To the Editor
The spring 2020 AQ is still another blockbuster, focusing on the undeniable fact of student (and faculty and administrative?) immaturity. From various perspectives, the problem is clarified and solutions proffered. There is a difficulty, however, that goes beyond the human limitations on painful display and that is the fragility of liberal education itself.
What none of the writers say, but of which they are doubtless thoroughly aware, is that higher education did not become mass education until the twentieth century. Many of its devotees assume, as Leo Strauss observed, that through higher education democracy can become a universal aristocracy. We are learning just how problematic such an expectation is.
Back in 1970 as a young instructor in a small town community college, fresh from a doctoral program, I was immediately struck by the yawning gap between the institution’s formal requirements and the students’ weak preparation. The poor quality of their prior schooling or their own lack of dedication often fell before the (not always) serious demands of social science, humanities, or natural science courses. Yet my colleagues sought to mask this harsh reality with much talk about retention and success, as if these objectives were entirely within their power to deliver and the students’ ability to accomplish. The most telling evidence that these expectations were unrealistic was the rampant grade inflation. Excuses were made for the students’ undeniable failings, from their low income and poor upbringing to their race or sex. Few of them successfully made the transition to four-year colleges and universities. They would have been better off learning a trade or occupation and raising families.
What I thought was unique to my institution and those like it has become the almost defining characteristic of higher education as a whole. Shucks, it turns out that we were trend setters! But as amusing as the current caricature of liberal educations is, mediocrity is not only corrupting the once hallowed halls of academe, it is driving democracy down to the lowest common denominator. Evidently, millions of people in college do not add up to responsible citizenship, not even for “the best and the brightest.” Craig Klafter (“Undergraduate Education and the Maturation of Students”) notes in passing that the European liberal arts tradition was “transplanted” to North America during the English colonial period, its maturing function carried on only until the mid-nineteenth century (reasons unspecified). But he treats this epochal development in a political vacuum. Those “mature” American institutions were the seedbed for the American Revolution, infused as they were by the Enlightenment-era teachings of natural rights philosophers in a nation dominated by Christian churches and teachings.
The “mature” patriots that we have ever since revered as our Founding Fathers drew on their rigorous and far-reaching liberal education both to establish republican constitutions and to secure the academic freedom of colleges and universities. Both North and South, whether learned lawyers or learned slave holders, these prodigies supported higher education for those who could benefit from it, and even, in Thomas Jefferson’s and James Madison’s cases, established a university that gave a central place in the curriculum to the true principles of republican government. They were convinced that the future leaders of America needed to be grounded in a liberal education.
Free government and autonomous universities in our country were thus bound together. Critical to that bond is clarity about the purpose, and therefore the limits, of political and academic freedom. It is not neutrality toward these great goods that secures them but eternal vigilance. They will not survive in the hands of benign overseers but only in those of principled champions.
Nowhere is the challenge greatest for making the case for their perpetuation than in the ongoing disputes over the meaning of freedom of speech and academic freedom that occur on campus, in legislatures, and in the courts. We must, however tardily, acknowledge that the supposedly great legal milestones that many now believe should govern our thought and action in this regard, were hollow. Liberals originally championed those precedents for their own narrow purpose but have long since abandoned them. The spurious claim of limitless liberty had served its purpose. Central to our reassuring memory now is the curious proposition that college professors and administrators should be neutral amongst the great variety (and genuine depravity) of all the social and political doctrines vying for dominance.
Yes, I said dominance, as the now oddly cherished memories of ringing U.S. Supreme Court affirmations of the rights of communists, fascists, and Nazis (and even white supremacists) to utter their bile on campus or in the public square have been buried under speech codes singling out for persecution mainly conservatives whose forebears had strenuously objected to those doctrines, and who are now falsely accused of multiple forms of bigotry.
To reiterate, free government and free speech go together—one cannot survive without the other. Citizens must deliberate and choose, learners must investigate and conclude. To the extent that we keep this process free, we increase the likelihood of wise choices and informed conclusions. But this process cannot of itself guarantee those results. As the purpose of academic freedom is to pursue the truth, the truth once discovered, must be fully embraced, as it was by our founding fathers, and strongly secured against corruption.
