Higher Ed: The Conservative Crisis that Isn’t

Beware college! That’s the old cry today’s conservative intellectuals are pretending they invented. But they don’t mean it. The best evidence for conservatives’ real affection for American higher ed is the political campaign we haven’t seen recently.

Here’s what we know: Benedictophile Rod Dreher has grown fond of fanning the flames of crisis among his fellow conservative intellectuals. Recently for example, Dreher shared an exposé of the lamentable practices at one elite university. As Dreher’s correspondent concluded,

the balance has been tipped in higher education. It’s not just useless anymore, but it’s now actually doing harm. Not many normal people will be willing to accept that reality — i.e. that their children (and our culture) will be better served by their NOT going to (most) colleges and universities.

Tough talk! We might be tempted to conclude that conservative intellectuals are moving toward a new antipathy toward higher education, but we’d be wrong in two big ways. For one thing, there is absolutely nothing new about this conservative “crisis” in higher education. Furthermore, conservatives don’t really dislike college as a whole.

Let’s start with the history. As I argued in Fundamentalist U, conservatives have been noticing the “new” crisis in American higher education for well over a century. In a three-part expose in 1909, journalist Harold Bolce warned readers of the absolutely shocking decline in the state of America’s elite colleges.

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Beware! c. 1909

For example, Bolce quizzed Syracuse sociologist Edwin L. Earp and breathlessly reported Earp’s shocking refusal to honor traditional ideas:

“Do you not believe, Professor,” I asked, “that Moses got the ten commandments in the way the Scriptures tell?”

The professor smiled. “I do not,” said he. “It is unscientific and absurd to imagine that God ever turned stone-mason and chiseled commandments on a rock.”

By the 1920s, some conservatives liked to reprint a purported letter home from a pathetic college student. As the student supposedly fretted to his mother,

My soul is a starving skeleton; my heart a petrified rock; my mind is poisoned and fickle as the wind, and my faith is as unstable as water . . . . I wish that I had never seen a college.

We might remind Dreher and his correspondents, then, that their sudden crisis has been percolating for a long time now.

But perhaps something has suddenly changed? After all, we have been told by journalists recently that conservatives have recently begun to distrust American higher education. Last summer, poll results seemed to suggest as much.

pew college gone to the dogsIn fact, though, as we’ve argued before in these pages, it is not college itself that conservatives have come to distrust. Dreher and his associates will surely lose their campaign to warn people away from college as a whole.

How do we know? In this case, we can borrow a page from Sherlock Holmes and listen to the dog that didn’t bark.

True, conservative intellectuals might feel chagrined at their loss of influence in elite universities. Also true, the American public is very willing to believe that silly, leftist things go on in elite colleges. But Americans still want to go. They want their kids to go. And they think people who do go are smart and competent.

Exhibit A: The 2016 presidential campaign of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. As journalists noted at the time, Walker was a college drop out. If there really were a widespread, popular disaffection with American higher education, we would have heard him brag about that.

We didn’t. A couple of conservative voices tried to defend Walker’s lack of a degree, but they didn’t say Walker hated college. Rather, they said he had learned from the school of hard knocks instead.

Walker himself bragged that he was a “fighter” who learned from experience instead of in a classroom, but he didn’t pooh-pooh the idea of college as a whole.

What does that tell us?

If nothing else, Governor Walker is a savvy and successful politician. If he thought he could derive political advantage from his drop-out status, he surely would. But Walker is too savvy for that. He knows—even if Rod Dreher doesn’t—that Americans still love higher education. Americans—even conservative Americans—haven’t turned their back on elite colleges. Americans still dream of sending their kids to Yale or Brown or Oberlin, even if they fret about the ideological goings-on.

The “crisis” hasn’t suddenly boiled over in the past year or so. Rather, it is a steady simmering state and has been for a long time now. Even conservatives love and cherish elite universities. If they didn’t, after all, they wouldn’t spend so much time anguishing over them.

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The Death of College: We’ve Been Here Before

Ask anyone with a PhD in history, English, or philosophy. They’ll tell you: It’s not just a tough career path, there IS NO career path. Most universities rely on non-tenure-track teachers these days. In the new Atlantic Adam Harris reviews the bleak future of higher education. As my current research is showing me, we’ve been here before.

