The New Campus Anti-Americanism

I have a cabin in the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont. The woods– lovely, dark and deep–weren’t always woods. About 150 years ago the hills in central Vermont were stripped bare of trees and mostly turned over to sheep farms. The wool industry, however, soon moved west, and these days Vermont is completely re-forested. No matter how hard some people try to deforest a landscape, somehow it has a way of coming back.

American higher education may well have similar resilience. Looking at the current landscape, you might find that hard to believe. With only a few exceptions, our colleges and universities— public and private, large and small, blue state and red state—are deeply mired in ideological antagonism to traditional American values, and more broadly, the legacy of Western civilization.

They promote a kind of sheep-herding instead. Critics have accurately described many of the characteristics of this herding: its postmodern disdain for the pursuit of truth; its leveling of distinctions between high culture and popular entertainment; its embrace of “experiential learning” as co-equal with disciplined inquiry; its erasure of the line between strongly held opinions and established facts; its fragmentation of the curriculum; its happy embrace of micro-specialization; its championing of race-class-gender reductionism; its grade inflation and derisory academic standards; its bias against teachers and scholars who reject progressive orthodoxies or who simply fail to embrace them with sufficient ardor; its capital idea that higher education is properly a form of political indoctrination and always has been; and above all its comprehensive insistence on conformity to a handful of progressive doctrines including diversity, multiculturalism, social justice, and sustainability.

The items in this long list can be discussed individually, but of course, they all flow together. They are part of a single worldview, which for lack of a better term are Renascent Anti-Americanism (RAA). To say something is anti-American, of course, conjures up for many the era the 1940s and 1950s of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s theatrics, branded by the left forever as the moral equivalent of the Salem witchcraft trials. Arthur Miller’s allegorical play, The Crucible, is the lens through which millions of American children over the generations have been taught to see the chilling specter of people accusing others of communist sympathies.

But of course, international communism directed by the Soviet Union was (unlike Salem’s witches) perfectly real, and Soviet agents had indeed penetrated very high levels of the American government. Alger Hiss, who was for decades the American left’s alleged martyr to anti-communist hysteria, turned out in fact to be a Soviet agent, as were many others in prominent positions. Anti-anti-communism has its day. It is time for something else, and something else I have in mind is the frank recognition that American higher education has crafted a new form of anti-Americanism.

This new anti-Americanism isn’t the Bolshevik menace crawling out its historical grave. The Soviet Union is gone, and despite the histrionics of The New York Times and CNN, Putin’s Russia has none of the reach of the old KGB. The new anti-Americanism resembles the old (classic) anti-Americanism in that many of its proponents find inspiration in Marx and Marxoid writers such as Gramsci. The new anti-Americanism has also placed a bet that international socialism will triumph over free markets, capitalism, or the mixed economies of the West.

Both classic and Renascent Anti-Americanism are utopian in character. The classic version saw a worldwide liberation of humanity from the trammels of class. RAA plays with this theme too when it invokes the hated “one percent,” but the utopian heart of RAA isn’t class. What it really detests is American culture.

More than classic anti-Americanism, RAA is a creature of higher education. Yes, old-style radicals were a feature of the American university since the waning years of the 19th century, and the House Un-American Activities Committee sought to bring their disloyalty to the United States to public attention. But universities back then merely provided refuge for a handful of subversives and not a very reliable one. Today, the people we once would have called subversives are the majority of the humanities and social science faculty members, most of the administrative staff, and probably the great majority of college presidents.

The latter frequently owe their positions to their adroitness in expressing loyalty to the creedal positions listed above, while also reassuring trustees that they could raise a lot of money and stay on the right side of the scientific and commercial operations on which the credibility and solvency of their institutions depends.

My thesis is that RAA is now settled fact for most American higher education. I could argue this thesis at length, but the pieces of it have been so well argued and amply illustrated by others that for the purpose of this article I am simply going to assume its accuracy. What I really want to address is the question of whether RAA is to be regarded as American higher education’s fixed position for now and decades to come, or whether, as I think, it is unstable and likely to collapse.

Appearances would have been against a visionary arborist in 1837, in Rutland County Vermont, predicting the return of the forest. Back then Rutland County was home to 180,984 sheep—there was a sheep census— and hardly any trees. Today Rutland has only a few sheep pastures, run mainly by hobbyists, and about 900 square miles of luxurious second-growth forest.

