This essay is adapted from "The Death of Learning," by John Agresto
(Encounter Books, 232 pages, $30.99).

The Stigmatization of the Ordinary

Over 60 years ago, we were introduced to the idea of “the two cultures” in higher education—that is, the growing rift in the academy between the humanities and the sciences, a rift wherein neither side understood the other, spoke to the other, or cared for the other. But this divide in the academy, real as it may be, is nothing compared to another great divide—the rift today between our common American culture and the culture of the academy itself.

We might think, in our professorial way, that the rejection of the high—the disparagement of great artists, serious thinkers, and wonderful writers—is without a doubt the worst thing that our colleges and universities have done. But if we want to measure the decline of the liberal arts in the public imagination, we might want to focus on the stigmatization of the ordinary instead of the high.

What I mean is this: Along with the political denigration of what had always been regarded as the peaks of humane learning and the literary and philosophic achievements of the West, there were other attacks and erosions. These stemmed from the view that it is not merely the highest expressions of our culture that need to be toppled but this culture’s more ordinary manifestations—its “bourgeois values,” the common views of right and wrong held by ordinary citizens, their everyday questions and concerns, their pride in their country, and the ethics promoted by conventional Western religious understandings. Regularly, it was not that these views would be “examined” and certainly not that they would be “understood.” More often the agenda was that they would be overthrown.

In this regard, let us remember what happened to Larry Summers. 

Professor Summers, president of Harvard, sparked a furor at an academic conference when he questioned the accuracy of the prevalent view that the paucity of female professors in science and engineering at elite universities is the result of discrimination. He then compounded his sin by mentioning that possible innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women seem to succeed in math and science careers. For this, the ill-fated Summers was criticized in a few places, was condemned and vilified in others (compared, indeed, to Josef Mengele in one blog), and ultimately had to resign as president of Harvard after a faculty vote of no confidence was carried against him. So entrenched, so ferocious are the politically correct partisans that simply asking certain questions—questions the PC crowd demands are closed—can bring sanction and disgrace, even to the president of Harvard. 

Still, Summers was brought down not because he said something ferociously nasty but for saying something almost anyone might ask. Unless we believe that there are no natural differences between women and men, it might seem perfectly reasonable to ask if those differences extend to interest or aptitude in math and science. If the more compelling answer is no, then we could well wish that the Harvard faculty would say so and explain why. Clearly, the ordinary and the everyday are under attack as much as greatness—great books, powerful ideas, the finest literature, notable explorers and statesmen. 

This may be the deepest issue with political correctness and the root of so much widespread dissatisfaction with the liberal arts today. The problem is not that political correctness stops racist speech or ethnic slurs but that, under its sway, the most ordinary things—ordinary questions, ordinary views—are disdained, ridiculed, and often condemned. That people shouldn’t be judged on the basis of race has surely become or is becoming a commonplace, ordinary, standard view. Except on many college campuses, where race-based affirmative action and preferencing is often the rule and where “anti-racist” curricula and procedures are in force—where the solidification of group identities and the ever-present view of American society as a battle between oppressors and the oppressed are what pass for an understanding of our principles and our history.

Better than Our Natures

Consider what has become all the rage in schools and colleges around the country; consider critical race theory, the “1619 Project,” and today’s obsessive focus on race and identity as well as the movement toward instituting at every level an “anti-racist” curriculum. We could, as many historians and other scholars have done, dismiss these understandings as bad history, insupportable ideology, or simply the attempt to turn education and thoughtful inquiry into another form of indoctrination. But I’d like readers to think on it further. 

I firmly believe that, across the political spectrum, across all races and ethnic groupings, across all ages and conditions, the common view, the ordinary view, is that slavery and racism are betrayals of our founding principles of liberty and equality. I also think the ordinary American view is that merit, achievement, moral responsibility, and character are all to be assessed and assigned according to our actions as individuals, not by our race, ethnicity, religion, or any other form of collective identity. 

I believe that ordinary Americans sense that no special status, no entitlement or punishment, should be bestowed simply by virtue of identity-group membership. They may differ in dozens of ways as to how to advance these ideals, but I believe they understand that these ideals stem from our basic American principles, rooted in our founding documents, and that not to honor them is shameful. 

