The Columnist on College



One of the biggest frustrations for those of us who believe that the college campus is a degraded intellectual environment is the number of public commentators who just don’t see it.  We have spent years on the faculty, in tenure meetings and on hiring committees, at conferences and amidst academic editors and publishers, witnessing all kinds of politicizations, cronyism, and identity games, not to mention a general lowering of disciplinary standards on the softer side of the campus (the humanities).  We know what has happened and have said so often.

But liberal voices in the media, often citing occupants of higher education who have overseen this deterioration, talk about college in unmixed admiring tones or, at least, in neutral technocratic terms.  They write as if Allan Bloom, Roger Kimball et al never wrote a word, that Milo-at-Berkeley and Murray-at-Middlebury and a thousand other similar disruptions never happened, that black students didn’t issue some 80 demand lists two years ago alleging racism everywhere in higher ed, that nobody ever found the campus in a rape-culture state, that student loan debt isn’t a financial time bomb . . . Instead, they regard college as the gateway to a better life, an instrument of  income mobility.  If corruption does exist, well, it’s only a small part of the picture.

A perfect example of this obtuse optimism appears on December 28th in the Washington Post.  Opinion writer Catherine Rampell titles her entry that day with a question: “Why do so many Republicans hate college?”

Before we go any further in describing Rampell’s explanation, let’s give one of our own, a short answer that she never considers: Republicans hate college because college hates Republicans.  It’s that simple, yes.  College campuses are hives of people who judge Republicans stupid, greedy, racist, and sexist.  They’ve voiced their disgust for years.  That Republicans (some of them) have finally decided to give as good as they’ve gotten for so long. That they recognize that political correctness and liberal bias are not occasional distortions of academic mores, but are, in fact, academic mores, only shows that they see no reconciliation with campus life is possible.

This common-sense judgment escapes Rampell.  To her, as she says in the beginning, higher education is a young person’s path to prosperity.  It is “critical to snagging a stable job, moving up the income ladder and succeeding in the global economy.”  This is bureaucratic-speak, the kind of thing college presidents say, and Rampell did, indeed, meet with some of them to discuss current affairs.  (She seems to have taken their words at face value—never a wise move in the company of a college leader.)  Rampell says nothing about the cost of tuition, the number of kids who graduate or, worse, drop out with crushing debt, the number of majors that bear no correlation with the job market, or the swelling population of adjuncts who do the teaching and have no stability and stand on a low rung on the income ladder.

Given the wonderful advancement college provides, Rampell can only regret that “higher education has also become a political football and an object of derision.”  She doesn’t blame the disrespect on the kids who shut down Evergreen State College or the mob at Claremont that formed when Heather Macdonald spoke or the steady stream of frivolous courses and out-in-left-field scholarly essays that Fox News, Breitbart, and other conservative outlets enjoy publicizing.  No, it’s the Republicans’ fault.

In Arizona, she writes, Republican figures are “beating up on college as a way to prove their conservative bona fides.”  They’ve cut funding to state universities by 41 percent (measured per student) in the last nine years.

Louisiana legislators threatened to cut funding for state schools if any football players kneel during the national anthem.

In Iowa, she says, a “state senator introduced a bill requiring ideological litmus tests for faculty hiring.”  (Does Rampell really believe that implicit and sometimes explicit litmus tests in hiring haven’t been in place for decades?)

The college presidents told Rampell that this is a political campaign.  The “provisions of the Trump tax bill targeting colleges were punitive,” she speculated, and they agreed.

The question is why the hostility from Republican politicians is a good move, at least in the eyes of the politicians.  Rampell does, in this matter, provide an answer.  According to a Pew Research Center survey from last June, respondents who identify as Republican generally believe that schools of higher learning have a “negative effect on the way things are going in the country.”  Democratic respondents gave schools a positive influence on the country.  Republican politicians, Rampell implies, are simply reading the drift of their supporters.

But this evidence doesn’t really answer Rampell’s opening question of why Republicans hate college.  It only says that Republican voters as well as Republican politicians don’t like what’s happening on campus.  In the ordinary course of things, we would summon further evidence of anti-conservatism in college demonstrating that Republicans of all kinds have very good reason to denounce campus culture and politics.  But we don’t need to rehearse a dozen instances of liberal and leftist aggression.  We’re beyond that.  Instead, we must ask how intelligent liberal commentators can still push an illusion about higher education.  At this point, it is impossible to speak honestly about higher education and politics without acknowledging widespread anti-conservative bile.  Identity politics are too strong and severe and, most important of all, broadly publicized to be denied.

So, liberal commentators such as Rampell just ignore them.  Rampell covers only one side of the conflict, the conservative reaction but not the leftist action.  To decry Republican hostility to college without offering any objective evidence for or against the hostility is to treat the truth or falsity of conservative opinion as irrelevant.  It is to say, “Well, that’s just how conservatives feel.”  It sounds like the standard liberal position of taking feelings as having a legitimacy in themselves—except this time the feelings are illegitimate.  Rampell doesn’t want to talk about actual ideological conditions in universities.  That would open up an undesirable window onto liberal bias.  She just wants to talk about conservative hate.

It is telling that Rampell raises conservative disapproval of what happens on college campuses to the level of hate.  Hate sounds irrational.  It saves liberal commentators from treating conservative reaction to liberal bias as a reasonable and understandable response, even one that is mistaken or overdone.  Call it hate and you don’t have to respect it any further.

It’s a convenient way to skirt the obvious.  Recent events in higher education have proven an embarrassment to liberalism.  An enclave wholly captive to liberals has been shown to be costly, bureaucratic, inefficient, and, at times, lunatic. Even worse for liberals, the identity groups that liberals claim to protect themselves accuse the campus of being an unsafe place.  People of color charge it with racism and women charge it with sexism of a sometimes violent kind.  For liberal journalists and columnists, the tactic is simple: let’s just not talk about this any more.  Let’s talk about something else, such as Republicans legislators cutting state university budgets.

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