What are Universities For?

There has always been debate about what purpose universities serve, particularly in the United States. The debate traditionally involved the competing virtues of practicality and abstraction.

In other words, we have debated about whether universities should serve as a trainer of elite managers in the fields of business, government, and the military, or whether universities had a less practical mission of cultivating the arts, the sciences, and the abstract pursuit of truth. While traditional liberal arts schools tended towards the “life of the mind,” larger, public universities offered practical study in subjects like business, engineering, or agriculture.

Universities have always been selective by nature—even now only 37% of adults have a four year degree. Historically, people enter seeking to elevate their class status and sophistication and also to secure a professional career. But the good jobs of old were incidental outcomes arising from the cultivation of intellect. This is why the classics majors of Yale became CIA officers. They were smart and liberally educated; they could figure out the requirements of a complex job fairly easily because of their background.

Even if the average American did not understand and even had a certain degree of bemusement at intellectuals and their pursuits, a university education still commanded a certain amount of respect.

As Richard Hofstadter observed, “It seems clear that those who have some quarrel with intellect are almost always ambivalent about it: they mix respect and awe with suspicion and resentment; and this has been true in many societies and phases of human history.”

Universities Transformed

If things were once ambivalent, two distinct developments have occurred in parallel that have radically transformed the American university.

First, universities have suffered from too much oxygen. The number and enrollment in universities expanded massively after World War II, went up further again because of the Vietnam-era draft deferment system, and then expanded again (and became more expensive relative to value) as student loans became widespread.

In spite of the recent democratization of education, there are only so many people who would qualify as “college material.” Those with such a level of talent tend to go to flagship state universities on scholarship or, if they’re wealthier and more ambitious, elite national universities. But these are not the only people going to college.

Facing a natural shortage of those with higher IQs and increased competition for students, universities have begun crafting programs and bestowing degrees on far lesser intellects, often for narrowly vocational majors like “packaging,” communications, and physical education. Even more ominously, for-profit colleges have exploited those who could not easily matriculate through the lowest rungs of the state college system, often saddling their optimistic and naïve charges with enormous financial burdens.

The second important change is the leftist cultural revolution that began in the 1960s. This movement abandoned the limiting principles of the old liberalism and pursued narrow political goals under the guise of scholarship, often running traditional scholars out of their departments.

This development has been well documented since at least the 1980s, when Alan Bloom authored the Closing of the American Mind, which theme Dinesh D’Souza further explored in his work, Illiberal Education. Since then, things have only gotten worse.

While elite universities retained the respect they accrued from their high admission standards and decades of intellectual prowess, the Harvards and Yales and other top universities increasingly devolved into pseudoscholarship, struggle sessions, and outright hostility to western civilization and its standards.

This was even apparent when I went to college more than 20 years ago. While I chose the University of Chicago because it was an oasis of the old ideal of the university, it was also the home of Barack Obama, a cracker barrel Marxist of middling talents. He was not alone.

At Chicago I first encountered the vicious anti-white hatred in the form of posters from the group Students for the Abolition of Whiteness. Such rhetoric is barely a half-step removed from outright calls for genocide, but, as I recall, I was one of the only people on campus, student or faculty, who spoke out critically about this insane organization.

Democratization and Leftism Have Destroyed Scholarly Standards

At Chicago and other universities in the 1990s, things were in transition. The frothy atmosphere of the 1960s had calmed down, not least because many of the radicals were now tenured professors.

In English, history, and philosophy departments, there was a mixture of types: on one side was the old guard, authentic lovers of literature and classics and pursuers of truth, but alongside them were the new breed, the activists with their slogans and cant and post-structuralist formulae, which dismiss the concept of truth. The two cohorts existed in uneasy equipoise until the last of the pre-1960s academics retired or died off. We now are in the age of iron, where even the putatively elite institutions like the Ivy League have seen a wholesale devolution of their humanities departments.

While universities continue to perfect the physical sciences and the various social sciences’ techniques, the wisdom to do the right things with this knowledge is lacking more than ever. To understand business or politics or foreign policy, one is better off reading Thucydides, Gibbon, Burke, Hume, Locke, or Descartes than another catalog of statistics or some forgettable trash written in the last 50 years by an author with a preferred biography.

In other words, to have a civilization we must know how to think, we must know what is worth studying, and from this we can discern the true, the good, and the beautiful. We once had some consensus on these things, and this arose from the organic setting of standards within the university. We knew that Shakespeare and Michaelangelo’s David and Melville and Plato and the Iliad were different in kind from, say, a daily newspaper, a comic book, or anything written by Noam Chomsky.

