“Carol’s incensed, I’m distressed, Peter’s perplexed—and maybe we take this as preparation for more to come as people’s tantrums rage and fizzle. I guess we really have become that immature as a society.”
So said a note from the managing editor of the journal I oversee. The context was an outburst from a former contributor to the journal —let’s call him Dr. Z—who demanded the publisher wipe away any record of his articles because the National Association of Scholars “supported Donald Trump” and “welcomed the Trump presidency.”
The Anti-Culture Wars
Another skirmish in the campus culture wars? That description for what is happening seems less and less apt. Neither of the most readily identifiable belligerents in the current conflict has much in the way of “culture.” Truckers’ hats versus pussy hats, dueling grandiosities, idolization of power all round. Civilization will probably survive this era of extravagant posturing. We may even turn out to be better off for it, provided that the unseating of the corrupt authoritarian elites is followed in due course by a Reconstruction. We will need some humility and fellow-feeling after this debauch is over.
“Carol’s incensed.” Carol, the consulting editor, was incensed that Dr. Z never bothered to present his complaint to us directly but went behind our backs to the international publisher. Felicia, the managing editor, felt keenly the rupture of a long-standing and formerly warm relationship with Dr. Z. I was perplexed because Dr. Z’s complaint came out of thin air. We never endorsed or supported Donald Trump the candidate. As an organization we stood on the sidelines. The few things I did write about candidate Trump held him up as an exemplar of histrionic anger. They were not complimentary.
But when candidate Trump became President Trump, I posted a congratulatory note—exactly as we had done both when President Obama was first elected in 2008 and on his re-election in 2012. No one protested the Obama welcomes. In December, I wrote a longish public letter to President Trump and his aides—not an endorsement of him, but laying out an agenda for higher education that I urged him to consider.
I welcomed his election as more likely to lead to needed changes in higher education than the election of Hillary Clinton would have been. And I did indeed vote for Trump, though I said nothing about my intentions before November 8.
In the months since, I have had a busy travel and speaking schedule, including events in Colorado, Oklahoma, Florida, Louisiana, and Missouri, as well as Washington, DC, and New York, and informally in Connecticut and Vermont. I find it hard to turn around without bumping into aggressively defiant opinions, either for or against President Trump. Exuberance and despair, triumph and flailing wrath. And not much on the isthmus in between.
Limit Your Expectations, Encourage His Interest
Maybe it is worth noting that some deep problems in higher education are not likely to be cured by a change in who occupies the White House. The trivialization of the undergraduate curriculum, for example, is the result of a confluence of economic, demographic, and pedagogical forces in addition to political decisions and ideological movements. It has been thoroughly normalized in American life, and even if President Trump decided to dis-incentivize the dumbing down of the curriculum and the abandonment of intellectual coherence in most undergraduate degree programs, he could at best stroke the rhinoceros with a feather. Non-trivial curricula are now a niche specialization, left to a handful of colleges, some honors programs, and some intrinsically demanding majors.
President Trump, however, can do a great deal to improve higher education, and I want to encourage his interest in that direction.
Keep Your Head
I told Dr. Z that when addressing elected leaders it is generally better to offer counsel in a friendly tone, but a friendly tone is not a wholesale endorsement. I have mixed feelings about President Trump. He is an unpredictable individual who may be either a positive or negative factor in reforming our colleges and universities. Despite the hyperbolic rhetoric about him—on both sides—no one knows.
That answer satisfies few and I have been invited now several times to answer the riddle of the orange-haired sphinx. I can say with confidence that he is unsettling the ideological tyranny on campus of global warming orthodoxy, that his contempt for political correctness has driven the campus left into a self-destructive rage, and that his executive orders on immigration have infuriated the “global citizenship” crowd. His nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, however, clarifies little. The teachers union faction of the Left decries her for her advocacy of school choice, but DeVos is nearly a blank slate on matters that concern those of us who “mind the campus.”
Trump’s appointment of Jerry Falwell Jr. as head of his task force on overreach by the Department of Education is another step that is a bit hard to read. I expect Falwell will be good on religious liberty and perhaps on Title IX overreach, but will he address how deeply ideological the Department of Education is on everything else?
