The University in Context

The Left University,” by James Piereson, South Dakota Politics, 3 October 2005, (from Jason of South Dakota Politics)..

Jason was kind enough to forward this link to me a while ago. I wanted to give it justice, but I finally realized that it was better at telling how the Liberal University became the Left University than I would.

First, a straight-forward description of the Liberal/Left hold on the University system.

As it happens, the contemporary university is diverse only as a matter of definition and ideology, but not in practice or reality. A recent national survey of college faculty by Stanley Rothman, Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte showed that over 72 percent held liberal and left of center views, while some 15 percent held conservative views. The survey also found that, over time, and especially since 1980, academic opinion has moved steadily leftward as the generation shaped by the 1960s has taken control of academe. In the humanities and social sciences, where political views are more closely related to academic subject matter, the distribution of opinion is even more skewed to the left. Unlike professors in the past, moreover, many contemporary teachers believe it is their duty to incorporate their political views into classroom instruction. Thus students at leading colleges report that they are subjected to a steady drumbeat of political propaganda in their courses in the humanities and social sciences.

A rational Conservative/Right plan for Victory would entail either taking-down or taking-over the University system. An economy-of-force approach would suggest both, the delegitimization and dismemberment of the most hostile departments or discipliens, the coopation and resteering of the most scceptable, with an overriding flexibility guided by principle.

Then, the author notes there a history exists of nonacdemic knowledge generators. A “University” has substitutes: academia is a replaceable social good.

For the great part of American history, from the founding of Harvard College in 1636 down to around 1900, colleges and universities played a small role in the economic and political developments that shaped the nation. Through the colonial period and into the early 19th century, when state universities began to be formed, institutions of higher learning were built on a British model, and were founded or controlled by Protestant denominations, usually Congregational, Episcopal, or Presbyterian. The purpose of these institutions was to shape character and to transmit knowledge and right principles to the young in order to prepare them for vocations in teaching, the ministry, and, often, the law. Few thought of these institutions as places where new knowledge might be generated or where original research might be conducted.

In England, as in America, research and discovery were sponsored by nonacademic institutions like the Royal Society in London or the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, the latter founded by Benjamin Franklin.

The “liberal” University arrived late on the scene, importing ideas of government from Germany and other sources.

There occurred a rapid expansion in higher education in the last few decades of the 19th century, encouraged by the end of sectional hostilities, the closing of the frontier, the rise of science and industry, and the accumulation of great wealth in the hands of men prepared to direct some of it to new academic institutions. From the close of the Civil War to 1890, the number of colleges and universities in the United States doubled from about 500 to 1,000, and the number of students tripled to more than 150,000. By 1910, student enrollment had grown to 350,000. Many of our most influential universities were created during this time, including the University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Vanderbilt, and Clark–all underwritten financially by wealthy businessmen. The academic revolution of this era was directed and largely implemented by university presidents including Charles Eliot of Harvard, Daniel Coit Gilman of Johns Hopkins, Andrew White of Cornell, William Rainey Harper of Chicago, David Starr Jordan of Stanford–and Woodrow Wilson of Princeton. It was a measure of the esteem in which college presidents were held that Wilson, while president of Princeton, was recruited in 1910 to run for governor of New Jersey and two years later for president of the United States.

The intellectual inspiration and institutional model for this revolution came not from Jefferson and the University of Virginia, or from any American source at all, but from German idealists who brought about an academic revolution in that country in the early 1800s. The institutional model was the University of Berlin, established in 1810 by Wilhelm von Humboldt, Prussian minister of education, under the influence of the idealist philosophers Fichte, Kant, and Hegel, who asserted that the task of the scholar was to search for the truth in science, philosophy, and morals unimpeded by political or religious authorities. The University of Berlin, the original research university, was based on the idea that truth is not something known and passed on, but the subject of persistent inquiry and continuous revision. It incorporated the practice of faculty autonomy in the selection of subjects for research and coursework, and conceived of students as junior partners in the research enterprise, that is, as researchers or professors in training. This new institution thus recast the purpose of the university away from theology, tradition, and vocations and in the direction of science and secular studies. It discarded as well the practice of looking to ancient writers for moral lessons and political guidance. The new university thus placed the faculty rather than students, religious bodies, or public officials at the center of the enterprise, for it was the faculty that in the end would decide what was studied and taught.

Ultimately, one of the greatst achievements of the university system (a focus on research) also does a disserve to its main source of funding — an orientation away from students. Far from teaching students how to do things or even how to think, the great liberal University focuses on a sort of stylized blogging: academic journal publishing.

As the modern university took shape, faculties began to organize themselves into specialized departments, or disciplines, with their own formal rules for study, research, and publication. It was in this period that the various academic associations were formed, including the American Historical Association (1884), the American Economic Association (1885), the American Physical Society (1899), the American Political Science Association (1903), and the American Sociological Association (1905). These were national membership associations that held annual conventions and published their own journals containing research studies representing authoritative work in the respective disciplines. These associations were, in a way, national communities that reoriented the attention of professors away from students at their own college and toward colleagues working in the same discipline at other institutions across the country. The status of professors in their various disciplines was based on their published research, which established in turn a new basis upon which to rank departments and entire institutions.

