From Icon to Just a Con

Most of us who came of age in the 1970s revered the university—even as it was still reeling from 1960s protests and beginning a process that resulted in its present chaos and disrepute.

Americans of the G.I. Bill-era first enshrined the idea of upward mobility through the bachelor’s degree—the assumed gateway to career security—and the positive role of expanding colleges to grow the new suburban middle classes.

Despite student radicalism and demands for reform, professors had been trained in the postwar era by an older breed of prewar scholars and teachers. As stewards, they passed on their sense of professionalism about training future scholars and teachers—and just broadly educated citizens. In classics, I remember courses from scholars such as British subjects H.D. Kitto and Michael Grant, who lectured on Sophoclean tragedies or the late Roman emperors as the common inheritance of undergraduates.

Overwhelmingly liberal and often hippish in appearance, American faculty of the early 1970s still only rarely indoctrinated students or bullied them to mimic their own progressivism. Rather, in both the humanities and sciences, students were taught the inductive method of evaluating evidence in hopes of finding some common explanation of natural and human phenomena.

Yes, we studied “mere” facts—dates, names, grammar, syntax, and formulae—but deliberately to ground or refute theories with evidence and to illustrate and enhance argumentation. Essays bled red by old masters of English prose style, whose efforts were aimed at ensuring students could communicate effectively but also with a sense of grace.

As an undergraduate and graduate student at hotbeds of prior 1960s protests at UC Santa Cruz and Stanford, I don’t think I had a single conservative professor. Yet there were few faculty members, in Western Civilization, history, classics, or mandatory general education science and math classes, who either sought to indoctrinate us with their liberal world view or punished us for remaining conservative.

It was jarring to see old-fashioned demands for Ciceronian style in Latin prose composition classes occasionally coming from professors with jeans, long hair, and scandals, or to be introduced to artificially informal profs (“Oh, just call me Bob—no need for ‘Doctor’ or ‘Professor’”), who nonetheless insisted on grounding ancient historical arguments with precise references to Greek quotations in classical authors.

I can remember aging, new-age guru Norman O. Brown (known on campus with false intimacy as “Norman” or “Nobbie”) railing at a student in Greek lyric poetry class for his failure to recognize that nosos (“disease”) belonged to the quite rare group of second-declension feminine Greek nouns. His wild etymological rants were nonetheless grounded in philology.

Cost Saving

Administrators in the 1960s and 1970s were relatively few. Most faculty saw administration as a temporary if necessary evil that took precious time away from teaching and research and so were admired for putting up with it. Often the best scholars and classroom teachers were drafted for such unwelcome duty, and were praised for their sacrifices of a year or two.

Professors taught large loads—four or five classes a semester for California State University faculty. Conferences were rare. Teaching was still valued as much as scholarship.

The result was that both college tuition and room and board stayed relatively inexpensive. There were few student loans. Students who went into limited debt usually paid off their obligations in a year or two after graduation. Most students found part-time jobs on campus and lived frugally. Most did not even own used cars; those who did were valued as rare assets.

There was hardly a single dorm room to be had. And there was nothing in the student union or gym analogous to a rock-climbing wall, latte bar, or ATM. No one had TVs in their rooms. Affordable college still retained elements of boot-camp poverty.

In the campus free speech areas, protests were always left-wing and loud, but characteristically voiced themes calling for more free speech, less censorship, and an end once and all to racial segregation and discrimination.

The Fall

In other words, even after the damage of the 1960s, there remained still in the early 1970s vestiges of why the university had once won public confidence, and was seen as essential to the upward mobility of the postwar baby boom.

What went wrong? The former students of the 1970s came into power and gradually began to reject the very code of conduct and training of those who taught them. And in turn they taught a new generation who for the first time had little first-hand knowledge of the great campus scholars and icons of the past.

Politics increasingly infected courses as competence eroded—logical for faculty and students since the former required far less of the latter. Across the curriculum, race, class, and gender studies found their way into art, music, literature, philosophy and history classes. Deduction now replaced the old empiricism. Grades inflated; the therapeutic triumphed over the tragic as how students felt was almost as important as what they learned and knew.

