The Peculiar Institution of Higher Education

Nothing is now stranger than the contemporary college campus. 

Not too long ago, Americans used to idolize their universities. Indeed, in science, math, engineering, medicine and business, these meritocratic departments and schools often still remain the world’s top-ranked. 

Certainly, top-notch higher education explains much of the current scientific, technological, and commercial excellence of the United States. 

After World War II—won in part due to superior American scientific research, production, and logistics—the college degree became the prerequisite for a successful career. The GI Bill enabled 8 million returning vets to go to college. Most graduated to good jobs. 

The university from the late 1940s to 1960 was a rich resource of continuing education. It introduced the world’s great literature, from Homer to Tolstoy, to the American middle classes. 

But today’s universities and colleges bear little if any resemblance to postwar education. Even during the tumultuous 1960s, when campuses were plagued by radical protests and periodic violence, there was still institutionalized free speech. An empirical college curriculum mostly survived the chaos of the 1960s.

But it is gone now.

Instead, imagine a place where the certification of educational excellence, the B.A. degree, is no guarantee that a graduate can speak, write, or communicate coherently or think inductively.

Imagine a place that requires applicants to submit high-school diplomas, grade-point averages, and standardized tests, but rejects any requirement that its own graduates upon completion of college do the same by passing a basic uniform competency test. 

Imagine a place where after an initial trial period, a minority of elite employees alone receive lifetime job guarantees. 

Imagine a place devoted to equity, where only 30 percent of the faculty are privileged tenure-tracked. The other 70 percent are second-class, part-time, or “contingent” faculty. And they receive a fraction of the total compensation per hour of instruction as their more elite counterparts. 

Imagine a place, cherishing student interaction and criticism of the “establishment,” where the ratio between those who teach and those who administer them, is about one to one. And the money devoted to non-teaching administrative costs is now about equal to classroom instruction. 

Imagine a place where “diversity” is the professed institutional ethos while most studies reveal that elite college liberal faculty outnumber their conservative counterparts by more than 10-to-1.

Imagine a liberal place where in 2021 race can still be used as a criterion in selecting and rejecting applicants, choosing prospective dorm roommates, organizing segregated dorms and graduation ceremonies, and restricting access to special places on campus.

Imagine a progressive place that once renounced unconstitutional “loyalty oaths” but now rebrands them as “diversity pledges” and requires reeducation and indoctrination training.

Imagine a place with endowments that are non-taxable, but which restricts free speech and expression. Nonprofit universities make it impossible for some speakers to lecture, and often suspend constitutionally protected due process for students facing particular allegations. 

Imagine a place loudly devoted to income, capital, and marketplace equity measured against the reality that 800 of the largest colleges and universities hold over $600 billion in endowments. Yet just 20 elite universities account for half that total. And just four—Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton—own almost a quarter of all endowment funds.  

Imagine a liberal place that has upped its tuition and cost over the annual rate of inflation and its graduates now owe collectively $1.7 trillion in student loan debts. There is little hope that a majority of student debtors will ever pay back their obligations, on average about $30,000 each—in addition to the even greater sums their parents borrowed to pay universities. 

Imagine a place that has institutionalized human rights, but welcomes over a third of a million students from human rights-violating and dictatorial Communist China—a great many of whom are the offspring of elite party members who provide a lucrative source of university income.

Imagine a place where faculty and students now selectively change the names of campus streets, centers, and buildings that supposedly honored illiberal, long-dead donors, graduates, and former heroes. Yet curiously universities never alter their marquee founding brand names. Were long ago founders or original funders like Leland Stanford, Elihu Yale, or Lord Jeffery Amherst not as illiberal as now-canceled campus names such as Father Junipero Serra, Earl Warren, and Woodrow Wilson?

As long as universities produced highly educated and open-minded graduates, at a reasonable cost, and kept politics out of the lecture hall, Americans did not bother much about their peculiarities—like tenure, non-transparency, legacy admissions, untaxed endowments, rebellious students, and quirky faculty.  

But once they began to charge exorbitantly, educate poorly, politick continuously, indebt 45 million people, and act hypocritically, they turned off Americans.

Just as a sermonizing Hollywood grates when it no longer can make good movies, so does a once hallowed but now self-righteous university seem hollow when it charges so much for increasingly so little.

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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 most recently of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, The Case for Trump and the recently released The Dying Citizen, and the forthcoming The End of Everything (May 7, 2024)..

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