This essay is adapted from remarks delivered at the White House Conference on American History at the National Archives, September 17, 2020.

The Molotov Diploma

Just before Halloween in 2015, Erika Christakis, a lecturer at Yale and associate master of one of Yale’s residential colleges, sent an email advising students to “ignore or reject things that trouble you,” rather than throw fits of rage. She was referring to Halloween costumes, which had suddenly become a major issue to supposedly mature Yale students and some Yale deans who had cautioned the students to avoid culturally insensitive garb. Christakis wrote as a specialist in child development and was counseling what most of us would consider common sense.

Yet some students at Yale erupted in overwhelming fury. In a now-famous video, a mob of students surrounded Erika’s husband, Professor Nicholas Christakis, and taunted him for over 30 minutes. Shortly after that, finding themselves lacking any public support from faculty colleagues or the Yale administration, Erika and Nicholas resigned. 

This incident marked a turning point in America’s campus culture. But it was not the only one. Barely a week later, Melissa Click, a professor at the University of Missouri, was caught on video summoning brute force (“We need some muscle over here!”) to prevent a student journalist from photographing a protest in which she was participating. 

Across the country in colleges large and small, a new race-themed grievance movement sprang to life after the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. That movement had a shallow premise. The officer who shot Brown in self-defense, Darren Wilson, was acquitted, and the stories about Brown having surrendered (“Hands up! Don’t shoot”) were revealed as fabrications. But out of these sparse materials, a group calling itself Black Lives Matter was able to spread its narrative far and wide. 

And BLM especially spread it to college campuses where many black students began to form off-shoots of the movement and to issue what they called the “Demands,” with a capital “d.” What often followed was a degree of lawlessness—though mild by today’s standards. Students rampaged through the library at Dartmouth. They staged sit-ins in the presidents’ offices at Princeton and Claremont McKenna College in California. By March 2016, 86 percent of four-year college presidents had met with the leaders of these protest movements. Most capitulated to at least some of the protesters’ demands, regardless of their merits. 

Radicalizing the Radicals

I recall these episodes from a few years ago because they bear on what is happening today off-campus. The radicalization we see in the streets of American cities and the radicalization of American college students may look like two separate things. The street protests often escalate into vandalism, looting, burning, attacks on police, and murder. The campus protests generally focus on shutting down the free expression of ideas, though these sometimes also devolve into vandalism and personal violence.

So, street protest and campus protest outwardly differ. But behind that appearance lie three important connections. The first is the people—the activists—who show up in both places; second, the ideology that is crafted on campus and exported to the streets, particularly hatred of America and contempt for law; and third, the anger—that fiery emotion—that is ignited on campus and intensified by the mob in the streets.

The riots happening today in places like Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, and Kenosha have roots in what was taught yesterday on many of the nation’s college campuses. The wildly immature rage over a memo about Halloween costumes at Yale may seem a long distance from the mayhem we have seen this summer on city streets around the country, but the connection is deep. I don’t mean specifically to the Christakis mobbing or to Melissa Click’s call for muscle. I mean to the broader transformation of American higher education into an institution that is saturated with hostility for traditional American ideals. I also mean a much more specific and tighter connection between the riots and the colleges, which I will outline here.

When we put the elements of the street protests together—activists trained as provocateurs, harboring a radical ideology, worked up to explosive anger, alienated from our cultural norms, and primed for lawlessness—we have the ingredients of a full-blown riot of the sort that has wreaked a path of destruction across American cities large and small. Many of these riots appear to be planned, organized, staffed, and scheduled, often on a nightly basis for weeks on end. These are not, or at least are not generally, spontaneous uprisings, but staged events managed by well-trained experts. They are made to look like impulsive outbursts of passion, but they run according to a well-rehearsed script.

Who writes that script? The answer is fairly evident. It is the campus activists—some of whom are faculty members, some graduate students, some undergraduates, and many who might be best described as academic hangers-on, taking or teaching a course or two, and living on the periphery of the academic community. These people sometimes join named groups, but many of them float from one activist cause to another, and they are best described as a network with some organized nodes that have recognized leaders. Some think of themselves as revolutionaries, anarchists, or as front-line “workers” in the “struggle.” All of them accept without question the basic doctrines of contemporary progressive thought. These include the idea that America is systemically racist; that capitalism and free enterprise are inherently exploitative; and that climate change is an existential peril. They have spent years immersed in anti-liberal ideology, identitarian indignation, and the study of Maoist tactics. They’ve been taught that gaining power by any means necessary is the legitimate path to what they think of as “social justice.” And they are eager to put what they have learned into practice.

I would not for an instant want to say that this is a portrait of American college students as a whole, or as a majority. We don’t have high-quality studies of the percentage of students who become truly radicalized in the sense I have described, but it is surely not more than twenty percent. That’s the percent who show up regularly in attitudinal surveys saying things such as it is OK to use violence to stop the expression of hurtful ideas. A 2017 Brookings Institution survey, for example, found “19 percent of undergraduate students support using violence to shut down controversial speakers.” 

