President Trump and American Universities

Herbert I. London

The window signs at Cooper Union express the sentiments of the college: “Trump is not our president.” This, of course, is not the view of an outlier. From Berkeley to Cambridge, American universities have been aligned against Trump, resolute in promoting his delegitimation. After all, note the cognoscenti, he didn’t win the popular vote (as if that makes a difference) and his irascible positions place him outside the realm of reasonable (read “left-wing”) opinion. Admittedly, Trump is different; his campaign was unorthodox and his campaign rhetoric often offensive. But however upsetting the result to college-age students and their tenured radical professors, Trump is president of the United States, having gained 57 percent of the electoral vote. What this means for higher education is not immediately apparent, yet some conditions associated with the Trump presidency are clear.

On the campaign trail Trump attacked political correctness as “dangerous.” He maintained a belief that ideological strictures make it virtually impossible to criticize certain groups, attitudes, and ideas. He made specific reference to the “holy triad” of race, class, and gender, and argued that the “uneducated” have a better grasp of these issues than “the partially educated.” At Trump campaign rallies this position won adherents. Some journalists described it as the “velvet fist” of populism, a crude display of sexist and racist commentary. However biting the critique, Trump supporters rallied to his side, recognizing the designation of political incorrectness—the ignorant rant of the booboisie—as an attack on John and Jane Q. Public who do not embrace the orthodoxy on campus.

Trump drew an exclusive line in the proverbial sand. While politics is sometimes described as inclusiveness (bringing enough groups together to form a majority), this Trump campaign gained steam from the estrangement of those in higher education. This was to be a movement to reclaim America, or as Trump noted, “to make America great again.” The often anti-American stance of many universities was fodder for the campaign. Trump’s populism took the form of American nationalism—a concept that fell into desuetude after the Vietnam War. Patriotism may be the last refuge for scoundrels as those on the left assert, but nationalism is the blood-and-guts component of state loyalty, which the Left cannot abide. As a nationalist of unmitigated pride, Trump is the enemy.

Universities once encouraged debate. We can’t say with precision when this tradition ended, but about fifty years ago, starting with the so-called free speech movement, the belief emerged that professors were in the Academy to “win,” that is, to proselytize in the interest of political change. Speech codes that emerged from this hothouse of ideas work in one direction only: freedom for me, not for thee. The liberal imagination was transmogrified into the dogma of the contemporary curriculum. Few acknowledge this effect, but even a casual reading of the course catalog at major universities will force one to concede the point.

A second corrosive influence on the university is specialization. Recently minted doctoral recipients write about narrower and narrower topics in an effort to seek originality. The problem, of course, is that large themes such as Western civilization are given short shrift in curriculum-building. The professor trapped in his narrowly defined area of specialization doesn’t, in many cases, want to teach. He wants a sanctuary for research. When Trump challenged aspects of faculty employment, he was excoriated even though market conditions suggest he is right.

Last, in the previous thirty years the university system has become trivialized, concerned with laughable ideas only professors would consider worthy of study. Although examples are legion, a course such as “Queer Gardens” at Bowdoin College captures the spirit of trivialization. Trump has harvested a lot of political support from the ranks of the formally uneducated by pointing to examples of this kind. Academics cannot deny their existence; they merely claim the illustrations are exaggerated. On either side of this divide exists resentment, a resentment that will not soon evanesce.

For decades the university considered itself apart from the larger society and arrogated to itself a sense of superiority. After all, Mencken-like, the university system described itself in the role of moral arbiter. This was a natural and perhaps somewhat understandable reaction to the Vietnam War. It also followed a multicultural surge mandating the view that the U.S. is no different from other states except, of course, for its ethnocentric obsession. Like young anthropologists, the Academy would not allow itself to be used as a political tool defending American cultural superiority. In fact, it railed against this temptation by emphasizing the warts in our history to the virtual exclusion of any other factors.

The actors intent on this social change believed it was their role to undo the stereotypes and misguided beliefs parents might have instilled in their children. Hence orientation for new students became the equivalent of indoctrination at Peking University. Remaking America was the mission and students were merely the instrument to achieve this goal. Classes were not intended as the free and open exchange of opinion; they became the incubator for Alinsky strategies that would revolutionize higher education. The remarkable thing about this phenomenon is its success. In a scant fifty years the American university has been reformed to such a degree that it is almost unrecognizable to previous generations of college graduates.