Disrupt—Yes, But Build Too
On the whole, I see the Trump administration as far more likely to disrupt higher education in positive ways than it is to damage anything valuable. But that judgment rests on the view that our colleges and universities are, on the whole, compromised by political and cultural bias. NAS’s most recent study, Making Citizens, is another deep dive into campus ethnography. We detailed in some five hundred pages of thick description how the teaching of “civics” had been turned by the campus Left into teaching students to become political activists for progressive causes and “community organizers.” This might seem to some as documenting the obvious, but Making Citizens does more than that. We show exactly how this post-national “New Civics” has quietly organized itself to become one of the best-institutionalized forms of domination by the campus Left. It tries hard to leave no student behind on its march to make the nation’s intelligentsia informed about and committed to a progressive transformation of the U.S.
The proponents of the New Civics have gotten to where they are largely by keeping their cool and speaking a bland language of “civic engagement.”
But the anti-Trump campus hysteria rips that calm demeanor to shreds. I suppose I should welcome the clarity of the moment. No one looking at today’s campus can possibly see a place where intellectual inquiry is valued above vituperative indignation. Free expression is cried down by mobs who cannot bear the thought of anyone harboring opinions other than their own. And then college administrators wade in to congratulate the mobs for exercising their “free speech,” as if the fundamental freedoms were the freedom to intimidate and to silence dissent.
I do not, however, celebrate this proof of moral and intellectual decline. The protests seem most likely to instill in a whole generation a false belief in the moral superiority of ostentatious protest over the hard work of making our self-governing republic work. What the New Civics has bred in millions of students is bone-deep ignorance of how that republic works. The existence of the Electoral College came as a shock to many, and its deep rationale is entirely beyond the comprehension of more than a few. What has gained ground is the illusion that gathering together in a boisterous crowd is the essence of democracy.
Answering the Mad
Dr. Z is real and is very angry over very little. I don’t know him well enough to explain this as part of his personal history, nor would that be especially helpful. I’ve encountered dozens of others like Dr. Z in the last few months, as I am sure my readers have. Mostly I duck these conversations. Shrill voices of condemnation and hysterical pronouncements of planetary doom (“How am I supposed to do my job — literally to chronicle planetary suicide — w/o experiencing deep existential despair myself?”) do not invite consideration of other views. But I do find myself sometimes dealing with a Dr. Z, whose declarations cross over to a j’accuse.
It seems best to answer such individuals dispassionately and to the letter, with the understanding that whatever you say may well travel to other participants in the frenzy. Edit out anything personal. Speak to the madness not to the person inflicted with it.
That probably isn’t good therapy, but it is good citizenship. The soupçon of arrogance that comes with rage—the attitude that the enraged speaker knows exactly what sort of petty, selfish person you must be to hold views contrary to his own—that attitude should be gracefully overlooked. A time will come when those who convey it will sheepishly regret their words and pretend they were never said. Let’s let that happen.
At the moment, we are apparently to be held in contempt because we treated Barbarian Trump as the legitimately elected leader of the nation. We can bear it. If you need help bearing it, consider that some of our fellow citizens are in the midst of a mass delusion. For most of them, it is a temporary thing and forbearance will help them far more than attempting to shame them.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
I am, as Felicia said, perplexed. Some and perhaps much of what President Trump will do in office is likely to open up possibilities for profound change in higher education, regardless of whether he makes that a priority. Anyone who believes our colleges and universities have lost their way in the toils of political correctness should welcome that prospect, even as we do our best to stave off other developments that might harm the core ideals of liberal arts education.
I do not want to see higher education further reduced to job training and quid pro quo transactions. The utilitarian side of American character, unleashed, can vandalize our public life. Can it vandalize it any more than Hollywood already has? Maybe not, but we might hope for something better than an MMA match between two vandals. When it is Atlantic City vs. the Golden Globes, America definitely doesn’t “win.”
I also worry that President Trump cares little for the fragile achievements of good science and good scholarship. It is easy to see why. Good science is increasingly like a cork floating in a sea of politically and ideologically compromised science. And academics who are committed to genuine scholarship seem increasingly like stray violets in a field of poison ivy.
Saving higher education from itself is no easy task. It is none the easier for people like Dr. Z and the vituperative mob of which he is an incidental spokesman. Not that I have so sunny an assessment of the enthusiasts on the other side, many of whom are all too eager to see colleges and universities come tumbling down in their iniquity.
The best I can say is that in my travels I do encounter people who remain cheerfully sure that our commonalities outweigh our differences—people who somehow seem immune to the identity politics of both Left and Right and who have a basic love of America. I’d like to see a form of higher education imbued with their spirit. It may be a long wait.