As Harris writes, Bryan Alexander’s predictions seem to be coming true. There just aren’t as many college students as there used to be. Enrollments are down and they will continue to slide. As Harris explains,

Why is the dip in enrollment such a big deal? Well, quite plainly, the business model for a lot of colleges is dependent on enrollment. If enrollments decline, revenues decline, and colleges have less money for facilities, faculty, and programs. That creates a sort of death spiral in which colleges are getting rid of programs, which in turn makes it harder to attract students, and so on.

No one ever asks the historians, but in this case we do have a strong precedent. Two hundred years ago, the systems we think of as K-12 education began to evolve into something close to their current form. It was a jagged and slow process, spread out over thirty or more years.

composition class John C Mee Oct 5 1835 Phila

Someone always has to read all the essays…

Our current system of mostly public education didn’t simply grow in an empty field. It pushed out several existing educational systems. The biggest losers in this evolution were the so-called “school masters” of the old system. As public schools took on their current form (more or less), the masters slowly lost their positions as the snobbish titans of education. Their experiences in the antebellum years could serve as a preview to the current state of tenure-track university faculty.

It’s not that the masters didn’t know what was happening. Their anxiety is palpable in every page of the letters and reports I’m reading these days in Joseph Lancaster’s papers.

For example, as one of Lancaster’s former pupils advised Lancaster in 1822, it would be better to get some students in the door immediately at Lancaster’s new school in Philadelphia. Enrollment was key to paying all the bills. As this pupil told Lancaster,

I think it would be well to admit a number of pupils at an easier rate than you have done, for you will be able to manage a greater number well organized in your own excellent mode, than a few on the imperfect plan hitherto pursued in the Institute. I think further, on this ground, could you fill your classes but respectably and get early and frequent exhibitions a short time would raise you in great and exalted honor high very high above your present inconvenient situation and engagement.

In the old system, school “Masters” experienced the dizzying shifts that today’s tenure-track faculty are experiencing. When their schools filled their enrollments, they were happy. When their schools faltered, masters suffered. Always, always, they lived in a state of continual uncertainty about the future. Would enough students come to full the school? Would they need to move to a different school, or maybe strike out on their own?

Sound familiar?

By the 1840s, the masters’ schools were tottering. As Bill Reese has described so compellingly, common-school reformers like Horace Mann toppled the Master system in Massachusetts with a set of new standardized tests.

What does this history tell us about today’s higher-ed situation? We don’t want to be too glib in our predictions, but the obvious guess would be this: We are facing a generation-long transition to a different sort of higher education. Instead of relying on effete experts for instructors, colleges will increasingly rely on a professionalized teaching force with little or no expectation of research and publication. Students will be expected more and more to prove their success with adequate performance on new sets of standardized tests.

The death of college is a death long foretold.

A New Low?

It was despicable. It was crass. It was ugly. IMHO. But as far as I’m concerned, Professor Randa Jarrar’s comments about war criminals, Barbara Bush, and the status of tenured radicals were not much different from what we’ve seen already.

The topic came up when a journalist called me yesterday to talk over the case. Among her questions, she wondered if Professor Jarrar’s hateful tweets represented a new low in academic discourse. I invite SAGLRROILYBYGTH to disagree, but I think Jarrar’s comments, as nasty as they were, are nothing new in academic life.randa jarrar 1

Here’s what we know: Professor Jarrar teaches English at Fresno State University. When former First Lady Barbara Bush passed away, Professor Jarrar seized the opportunity to tweet her outrage about President Bush’s policies. As Jarrar put it,

Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who . . . raised a war criminal. . . . I’m happy the witch is dead.

As Jarrar attracted attention from friends and foes for her comments, she bragged that she made a six-figure salary and couldn’t be fired. Trolls dug up video clips of Jarrar’s public talks, in which she seemed to call for violence against white-supremacist Richard Spencer, among other things.randa jarrar 2

Loud. Brash. Unpleasant. But a new low? I don’t think so. I think Professor Jarrar, like so many other academics these days, was scrambling to build her brand. She was looking for attention—as all humanities academics these days feel pressed to do—and she did so in a particularly nasty way.

