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The Higher Education Hustle

The Higher Education Hustle

By William Voegeli - June 24, 2013

The term "politically correct" entered the American vocabulary in 1991, following a widely discussed New York magazine cover story on higher education, and has become applicable beyond the campus. The Associated Press, for example, announced this year the banishment of "illegal immigrant" from its stylebook. One linguist suggested "unauthorized migrant" as a more respectful substitute. Jay Leno, who is not politically correct, preferred "undocumented Democrats." Perhaps "joggers without borders" will catch on.

Still, the university remains the natural habitat, redoubt, and headquarters for political correctness. The predicate for the phenomenon was the democratization of higher education in the 20th century. In 1910, according to the Department of Education, 2.7% of Americans above the age of 25 had received a bachelor's degree. (Only 13.5% had completed high school.) The jobs for which a college education was optional used to include president of the United States: eight of the first 24, from George Washington through William McKinley, never attended college. Beginning with Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, every president except Harry Truman has earned a bachelor's degree. By 1960, 7.7% of American adults had completed college, a proportion that has increased steadily: 11% in 1970, 17% in 1980, 21.3% in 1990, 25.6% in 2000, and 30.4% in 2011.

Democratizing access to college culminated in democratizing the experience of college. It would not, for example, have occurred to the more self-confident colleges of yore to solicit undergraduates' evaluations of their professors. The idea that sophomores are qualified to weigh in on their instructors' "knowledge of the subject matter" would, instead, have struck them as upending the premise of operating a college. Student evaluations have become ubiquitous since the 1970s, however, and are important factors in determining faculty promotion and compensation.

In Culture and Anarchy Matthew Arnold described culture as "a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world." But, democrats ask, who's to say what's the best? After the upheavals of the 1960s, America's colleges came to doubt their authority to impose any particular canon or standards. Cornell University endured especially convulsive campus protests in 1969. A few years later, after it transformed itself in order to placate students and faculty who found the old curriculum oppressive and irrelevant, two professors, Werner Dannhauser and L. Pearce Williams, posed a question in the student newspaper to the school's president:

If we prove to you that an Arts and Sciences student can now receive a B.A. degree at Cornell, and thus be presumed to have acquired a liberal education, without having been required to read a line of Plato, the Bible, Shakespeare, Marx or Einstein, would you consider this to be evidence that there is a crisis in education at Cornell?

By never answering them, the president made clear that the "crisis" was then, and would be henceforth, business as usual. And if an institution as prestigious as Cornell had abandoned such fundamentals, there was no chance Generic U. would pick up the torch.

Secular Salvation

Nature abhors a vacuum, however, as today's undergraduates may or may not have heard. It was not feasible for college to be a four-year show about nothing, where undergraduates sampled two or three dozen electives chosen from a thick course catalog while gliding toward their commencement ceremonies. And the something the modern college has come to be about is where political correctness enters the discussion.

Colleges' new mission, as the missionaries who control them understand it, is redemptive but not really political. That is, they work to impart dispositions they believe should be, for any decent and reasonable person or nation, beyond politics. The core of that mission, for many years, was "diversity," in the sense of preparing students for adulthood in a heterogeneous nation and interconnected world by making sure they understood and respected all kinds of people and ways of living. In 1985 the Association of American Colleges (now the Association of American Colleges and Universities) declared:

All study is intended to break down the narrow certainties and provincial vision with which we are born.... To broaden the horizons of understanding for men and women, therefore, colleges must provide them with access to the diversity of cultures and experiences that define American society and the contemporary world. The fragility of the world in which we live and the volatile diversity of the populations of the United States adds urgency to the need for international and multicultural experience in the course of study. At this point in history, colleges are not being asked to produce village squires but citizens of a shrinking world and a changing America. Colleges must create a curriculum in which the insights and understandings, the lives and aspirations of the distant and foreign, the different and the neglected, are more widely comprehended by their graduates.

The acquisition of such comprehension became the justification for immersing students in the study of abuses committed throughout history by those—principally white, heterosexual males—who felt at liberty to disdain the insights and understanding, and trample the lives and aspirations, of the different and neglected. This commitment to a secular salvation has recently expanded to include "sustainability." Colleges now work to make sure that, whatever else its students do or don't learn, they graduate with a profound awareness of, revulsion for, and dedication to reversing the appalling violations committed against a fragile planet.

This rationale has ordered and directed what, in the wake of the post-1960s abandonment of higher education's prior civilizational mission, would have been a hodge-podge of course offerings. In Texas, for example, state law requires students at public universities to complete at least two courses in American history. According to a recent study by the National Association of Scholars (NAS), in 78% of the eligible courses offered by the University of Texas at Austin, the majority of the readings are devoted to race, class, and gender. The six "special topics" courses offered in the semester NAS examined give an idea of the mix:
History of Mexican Americans in the U.S.

Introduction to American Studies
The Black Power Movement
Mexican-American Women, 1910-Present
Race and Revolution
The United States and Africa

The Hoover Institution's Peter Berkowitz writes of modern academia more generally that "in class after class, students are exposed to debate that is largely restricted to progressive alternatives. Meanwhile, conservative opinions are either blithely ignored or contemptuously dismissed." This asymmetry manages to do a disservice to the Right and the Left, since students thus educated are prepared to revile but not refute arguments that challenge their professors' own narrow certainties. As John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty, "He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that."

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William Voegeli is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books and the author of Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State (Encounter Books).

This piece appears in the Spring 2013 issue of Claremont Review of Books.

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