The American University and the End of the Enlightenment

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

Richard Vedder

Richard Vedder

Richard Vedder teaches at Ohio University and is the author of "Restoring the Promise: American Higher Education Today."

6 thoughts on “The American University and the End of the Enlightenment

  1. The obvious comment is that liberal arts programs, their protestations to the contrary, have always been swayed by the outside society. Historians, for example, exalted the American experience, then around the turn of the century saw it as crude economic exploitation (Charles Beard), then after World War Two Americanism was triumphant, then came Vietnam and racial issues leading to such things as the 1619 project. What I think this means is that the feudal structure of the university really doesn’t lend itself well to the advancement of knowledge, due to the inability to challenge whatever the underlying belief system is. STEM works because there is empirical reality–if a bridge falls down, it falls down. A society, on the other hand, can exists with very sub-optimal outcomes for a long time, such as with slavery and Jim Crow (read DeToqueville on the economic disparities between free Ohio and slave Kentucky).

    Colleges are also different from the quest for knowledge because they provide two different and sometimes contradictory purposes. They are suppose to provide knowledge and how to analyze competing theories but they also form the selection process for elites in our society. This is why I support affirmative action for the top forty elite schools are so–their selection function far outweighs their purpose as a dispensation of knowledge. A society needs to be run be elites that are similar to the population–a large part of Trump’s appeal is that elites do not reflect this (which is why a geographical diversity criteria, such as used by Princeton, was not in itself a bad thing). So obviously racial minorities need to be represented by elite schools and they have attempted to do this.

    1. Marc Domash says ” A society needs to be run by elites that are similar to the population…. So obviously racial minorities need to be represented by elite schools….”

      This is the increasingly popular view that census categories, rather than individuals, have political and moral status. Giving priority to census categories means that collective justice replaces individual justice, and individual equality before the law disappears and is replaced by racist and sexist social engineering, which is what we have now.

      This is not only unjust, it is unwise. Picking students, employees, officials, and leaders on the basis of sex, race, sexuality, disability, class, and other fashionable categories of “victims” guarantees mediocrity, which we already have too much of.

      1. In The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, Orwell makes the point that assimilative organizations, such as the Catholic Church, last for millennia, while racially/ethnically-based organizations typically fail much sooner than that and have constant conflict over the appearance of those in charge. I think the point is valid, but I’ll go further and say, in the tradition of “Everything but the Burden”, that all of these other “fashionable” categories have hitched themselves to the terrible oppression suffered by African-Americans. Solve that problem and the other problems will seem much less pressing.

    2. “This is why I support affirmative action for the top forty elite schools are so–their selection function far outweighs their purpose as a dispensation of knowledge.”

      That was the argument of WEB DuBois — to have a few Black elites and then to impose an end to racism and prejudice by governmental fiat. It’s heavily rooted in Marxist theory and DuBois did eventually renounce his US citizenship, becoming a citizen of Ghana.

      Booker T. Washington had a very different view: Washington believed in educating *all* the newly-freed slaves — not sending them to Harvard (DuBois’ alma mater) but providing them the sort of practical education that Morrill’s Land Grant Colleges were initially intended for. (He founded the Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University.)

      Rather than a direct challenge to Jim Crow, Washington’s approach was to build a strong Black middle class and to use education to make Blacks valued members of the community. To end racism not by governmental fiat but by individual self interest — when your crops are failing, your horse lame and your cow dry (not giving milk) and you are terrified that your wife is going to die in childbirth — and the Black man down the road (who went to college) can help you with all of these things, it’s not worth being a racist anymore…

      My grandfather told of a very popular Black dentist in late 19th Century Boston (which was segregated). He had learned to use ether when no one else did, and he was the most popular dentist in the city. Racism wasn’t worth it — they went to Roxbury to have him pull their teeth because he had anesthetic.

      Booker T. Washington died in 1915 while WEB DuBois lived until 1963, that (and academia’s pathological attraction to Marxism) is why DuBois’s approach is largely held in academia today. But a century ago, there were two distinctly different approaches intended toward the same end, and I believe that Washington was right. After all, the WASP Bostonians went to see the Black dentist because they considered him to be the best.

  2. “Until about 2010, there was rapid college enrollment growth…[and]…enrollment decline since 2011.

    There is also the issue of demographics — the Millennials have aged out of college and this is also part of the decline since 2011. It’s going to get a lot worse in 2016 when the children not born in 2008 won’t be turning 18 and hence not entering college.

    This is what no one is talking about — there simply aren’t enough bodies to fill all the seats in higher education. And this is above and beyond all the issues that Professor Vedder mentions.

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