Higher Education Needs to Share the Blame for National Disunity

Editor’s Note: National Association of Scholars Board Member Richard Vedder originally published this piece with Forbes on January 7, 2021. It has been removed from the Forbes website. Minding the Campus proudly republishes Professor Vedder’s article, slightly reformatted for the length preferences of our site.

The National Association of Scholars, the publisher of Minding the Campus, fears that increasing numbers of articles by scholarly public intellectuals will be censored or withdrawn from publication by journals in the future. We extend an immediate and open invitation to all scholarly public intellectuals to republish censored or withdrawn works with us. We have our own editorial standards of course—we will not publish something that does not meet our standards. But our standards are those of a publisher that seeks to keep alive the spread of opinion worthy of a tolerant liberal democracy. Far too many publications have abandoned that standard; we do not. To submit a canceled piece, please send it as a Microsoft Word document to contact@nas.org.

The horrible assault on the U.S. Capitol culminated a couple of years of nasty acts of rioting and destruction fraying the fabric of the American Republic; previously, it was the senseless rioting, looting of businesses, and even the murder of individuals by police that shocked America. Where is E Pluribus Unum — Out of many, one? Why cannot Americans of different viewpoints, ethnic heritages, and the like get along with one another in a civil way?

How did it all come about? I believe that the universities are complicit, along with a broken system of “lower education,” in allowing this to happen. Universities have been sometimes enthusiastic accomplices in bringing about the fraying of the American fabric.

National unity comes from having a common identity, and that identity was created out of our past. American exceptionalism is real. The story of how of a small number of migrants from Europe and Africa came to America in the 17th century and became the most affluent and powerful nation in the world is indeed one about which Americans should be proud. We should spend a lot of time teaching our youth about it (I am in my 55thyear of teaching about the economic history of the United States). At the university level, that means requiring students to have some intimate familiarity with their past, typically by required courses in U.S. history, but also through courses in related subjects: learning about the nature of our government and its European origins, especially those leading to the values of the Enlightenment becoming inculcated into founders like Thomas Jefferson, etc.

As the National Association of Scholars (on whose board I serve), the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and other groups remind us, required college courses enhancing our understanding of our evolution as a great nation have largely disappeared. We increasingly show a disdain for the past. We implicitly assume that the current generation is the fount of most wisdom, and that our Founders were a bunch of slave-owning (and therefore morally suspect) plutocrats out to maintain and enhance their own standing rather than promote the ideals contained in such foundational documents as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and others.

Much recent anger culminating in the awful behavior exhibited at the U.S. Capitol arises from a feeling by many mostly modestly educated Americans that they are being looked down upon by college-educated cultural elites. While the outward face on the current dominant zeitgeist are personalities in the media, politics, and popular entertainment, they are aided and abetted by universities that arrogantly believe they are the fount of all that is wise and good—and demand high remuneration for their academic toils.

Originally, colleges were to teach virtue, including supporting religious truths found in the Ten Commandments and other religious foundational documents like the Christian Bible. Stealing, murdering, cheating on your spouse — these things were morally reprehensible, and in my youth many students attended “Chapel” at least once a week. At the time of the American Revolution, one-fourth of American college students were studying for the ministry.

Now universities celebrate hedonism, winking at rampant student sex, drug, and alcohol use.  Implicitly, they tell their students “Pay our very high fees, and we will give you a piece of paper likely to land you a decent job.” The message is indeed somewhat more elaborate: for example, “additionally, we will let you drink, have sex, and give you collegiate ball-throwing contests maintaining your school spirit so you will contribute financially to us after you graduate.” The falsity of this, the sleaziness of it, contributes to the revolts of those on the “outs,” manifested in ANTIFA, Black Lives Matter, the Proud Boys, and the rise of Donald Trump. The decline in the quality of higher education as it has become an affluent ward of the state has sadly contributed to tattering the American ideal. The fact that surveys of college students show that large portions do not even know such foundational facts about the American experience as which half-century the Civil War occurred shows that the very glue is dissolving that bounds us together as Americans more than as Caucasians, Blacks, Presbyterians, Jews, Muslims, Gays, Democrats, Republicans, Men, or Women.

What to do? I will leave to others to propose short-run solutions in the body politic. But what should universities do now? I do think they need to return to the basics — partly by shedding many nonessential activities which absorb too much of their time, budgets, and attention, such as hiring umpteen racial bean counters (“diversity coordinators”) and expending vast amounts on ball-throwing contests. (Ironically, COVID-19 might help here, as university budgets are under attack). But the bigger problem regards instruction. Sure, we need to have students that are mathematically and scientifically literate, and it would be nice too if they learned about other cultures and languages. But they need, beginning in elementary school but reaching an apogee in college, a knowledge and appreciation of our American past and its European origins arising out of the Enlightenment, of what makes our nation special and a force for global good. They need to know, for example, why the Gettysburg Address was written and its majesty, why competitive markets and democratic processes based on the rule of law generally allocate resources and serve human welfare better than collectivist solutions, why the Ten Commandments are relevant and virtuous, and so forth.