Calvin Coolidge, in a speech marking the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, maintained that, if the equal rights of man and government by consent of the governed are actually “self-evident” truths, “that is final.” That is, no progress can be made beyond that realization. Now and for all time, adherence to these truths remains the necessary condition for liberal education no less than for republican government.
We do not need “lukewarm defenders of the old regime,” as Machiavelli wrote. In this tempestuous time, when both old and young are caught up, in Aristotle’s telling description, in “passion-bred and passion-breeding opinions,” the curse of unbridled democracy, we are much in need of a principled and convincing defense of the greatest contributions of Western civilization. Not only should the custodians of higher education “lead” and “take a stand,” but they must. They cannot be chance comers but rather well-bred and well-educated guardians, of which God, in His wisdom, provides few.
Richard H. Reeb Jr.
Author, Taking Journalism Seriously: “Objectivity” as a Partisan Cause (University Press of America, 1998)
Craig Klafter responds,
Richard H. Reeb Jr. correctly notes the transformation of American higher education into one of mass education. However, the transformation did not start in the 1960s. The transformation began with the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 (the G. I. Bill of Rights). In 1947, 49 percent of the students who attended university or college in the United States were veterans. In 1958, the transformation was furthered by the National Defense Education Act, which introduced government-backed student loans. In the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiative completed the transformation by introducing the concept that our country should be judged, in part, based on the percentage of the population that graduate from universities and colleges—the more the better. This misguided idea is what led to increasing numbers of students pursuing higher education who lack the preparation, motivation, and intelligence to benefit significantly from the experience.
These students, however, have not been disproportionately immature as compared to traditional students. Immaturity can be seen today even at highly selective universities and colleges. This is why I looked to other sources to explain the problem of immaturity on American campuses. I found them in American universities’ and colleges’ rejection of their traditional role promoting student maturation, in changes in childrearing practices that began with Benjamin Spock, and in the abandonment of neutrality as a professorial value brought about by Government research funding to support the Cold War, the civil rights movement, the counterculture movement, and opposition to the Vietnam War.
Dr. Reeb incorrectly claims that I wrote that the European liberal arts tradition’s “maturing function carried on only until the mid-nineteenth century (reasons unspecified).” I wrote that the liberal arts tradition “continued largely unchanged until the mid-twentieth century.” I explained that the Humboldtian model of higher education, first introduced in the United States at some universities beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, became dominant during the mid-twentieth century. The reason for this was a combination of concern that the U.S. was falling behind the USSR in STEM subjects, massive government funding to support university research, and universities jockeying to secure that funding.
A vital service, however, is performed by Dr. Reeb in that he reminds us of the fine liberal arts educations and new heights of maturation that many of the Founding Fathers received at colonial colleges, and how many of those men established universities and colleges in the young nation to promote republicanism. They also founded those institutions to help unify the nation, augment the status of learning, develop the economy, advance American culture, and surpass European standards of scholarship. These goals are just as valid today as they were more than two hundred years ago.
Boca Raton, Florida
Rector and Professor of History Emeritus
American University of Myanmar
To the Editor:
The BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement has corrupted much of the Academy, in ways large and small. Supportive faculty have infected their classrooms with this noxious virus, incited students to mass protest, shout down, or force disinvitations to pro-Israel speakers. and stymied administration punitive response. Collegiality, yet another casualty.
Nowhere, as Winfield Myers so compellingly shows (“Federally-funded Middle East Studies Centers Need Scrutiny,” spring, 2020), has the rot driven deeper. Title VI support was intended to buttress national security by promoting regional language skills and studies. But instead of dispassionate academic inquiries, many centers have become besotted with anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agitation. The openly hostile quotes Myers cites are prima facie evidence of such extreme bias and animus.
Boycotting Israeli academics, especially as regional relationships rewind, is an inexcusable betrayal of mission. So too have been public outreach efforts, such as that Duke/UNC three day anti-Israel hatefest, unrestrained and unrebutted, that sparked the DoE investigation.
Several sites are further compromised by large infusions of Saudi or Qatari cash. Can the most offending centers still be reformed or stopped? At present, American taxpayers are getting very negative return on investment.
Richard D. Wilkins
Syracuse University Chapter
Alums for Campus Fairness