As with the courts, if academia is taken-down it will be the fault of the Left. Decades of careful institution-building had created respected and honored universities. Leftist insurgent networks would successfullly subvert the university system:

By 1965, the American university was probably at a high point in terms of public esteem. Academic scientists had played a leading role in the discoveries that had led to victory in World War II. Veterans returning from the war enrolled in colleges and universities in large numbers, contributing a sense of maturity and seriousness to the academic enterprise that it had lacked before (and has lacked since). Professors in all fields, including the arts and humanities, enjoyed wide prestige. College sports reached large audiences through national television broadcasts. The baby boom generation, the largest in the history of the nation, was about to enter university life, causing a more than doubling of enrollments (from 3.5 million to 8 million) between 1960 and 1970.

It is plain in retrospect that the American university changed as fundamentally in the decade or so after 1965 as it did in those formative years between 1870 and 1910. The political and cultural upheavals of the period, spurred by the civil rights movement and opposition to the war in Vietnam, combined with the demographic explosion, brought about a second revolution in higher education, and created an institution (speaking generally) that was more egalitarian, more ideological, and more politicized, but less academic and less rigorous, in its preoccupations than was the case in the preceding era. It was in this period, from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, that the left university emerged in place of the liberal university.

The Left wisely used constructivist insights — that all action is educatinoal, and all things are political — to push their agenda. While their successful attacks on open scholarshp are very regretable, their successful attempt to swing the correlation of forces within academia is to be respected

The major changes or reversals that took place in a short period of time were unprecedented in the history of American education: single-sex colleges all but disappeared; college regulation of student morals disappeared as well; government regulation of employment expanded, putting pressure on institutions to hire women and minorities for faculty positions; the line between teaching a subject matter and advocating political positions was blurred or even eliminated altogether as the new campus radicalism asserted that all teaching is political in nature; the liberal underpinnings of academic culture–the freedom to teach and conduct research–were attacked and eroded in the name of political correctness; the unifying character of the humanities was subverted and discredited when they were said to represent an oppressive tradition formed by white European males; new fields, usually with ideological preconceptions, were created outside the traditional departments and areas of study, thus expanding the positions available for radical faculty; serious academic requirements, including foreign language proficiency, were softened or eliminated. Faculty opinion, already skewed in a liberal direction in the 1950s and 1960s, moved decisively to the left. All of these changes were blasted into place in the tumultuous decade from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, and were institutionalized in the decades that followed.


Since then, the University has acted as a Liberal/Left ideological conversion machine.

If there is a silver lining, it is that the very rapid conquest of Academia by the Left pushed it out of phase with the rest of the Liberal/Left program.

There was, in addition, a powerful countercultural element in the left university that was never a significant dimension of the liberal university. While liberals had pressed for practical reforms in American capitalism and the Constitution, the radicals of the 1960s went further to launch a wholesale attack on American culture and the middle-class way of life, which they condemned as repressive and, worse, boring. The cultural radicalism of the 1960s, derived from the Beats of the 1950s, was so appealing to the new campus left because it promised something beyond political reform–namely, a different way of life with a revised set of morals, new styles of dress, and an alternative to conventional careers. The cultural radicalism of the Beats was thus imported more or less wholesale to the campus, which was in turn conceived as a sanctuary from the moral repression of middle class life, a place where any number of different lifestyles might be explored. In the past, Americans in search of bohemia, or a refuge from middle-class expectations, had fled to communes in the country, or to European outposts as Hemingway and other writers did in the 1920s, or to Greenwich Village or San Francisco, but now they found homes on the modern campus.

The phase disharmony between the University and the remants of the Liberal/Left — basically, the self-ghettoization of the Left within Academia, may be the best hope of counter-insurgents.

Furthermore, the failures of the left university, along with the excesses of some of its representatives, are gradually leading trustees and donors, and even some presidents and deans, to ask some long overdue questions about the path their institutions have followed. How, for example, can any university carry out its responsibilities if all faculty members think the same way, if genuine debate over vital questions is discouraged, if ideological rhetoric crowds out thoughtful discussion, if students know more about the peace movement than the Constitution and more about Ward Churchill than Winston Churchill?

College and university trustees are beginning to break through the artificial barrier that says that only faculty are qualified to pass judgment on matters of curriculum and appointments. Earlier this year, for example, the alumni of Dartmouth College elected to its board of trustees two insurgent candidates who ran on a platform that called for intellectual diversity and higher academic standards on the campus. Trustees of the University of Colorado, disgusted by the Ward Churchill fiasco and what it implied about the intellectual standards at their institution, have gone further by creating a new undergraduate program in Western civilization. Trustees at the State University of New York and George Mason University in Virginia, encouraged by the Washington-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni, have also acted to bolster academic standards in Western civilization and American history. Several years ago the trustees of the City University of New York, alarmed by the collapse of standards that followed a radical takeover a generation ago, took steps to strengthen standards for admission and to incorporate real substance into the curriculum. Trustees elsewhere, encouraged by such examples, are discovering that, if their institutions are to be rescued, they dare not rely on faculties to do it.

Perhaps something new will replace the social sciences/humanities ideological conversion machine…

At the same time, some philanthropists have begun to see a connection between anti-Americanism on campus and other pathologies, particularly anti-Semitism, anti-Israelism, racial separatism, and hostility to business. They are surely right to see a connection among these malignancies, and right also to see that they need to be attacked as strands of a broad ideology that has found a home in the left university. Such donors, once they are in the field, will bring a new urgency to the challenge of dislodging this orthodoxy from the academy.

.. while the engineering schools, sciences, and useful arts colleges continue to help grow the American economy.

Let’s hope!

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