Colleges today are failing in this task. The public is beginning to sense the vapidity of much of the collegiate experience. Enrollments are down nine consecutive years. Now is the time for an academic Renaissance. Will the leaders of our colleges continue to be beguiled and seduced by the Political Money Changers in the Temple called Washington? Or, will they return to teaching and promoting wisdom and beauty that arose over the centuries that led to the greatest nation ever created on the planet Earth?

Image: Tyler Merbler, Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, cropped.


  • Richard Vedder

    Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University, a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, and a board member of the National Association of Scholars.

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5 thoughts on “Higher Education Needs to Share the Blame for National Disunity

  1. As one who survived the purgatorial cesspool of UMass Amherst, my take on all of this is very different.

    A quarter century ago, after a week-long “takeover” of an administration building, Boston Globe Columnist Jeff Jacoby stated that “[i]t is hard to know which is worse: the fact that UMass administrators routinely give in to the campus militants, or that they do it with such obsequiousness. Year after year, takeover after takeover, UMass-Amherst bends over backward to appease the demonstrators.”

    A few “takeovers” before that, I was called a lot of things, none pleasant, for publicly predicting the rise of a group like the Proud Boys if the cycle of appeasement without consequences continued. I’m only surprised that it took so long…

    For all of my adult life, the radical left has been pretty much free to do whatever it damn well pleased with virtual impunity. This started at places like UMass (a.k.a. “Wiemar in Amherst”) and as the cesspool overflowed, this thuggery has leached out into the larger society. All last summer, our cities were literally burned with impunity. Our highways have been blocked and our citizens terrorized, likewise with impunity.

    And before this was Ferguson, and Baltimore with “giv[ing] those who wish to destroy space to do that”, and conservative events elsewhere being violently disrupted. Again, with near total impunity…

    What young people have learned is that no one will listen to them unless they do something violent, at which point they will be given whatever they demand. Should we really be surprised that they adopt the tactics that they have seen work so well for the radical left?

    And as to Donald Trump, it isn’t exactly like the other side was particularly polite to him. To paraphrase the late Justice Scalia, we can’t ask one side of a debate to follow Marquis of Queensberry rules, while the other is licensed to fight free form.

    What happened last Wednesday in DC was nothing but the fruition of things which academia has implicitly (sometimes explicitly) supported for decades. And we need to give a clear “no mas” message to all sides, including the radical academic left.

  2. I found a couple of Vedder’s statements to be cringe-worthy, but on the whole, I think this is a good piece. I’m glad to see it published. I wish he had come out for the separation of school and state. The point is that we should not try to impose anyone’s orthodoxy, yours mine or Vedder’s. I’m confident that in a free society the great truths will be rediscovered.

    1. I think you misunderstand the role of ministers in early New England (and likely elsewhere).

      There was a fundamental theological belief that everyone had to be able to read the Bible for himself or herself, that salvation depended upon the individual’s ability to read the text as opposed to listening to others read it. Hence you had to teach everyone, including girls, how to read. It’s why New England had such a high literacy rate.

      Initially, this was one of the duties of the town’s minister. As communities grew, larger ones would hire recent college graduates to “teach school” in a more formal setting — after graduating from Harvard, a young John Adams “taught school” in Worcester (MA).

      As an aside, to become a “town” in Massachusetts, you had to convince the General Court (legislature) that you (a) had the tax base to support a minister and his wife, and (b) a minister was willing to move to your community. The Puritan Church, which became the Congregational Church, was supported by taxpayer funds as late as 1855.

      So if you include teachers and municipal bureaucrats, that likely is about 1/4 of the student population today…

  3. What a wretched piece. No wonder it got dropped by Forbes, presumably after they read it. If this is the quality of leadership of the National Association of Scholars, heaven help them.

    Consider: “The story of how of a small number of migrants from Europe and Africa came to America in the 17th century and became the most affluent and powerful nation in the world is indeed one about which Americans should be proud.”

    It is astonishing to refer to the Afro-Americans as “migrants” and the story of their time here as something of which Americans should be proud. Especially in an article espousing study of the American nation! In case Professor Vedder is unaware, the Africans were sold into slavery (by other Africans), transported in horrid slave ships, and cruelly enslaved. After they were freed, they were treated scandalously for another century. This sordid story is not something of which to be proud. (The Afro-Americans did do things, in spite of it all, in which to take pride. And of course there were honorable people and episodes in this story, e.g. Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, the civil rights pioneers of the twentieth century. But this is not the story of the African “migration.”)

    Professor Vedder is tone deaf beyond comprehension. Please, be quiet! You single-handedly discredit yourself. And the cause of conservative reform of higher education. Any hope will be obliterated by stuff like this. How did it get published here?

    1. Slavery existed all throughout the world until about 1860., that history is not unique in America’s regard. Abraham Lincoln wanted to send them back but they refused.

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