I’m not saying reforestation happens quickly. But it is hard to think that America will continue on its current educational trajectory. The educational establishment is convinced that the answer to its problems is, in effect, “more sheep.” If we can send every man, woman, and child to college and import enough international students from around the world, the hustle can continue—so goes the establishment line of thinking. But there are not enough sheep in the world to keep RAA going as the ruling ideology of American higher education.

My optimism about higher education’s recovery, of course, is based on my pessimism about the future of sheep-raising in the groves of academe. At the moment the higher education establishment, sheepherders extraordinaire, act as though things will go much as they have for the last fifty years. By “things” I mean the mass-production of haphazardly-educated but heavily indoctrinated graduates who have absorbed the core ideas that America is very bad and that multiculturalism is very good.

In 2016, when Donald Trump was campaigning for President, he caricatured higher education’s business model: “We’ll take $200,000 of your money; in exchange, we’ll train your children to hate our country….. We’ll make them unemployable by teaching them courses in Zombie studies, underwater basket weaving and, my favorite, tree climbing.”

Though the higher education establishment detests Trump with every wooly fiber of its being, the professional bureaucrats and administrative careerists increasingly recognize that Trump’s deflated view of colleges and universities resonates with many Americans.

Independent polls have converged on the finding that conservative and conservative-leaning independents are disaffected from higher education. First, a Pew Research Center survey in July poll showed 58 percent of Republicans saying that now view American higher education as having negative effects on the country. Then a Gallup poll in August offered the even more troubling picture that 67 percent of Republicans and Republican “leaders” had only some or very little “confidence on colleges and universities.” The figure for “all adults” regardless of political affiliation was 56 percent.

Last December’s session of the Higher Education Government Relations (HEGR) Conference, on the topic of “The Growing Partisan Divide on the Value of College,” featured a cross-section of higher education’s lobbyists—the people whose job it is to keep elected officials attentive to the needs and wants of colleges and universities. Their concern about the disaffection towards higher education of a broad swath of the voting public was palpable.

The question is whether that disaffection is merely a leaf in the breeze or part of a deeper shift in American attitudes. The polls, after all, might merely reflect the public’s unhappy reaction to the campus protests of the last few years. And the higher education establishment has all the defensive advantages of establishments: control over financial resources, personnel, and reputation, as well as fortified legal and regulatory positions. Universities seldom lose court battles, nor have they lost many battles for public opinion. They enjoy legions of loyal alumni who are predisposed to believe the best about their alma maters, and colleges and universities are adroit at turning attention away from their academic follies to spectacles on the football fields and basketball courts.

These are all good reasons for the higher education establishment to treat public disaffection as an annoying distraction that will in due time fade away.

Against that counsel of complacency is exactly what? I could give a complicated answer about disruptive technologies, education programs ill-matched to the economy, and student debt—among other factors. These are vulnerabilities that higher education establishment knows it must address if it wishes to maintain its privileged position in American society. But there is an even larger vulnerability that the higher education establishment adamantly refuses to address, namely its profound antagonism to traditional American values and culture: what I am calling Renascent Anti-Americanism. Disdaining the society on which it depends for everything—students, money, freedom—doesn’t seem like a good long-term trajectory.

The proponents of the new anti-Americanism fully understand this. They know American society as it has been and is still now (though in a weakened form) profoundly incompatible with a form of higher education that regards that society as racist, sexist, homophobic, and oppressive through and through. The leadership of our colleges, however, sees the solution as the transformation of American society into higher education’s own image. Once we Americans wake up, we will remodel ourselves in the image of the campus left. America will become, so to speak, Burlington, Vermont writ large. And if many Americans don’t like that transformation, too bad for them. Colleges and universities are raising up a generation that worships brute power and totalitarian social control and has no deep regard for individual freedoms or collective liberty.

That’s the dream, stated explicitly by some in higher education, but harbored by many more.