When old rules and norms could not be met, they were eroded on the principle that such discriminatory constructs should never have been established. More cynically, standards got in the way of more student bodies and more profits for the academic class.

There were many false and overly clever rationalizations for the abandonment of the old inductive method. Dressed-up French postmodern nihilism dictated that there were no facts, only social constructions and narratives based on power, supposedly appropriated by white toxic Western males, past and present.

Standards, then, were also discredited as artifices to suppress the marginalized. To object to such hucksterism was proof of one’s own racism, sexism, and homophobia.

New progressive doctrines insisted that because the traditional elements of American society and culture—the family, church, community, and government—were biased, the university was needed as a counterweight to these nefarious conservative forces. Thus, the university could and should itself become prejudicial and openly propagandistic—a legitimate way of offering “balance” to the various institutional forces that brainwashed young Americans with conservative doctrines.

The Woke Industry

Dozens of clever arguments promoted the idea that bias among the wealthiest, most entitled, and freest generation in the history of civilization justified hundreds of compensatory programs. In Orwellian terms, censorship, racial segregation, and thought crimes were renamed trigger warnings, safe spaces, and microaggressions by careerists eager to expand their growing power and influence.

In place of the binary of affirmative action, a reparatory program to help atone for injuries said to be done to African-American students and faculty for the legacy of southern slavery and Jim Crow, the vague term “diversity” arose. The newly expanded gospel was based on the notion that so-called victimized “nonwhite” people (in fact, redefined as anyone from a Brazilian aristocrat to a wealthy half-Punjabi-American) might represent a third of the nation, with expanding grievances against the white majority, past and present.

Because America had not been perfect in 21st-century moral terms, then it never had been even good. Ironically, few of the new faculty and student censors ever imagined the horrors and grit of the past—or could never have endured the deadly trek of the pioneers they now damned, the daily effort to find clean water or dispose safely of raw sewage, or the ordeal of having a third of one’s children die in birth or from childhood diseases.

Again, there was also always a careerist and corporate component to the dismantling of the university. Administration now became a permanent and well-paid profession. Itinerant college deans, provosts, and presidents were admired in the manner of corporate CEOs, lording over massive college industries—and they were paid and compensated accordingly.

Faculty specialization and opaque writing were coveted, as if academia was now a Mandarin enterprise, with thinly disguised contempt for the deplorable middle class and its rat-race values. Logically, two classes of the professoriate emerged. The few elite professors avoided class to earn marquee salaries from their narrow publications, while an entire cadre of helot lecturers was hired to teach at low salaries, few benefits and without job security.

Truth in Lending?

Universities emulated the ethos of loan sharks and shake-down businesses. The con was as simple as it was insidiously brilliant. Academic lobbyists pressed the government for billions in guaranteed student loans, on the rationale that half of all Americans would now be offered a chance for the common, empowering BA degree.

The federal government-backed student loans. That guarantee greenlighted cash-flush universities to pay inter alia for diversity czars, assistant provosts of “inclusion,” and armies of woke aides and facilitators, to reduce teaching loads, and to open more race/class/gender “centers” on campus—by jacking up college costs higher than the rate of inflation.

Student debt soared. Almost anyone could be admitted to college on the assurance that loans and “assistance packages” would allow 18-year-olds soon to become university graduates—and not worry about paying for their new noncompetitive majors until later.

In a just world, the exempt university would have been subject to the same rules of lending forced upon car dealers, credit card companies, and mortgage lenders. That is, teenagers would have been apprised in writing of exactly what their monthly loan payments would be upon graduation, what were the exact rates of graduation from a particular school and at what total cost and in what typical time frames. The employment rate of various majors and the resulting average compensations would have been available to students to weigh carefully before they signed their twenties and thirties over to the universities. Students would be given a break-down of university expenses and itemized bills on a per capita basis.

The Costs

In sum, the damage that the modern university has wrought has now outweighed its once-positive role.