I also believe that ordinary Americans are totally willing to acknowledge that racism and racist evils are part of our history. Tulsa happened; Washington had slaves; some aspects of racism may be or have been “systemic.” We Americans have all the defects of our universal and common nature, no doubt about it. But we also know that we have been helped to be, in a way, better than our natures—coaxed by our principles and ideals to do unto others, to try to give equal opportunity to all, even to go into deadly battle singing “as He died to make men holy / let us die to make men free.” All this is part and parcel of America’s ordinary self-understanding, and I imagine no amount of badgering will move us or shame us to say otherwise. 

No educator should deny or paper over our shortcomings as a people. But the substitution of a simplistic view of America as “systemically” racist, or of the majority culture—including our students’ parents, aunts, and uncles—as racist oppressors, or of American ideals as mere hypocrisy at best or a cover for racial subjugation at worst is easily detected as what it is: political indoctrination, not education, and a vehicle to dismiss our principles, ideals, and history out of hand rather than to look candidly at them. It is to take our students’ (and their parents’) ordinary sentiments of patriotism and family devotion—and their belief that our shortcomings result not from our principles but from our failure to live up to our principles—and leave these sentiments and beliefs not only rejected but, perhaps worse, unexamined.

I do believe that those on the fringe Left who see racism everywhere and those on the fringe Right who would like to see it everywhere will fail. But what they will accomplish is to drive another nail into the coffin of liberal education. If history becomes the constant harping on all that’s wrong with America, if literature becomes the search for hidden oppression, if religious studies become the cataloguing of humanity using the idea of the divine to support misogyny, homophobia, and slavery, then the flight from the liberal arts will be complete. 

Let’s take this review of how colleges are handling matters of race and other varieties of “identity” a step further. Do you think breaking down rather than solidifying racial, gender, and ethnic barriers would be a fine, normal thing? Do you think identity politics has scant place in the search for truth or the life of the mind? Then be careful of the University of Iowa, where there’s not only an Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity and a Center for Diversity and Enrichment but also an Office of Graduate Ethnic Inclusion; a Committee on Diversity; a Council on the Status of Women; an African American Council; a Council on the Status of Latinos; an Asian American Coalition; a Native American Council; a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Staff and Faculty Association; a Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Union; an LGB&T Resource Center—and, of course, an “ombudsperson” to oversee it all. As we saw previously, if you want to transform society to your ideology, the first thing is to undermine the philosophers, thinkers, and books that have been the props of that society. But if you truly want to transform the culture into your understanding and image, the real prize is to transform not only the great but the ordinary.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Making People Comfortable

Let me pull back for a minute and move from concentrating on racial politics on campus to looking more generally at political correctness, speech codes, and the like. There is, it would seem, no end to the desire to prevent our students from hearing, seeing, and understanding all sides, no end to the desire to force our students to believe as they, the ideologically driven, believe. 

Happily, none of this authoritarianism reigns without serious pushback. The University of Chicago sent a letter to incoming students of the class of 2020, writing, in part, “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

In saying this, Chicago was simply reiterating the report of its Committee on Freedom of Expression from January 2015. Quoting former president Hanna Gray, the report argued that “education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.” Or, as an earlier president, Robert M. Hutchins, observed, “without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to be a university.”

By mid-2020, approximately 75 colleges and universities, including Princeton, Purdue, and Johns Hopkins, signed on to the substance of the Chicago report.

Despite the obviousness of those sentiments, there remain those who understand education as a vehicle of power rather than as a vehicle for inquiry. Perhaps they might prefer to side with the president of Wesleyan, who could only say that Chicago’s letter to incoming students was “a publicity stunt . . . [a way of] not coddling students, but coddling donors.” To which he added sarcastically, “Gosh, is there any doubt?”

Sadly, despite powerful statements from a few thoughtful university leaders, within many colleges and universities this idea of free and open inquiry stands out not because it is common but because it is increasingly rare. More and more, colleges and universities seem unabashed in proclaiming their ideology and their willingness to enforce their dogmas. Where previously colleges would talk about the cultivation of the intellect, we now talk instead about the protection and celebration of groups. While we would have hoped, in the past, to promote the virtues of study, hard work, perhaps respect for the intellectual and physical property of others, now we enforce the demands not of justice but—as I mentioned—of “social” justice.