The current regime in higher education has many advantages in its efforts to maintain its position, but it has this one great disadvantage. Americans are growing more and more aware that their colleges and universities see themselves as the vanguard of a new social and political order forged in reactionary hatred of political, economic, and social freedom. That points to a future in which those colleges and universities will lose what they now think is permanently theirs: a sanctuary for the anti-American left. We will, in time, see the reforestation of that barren landscape, as Americans recapture their colleges or universities or build new ones. As in Rutland County, some hobby farms will remain, where gentlemen farmers can tend a few sheep with some well-trained border collies. Perhaps that will be Harvard’s future. The rest of us can look forward to the return of colleges and universities that prize debate, robust diversity of ideas, educational excellence, well-ordered curricula, and mindful attention to the ideals of our republic.

This article was adapted from Peter Wood’s remarks to the Family Research Council, December 5, 2017

Peter Wood

Peter Wood

Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “Diversity: the Invention of a Concept.”

6 thoughts on “The New Campus Anti-Americanism

  1. An excellent and true depiction of the deplorable state of current higher education — and its predicted demise and re-emergence as what it once was and ought to be. I share Dr. Wood’s optimism that higher education’s disdain for the society on which it depends is a losing proposition. The American public, i.e. the taxpaying citizenry, is increasingly aware of academe’s bold curricular strategies of turning generation after generation of young people against the core beliefs of their country. And, there are signs that president Trump and his administration will play a major role in countering this wholesale betrayal of American values on our nation’s campuses. God speed, Mr. President, and thank you, Dr. Wood for your unwavering commitment to restoring sanity and to the realm of higher education.

  2. Interesting, Johnathan. I have two sons both who attended the University of Oregon. We sent them off to get their education as well balanced, idealistic happy young men. The unbelievable and total transformation of my kids in less than three years convinces me that Peter Wood is correct. There simply is no other explanation for it. The left owns college and higher education almost exclusively today. Fortunately for us, we have enough credibility with our kids to be able to QUESTION their radical indoctrination and present factual evidence that what they were being taught was opinion, not fact. We were astounded at the revisionist B.S. that had been drilled into their heads and at the syllabus of almost every social science or literature class they took. All one point of view, one narrative basically asserting that America is horrible, racist, and to be an American is to be responsible for almost all the problems in the world. To say the far left doesn’t control education today is a joke. They nearly destroyed my kid’s worldview. If, as an educator, you cannot present more than one theory, get the hell out of education. We don’t need any more “group thinking” liberals to run the narrative, recreate actual history and poison the minds of young people. Brainwashing is not educating.

  3. The left ideology prevalent on campus is a market signal, i.e., a selection device that provides a a screen, for Democratic Party affiliation. I know that sounds strange, but which party funds universities? May we not expect the party that funds universities to expect the institutions that they fund to support them? Which party are leftists most likely to support? This claim is supported by the following: There is a strong tendency for academics to be left wing in ideology, but there is an even stronger tendency for academics to be Democratic in party affiliation. In many elite colleges the proportion of Republicans is not significantly different from zero. Since the New Deal, the Democrats have relied on universities to propagandize on behalf of their programs. The Republicans have been slow to recognize that universities have been playing a partisan role, and if the faculty is predominantly left and entirely Democratic while elite young are turned into US-hating, Gramscian transgender activists, how nice for the Democratic Party. The Greens or other minor left parties will never pose a threat. The Democrats have funded the universities; the Democrats will benefit from a youth indoctrinated into left ideology at those universities. The solution is ending government subsidization and cartelization of higher education. That can be done by ending tax exemptions for the social sciences and humanities and using the tax revenues to provide tax credits to students who pursue STEM-related subjects either in universities or in proprietary colleges. As well, business and professional education should be treated as proprietary and put on an even playing field with proprietary training.

  4. Optimism! There’s much to recommend it, not least of which it gives us hope that the light we see at the end of this particularly dark tunnel is not the onrushing train (atop which sits The Progressive RoadRunner, mindlessly ‘beep beeping’).

    But there is a critical difference between Prof. Wood’s sheep pastures and today’s Universities of Sheep Pasturing. One, of course, is and was absolutely market-driven – responding entirely to the ebb & flow of profit which itself moved according to the desires, wants, and needs of the spending public. When mutton & wool were in-demand, Vermont went treeless. And when that market shifted & cost profiles changed, the Vermont landscape changed also. But the University is not market-driven, at least not in the same way. And University leaders (staff & faculty alike) are not profit-seekers as much as they are True Believers.