Normalizing the Radicals and Their Radicalization

It is misleading, however, to treat the truly radicalized students as though they are somehow an aberration from campus norms. They are simply carrying the lessons they have been taught to their practical conclusions. If America is an awful, oppressive, racist place that is incapable of meaningful reform, doesn’t it make sense to tear it down—to tear it down and replace it with something infinitely better, such as a green-energy powered, socialist commune or an anarchist utopia? 

The portrait of America as an awful place is the basic premise of much that is now taught in the humanities and the social sciences. That premise is assumed in the social and political life of much of American higher education. How this happens is not very visible to the broader public. Recognizing that, my organization, the National Association of Scholars, set out a few years ago to document the ways in which so-called liberal education has been diverted by college administrators to illiberal purposes.

We published a top-to-bottom examination—over five-hundred pages of detailed description—of how one elite liberal arts college goes about shaping students’ attitudes and political beliefs. We titled it, What Does Bowdoin Teach? We went on to examine the sustainability movement and the fossil fuel divestment movement in a series of reports on agenda-driven social activism on campus. 

Then we dived into how the traditional preparation of students for the responsibilities of citizenship had been replaced on a large scale by recruiting students into left-wing political activism. That study, Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics, led us to an even more ambitious survey and report, Social Justice Education in America, where we covered the waterfront from college mission statements, to general education requirements, diversity requirements, “experiential learning” requirements, new departments, vocational training, social justice bureaucracies, themed residence halls, bias response teams, special events, social justice jobs, and accreditation. 

The plain conclusion is that where the social justice ideology takes hold, it seizes the whole apparatus of education, both formal and informal. Where does this ideology take hold? Almost everywhere in American higher education, in institutions public and private, large and small, secular and sectarian, coast to coast. 

With that in mind, it isn’t hard to understand another statistic from that Brookings Institution survey I mentioned. Above and beyond the 19 percent of the students ready to use violence to enforce their opinions, “Another 51 percent supported the use of the so-called ‘heckler’s veto’ to shout down speakers that are opposed by protesters.” 

We might think of this as just rudeness or incivility, but it is a good measure of how drastically the basic norms of intellectual inquiry have deteriorated in higher education. If some 70 percent of college students are ready, through disruption of one form or another, to prevent the expression of views with which they disagree, we have in place an institution that is more than ripe for radicalization. It has already semi-radicalized a large majority of the students, though many don’t recognize or understand what has happened to them.

This summer after the riots triggered by the death in police custody of George Floyd, hundreds of college and university presidents rushed out statements deploring what they described as Floyd’s murder and then confessing that the institutions they lead are themselves guilty of “systemic racism.” I collected more than two hundred of these statements from college presidents as well as some from provosts and deans, and then wrote each one a letter asking, politely, for an explanation of just how their college or university had been practicing systemic racism. Many did not reply, but a surprising number did. Not one was able to give a specific answer.

“Systemic racism” appears to be like the old concept of “aether,” an invisible, immeasurable, but all-pervasive substance. The leaders of our colleges and universities can’t identify it, but they are sure it exists, and its existence warrants the expenditure of vast sums of money and the creation of new forms of racial preference in the spirit of “anti-racism.” 

In 2019, the National Association of Scholars explored this world of odd responses by colleges to such racial self-recrimination in three reports, “Neo-Segregation at Yale,” “Neo-Segregation at Wesleyan,” and “The Neo-Segregation Database,” which analyzed data from 173 colleges and universities. The effort to dismantle what was left of the old prejudice against African Americans in higher education had already been pursued with imagination and rigor long before the rise of the “anti-racism” movement, and it is hard to believe that there is much left to be done, except for eliminating “reforms” that have proved counter-productive. 

The doctrine of anti-racism borders on hysteria. When college presidents embrace it one can only imagine what the social justice bureaucracies and woke faculty members will do with it, let alone the students. I say imagine, because it is too soon to know, but we have many years dating back to the upheavals of the 1960s of higher education’s enthusiastic embrace of social justice causes to go on, and by that standard, we can expect that the pursuit of racial justice will only intensify in the hands of students activists. The vanguard, of course, has already mobilized in places like Seattle and Portland.

It is possible some college presidents believe that their embrace of anti-racism will buy them time to fix some problems, even though they are unsure what needs to be fixed. We saw this before following the post-Ferguson protests: more than a hundred colleges conceded to campus-specific “Demands” issued by the protesters. The protesters, however, backed by thousands of radicalized professors, saw their victory as only the first step towards dismantling the whole system of oppression they imagined is the essence of American society. 

A really thorough account of what has happened would have to go a long way back, perhaps to the 1930s, when radical professors fleeing Nazi Germany began to bring new forms of Marxism to America. Others have written important books about the rise of “critical theory,” student radicalization in the 1960s, the role of Students for a Democratic Society and its violent off-shoot, the Weathermen, and the embrace by American academics of radical theorists such as Michel Foucault. The attack on Western civilization wasn’t initiated all at once or due to a single bad idea. The National Association of Scholars has been tracking this complicated intellectual history for decades, and one of our most recent reports, The Lost History of Western Civilization, by Stanley Kurtz, captures this larger picture. It fills out two previous NAS studies, The Vanishing West, about the abolition of Western civilization survey courses, and The Disappearing Continent, about the College Board’s manhandling of European history standards.