I don’t like it, but I don’t think it’s worse than other provocations from pundits of both the left and the right. Am I missing something?

Which of These People Will Save the Humanities?

At many colleges, humanities enrollments are down. So far down that schools such as one University of Wisconsin campus are scrapping entire humanities departments. What can academics do? Two pundits this week have suggested different solutions. We have a different proposal to make.

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…is it students reading Beowulf?

At the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mark Bauerlein makes a counterintuitive proposal. If humanities programs want to survive and thrive, Professor Bauerlein argues, they need to woo freshmen and wow their parents. As he puts it, “right now, nothing is more crucial than the preferences of 19-year-olds.”

You might think the way to do that would be to lighten up on grades and assignments. Offer an easy A and students will line up…right? Professor Bauerlein describes a program that does the opposite. Teachers at the University of Oklahoma have revived W.H. Auden’s 1940s-era syllabus. It forces students to do a ton of reading and reflection. And the students seem to like it.

Bauerlein’s conclusion? Make humanities courses unapologetically difficult. Stop apologizing for Western Civilization:

Design your Western-civ or Great Books course and ramp it up to Auden levels. Be frank about the reading challenge. Boast of the aged, uncontemporary nature of the materials. Highlight the old-fashioned themes of greatness, heroism and villainy, love and betrayal, God and Truth, and say nothing against intersectionality and other currencies. Your antagonists are mediocrity, youth culture, presentism, and the disengagement of professors and students. You occupy a competitive terrain, and your brand is Achilles, Narcissus, the Wyf of Bath, Isolde, and Bigger. Let’s see what happens. Let the undergrads decide.

Could it work? Maybe. I’ve stopped being surprised by the numbers of students who want to be challenged. Yes, many—maybe most—students approach their classes as mere hurdles to be overcome to get to the next goal. But a reliable stream of students want something else.

savior 2

…is it budget-controlling conservative hawks?

From across the pond, we get a very different prescription for saving the humanities. At Times Higher Education, Musa al-Gharbi gives us another idea. If we want to save classes in philosophy, sociology, history, literature, etc., al-Gharbi says, academics should court conservative politicians. After all, when conservatives think humanities departments have been taken over by leftists, they will not hesitate to close them down. And then progressives themselves suffer. As al-Gharbi puts it,

It is generally women and people of colour – usually progressives – who pay the cost when administrators are encouraged to weigh into political disputes. These same groups will also bear the brunt of continued erosion of public trust in institutions of higher learning.

The value of scientific fields is widely appreciated, but social research is a different matter entirely. Given that women, people of colour, LGBTQ scholars and leftists are better represented in the humanities and social sciences than in most other disciplines, they will disproportionately suffer when social research is devalued and defunded.

In other words, if we want to save the humanities, we need to help influential conservative politicians see that courses in history, literature, and so on are not merely training grounds for leftist radicals.

Could that work? In Wisconsin, at least, the shutdown of Stevens Point humanities courses was a direct result of long-simmering conservative outrage. Cultivating conservative political support for humanities classes might help maintain budgets.

I’ve got a different suggestion, though. As I argue in my new book about evangelical higher education, there is one constant truth about higher education in these United States. Whether students choose a fundamentalist college, an Ivy League redoubt, or a community-college approach, a driving factor in student decisions has always been professional credentials.

Heather Gerken

…or is it someone different?

That is, whatever college students choose, most of them (or at least, their parents) insist that their work must lead to a better career. Like all institutions, evangelical colleges fail when they can’t deliver on that promise. The same is true for humanities programs. Some humanities courses are thriving. At Yale, for example, history is back as the most popular major.

Why are students flocking to history courses at Yale? As Professor Bauerlein argues, many of them are likely attracted by the intellectual rigor and challenge of the major. And, as Prof. al-Gharbi explains, some of them are probably intrigued by the ideological diversity of academic history. The bulk, though, are hoping that the history major will situate them well to apply to law school. That’s been the tradition for long years.

