What Made American Academia Great (and How It Was Destroyed)

Since retiring from the university, several people have asked if I miss it. I tell them I miss what it was, but not what it has become. Higher education in America has gone from being the best in the world to one of the most pathetic. Why? It’s hard to describe what academia was to me and to millions in the past. It was not just a job, but a way of life, and of Western Civilization; and I’m so close to it, that it’s hard to describe—like trying to describe one’s own mother (hence alma mater!).

But let me try. University life at its best was both the most serious, difficult, challenging and maddening existence; and yet, it was also the most exciting, lively, rewarding, and fun experience.

It was deadly serious because we constantly examined the most intense human issues: historical and personal tragedies; ethical dilemmas, philosophical complexities; theological mysteries; and scientific wonders. It was hard because it stretched you intellectually and emotionally, made you question everything and be changed by that knowledge. And it was difficult, because of the enormous workload and demands; assignments, exams, papers, presentations and seminars. I don’t know of another situation, except possibly the military during a war, where one could be tested so much.

Yet this academic rigor was so exciting, lively, and fun because it developed and fulfilled the most essential part of the human soul, what the Bible calls “Logos” and Aristotle “reasoned speech” of a naturally social being. It was exciting because that individual development occurred within a discipline, but free, intellectual and social environment—full of debate, discussion, argument, and questioning in a community of tolerance and respect, but also laughter, joking, flirting, fighting, explaining, and learning. That “community of scholars”—open, searching, teachers and students—changed one’s life and prepared one for whatever came one’s way. Socrates’ dictum “Know Thyself” and “The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living” underlay the traditional liberal arts education: to learn something of every subject (“Renaissance Man”) and all perspectives on every subject and thereby to learn how to think, reason, and analyze: and then be able to handle anything in life and adapt to change.

I realize that this “life of the mind” within a rigorous but friendly community is an ideal; there were plenty of dull classes and mediocre professors at every university. But the “system” of academic freedom and its attendant experiences of intellectual growth prevailed.

Nor did the academy lack in conflict (as the old joke went: “The fights in academia are so bad because the stakes are so low”). But those battles were over policy or personalities (mostly egos), not the essential basis of the university: free thought and debate. I never can remember, even in the midst of terrible fights that led to presidents being fired or programs being altered, or board members resigning, that anyone questioned the right to free speech, academic inquiry, or liberty of conscience.

Academia was full of eccentric professors with various crazy ideas and habits (some brilliant), naïve students, and pompous administrators; but they all adhered to the same standard of knowledge. This led not just to scientific discovery and technological progress, but to every other kind of progress: economic, political, social, and ethical.

Such an open, lively, productive academic system goes back to Ancient Greece and Rome, the Medieval European monasteries and universities, and Oxford and Cambridge tutorials, but it was perfected in America. The first really modern university was the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson (and celebrating its 200th anniversary this year). Jefferson said of UVA, “Here we are not afraid to follow the Truth wherever it may lead; nor to tolerate any error, so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

That is the classic statement of academic freedom: a “free marketplace of ideas” that develops individuals and society. And it is especially important in a democracy, where the people are self-governing. It holds that the solution to bad ideas is not to censor or ignore them, but to refute them with good and reasonable ideas. Just as the best products come out of economic competition, sound religion comes out of liberty of conscience.

Jefferson experienced both the intellectual and the social aspects of this academic life at his alma mater, William and Mary College, in Williamsburg, Virginia. There, he said in his Autobiography, he had professors like his philosophy and mathematics professor “profound in most of the useful branches of Science, with a happy talent for communication, correct and gentlemanly manners, and an enlarged and liberal mind.” Similarly, Jefferson’s law professor, George Wythe, taught legal doctrine within the liberal arts context of history, and political philosophy. Their formal instruction combined with an informal, personal mentoring that included dinners at the Royal Governor’s Palace (!), where this “partie quarree” enjoyed classical music and discussions of philosophy and literature, religion and history, forming, Jefferson remarked “the finest school of manners and morals that ever existed in America” and “fixed the destinies of my life.” And the destinies of our nation, as such education prepared Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence.

Such a combination of formal education in classrooms and labs with informed mentoring and society became the model for Jefferson’s “academical village” at the University of Virginia and for academic freedom in America. Both effectively have been destroyed by the Liberal “political correctness” of the last 30 years, especially during the Obama Administration.