But here I am going to skip over the many intermediary steps to focus on what we see right now. Today’s racialized grievance movement owes its worldview to those pioneers of a new kind of anti-Americanism, which distilled contempt for our Constitutional freedoms, our prosperity, our love of country, our religion, and our whole way of life. The founders of this view also imagined that the best way to advance this doctrine of hatred would be to divide Americans by race and preach an idea that attributed all of life’s dissatisfactions to a “system” aimed at subjecting minorities to constant humiliation. 

The danger is that a republic like ours depends on each generation absorbing the values that make democratic self-government possible. Students don’t come pre-equipped with a knowledge of civics and an admiration for civilization. Leaders don’t emerge out of a curriculum of disdain for their country. Love of country and the ability to lead it have to be taught. The academic Left understood that perfectly well and set about dismantling the Western civilization curriculum and replacing it with what they called “multiculturalism”—which was really just a mask for hating America. Over time, history dissolved into boutique courses on minor themes. The larger story of how America achieved greatness was fragmented and then the fragments were discarded. But a new, larger story was made inescapable. It is the story of how America oppressed Native Americans, blacks, Chinese, immigrants of all sorts, gays, women, and children. Columbus was converted into a genocidal monster, Jefferson into a racist hypocrite. 

Today, you would be hard put to find a public high school graduate in America who hasn’t heard some version of this new story. By the time that child finishes college, he or she is very likely to have been taught it over and over, in ever more compelling ways. Moreover, that child will almost never hear the story challenged or learn anything that contradicts it. The ideology of anti-Americanism is now no longer a fringe enthusiasm. It is the prevailing wisdom on campus. Anyone who expects to be taken seriously espouses it, even if he has private doubts. The groupthink on campus proclaimsAmerica as a corrupt system of oppression that benefits the few at the top at the expense of everyone else, especially the poor and minorities. 

The Violent Application of Anti-Americanism and University Complicity

Which brings us to the riots. The riots are the full-scale expression of this attitude. If you cease to believe in the rule of law and the pursuit of justice through peaceful means, you have one thing left: a belief in sheer power exerted by whatever means available. The veterans of the Occupy Wall Street movement of a decade ago have now found their fulfillment in the Loot, Pillage, Burn, and Murder movement. 

At the root of the riots is what we teach and what we fail to teach in schools and colleges. It isn’t getting any better. 

In the last year, hundreds of school districts adopted the Pulitzer Center’s 1619 Curriculum, based on the New York Times’s “1619 Project,” which takes all of the falsehoods and anti-American mythology I have been describing to a new and even more destructive level. Stopping the spread of the 1619 ideology is my immediate priority, which is what I attempt to do in my new book, 1620

But first, let’s awaken to the dimensions of the larger problem. American education taken all in all has become the antagonist of American culture. We loyal Americans need to take it back.

How complicit are colleges in the radicalization of students? Despite what I take to be strong evidence in the reports I’ve cited that colleges and universities are active and eager participants in the effort to foster disdain for America, the colleges and universities themselves go to considerable trouble to deny it. Yes, they say, a handful of professors teach outrageous courses or Tweet appalling messages, but our hands are clean. We teach students real skills and promote real knowledge. And we have a duty to protect and promote social diversity, which inevitably discomforts the privileged old guard. 

That picture is profoundly false. The National Association of Scholars has spent a decade documenting how higher education has become the incubator of radical alienation. The old courses that taught students something meaningful about Western civilization and the American founding have simply vanished in the fire and smoke of the new hate-America-first curriculum. 

Some students shrug all this off and move on to a productive adult life. But for too many others, it becomes a vocation. Even students who are immune to the lure of radicalism pay a price. They are deprived of the education they deserve—an education that teaches a full understanding of how our self-governing, prosperous, and free society came to be and what we must do to sustain it for the generations to come. This is a loss for those students and for our country. Because if there is one thing that history teaches, it is that civilization does not endure on its own. Neglected—or attacked outright—our civilization could quickly disappear. Frankly, it is disappearing and will disappear if we do nothing to stop it.

The current wave of protest grew from the decades of efforts by the radical Left to turn our colleges and universities into incubators of seething dissatisfaction with the American way of life. Colleges learned to package this disdain for America behind the beguiling rhetoric of diversity, but in all too many cases, they leave their graduates a legacy of cynical contempt for their own civilization—and in some cases a proud delight in destruction for its own sake. Higher education shuns this verdict and sees itself as part of a noble enterprise of promoting positive systemic change. 

Those of us who cherish Western civilization need to hold higher education accountable for the systemic change it has actually accomplished, in the form of the misguided people in the streets, some of whom have an Ivy League diploma in one hand and a Molotov cocktail in the other.

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