I want to pause here to make one matter perfectly clear. The freedom to inquire, to pursue, to understand and weigh things afresh, is central to any education befitting free men and women with free minds. And when legitimate and serious questions cannot be raised for fear that a line will be crossed and the questioner punished, then we all can see that politics and ideology have supplanted open inquiry. But we educators need not think we have to defend all “speech,” any speech, just because we rightly defend serious and open inquiry. Although they live and grow on the basis of freedom of thought and investigation, higher education and the liberal arts in particular do not and should not have to rally to the defense of students who want to use racial slurs or hurl scurrilous comments. Neither students nor faculty have any right to slander, ridicule, or shout down others and claim they are covered by “free speech.”

But, while epithets, obscenity, and even common vulgarity may well be out of bounds, the free exchange of ideas and the right to ask any serious question—and follow where the argument leads—may not be abridged. Liberal education exists to help us understand, as best we can, the truth about the universe and ourselves within it. But if we believe that protecting “diversity” means preventing students and faculty from asking serious questions—or even ordinary questions—about certain human issues for fear that offense might be taken by some or by many, or if we think our view of social justice demands that we treat our universities as seminaries inculcating the new religion of cultural awareness or view our colleges as the new re-education camps for ethically crippled students, then again we see how the spirit of enforcing “correct” beliefs and the spirit of liberal education have become opposite.

To Promote, Instill, Inculcate, and Propagandize

Perhaps I’ve gotten used to the fact—perhaps we’ve all gotten used to the fact—that many in the professoriate will use the classroom to promote, instill, inculcate, and propagandize their viewpoints. Some will not use their classes to help students understand, say, the various causes and possible cures for poverty or prejudice but use their lectern as a soapbox on the failings of America or Americans. 

Others will casually talk of, for instance, America’s hypocrisy and sexism, or of the founders’ fear of democracy and their supposed callousness regarding race and slavery without any serious effort to understand what they were attempting, what they accomplished, and why (by our standards and even theirs) they sometimes fell short. Every matter of contemporary concern—race, sex, poverty, orientation—tries to find a way to exploit the liberal arts to push its own agenda. And most students know when they’re not learning history, philosophy, or English but are being hectored and badgered to accept their professor’s views as the whole story. Why study history when the professor says that our past is nothing but a catalog of racism and hypocrisy? Better to study engineering, where they don’t spend so much time puffing themselves up as wiser and more moral than those who went before. Why study literature when so many writers before our time had benighted views of race and class and sex? Maybe I’ll study accounting, where I don’t have to get up before the class and pretend that all the founders of modern accounting were really bad people. 

So why do college presidents no longer talk about their liberal arts offerings as the crown jewel of their collegiate instruction? Perhaps it’s because they no longer are.

What is being attempted in higher education is “political” in the broadest, not narrowest, of senses: Its aim is not simply to upend the course of collegiate studies, nor to convert conservatives to progressives, nor even to push every student to become a social justice warrior, but, beyond all those, to change the culture itself. The reformation of the academy is not an end in itself. What good is changing the program of studies at Duke or controlling the opinions and outlook of NYU students except, through them, to reform the wider culture? It is the common culture, the “dominant culture,” that needs to be changed, transformed, transvalued, not just the culture of UCLA or Harvard. 

This is also why multiculturalism was rarely multicultural at all but focused so intently on the West and its flaws. It was a way of taking all that was at the heart of the liberal arts tradition—the study of the works, history, and literature of the West—and hammering away at them. Multiculturalism never meant, for example, a review of the condition of women in Muslim or Hindu or African societies as much as a rehashing the evils of the West. (Indeed, since looking at issues of race, class, homosexuality, foreigners, and gender relations in nonWestern cultures might actually provide a modest appreciation of the West and its achievements, the lack of such wide-ranging studies comes as no surprise.) Rather than adding to the curriculum of knowledge, multiculturalism and diversity were an attack on what came to be called the “privileging” of the Western tradition or, perhaps more particularly, the HellenicJudeo-Enlightenment tradition.

Finally, what seemed to start as an attempt to tear down the high and exceptional—great books, high culture, the ancient and modern Hellenic/European literary and philosophic tradition—has now moved on. Having debased and degraded the high, it is now in the midst of an attempt to defeat the ordinary—ordinary family life, heterosexuality, simple love of country, traditional virtues, traditional religious habits and outlooks. To do this, universities use not only their course offerings but all the controls at their disposal—regulations, codes, freshmen orientation, residential and extracurricular student life, sensitivity training, required diversity courses, the dismantling of “the canon,” and more. This is sometimes done quietly, relying more on acquiescence and acceptance than threat, though the more committed among them can, if provoked, openly turn against their own (reflect, again, on the hapless Dr. Summers). 