Let us count the ways higher education had done its part to nearly harm the United States. A new generation owes $1.5 trillion in student debt—a sum that an increasing majority of debtors either cannot pay back or simply will not.

One’s 20s are now redefined as the lost decade, as marriage, child-rearing, and home buying are put off, to the extent they still occur, into one’s 30s.

Bitterness abounds when graduates gradually learn that their liberal anti-capitalist professors and administrators were part of a profit-rigged system by which peasant students became financial cannon fodder. For all the hipster left-wing campus atmospherics, the university operated more or less as a Madoff/Ponzi scheme: for each newly admitted class of students, the fed backed another round of usurious loans that could never be paid back by those of little means, and the university upped its prices.

The result was reduced teaching, a bonanza of release time, administrative bloat, Club Med dorms, gyms, and student unions, and epidemics of highly paid but non-teaching careerist advisors, and counselors.

The university was now in loco parentis, a sort of granny that babysat men and women of arrested development and encouraged the idea that they were helpless. The more students were considered “adults” in matters of loud and boisterous protests, obscene speech, binge drinking, common drug use, and hook-up sex, the more they wished to be treated as Victorian children. Suddenly kids were shocked that the inebriated acted dangerously and boorishly, upset that the targets of their attack did not like them, and furious that sexual congress without commitment and love was often manipulative and embedded within male callousness and deceit.

Adolescent-adults were oblivious to changing public attitudes that no longer put up with “college antics” but saw the university and its students and employees as pampered, hypocritical, intolerant, and often obnoxious. Shrill campus protests seemed like Antifa boot camps without the masks and clubs.

There were and are ways to save the university, but in classical Livian style, the medicine is felt worse than the disease.

The Prescription

Mandatory exit standardized tests could calibrate whether students learned anything after spending or borrowing $250,000 for a degree. If a certain minimum SAT or ACT score is considered necessary for admittance (to calibrate the relative merit of various high school grade point averages), why would not such a similar exit exam be necessary for a bachelor’s degree? The university double-checks the competency of high-school degrees, but not its own?

Universities should be held responsible for repaying a large percentage of the loans they issued and yet in advance knew well could not and would not be repaid. The government should get out of the campus loan insurance business.

Incoming students should be given as many pages of financial disclosures as they receive when buying a car at far less cost. Students should be given a unit breakdown of actual college expenses. That way they would know just how much a canceled or missed class cost them or a professor who never showed up for office hours. And they would soon learn the billed rate was similar to what is charged by lawyers and surgeons.

Given that 90 percent of faculty are not just leftist but often become in-class partisans, recent taxes on mega-endowments should be expanded, with requirements that much higher percentages of annual endowment income be spent on actual teaching and instruction.

Tenure, an ossified concept that did not result in ideological diversity, should be replaced by 5-year contracts of performance. Teaching credentials might be supplanted by academic Masters Degrees—leaving the choice to students whether to spend two years in the Department of Education or the departments of math, history, or English.

Administrative service should become finite and thus recalibrated as a temporary release from teaching rather than as a full-time career—and paid on the same scale as faculty instruction.  Most importantly, society at large needs to accept that the undergraduate population needs to be reduced by half and redirected to apprenticeships and vocational training.

The chance of reform? Zero.

Indebted students, many with largely worthless degrees, and few employment opportunities sufficient to repay their loans, have become a loyal progressive constituency. How odd that an entire generation, in psychologically and financially suspended animation, is seen as useful by the very politicos who created this labyrinth of exploitation in the first place.

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an American military historian, columnist, a former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004, and is the 2023 Giles O'Malley Distinguished Visiting Professor at the School of Public Policy, Pepperdine University. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush, and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson is also a farmer (growing almonds on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author of the just released New York Times best seller, The End of Everything: How Wars Descend into Annihilation, published by Basic Books on May 7, 2024, as well as the recent  The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, The Case for Trump, and The Dying Citizen.

Photo: Stanford University, California, 1924. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images.

Content created by the Center for American Greatness, Inc. is available without charge to any eligible news publisher that can provide a significant audience. For licensing opportunities for our original content, please contact licensing@centerforamericangreatness.com.