Political correctness effectively replaces free, diverse debate and a positive collegial community with Nazi-like speech control. In place of a “free-marketplace of ideas” examining all subjects and perspectives is one official ideology that eclipses all the other views. That P.C. doctrine, essentially, is that Western Civilization in general, and America in particular, is racist, sexist, imperialist and unjust. This means that nothing good can be said about certain figures or subjects (Jefferson, the founding, Christianity, etc.) and nothing bad or “offensive” can be said about “protected groups” (women, minorities, gays, Muslims, illegal immigrants, etc). This ideology has pretty much captured the humanities and social sciences in American universities (as well as the most prominent academic associations and journals, and the most prestigious awards).

This system of thought was codified and weaponized by the largely illegal and unconstitutional expansion of the Title IX Regulations in 2014. This was a provision of the Civil Rights Acts requiring equal expenditures on college sports along gender lines. It was deftly transformed into a P.C. blitz by equating “discrimination” with “harassment.” When “harassment” was expanded to include “verbal” harassment, it allowed censorship and punishment of any speech that was deemed offensive or “unwanted” by anyone. Title IX offices at every American university (with names like: The Office of Conduct, Compliance, Control, Diversity, Inclusion and Demasculinization) run Gestapo-like operations of surveillance, mandatory reporting, investigations, interrogations (without due process) and reprimands, dismissals and expulsions.

Needless to say, this has had a “chilling effect” on free speech and association. Colleges have turned into social graveyards and intellectual wastelands. The U.S. Department of Education threatened to cut off federal funding to any university that did not enforce these totalitarian policies. Terror Reigned. Sadly, the people most hurt by this were the ones it was intended to help: women and minorities. Their education was trivialized and the informal mentoring that prepared them for professional life was lost, as professors had nothing to do with them beyond purely official activity, fearing charges of harassment.

All of this has had a disastrous effect on morale and enrollment, which is down nationwide. When universities, in effect, told young people: “come here and be continually harassed, abused and assaulted (or accused of doing such and unable to defend yourself),” it did not seem, along with the high cost and worthless teaching to be such a good deal.

Title IX Political Correctness cleverly hid many of its assaults on intellectual liberty and freedom of speech under benign code of “civility” and “respectfulness”—meaning any talk, laughter, or behavior that offended anyone was forbidden. But what could be more truly “respectful” than presenting all sides of an issue and letting the student decide what they believe? Professors in my day, after the fashion of John Stuart Mill’s classic essay On Liberty, were objective and detached; presenting all sides fairly before presuming to criticize. After federal court rulings declared such an approach unconstitutional, the civil rights “training” at universities often began with proud statements that freedom of speech as respected absolutely, before listing 200 ways in which it was limited.

The negative effects of these Stalinist decrees (on morale, enrollment, publicity) has caused many universities to hire marketing consultants to clean up their image with slogans and gimmicks. Such fun activities as “Cookie Day” and “The Career Closet” (I’m not making this up) were to present a “safe” and happy image to higher education institutions. But young Americans don’t relish the thought of participating either in a re-education camp or a kindergarten; they want a university. Unless the academy is run by academics, not political activists or marketing consultants, the universities will not return—to the detriment of our entire country.

President Trump’s recent executive order threatening to cut federal research funding to universities that violate freedom of speech, along with the Department of Education’s long-awaited revision of the Title IX guidelines, will begin the reform of P.C.  saturated institutions. But how long it will take to filter down to “resistant” offices of conduct, compliance and control, and “progressive” faculty, is unknown.

My guess is that in 10 years, half of America’s universities will be turned into vocational-technical schools or closed entirely (or possibly turned into minimum-security prisons or drug rehab centers). The remaining, I hope, will return to a model similar to the lively, rigorous and useful universities we once had. Combinations of online efficiency with onsite community may be the best solution. And if secondary schools returned to teaching the best of Western Civilization (literature, history, art, music, philosophy) it would prepare Americans who do not go to college to be well-informed, thoughtful citizens, Jefferson’s ideal for American democracy.

I, like my favorite philosophers Jefferson, Hannah Arendt, and Aristotle, remain optimistic that if human beings are rational, social creatures, the academy with survive, in some form. I hope so, because without it, American greatness will not survive.

Photo Credit: iStock/Getty Images

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About Garrett Ward Sheldon

Garrett Ward Sheldon is professor emeritus at the University of Virginia and an ordained Christian minister. He taught political theory, American political thought, law, and religion. He has published 10 books, including The History of Political Theory: Ancient Greece to Modern America, Religion and Politics: Major Thinkers on the Relation of Church and State, and The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson. He was in residence at and commissioned by, Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University, and a visiting scholar at the University of Vienna, Trinity College (Dublin), Moscow University, the University of Istanbul, and Princeton.

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