Trump hardly distinguished himself as a student either at Fordham or the University of Pennsylvania. But intuitively he knows something about student and faculty actors. For him, these are the Americans trying to radicalize the society using revisionist history and relativist ideological beliefs to foment change. They are the Trump refuseniks, relentless in their opposition to anything he advocates.

In many respects the Trump appeal to the “forgotten American” resonates with me. There was no doubt that I was out of place in university life, a square peg in a round hole. However, I was proud of the fact that I was the first member of my family to graduate from college. And obtaining a Ph.D. and having the “elevated” status of dean was a source of pride for my parents. Both Mom and Dad were obliged to start working at an early age. My dad enrolled at City College, but had to drop out so he could support his mother and brother (his father was an absentee dad).

So when I invited my parents for lunch at the university’s faculty lounge, it was a big deal. Dressed to the nines, they paraded into this setting expecting professors to be as well-dressed as they were. Of course, that wasn’t the case. My mom said, “These people look like unmade beds. Don’t they realize they are models for youngsters?” That argument had a searing effect. She’s right, I thought.

The next day I sent a memo to faculty members saying that jeans and T-shirts were no longer acceptable attire in the classroom. I noted further that I would buy a suit or dress for any professor lacking one. Two days after my missive was sent, I received a call from the president. Apparently my faculty members complained that I was dictatorial and that a dress code should not be imposed on them.

Realizing this matter probably deserved consultation, I called for a faculty meeting at which the matter was discussed. Despite seeming reluctance, there was consensus that minimal standards of acceptable attire were necessary. A self-evident standard was achieved, albeit one that would never have satisfied my mother.

I sometimes felt that my mother, who was a high school dropout, had a far better sense of how the world worked than most of my faculty colleagues. There was one incident that seemed to reinforce that judgment.

In the heat of revolutionary sentiment on campus, almost every core requirement for graduation was abandoned. Students simply accumulated credits of almost any kind, and that met a graduation standard. Science and math requirements were deposited on the ash heap of history. Concerned that the degree had been so diluted by incremental concessions to radicals, the deans proposed an introductory course that would be required of all students. It was called “Critical Thinking.” Surely, they argued, students in any discipline should be able to think critically, a judgment that was impossible to oppose. How you get from innocence to sophistication or from a lack of judgment to critical judgment wasn’t seriously considered.

So this grand experiment began with incoming students. On one occasion, I was in the corridor of the Main Building when I heard an instructor say to his class, “Our first session in critical thinking will be the examination of a world that runs out of fossil fuels. What do you think should be done?” One student answered, “We can get new energy sources by going to the moon.” No one bothered to ask him about the energy necessary to reach the moon. Another said, “We can harness the energy of the sun,” albeit how we apply solar energy and batteries wasn’t clear.

The more I heard, the more it was obvious that this was an exercise in the exchange of ignorant opinion. Since these students knew almost nothing about the laws of supply and demand, pricing never entered the discussion. Since they hadn’t taken a course in physics and knew nothing about the conservation of energy, they could not conceive of the idea that you cannot run out of energy, even if fossil fuels might be reduced. Since they knew nothing about history, they weren’t prepared to discuss commodity shortages in the past.

In other words, the lofty ideal of critical thinking cannot be obtained until students know something. One cannot think critically until there is a knowledge base on which to rely. Without this base, opinions are generally ignorant and self-referential. Surely my mother could have told that to my decanal colleagues, but they wouldn’t have listened and, after all, they knew it all.

The absence of common sense is what underlies and creates the distance between life in the Academy and conditions less educated citizens face, and thus fuels much of the Trump appeal.

Will Trump serve as a catalyst for change? It is doubtful. However, Trump can introduce legislation denying federal funding for colleges and universities that block First Amendment rights to some speakers, usually conservatives. Nothing succeeds like capital denial. This might make universities more open to the free exchange of opinion. Perhaps undoing the hardening of an orthodoxy over decades will not be easy. Then again, who would have guessed that a playboy real estate mogul would be president of the United States, and who would have argued that he would be the voice of the dispossessed in America? As Fats Waller once noted about this great nation, “One never knows, do one?”

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