So who should academics be trying to convince of the value of humanities courses? Is it freshmen looking for old-fashioned intellectual challenge? Or is it conservative politicians looking askance at faculty politics? I think both ideas have merit.

But if humanities programs really want to survive, they need to convince students, parents, and law-school deans that their programs are the best way to fulfill the most important purpose of American higher education: preparation to move up the career ladder.

Fundamentalists Were Right

For a hundred years, conservative evangelicals have told themselves that college is a dangerous place. As I argue in my new book about evangelical higher ed, the threat posed by mainstream schools pushed fundamentalists in the 1920s to invest in their own network of interdenominational schools, safe colleges for fundamentalist youth. A new study suggests that fundamentalist fears are still well founded.

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How today’s fundamentalists view college…

Back in the 1920s, fundamentalists loved to recount horror stories of college gone bad. As evangelist Bob Jones like to tell revival crowds in the 1920s, one Christian family he knew scrimped and saved to send their beloved daughter to a fancy college. What happened?

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.

Other fundamentalist pundits shared an apocryphal letter from a damned college graduate. This letter, from 1921, told the folks at home,

My soul is a starving skeleton; my heart a petrified rock; my mind is poisoned and fickle as the wind, and my faith is as unstable as water. . . . I wish that I had never seen a college.

Back then, fundamentalists didn’t just rely on anecdotal evidence. They shared social-science evidence of the dangers of mainstream higher education, especially psychologist James Leuba’s 1916 study of college-student religiosity. The students he interviewed tended to grow less religious during their college years. The takeaway? College must be doing something to strip students’ faith.

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Those darn college professors…

These days, conservative evangelicals are just as nervous as ever about college. On my recent trip to Answers In Genesis’s Ark Encounter in Kentucky, I was surprised to find a huge walk-through comic book illustrating the dangers of higher education.

And, over a hundred years after Leuba’s book, new research seems to suggest that mainstream colleges really do tend to water down student religiosity. The survey by the Interfaith Youth Core was most interested in the ways college students reacted to religious diversity. Along the way, they found that among 7,194 students at 122 colleges, religious activities as a whole tended to drop during the first year of college.

Forty-three percent of the freshman respondents said they had talked about religious ideas in high school, while only a quarter said they did in college. When it came to religious diversity, the numbers are even starker. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they had attended a religious service of a different faith than their own in high school, but only 20% did in college.

College students also reported friendlier attitudes toward liberal ideas after a year of college, from 55% up to 63%. And a majority said they felt some pressure to change their religious ideas and that they tended to keep their religious ideas to themselves.

So while people like me might worry that students are not getting enough exposure to religious diversity, fundamentalists will likely worry more. Even if college students are shying away from other religions, they are also shying away from their own.

The Ol’ College Tri-al

Want to scare a fundamentalist? Tell them you’re sending their child to a state university. As I’m arguing in my new book about evangelical higher education, anxiety about college has always been a primary concern of Protestant fundamentalists and other conservative evangelicals. Today’s fundamentalists are no different, as I discovered in my recent visit to the Ark Encounter. In this last (I promise) post about the Ark Encounter, I have one final puzzle about the ways the Kentucky creationists depict the dangers of mainstream higher education.

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Watch out! It’s a trap!

First, the history: When evangelist Bob Jones explained his reason for starting his own college in 1926, he liked to tell the story of one woeful Christian family who had scrimped and saved to send their daughter to a fancy university. As Jones told the tale,

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.

Who wouldn’t be scared by that sort of story? Or consider the following example, reprinted throughout the early 1920s by a number of fundamentalist pundits. It was supposedly a letter to the folks at home from a recent college graduate. As he put it,

My soul is a starving skeleton; my heart a petrified rock; my mind is poisoned and fickle as the wind, and my faith is as unstable as water. . . . I wish that I had never seen a college.

For fundamentalists in the 1920s, the dangers of college weren’t only about debt burdens and sexual assault. College itself threatened to rob children of their faith, leave them “poisoned.”

Like now, fundamentalists back then didn’t just rely on hearsay. They devoured social-science reports of the deleterious religious effects of college. Most famous was James Leuba’s study of student religiosity, published in 1916. Leuba found that most college freshmen (85%) called themselves Christians, but only 55% of recent college graduates did so. The upshot, fundamentalists told themselves, was that the college experience must do something to undermine evangelical faith.

