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Higher Ed Is Crumbling

Updated: May 27, 2020

A Book Review

By: Scott Yener | April 13, 2020

John M. Ellis’ new book, The Breakdown of Higher Education, argues that higher education is so corrupt that it can only be reformed from the outside. One might observe now that if our politicians don’t do it, the coronavirus will! It remains to be seen whether there will be long-term changes initiated by the corona-induced move to on-line instruction, but, even so, changing the trajectory of higher education will probably require some political oversight. Ellis’ book is an indispensable starting point for thinking that through.

Ellis has been in the academy, mostly at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he is now Distinguished Professor Emeritus of German literature, since the mid-1960s. At this point in his career, when most people achieve a kind of stoical resolve about the corrupt ways of the world and turn philosophical and detached, Ellis calls for a radical dismantling of our universities. Can anything now be saved?

Free Speech or Civilized Heritage?

Ellis at times comes off as an old-time academic. He is interested in rational inquiry, weighing evidence, and a no-holds-barred exchange of ideas. It is all right for there to be America-hating, capitalism-hating faculty members on campus, as long as a thousand flowers can bloom. All need to endorse the norms of rational inquiry for the academic mission to continue. Today, however, what once was higher education has broken down and become left-wing indoctrination in identity politics. When the going gets tough, this old-time academic Ellis cites the defense of free speech in John Stuart Mill’sOn Libertyas the model for what the university should be and for the ills that it will encounter when it departs from the model of free speech. In using the one-time bromides of the Old Free-Speech Left against the New Left, Ellis makes what youngsters today call a “boomer” argument. But, unfortunately, sociologists do not blush.

There is another Ellis, however—one who has taken lumps watching one of the bastions of Western learning, our institutions of higher education, turn against its heritage. This is a betrayal, a sacrilege, a terrible act of ingratitude. Only in the West has slavery been abolished. Only in the West has the common life for the common man been so full of prosperity. But today’s academics ignore all of this and blame the West for all our modern ills. The Ellis angered by this development is more German, in the manner of Goethe, than he is Millian (wir sind Seelenfreunden, mein sehr geehrte Herr!). This more German Ellis worries that universities have broken down higher education and infused it with the wrong kind of education, both heavier and wrong-headed, in place of an education that leads to an appreciation of our rich heritage.

Products of the old education would have cheeks that burn red when the country was offended or disrespected. Today’s students may blush, but only at their own “privilege”; if their cheeks burn red with anger it is against the “white male” civilization that they should appreciate. At today’s universities, the students love and honor the wrong things because the institutions themselves love and honor the wrong things. Embracing the view of the world from this modern university means taxpayer-assisted suicide.

The old-time academic, Millian Ellis points to education based on the model of scientific progress. The German Ellis points to an education aimed at civic education and humane learning—a kind of learning that has a content, not just a process. For a defense of the latter, if that is what Ellis genuinely wants, a defense of free speech itself is not enough (if it is necessary at all). The Millian argument is a dead end when no one will listen. It is the recognition of this problem that has turned this reforming, old-time academic Ellis into a blow-it-all-up populist of sorts, even at his advanced age.

Just How Far Left is Higher-Ed?

Ellis runs the academy through a series of tests to defend his conclusion that it only will be reformed from the outside. The number of conservatives on campus is one canary in the coalmine. The professoriate has gone from leaning left (2 liberals for every conservative in 1969), to further left (5:1 in 1999) to lurching left (8:1 in 2006 and 11.5:1 in 2016). Ellis cites piles of other evidence. “Until about 2016,” campus radicals would deny that they had created “one-party ecosystems where right-of-center voices were rarely heard.” Such denials have stopped, indicating, perhaps, “a growing confidence that radical control is now complete” and leftist control can proceed “unashamed” without explanation.

Another canary in the coalmine is the quality of education as measured by skills and general knowledge. On this, universities graduate people “who know little and can’t think,” as Ellis relates in study after study. Arum and Roska, authors of Academically Adrift, find “no statistically significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, or writing skills” for nearly half of students. The National Center for Education Statistics sees a “sharp decline” in literacy between 1992 and 2003. The numbers are astounding: nearly 70 percent of college graduates cannot read reasonably complex materials (we’re not talking about Shakespeare, but something like an FDR speech) and explain what it means. Depending on the question wording, somewhere between 40 and 70 percent of college professors think their students are unprepared to think, write, and speak clearly. (And judging from much academic writing, the professors are not overly prepared themselves!)

The state of “general knowledge” and civic education is, if anything, worse than the acquisition of skills. Relating a series of depressing tales and studies, Ellis shows that the beating heart of today’s university curriculum involves making the case for radical social transformation. Go through the course offerings in History or English departments, as Ellis does; analyze their titles, the research agenda of the instructor, and the syllabi. It is easy to see that an agenda for social justice is increasingly crowding out all alternatives. Studies by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) confirm this: more than 80 percent of college seniors at the top 50 schools fail tests about basic facts on American history or American government. Confronted with these studies, the higher-education industry does nothing. Could on-line education be any worse?

None of these canaries, dying on quads instead of coalmines, can be resuscitated. Ellis discusses others, ranging from campus radicalism, campus violence, the irreproducibility problems in experiments, the corruption of the peer review process, and the narrowing of acceptable questions that can be asked in an academic context. In each case, Jeremiahs like John Ellis have been making arguments for years without any action to remedy the problems. Conservatives themselves have warned of this coming anti-American radicalism since William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale (1948) and other books. Conservatives have founded organizations like ACTA to expose the problems and engage trustees, one of Buckley’s recommendations. Things have only gotten worse. Why?

One has to admire the Left, on some level, for what they have done to the universities. They thought of everything. On the one hand, they have continued to cultivate the public image of the university as a bastion of scientific and technological innovation; each university contributes billions to our economy. Watch the commercials during a college football game and a viewer can be excused for thinking that white coats are mandatory for college students and all of them major in physics or medical research or mechanical engineering. Americans, even conservative critics of the university, know that a university education is essential for advancement in the modern world. All line up to send their kids.

On the other hand, universities have established faculty hiring processes, administrative posts, boards of regents, accreditation standards, and funding to build universities designed for social transformation around the ideas of identity politics. The (mostly) false image of the university generates public funding and acceptance; the reality of the university creates a new public. Ellis calls this “the iron grip of political radicalism.”

Ellis concludes that universities no longer serve the common good; in fact, their “true north” undermines a well-functioning republican form of government that is capable of loving itself and protecting itself. The bait and switch of promising one kind of education and then delivering social transformation along the lines of identity politics amounts to the embezzlement of public funds for private, partisan activity, punishable, perhaps, under the Hatch Act, Ellis suggests.

Reform or Revolution?

There is no hope that academe, broadly conceived to include its boards of control, will reform itself. It only can be reformed from the outside through the mechanisms of politics. What mechanisms? Free speech reform is not availing because the campuses need diversity of opinion and willing ears to make free speech effective. Affirmative action for conservatives on campus to cultivate such diversity of opinion? Conservatives on campus are likely to feel like Christians in Tehran, alienated from the broader transformational mission and hence ignored and harassed. Relying on the professionalism of STEM ignores the ways in which these disciplines will be vulnerable to takeover and corruption from the diversity apparatus on campuses. From an ideological perspective, STEM is today where English was in the 1990s—and forces regulating it at universities are demanding that it conform. The reproducibility problems, where scientific progress is seriously compromised because scientists themselves have a difficult time reproducing findings of experiments, documented in a National Association of Scholars study, relate especially to STEM research. If hard sciences are compromised, the university loses its raison d’etre and there is every reason to think that this is already retarding progress.

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