The Fundamental Transformation of American Society 

From the start, the real goal of the multicultural movement and then the politicization of liberal learning was not simply to enrich the study of music or add to our appreciation of new poetry; the real goal was the transformation of society at every level, from high to low. In order to accomplish this goal, what previously was deemed ordinary needed now to be stigmatized. 

To believe, for example, that racial preferencing has no place in institutions of learning is now considered not reasonable but racist. To entertain notions of possible differences between men and women is now not only unacceptable but sexist. To think that one might learn something of value from ancient writers is now not ordinary but elitist. To think that a survey of Western Civilization should be offered in a university core rather than courses sponsored by the women’s studies department or by the coalition for LGBTQA+ studies is to open yourself to charges of sexism and homophobia as well as any number of other iniquities. To hold to orthodox religious observances and beliefs, above all to believe in any standard religious/ethical framework, might put you at odds with current views regarding lifestyle “choices” and thus at odds with modern understandings of social justice. 

Be wary of any displays of old-fashioned patriotism or love of country. You may not be censured by your fellow students; often their souls are not so dead. But you can easily run afoul of the faculty and administration acting as diversity police, protecting international students from being affrighted by any display of possible student chauvinism. Along with the high, what was once regarded as normal has now been derided and jettisoned, and a new regime of belief has supplanted what was once merely ordinary. 

In all this, of course, liberal education has come out the worst. Just as dogs know the difference between being tripped over and being kicked, students know the difference between being taught and being indoctrinated, know the difference between ideas examined and ideas thrust. So, despite new requirements that mandate a certain number of liberal arts “diversity” courses, student adherence to the liberal arts continues to drop.

Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

“Social Justice”

Where once a certain kind of inquiry—trying to gain some clarity on the meaning of justice, exploring its varied forms and claims, looking into classical, Judeo-Christian, liberal, modern, and Marxist approaches and disagreements, weighing opposing arguments, and coming to our own informed conclusions—lay at the heart of a serious education, now all is predecided and handed down. The inculcation of “social justice”—and not an inquiry into the nature of justice—has become many of our colleges’ overriding mission. It is as if what has always been among the most perplexing philosophic, social, moral, and political issues is now settled. 

While many of the finest minds in human history have struggled to come to grips with the meaning of justice, I imagine the simple reason so many actively proselytize for their views is that today’s professors and administrators know—that is, believe they know—what real justice is! That might also be why so much of the traditional philosophic core had to be abandoned—because it would show them and especially their students that they actually do not know what justice is, that they hold their opinions to be true knowledge. Then again, maybe I’m too curmudgeonly. It reminds me of when I’m confronted with a true believer telling me he’s sure he understands what God wills. It’s not that I don’t believe God might have a will; it’s just that I would rather see the evidence—and also see it in those books I’m told not to read—and then weigh the arguments for myself. 

This idea of “social justice” has many faces: On the lowest level, it sometimes means the repeated attack on ordinary thoughts and ordinary language—such as saying “fireman” or “actress” or “fellowship,” or referring to “sexual preference” rather than “sexual orientation.” It might mean the offense of using “he” or “she” when these days the only proper word to designate a third-person singular male or female is the often confusing and always hideously ungrammatical “they.”

In its fullness, social justice means affirming many of the habits and lifestyles that the vast majority of students and their families do not share. In all this, students can rarely dissent, seldom debate, and never ridicule; they can only, safely, concur. 

Let me sum all this up as strongly as I can. The last 30 years have seen the vandalizing of ever so much of higher education. The supposed reformers have entered the storehouse of centuries of accumulated knowledge, torn down its walls, thrown out its books, and toppled its monuments. For all their brave talk of justice, they have carried out what has to be seen as one of the most intellectually criminal act of the ages, the modern equivalent of burning the libraries of antiquity. Today, acts that were unthinkable, unimaginable, just years ago now seem so very ordinary.

Is any of this reversible? In part, I think so. But this requires us to have a clearer idea of where we intend to go.

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About John Agresto

John Agresto is a longtime professor of politics and the retired president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is also a member of the board of the Jack Miller Center. His latest book, which will explore both liberal education and American democracy, is The Death of Learning (forthcoming from Encounter Books in August 2022).

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