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Those darn college professors…

What was true in 1916 seems just as true a century later. Conservative evangelicals—at least the ones who built Kentucky’s Ark Encounter—are convinced that mainstream higher education is a spiritual minefield.

There’s good reason to think they’re right, at least in part. Sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund studied elite academics and found that there did indeed seem to be some elements of anti-evangelical bias among them. Evangelical professors told Ecklund they tended to keep their faith “closeted.” Others reported hearing offhand comments in the faculty lounge deriding “stupid Christianity.”

While elite academics weren’t as uniformly anti-religious as some evangelicals might assume, they did tend to be less religious than the rest of the population. And a small minority told Ecklund that they actively sought to cure students of their religious proclivities. One physicist told her that he viewed religion as a “virus” that he hoped to cure. A social scientist said she started her classes with the following disclaimer:

You don’t have to distance yourself from religion and think about it from an outside perspective, but you do if you want to succeed in this class.  And so if you don’t want to do that, then you need to leave.

If I were an evangelical parent (I’m not), I would hesitate to send my child into an environment where they would be confronted with that sort of hostile, ignorant attitude. And certainly, Ken Ham and the Answers In Genesis crowd are intensely anxious about the goings-on in mainstream higher education. Ham explained his reasoning in a critique of ILYBYGTH a while back, and my trip to the Ark Encounter confirmed it.

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Can college students protect their faith?

Most of the exhibits were fairly predictable, if odd. They depicted the problems with mainstream evolutionary theory and old-earth creationism. They showed the way day-to-day life on the ark could have happened. Not what I’d expect to see in a mainstream science museum, but pretty close to what I expected to find at the Ark Encounter.

On the top floor, though, I was surprised by what I found. Ark Encounter includes a long corridor dedicated to a huge, walk-through comic-book tract. The comic book’s images have been blown up to fill the walls of the corridor, and visitors walk through the story. The plot is familiar—a student wonders about her faith. After some trials, she embraces it.

One of the trials is her smarky college professor. The central characters walk into a lecture hall, where they are told,

The Bible is full of contradictions—written by people with no knowledge of science. The earth isn’t 6,000 years old, and there’s no way the millions of species of animals could fit on Noah’s Ark…

One of the characters is a young-earth creationist and he patiently defends his faith to two friends, but their college experience puts that faith to a severe test.

The exhibit itself was a surprise, but the content wasn’t. The fears and anxieties of fundamentalists in 2018 aren’t too different from those of fundamentalists in 1918. But here’s the thing that’s been bugging me: Why does the Ark Encounter devote so much wall space to this college story, when Ken Ham thinks that the college years are already too late for successful soul-saving?

As Ham wrote in his 2009 book Already Gone, the kids that are leaving fundamentalist faith are making those decisions in their middle-school and high-school years. As Ham puts it,

Many parents will fork out big bucks to send these students to Christian colleges, hoping to protect them in their faith. But the fact is, they’re already gone.

If Ham wants his flock to understand that the college years are too late, why include this huge exhibit on the dangers of college at the Ark Encounter?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Welcome to 2018! You might think the last week of the year would be quiet, but you’d be wrong. Here are a couple of the ILYBYGTH-style stories that jumped out at us over the past week:

Issue in review: Has Trumpism killed evangelicalism?

Conservatives and the higher education “scapegoat,” by Catherine Rampell at WaPo.

The thing white professors won’t talk about, by Robert Cherry at RCEd.

Want to avoid a “death of despair?” Go to college. At CHE, research about the link between higher education and better health.Bart reading bible

Jeffrey Salkin admires LDS (Mormons). But he wants them to stop baptizing dead Jewish people, at RNS.

Why one evangelical leader left Trump’s evangelical council. AR Bernard explains his departure to Samantha Bee: “Better think carefully what you are given in exchange for your life, your reputation.”