    Vermont’s sheep herders were not in it because they passionately believed in Sheep, nor in deforestation. They herded sheep because sheep sold. But when we look inside these cloistered alcoves of academe we find more often than not a passionate collection of priests and acolytes who don’t care one whit whether anything is selling. What they care about, instead, is True Belief: the dogma according to the Post-Modern Relativists, the Cultural Marxists, the Frankfurt Leftovers, the Progressives, the Social Justice RAA Warriors who carry the banner before the mob which shouts: Diversity, Inclusivity, & Egalite.

    The fact that the majority of the American public does not buy the agenda they present, rejects it, as a matter of fact, almost wholly, proves only to those Believers the absolute rightness of the cause. As Hoffer notes when speaking of this fanaticism, “What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world.” And we see that in the curriculums provided, the readings recommended, the answers required on the rote questions which are asked & auto-answered.

    “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

    So though the University may feel the press of events and the murmur of unrest in the tax-paying crowds beyond the sanctuary gates, they only grip the spurring whip of Media, Memory and State more tightly. History? America is a corrupt slaveholding enclave of privileged Colonialist Eurocentric Whites clinging doggedly to rightly crumbling Enlightennment “ideals”. Ask anyone. The present? That is the revolutionary rejection of patriarchal sexist, cisgendered, heteronormative, racist, capitalist lies and the oppression which such lies generate. (“I need some muscle over here!”) As for the future – heck, the New Jacobins envision the same blessed future dreamed by the originals: Equality for Everyone! As the Committee of Public Safety put it 225 years ago, “It is time that equality bore its scythe above all heads. It is time to horrify all the conspirators.”

    And with a State which seems too easily inclined towards the slash & burn, ‘Harrison Bergeron-ic’, it may be more than a while before our luxurious 2nd Growth Forest returns – as much as we may wish it so.

  5. “Appearances would have been against a visionary arborist in 1837, in Rutland County Vermont, predicting the return of the forest. Back then Rutland County was home to 180,984 sheep—there was a sheep census— and hardly any trees. “

    But the writing was already on the wall — by 1837, Vermont had already lost one Congressman, and it would lose additional seats in 1840, 1850, 1880, and 1930 — until it only had/has one.

    Vermont was hemorrhaging young people. Senator Justin Morrill (of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862) stated that his goal was to promote “scientific agriculture” so his state’s young adults could wrest a living from Vermont’s rocky soil — instead of moving to the fertile soils of the Midwest.

    I argue the same thing is happening today — college grads aren’t getting good jobs anymore. There no longer is a pay premium for the degree — again, the writing is on the wall. I can’t see the economic base of higher ed remaining intact if those paying for it no longer see economic benefit from their expenditures.

    I must, however, defend the teaching of “tree climbing.”
    It’s an essential forestry skill, and it’s how to do it safely, with ropes and such — it’s how to work safely at heights.

  6. From what I see, academia is winning the culture war and people like Peter Wood are losing, by and large. Even among Republicans. Don’t believe me? Look at the changes in attitudes about women’s roles, homosexuality, the culture. Not too much support for the kind of core curriculum that Peter favors. Republicans and conservatives assent to things that the most ardent leftists would have decried 50, 70 years ago. The traditional culture is crumbling, and the people are fine with it. The American culture that Peter wants to defend is already largely gone.

    I will believe that the Republicans have truly turned against higher education when their children stop attending. I’m not talking about Hillsdale or Christendom or Thomas Aquinas. It is truly remarkable when I look at the degrees of so many of the people who attack higher education from the right. A lot with Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley, Stanford pedigrees. Even one Peter Wood with Haverford and Rochester in his background!

    There is a lot not to like in contemporary higher education. There is also a lot to like. A few of my favorites: the Pacifica Quartet, black hole thermodynamics, CRISPR. The students on the campus where I, a moderate conservative toil, a pretty famously liberal public campus in a very blue state. Most of them are mainstream liberal, anti-Trump, hardly anti-American. About half of them taking programs that might have a good dose of “indoctrination,” about half not. None of them coerced into doing what they’re doing. Few of them would have much interest in Peter Wood’s program. Whatever he is doing, I think it’s probably barking up the wrong tree.

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