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.

My Experts Can Beat Up Your Experts

None of us knows what we’re talking about. That is the problem driving much of our culture-war animus. We can’t possibly understand all the nuances of every field of study, so we rely on networks of competing experts and authority figures to tell us what to believe. I do it, you do it . . . we all do it.

This week, we’ve seen it again with the topic of teaching American history. A coalition of conservative scholars and activists has signed an open letter attacking the new framework of Advanced Placement US History guidelines. They hope to use their collective clout to prove that the “experts” are not all on one side of this debate.

Your Experts Will Send Our Kids to Hell!

Your Experts Will Send Our Kids to Hell!

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, these new history guidelines have proven intensely controversial. Conservative lawmakers in Oklahoma have proposed nixing the new standards for Sooner schoolchildren. Conservative pundits have blasted the framework as biased and warped. Professional organizations such as the National Council for History Education and the American Historical Association have fought back, insisting that the new framework is exactly the sort of thing we need in America’s history classrooms.

And, as I argue in my new book, these battles over the nature of American history have a long history themselves. In the 1930s, conservatives successfully blocked a popular series of textbooks that they felt told a slanted, anti-American vision of the nation’s past. More recently, the attempt in the 1990s to write a set of national history standards was sunk when conservatives made similar complaints.

In those battles as in this one, culture-war combatants have hoped to win their case by compiling intimidating lists of experts who back their respective positions. This week’s letter includes a mix of signatories. Some of them really are leading academic historians, such as George Marsden and Joseph Kett. And they take their inspiration from a recent diatribe by renowned historian Gordon Wood. Other signers are not historians, but conservative scholars who disagree with the general drift of mainstream academic life, folks such as Robert George and Patrick Deneen. Yet another category of signer is that of activist conservative historians, a rare breed including folks such as Ronald Radosh and Victor Davis Hanson. Plus, there are political signatories such as Lynne Cheney.

The letter complains that the new APUSH framework pushes an “arid, fragmentary, and misleading account of American history.” The new framework, the letter argues,

Is organized around such abstractions as “identity,” “peopling,” “work, exchange, and technology,” and “human geography” while downplaying essential subjects, such as the sources, meaning, and development of America’s ideals and political institutions, notably the Constitution. Elections, wars, diplomacy, inventions, discoveries—all these formerly central subjects tend to dissolve into the vagaries of identity-group conflict. The new framework scrubs away all traces of what used to be the chief glory of historical writing—vivid and compelling narrative—and reduces history to a bloodless interplay of abstract and impersonal forces. Gone is the idea that history should provide a fund of compelling stories about exemplary people and events. No longer will students hear about America as a dynamic and exemplary nation, flawed in many respects, but whose citizens have striven through the years toward the more perfect realization of its professed ideals. The new version of the test will effectively marginalize important ways of teaching about the American past, and force American high schools to teach U.S. history from a perspective that self-consciously seeks to de-center American history and subordinate it to a global and heavily social-scientific perspective.

As a professional academic historian, I’m certainly not neutral in this fight. My sympathies lie with the new framework. Don’t get me wrong: I admit that these conservative charges are not without merit. Academic historians really have isolated themselves over the past forty years. Americans love history, but they find academic history simply beside the point. Academic historians have tended to obsess over issues that only other academics care about, leaving high-schoolers and regular folks to learn their history from journalists and from Hollywood. But that has always been the case with scholarly work and it does not mean that the big lessons of the past forty years should not be taught to high-schoolers.

More important here, though, is the way culture-war issues are often addressed by letters like this one. Because none of us can understand the nuances of every issue, because none of us really understands what all the fuss is about, we rely on networks of competing authorities to give us our culture-war positions.

In the creation/evolution battles, for instance, we’ve seen this time and time again. Nearly every pro-evolution argument these days starts with some statement that mainstream scientists all agree on the fact of evolution. Activist organizations such as the National Center for Science Education compile bulletproof lists of all the scientists who agree that evolution occurs via natural selection. It has always been this way. In the 1968 US Supreme Court case of Epperson v. Arkansas, the National Science Teachers Association submitted a statement signed by 179 leading scientists. Evolution, the signatories told the court, had become a “fundamental scientific principle” supported by all “scientists and other reasonable persons.”

Creationists, of course, have always compiled similar lists of experts. As I noted in my first book, sometimes such lists took over the whole argument. For instance, T.T. Martin’s 1923 book, Hell and the High Schools, was a slim 175 pages. Of those pages, a full 67 were nothing but lists of anti-evolution scientists and experts.

For those few true experts such as Ronald Numbers or Glenn Branch, it is possible to wade through these lists of names to tease out the scientific street cred of each person. For most readers, though, the lists of experts serve only to prove the reliability of writers’ claims.

In every culture-war field, we rely on experts we trust to tell us what to believe. And then we believe it, whether or not we really know what we’re talking about. This doesn’t mean we’re stupid. It doesn’t mean we’re ignorant. As Dan Kahan argues so convincingly, our beliefs about evolution tells us about who we are, not about what we know.

What are we to believe about the new Advanced Placement US History standards? Are they the best wisdom of historians, vetted by true experts in the field and reflecting the latest developments of academic knowledge? Or are they the puerile croaking of a self-satisfied and out-of-touch ivory-tower elite, bent on promoting ideology over true knowledge?

The answer, of course, depends on which group of experts you prefer.

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?