by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Saint Louis University history professor Warren Treadgold provides Commentary magazine with basic ideas for an alternative to America’s crumbling pillars of higher education.
Have American universities declined beyond hope of recovery? Of course not. Their decline has lasted only about 50 years, and in another 50 years they might well improve. Right now, however, the signs are not good. Almost all American universities have grown less interested in education and more interested in ideology. While their ideology has variants, its goals are always “diversity,” “inclusivity,” “equality,” and “sustainability” and its aim is the defeat of “racism,” “sexism,” “heteronormativity,” and “elitism,” without examining the merits of these principles or tolerating dissent from them. The professors and administrators who are still interested in traditional education are becoming steadily fewer and less visible. Most of those with traditional training and scholarly interests are near retirement and anyway have learned to keep quiet, since otherwise they would probably have been forced out of the profession long ago. …
… The growing dissatisfaction with the current regime could serve as the foundation for a new type of university altogether. People familiar with the glorious history of the Western university tradition are increasingly troubled by the intolerance on campus and inability of these schools to provide a good education in literature, history, the arts, and the sciences. The universities have moved so far to the left that they are now condemning views held by most citizens, parents, students, and donors.
Treadgold goes on to recommend the founding of a brand new university in a small town, perhaps even a new town, not far from Washington, D.C. Then he turns to the school’s primary focus.
Since almost all major universities now discriminate systematically against moderates, conservatives, religious believers, and people interested in traditional education, a university that put academic freedom and quality first could attract excellent professors and students from leading universities, lesser universities, and more conservative institutions where academics are undervalued. The university’s professors would on average be more independent-minded, more interesting, and more accomplished than professors at today’s leading schools, and unlike them would represent the views of the majority of educated people outside academia.
A concentration of moderate and conservative professors at a university that encouraged and rewarded them could form a real intellectual community from professors now scattered at different institutions across the country. The national media, who now look for experts and opinion leaders at Harvard, Princeton, and Berkeley—but not at conservative schools such as Hillsdale College, Baylor University, or Ave Maria University—might well seek experts and opinion leaders at a new leading school, if only to make news through a lively debate.
The new university should be traditional in character but not specifically “conservative” in politics. It should seek faculty and students who are interested in academics as such, not just as a vehicle for ideological expression and activism. The only ideologies it should deliberately exclude are postmodernism, deconstructionism, and other relativistic doctrines that insist nothing is objectively true and everything is an instrument of power. Although the university should welcome students and faculty of any religion or none, it would do well to dedicate itself formally to traditional Christianity and Judaism. Recent years have shown that an absence of religion in public life can quickly decline into outright hostility to religion, and that many of the main groups defending the right to hold moral views outside the leftist consensus are religious. The new university should nonetheless defend the rights of all students and citizens to express unfashionable views, even without invoking religion. This would require a strong legal department to contest the growing body of government regulations that are incompatible with free speech and academic quality.
One might hope that a new university might also commit to avoid overselling the value of higher education.