What’s wrong with the pseudo-intellectual Right? Paul Gottfried tees off on D’Souza, Prager, and Goldberg at AC. Gottfried’s conclusion:

  • “there is . . . a plague of genuinely ridiculous writings on historical subjects coming from conservative media celebrities that surpass in their arrogant stupidity almost anything I’ve encountered in professional journals. As for people who yap about the ideologically tainted work that originates in our universities, one might hope they’d be somewhat better than those they declaim against. That’s not always the case.”

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Those of us who live our lives in semesters are feeling a dizzying sense of high-speed hoopla as we take the final plunge toward the end of the semester. In all the huff and stuff, here are some ILYBYGTH-related news stories you might have missed:

Why do conservatives hate higher education? At The Atlantic, Jason Blakely offers an explanation.

No more safe spaces—except for conservatives. House higher-ed bill throws some brontosaurus-sized bones to campus conservatives, as reported by Politico.

The conservative National Association of Scholars claims another win. AP European History changes its standards in response to NAS criticism. HT: DR

Selling the naming rights to your local school—Peter Greene objects.Bart reading bible

Is Silicon Valley taking over classrooms? Larry Cuban says yes and no.

The latest crisis in public education: Good News. The graduation rate is at an all-time high.

It’s all Greek to me: At The Atlantic, two opposing ancient concepts of free speech.

Moore-o-mania:

At CHE: Can Sexual Predators Be Good Scholars?

When Did Conservatives Get so Angry at Higher Ed?

When I saw the headline, my nerd spidey-sense tingled. I was excited to read about the history of conservative anti-college feelings. But when I read the whole article, I was struck once again by the half-baked nature of the claim. Once again, a smart, well-informed pundit who claims to be examining culture-war history stops half-way. When will we start looking beyond the 1960s?

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An earlier generation also worried…

Here’s the dilemma: at The Atlantic, Jason Blakely recently promised to explain the history of recent GOP ire against higher education. Looking at the current proposed tax plan, for example, it seems as if some members of Congress are out to punish elite universities.

Blakely argues that this conservative resentment of higher education has historical roots. In his analysis, he makes some vital points. Most powerfully, he notices that conservatives seem to mistake a very small segment of higher education for the higher-educational landscape as a whole. As he wisely puts it,

conservative anxiety is best expressed as being about a small set of marquee positions of honor and prestige in the liberal arts that happen to be largely staffed at present by those whose political commitments lean left.

That’s a vital point that is too often ignored. “College” as a whole is not particularly leftish…or even particularly anything. The crazy-quilt patchwork of colleges, universities, and other post-secondary institutions is wildly disparate. It is an absolutely vital notion that people just don’t seem to want to notice. Kudos to Blakely for emphasizing it. But when he proposes to analyze the history of this conservative anger toward elite universities, he puzzlingly only scratches the historical surface. After a nod to the “deep and complex historical roots” of anti-intellectualism in American culture, he argues that

the trope of portraying American universities as a threat to society emerged with particular intensity in the 1970s and ‘80s.

He looks at the work of neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol and Allan Bloom regarding “what they saw as the moral laxity and corrosiveness of the 1960s counterculture.”

Fair enough. And interesting, as far as it goes. But what Blakely and other writers miss is the longer relevant history of this specific trend in culture-war thinking.

As I argue in my book about educational conservatism, if we hope to make any sense of today’s conservative anger at elite higher ed, we can’t start with the 1970s. We need to begin in the 1920s, when conservative intellectuals had their first experience of exile, when the tropes exploited so powerfully by Kristol and Bloom were first developed.

It was not in the 1970s, but in the 1920s that conservatives developed their deep abiding anxiety about trends in elite higher education. Consider a couple of examples.

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.

It wasn’t only Bryan and it wasn’t only evolution. Since the 1920s, conservative intellectuals have voiced “with particular intensity” 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.

When we talk about our culture-war history, we can’t short out these voices from the 1920s and the 1930s.

Why not? If you are purporting to explain the history of an idea, you can’t only focus on the most recent articulation. It implies that these questions began to rankle only in the past fifty years, instead of slow-cooking for about a century now. The radicalism of the 1960s, and the reaction of the 1970s, were not new. They did not create new terms of culture-war angst, but rather only perpetuated existing themes.

