Following some elite campus visits with his daughter, the morose father lamented that one cannot simply opt out of college. Such a defiance of convention did not seem feasible socially or economically. Like all men of sense, he is among those flabbergasted by former Princeton President Woodrow Wilson’s eagerness to make his students “as unlike their fathers as possible.”
Today’s college administrators have gone well beyond Wilson’s edict. It seems that the default position on campus today is to surrender common sense and the most obvious moral scruples, allow questionable social habits, and yield to one’s youthful passions and impulses. All this misery comes at an enormous cost to the parents.
Parents no longer can be deluded by expressions such as the “old college try.” The current successors of Woodrow Wilson are more in line with the pseudo-Socrates of Aristophanes’ Clouds—a man whom the horrified father sees as a charlatan who would gladly allow his son to rape his mother, just after the twerp has assaulted him. The dread and dismay facing parents and prospective students is the same today as it was in 4th century B.C. Athens.
Don’t kid yourself that a great reputation or even a religious affiliation will protect your son or daughter. A venerable and distinguished priest and professor, now retired, said about Georgetown University that its only guarantee is that freshmen will graduate as moral relativists. Similar debunking applies to most any university today.
The corrupting temptation of higher education, as it is of any business enterprise, is to flatter the passions of the consumers and accommodate their appetites. Such an attitude means that actual dedication to the good of the students will be subordinate to the good of the institution.
The great question remains: Who will educate the educators?
The way to think about choosing a university might be clarified by reflecting more on the political career of Wilson, who in 1912 was elected president of the United States, just two years after leaving Princeton (and having served as governor of New Jersey in between). Based on his scholarship of applying scientific principles to politics, Wilson enacted a revolution in political practice known as Progressivism, which is rooted in a rejection of the principles of the Declaration of Independence and promotion of rule by bureaucratic experts.
Wilson succeeded all too well. The problem of life in the modern world is our deference to experts: Experts on the Mideast who led us into futile wars; experts on poverty who increased it; experts on race who stoked and aggravated racism; experts on immigration who weakened the bonds of citizenship; the list goes on. One man was unfazed by the experts and defied their minion strategists and was elected president, largely (or should I say, “bigly”) through relating directly to the people. He bypassed the experts.
This is flabbergasting: Can Donald Trump of Trump University notoriety really teach us about choosing the right school? The example is indeed instructive, though not in the way his critics wish. If false advertising is a cause for legal action, America’s “respectable” colleges and universities are the most under-litigated class in the country.
After all, how many colleges advertise or even admit in their catalogs to suicides, drug and alcohol abuse, post-graduation debt, “gut” courses that make no serious demands, or give an honest accounting of the professional accomplishments of their graduates? Far more widespread are slick packaging of slim pickings and meager accomplishments. If I may flash my own badge of expertise, I served for several months in higher education assessment for the State of Virginia, when I rejected some preposterous programs trying to pass as universities. Higher authority overruled my objections, and the pseudo-schools allowed to offer courses for college credit. Trump U is more the rule than an exception in American higher education, and may even have been more honest.
President Trump has forced practitioners and students of politics to reassess what their crafts entail. The conventional thinking defers to fake experts and fake science, all promoted by fake news (every one of them educated at our leading universities). But in 2016 voters turned away from their parties’ establishments, chose an outsider, and demanded a different way. While winning college-educated white voters, he also brought into his victorious coalition a large increase of those with only high-school educations. Their voices, no less capable than those with “higher” education of discerning what does and does not serve their own interests, deserved recognition too.
Just as we must question who will educate the educators, so we must ask of political life, who will judge the experts? Socrates once framed the question in this way: when we want a shoe, we go to a shoemaker, a ship, a shipbuilder, so why go to the people when we want a statesman? Trump provides that answer: Because you cannot trust the state. We must recognize the obligation to the people that government should operate only by and with their consent. There must be free and meaningful elections to take account of the opinions of ordinary citizens on matters that affect their lives— on questions of war, taxes, and basic government services.
The great political revolution of 2016 needs to be applied to the similar forms of corruption that beset our system of higher education.
The establishments of both political parties and the Washington insiders only pay lip service to this elementary democratic principle. They preferred to allow the growth of an administrative state that replaced consent and elections with a bureaucracy of “expertise” as its great principle. In opposition, Trump promised and is returning American politics to the first principle upon which it is supposed to be based: consent of the governed.
The great political revolution of 2016 needs to be applied to the similar forms of corruption that beset our system of higher education. What is most striking there is the growth of college expenses and of the bureaucracies that consume the parents’ and governments’ finances. The turn to less costly means of education in online learning only skirts the real question: What is the purpose of all these deans and programs? While students don’t elect professors or administrators, they can choose this or that college or, increasingly, none at all.
Let’s focus on the key personnel in the great business of higher education: the teacher. Doesn’t being a professor imply some mastery of or at least acquaintance with a body of learning? Perhaps of some fundamental core disciplines or ideas or established great books? In evaluating how the professor changes the student, shouldn’t we see whether the graduate lives in a manner befitting a free man or woman, displaying all the traits of a liberally educated human being, as a citizen, a worker, a parent?
Trump is freeing us from conventional assumptions about Washington, D.C. The key questions the education establishment has wanted the rest of us to surrender to their expertise must be posed by students, parents, faculty, administrators, trustees, and mere taxpayers. The deference to expertise—or, more precisely, deference to mere claims of expertise—defies the chief political implication of human equality: officials, whether in government or institutions of higher learning, must observe the principle of rule by consent. With that realization we only need the courage to question the self-anointed experts.