America is arguably the most magnificent manifestation of the Enlightenment that transformed the world after 1500. Our nation was discovered and settled by adventurers and risk-takers embracing change and discovery. Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were curious about the world, innovative and creative, and believers in the emerging democratic ideal who also promoted fact-based scientific advance. Within three decades of the first American settlement, the first college (Harvard) was established, and by the time of the American Revolution, there were nine—roughly one for every 280,000 people.
Our Founders believed in the democratic and scientific advances of Enlightenment thinkers like Locke, Hobbes, Smith, Hume, Galileo, Newton, Descartes and Voltaire. Our colleges, besides promoting Christian virtue, spread modern Enlightenment thinking that transformed the world. As the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 so beautifully put it (engraved in stone at the entrance to the Ohio University campus where I teach): “religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
I have long dimly realized that the Age of Enlightenment beginning half a millennium ago may be ending. That feeling has grown of late. The shocking, tragic and senseless murder of George Floyd and the aftermath of protests and mindless destruction of innocent peoples’ property led me to believe that even the rule of law, that is the bedrock Enlightenment principle, is in decline: witness efforts to disband police departments.
Many protesters are using this to reinforce a factually pernicious smear on the Founders and their Enlightenment values spread by a once great newspaper, The New York Times, in its “The 1619 Project.” To be sure, there was not only racial discrimination but severe economic exploitation of black American slaves for more than two centuries. To a considerable extent, my own early scholarly reputation derives from measuring “white privilege” in antebellum society, arguing that slave exploitation was much greater than claimed by the late Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman in their much-publicized account of slavery, Time on the Cross (see my 1975 article in Explorations in Economic History, “The Slave Exploitation/Expropriation Rate”). That said, subsequent research that many have done showed great economic advances to newly freed slaves after emancipation. The issue is one of perspective. The 1619 Project claim that America was founded by racists, and that the oppression of blacks was the central characteristic of the American experience is simply not true. The majority of white Americans in 1860 did not own slaves, benefit from them, or even supported that “peculiar institution.” More relevant: for the past two centuries, well over one thousand persons daily of multiple racial orientations have migrated to America to improve the quality of their lives—lives enhanced by America’s embrace of the Enlightenment.
That brings us to today. What about present-day university scholarship—does it continue the spirit of Enlightenment thinking? For many current academics, fact-based evidence is irrelevant. One increasingly must adhere to prevailing ideological interpretations of rather far left progressives or be labeled racist. Appeal to evidence is unacceptable and career-endangering. For example, a Berkeley historian recently published his politically incorrect but factually accurate views on recent events anonymously to avoid ending his academic career. The spirited campus interchange of ideas based on interpretations of factual realities is in decline. We have a Cancel Culture where academics with significant scholarly accomplishments are prevented the opportunity to speak. An earlier version of this article was first published, then quickly retracted by a respected national media player, no doubt because it offended someone. Where is the First Amendment when we need it?
Within universities, resources and control have largely shifted away from scholars committed to Enlightenment principles of promoting truth, beauty, and virtue to apparatchiks with mediocre academic credentials and indifference for scholarly advances in knowledge. An increasing number are “diversity and inclusion” bureaucrats, unknown even a generation or two ago. Students are increasingly identified not by their field of scholarly interest, nor by their academic achievements, but rather by their race, gender, and even sexual orientation. Outside the STEM disciplines, academic performance related to factual knowledge is often downplayed in assessing factual competence, while non-merit-based, mostly biological or ideological factors, are prioritized. This is not Enlightenment thinking. I often hear, “We must hire a black person,” or “we cannot consider hiring white males.” Politically correct racism.
Until about 2010, there was rapid college enrollment growth as students usually successfully sought high paying jobs; college was the ticket to a comfortable, middle-class life. However, now too many college kids have marginal academic credentials, sometimes studying things like gender studies not much in demand outside the peculiar halls of the Ivory Tower. This set the stage for a market correction: enrollment decline since 2011.
Stealing from the Bible a bit, mass higher education cannot live by its own bread alone. It needs public support, which is waning because the people do not like what they see in the academy. COVID-19 merely greatly accelerated an already-beginning trend. Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” is finally coming to higher education—which I think is a good thing. Colleges are increasingly viewed as what economists call “negative externalities.” Perhaps, as Milton Friedman suggested to me shortly before his death, we should tax rather than subsidize universities—treat them like, say, bars or strip clubs. I don’t really want that to happen, but it could if colleges don’t rekindle their embodiment of Enlightenment ideas and ideals, ideas that enormously extended the quantity and quality of human lives.
Richard Vedder teaches at Ohio University and is on the board of the National Association of Scholars. His latest book is Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America.
Image: Public Domain