This is not only a nerdy quibble but a fundamental part of culture-war politics. Think of it this way: When Irving Kristol and Allan Bloom made their arguments in the 1970s—the ones Blakely thinks inaugurated conservative anger at elite universities—they did not need to convince their conservative audiences of their central point. Conservatives had a vague but powerful sense that elite intellectual institutions had long since turned against truth, goodness, and beauty. Convincing someone of something they already believe to be true is a much easier task.

I don’t mean to single Blakely out. He’s not the only writer to woefully misrepresent America’s culture-war history. Plus, I’m not saying that historians can’t cut off their arguments at some reasonable point. We don’t all need to always write about everything. I get that. In a case like this, however, ignoring the vital and intensely relevant precursors to the 1970s history is not okay. We end up with a misleading notion of the genealogy of conservative outrage. We end up thinking we understand something we haven’t really even begun to understand.

A Trump Victory We Didn’t Expect

Maybe not out of left field, specifically, but out of a field somewhere: Trump’s shocking electoral victory and surprising pockets of continuing popularity have left wonks of all sorts scratching their heads. Here at ILYBYGTH, we’re agog to see some odd recent poll results that show yet another surprising result of Trumpism.

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Take my tuition dollars!

The poll we’re talking about would seem to be worlds removed from Trumpism and its unpredictable path. But the Inside Higher Education/Gallup survey of college admissions officials has come up with some intriguing political results.

Some are predictable. Many schools these days are struggling to attract students. Only 34% of the schools surveyed met their enrollment goals this year, down from the last two years. That hits schools hard, right in the pocketbook. Without tuition dollars, most schools would have to pull a Sweet Briar, and few institutions have the wealthy alumni base to hope for a last-minute SB rescue.

One of the most attractive type of student, from a financial perspective, has long been international students. They often pay full tuition. At public state schools, they often pay even more than out-of-state students.

Trump’s anti-immigrant bluster has made it harder for American schools to attract these types of students. Eighty-six percent of admissions officers thought “the statements and policies of President Trump make it more difficult to recruit international students.”

That’s not surprising.

What is a Trump shocker, to us at least, is a different consensus among the admissions bureaucrats. Trump’s victory, many agreed, served as proof that they have been looking in the wrong directions for students. As the IHE report put it,

In the months following the election and the inauguration of President Trump, many educators have been discussing whether the results suggest that higher education is out of touch with the public, and how the image of higher education (fair or not) impacts colleges and their admissions strategies. At a gathering of private college counselors in June, many said that they were seeing an increase in parents vetoing their children’s college choices over the perceived political orientation of institutions, with one counselor saying, “Brown is completely off the table.”

As a result, many schools have begun a new sort of recruitment. In addition to their traditions of recruiting athletes, high-flying nerds, and underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, many schools want to start reaching out to rural, white, and—get this—conservative students.

Admissions Directors Agreeing With Statements on Higher Education, Postelection

Statement Public Private Nonprofit
Higher education needs to redouble its efforts to recruit and retain underrepresented minority groups. 86% 66%
The election outcome suggests Americans are less committed than they were in the past to increasing the number of racial and ethnic minority students who attend college. 44% 35%
The election outcome indicates that colleges — especially elite colleges — should recruit more students from rural areas. 42% 32%
The election outcome indicates that colleges — especially elite colleges — should recruit more low-income white students. 32% 24%
Colleges with overwhelmingly liberal student bodies should increase recruiting efforts, including affirmative action, for conservative students. 16% 12%

In other words, Trump’s victory has convinced some admissions officials—like some ILYBYGTH editors—that they just don’t “get” America. They want to include more students who might be likely to support Trump. They want to expand their notion of “diversity” to include conservative, rural, white students.

Colleges That Are Stepping Up Recruitment of Certain Groups in Wake of Election

  Public Private
Rural students 52% 28%
Low-income white students 41% 22%
Conservative students 9% 8%

 

We can’t say we haven’t wondered about this sort of thing. For a while now, we at ILYBYGTH have been worried about higher-education’s lack of knowledge and interest in conservative students. But we CAN say it is something we didn’t predict, one more example of the ways the Trump earthquake has changed the political landscape.