C.S. Lewis wrote in the Abolition of Man that the denial of a discernable reality is the foundation of modern educational nihilism. “Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it — believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt. The reason why Coleridge agreed with the tourist who called the cataract sublime and disagreed with the one who called it pretty was of course that he believed inanimate nature to be such that certain responses could be more ’just’ or ‘ordinate’ or ‘appropriate’ to it than others. And he believed (correctly) that the tourists thought the same. The man who called the cataract sublime was not intending simply to describe his own emotions about it: he was also claiming that the object was one which merited those emotions.“

Without standards, we end up confusing subjective passion and intensity with objective quality and wisdom. Without high standards, we also tend to conflate a vocational education with a university education, as well as the role of intellectuals and the university with the very different roles of pundits and politicians.

The Tone and Content of Campus Activism Expose the Universities’ Intellectual and Moral Rot

The latter is a particularly apparent problem today, as revealed by the maniacal anti-Israel hatred of the campus left. The existence of the campus left or protests is not a problem in itself. Young people should be trying on ideas for size, including radical ones they may later abandon. But the left’s tactics of intimidation, hateful rhetoric, and self-appointment as commissars for political correctness are an obstacle for the learning and growth of everyone else on campus, as well as the leftists themselves.

I am a little surprised that many Jewish liberals are only now waking up to this. Most were silent until now, some were radical themselves or in league with the radicals, and many have only taken notice of the campus nihilism now that the Marxist critique is aimed so visibly and aggressively at Jews and Israel. Did they miss what happened to Charles Murray, Ann Coulter, or federal judge Stuart Duncan at Stanford within the last few years? In this case, Israel and the Jews are getting the boot not for reasons of traditional anti-Semitism, but because they are grouped in with whites, Europeans, and the supposedly summum malum of colonialism.

Explicit anti-white hatred has been the coin of the realm at many universities for many years, with such varied examples as hiring Weather Underground terrorists at major universities, the privileged position of the killer Angela Davis, and the “abolish whiteness” crusade of professor Noel Ignatiev. The parallel attack on the western canon, free speech, and the ideal of free inquiry are all part and parcel of the same leftist program, as is the latest flurry of activity on Israel’s campaign in Gaza.

We do not always have the luxury of choosing our identity or our enemies. For a long time, Jewish liberals thought of themselves as outsider victims, part of the class of critics of structures of “white supremacy,” rather than the oppressors. But they look white like everyone else, and their relative wealth and connections to power are enough to give this group sufficiently high status that they receive the same shabby treatment as WASPs and other heritage Americans.

We must suffer into truth, as Aeschylus taught us.

The problem with the campus left’s extremism and hatred is that it does not have an obvious endpoint or limiting principle. Leftism, with its versatile account of its stated goals, its ambivalence about the concept of truth, and its elevation of power and revolution as ends in themselves does not lend itself to restraint and moderation. Instead, it is always on the search for dragons to slay, always finding a new bogeyman, as it struggles against the reality of human inequality, which is an inescapable fact of life.

The Problems at Universities Will Not Remain Confined to Universities

This conflation of the university with leftist indoctrination has led to some real predictable problems.

First, it has made the people who govern us dumber. One important benefit of selection to an elite university is access to the managerial power structure. University credentials once signified something relevant about intellect, conscientiousness, and curiosity.

But, as universities have changed, so has the meaning of their honors. Even many graduates of elite institution are merely highly opinionated, poorly read, and often quite unskilled ideologues. Think of someone like Tony Blinken, who is a fraud devoid of common sense or significant life experience; he is making our country weaker every moment he holds his office.

Second, the destruction of universities has cut off the moral and aesthetic head of society. Elites once had a role in cultivating taste, which is to say the union of emotion and reason in enjoying what one ought to enjoy. This is now gone.

After reading Foucault and Derrida and listening to post-structuralist critiques of comic books and embracing the latest mediocre “author of color,” most of the elites no longer know the difference between good and bad literature, good and bad art, good and bad writing, or good and bad thinking.

Finally, and most practically, our universities have become neither citadels of learning, nor transmitters of culture, but rather sources of chaos and friction. The riots and quasi-cultural revolution that occurred nationwide in 2020, the mass innumeracy that fueled Covid hysteria, and the ipse dixit defenses of the 2020 election are all symptoms of the toxic combination of ideology and ignorance that mark the modern university-educated man.

What to do next is not obvious, nor is it obvious that the universities can be saved. Perhaps the university model of higher learning cannot survive the current cultural crisis because most universities are now major sustaining forces of that crisis.

Perhaps those on the right should retreat to private learning, choose the handful of mostly religious schools that have not abandoned the old ways, or, as some have started to do because of particular ethnic concerns, pull the plug on funding the people and institutions that hate us.

Whatever needs to be done, we should harbor no illusions that most of the institutions of higher learning in this country are now centers of anti-learning, hatred, and hostility to civilization. Their graduates should be looked at with suspicion, rather than as intellectual superiors or denizens of a higher social class.

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

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About Christopher Roach

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

Photo: Washington, DC - December 5 : University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill testifies during a House Education and Workforce Committee Hearing on holding campus leaders accountable and confronting antisemitism on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Dec. 05, 2023, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)