by Emina Melonic
American higher education, once the envy of the world, is suffering a crisis of confidence and a loss of purpose.
“Once upon a time, universities were institutions dedicated to the pursuit of truth and the transmission of the highest values of our civilization,” writes New Criterion editor and publisher Roger Kimball. “Today, most are dedicated to the destruction of those values. It is past time to call them to account.” What would accountability look like? The distinguished British philosopher Roger Scruton, a conservative through and through, recently proposed a radical solution: “get rid of universities altogether.”
Have these men taken leave of their senses? Not at all. Both have been keen observers for decades of the slow-motion catastrophe unfolding in academia. It may be we’ve reached a turning point.
Behind most of the problems plaguing education is a noxious identity politics. This is particularly true in the humanities because these subjects easily lend themselves to manipulative interpretation and reshaping by those with an ideological agenda. Take a piece of classical literature, such as Homer’s The Iliad, slap a theory on the text, and bingo, you have just rid yourself of the chore of trying to understand this magnificent piece of dramatic poetry by turning it into a piece on gender relations. For good measure, don’t forget to add some Marxist theory to expose imaginary and proto-class divisions, and perhaps you have convinced your audience that Homer is just another “old, white male,” whose voice has no historical or literary consequence. That’s much more comfortable work than scholarship.
This is what an assault on literature and culture looks like. Of course, classical works (or, for that matter, any works that deal with perennial human questions) are powerful, as ideologues know very well. Otherwise, they would not try to dismantle their long tradition and significance.
The assault on deep and nuanced learning, as well as the freedom of expression within the university walls is not new. Allan Bloom saw it clearly in The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, published in 1987. At the time, Bloom singled out moral relativism and nihilism as the leading causes of intellectual close-mindedness. His description of the disease still rings true today, though the addition of technology, such as social media’s role in speech suppression, has accelerated the progression of the disease.
Barack Obama’s eight years as president brought identity-politics-driven policymaking into the mainstream. Consider his administration’s efforts to use the blunt instrument of Title IX to coerce universities into all-but-abandoning due process in sexual assault cases and impose faddish transgender politics on K-12 schools.
His administration focused on dismantling everything with even a whiff of the traditional in favor of whatever may be the anti-American cause du jour. The main thrust of his presidency was to deconstruct the American idea of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These were deliberate and intentional attacks against the true American identity.
In the last few years, we have reached an absurd level of human categorization, especially in the matter of gender. This originated in the institutions of higher learning, where the humanities have become completely dehumanized. Perennial questions of good, evil, beauty, and truth are hardly there anymore. Instead, they have been replaced with a relativistic worldview in which everything is fluid and changeable, except the reigning ideology, which (of course), had better be respected. Any vision of classical beauty is erased, and instead, vulgarity reigns supreme.
Given this situation, perhaps the only way to preserve these higher things is to get rid of universities altogether. But this would prove to be a daunting task. Not only do we face the educational corruption of youth, but it is also fair to assume that many university graduates hold degrees that tell us nothing about what they actually know or understand about these things, or even that there is anything worth knowing about them.
Moreover, and more practically, though the prejudice is that college is necessary for gainful employment, most of these graduates are utterly unprepared for many jobs—and why should we be surprised? Professors regularly tell students that one of the job options is to become a left-wing activist by working for leftist nonprofit organizations, and that making money and being self-sufficient should not be on the list of priorities during their time in college or after.
We could also conclude that the market will determine the course and future of universities. There is some truth in this, certainly. We can hope that schools that choose ideology over proper learning will face an economic backlash because students will not apply to or attend such colleges and universities.
But how long will this slow withering of ideology take?
We rarely talk about what actually happens in the homes of the students and yet their personal histories play an enormous part in what they choose to do with their lives. Are average parents just as leftist as the “tenured radicals?” Or are they simply not aware of what goes on in the Marxist ivory towers they struggle and strive to afford?
Parents really need to be active in seeking information about the schools that their children propose to attend. I realize that most parents cannot recognize one ideology from another, but some questions should be posed regularly about their children’s future. More important, parents need to inculcate a firm morality in their children so that they can resist the nonsense on offer at most universities. Do their kids know the difference between right and wrong, and most importantly between truth and an ignoble lie? Do they have the strength to resist the pressure to conform?
The success of each student, of course, will depend on the particular degree he seeks, as well as his own efforts to learn. And, of course, if the degree is in engineering, accounting, or any of the hard sciences, chances are these students will graduate with a decent education and good career opportunities. In this case, he should simply get through the classes that are purely ideological and complete his degree requirements.
The success of each young person also depends on whether he should go to college in the first place. Some have gifts that are more suited for skilled labor and can be acquired through on-the-job training or vocational education. If a young person is unsure whether he should go to college or not, then the most feasible option is to go to a community college, take a few courses, and see if a four-year college is a good fit.
Without a doubt, American higher education is in dire straits. For the most part, educators are interested mainly in shaping students in their own ideological image. The current crisis in American universities and colleges is an obvious example of the problem of totalitarianism. Devoid of joy or of any recognition of the miracle of life and learning, the totalitarian headmasters force young minds into conformity and submission.
We also have to acknowledge, however, that each student has to do his or her very best in assuming personal responsibility for how they act and most of all, react, to ideology. We live in a confusing world of lies and distractions. It’s incumbent upon each and every one of us to learn how to navigate through the labyrinthine paths of ideology. Students, too, have to learn the difference between reality and illusion—and that freedom of the mind awaits those who leave the cave of shadows.
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Originally from Bosnia, a survivor of the Bosnian war and its aftermath of refugee camps, Emina Melonic immigrated to the United States in 1996 and became an American citizen in 2003. She is currently completing a Ph.D. in comparative literature. Her writings have appeared in National Review, The Imaginative Conservative, and Splice Today. She lives near Buffalo, N.Y.