of higher education and its liberal-arts program long preceded William F. Buckley Jr.  In addition to drinking in long conservative traditions, Buckley cribbed much of his enfant-terrible critique of Yale directly from Nock and his ilk. 

Billotte might protest that her interest lay with today’s conservative attacks, not those from the 1920s, ’30s, or ’40s.  But like many other commentators, she makes claims about the history of conservatism without any apparent familiarity with the subject.  Buckley’s criticism of Yale only makes sense when we understand that it was not a pioneering effort at all.  Billotte’s argument will make sense only when she takes time to understand the legacy of her opponents’ ideas.