Tag Archives: anti-western culture

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

How Diversity Came to Mean ‘Downgrade the West’

There was a time, within living memory, when the term multiculturalism was hardly known.  More than twenty years ago, Peter Thiel, cofounder of PayPal and in late July speaker at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, wrote a book with fellow Stanford alum David Sacks called The Diversity Myth: ‘Multiculturalism’ and the Politics of Intolerance at Stanford (1995).

The book’s title refers to the pretense that embracing “diversity” actually promotes diversity of all types, a claim commonly heard to this day.  Thiel had been a student at Stanford when, in January 1987, demonstrators defending “the Rainbow Agenda” chanted “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go!”  This protest led to the infamous “revision” (i.e., suppression) of the Western Culture requirement at Stanford, replaced with a freshman sequence called Cultures, Ideas, and Values, mandating an emphasis on race, gender, and class.

In her foreword to Sacks and Thiel’s book, the well-known American historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese referred to Stanford as “a surreal world of social engineering and institutional arrogance” and highlighted the school’s efforts to wage a “campaign to reshape thought and behavior.”  She noted that while the term “affirmative action” had been replaced by “diversity,” the latter term, far from actually promoting intellectual diversity, rested on “a series of interlocking attitudes and practices.”

Furthermore, “multiculturalism” did not involve greater emphasis on mastering foreign languages or carefully studying cultures other than those of the English-speaking world.  Instead, work in literature and culture programs was (and still is) done increasingly in English and focused on contemporary writers.  Nor did multiculturalism, any more than the word diversity, mean familiarizing students with a diversity of views. Rather, as Fox-Genovese summarized it, it meant requiring students “to agree with or even applaud views and values that mock the values with which they have been reared.”  And all this, she observed, was being accompanied by rampant grade inflation.

Related: Hey, Stanford: Western Civ Has Gotta Grow

On the very first page of their book, Sacks and Thiel commented on the double entendre implicit in the Stanford protesters’ chant of “Western Culture’s got to go.”  It was not just the required Western Culture course that was being denounced, ostensibly because most of the books studied had been written by “dead white males,” a group that was by definition considered illegitimate. Rather, it was the Western tradition as a whole.

Such a move was both novel and extraordinary, Sacks and Thiel wrote, for it “attacked not the quality or historical significance of the great books, but rather the authors themselves – for being of the wrong race, gender, or class.”

The Diversity Myth noted the chilling potential consequences of such attacks, which are now entirely routine, hardly worth commenting on. “Whereas the Western Culture canon had been based upon a belief in universalism—the belief that the insights contained within the West’s great works were potentially available to everybody—the new curriculum embraced particularism: What one may know is determined by the circumstances of one’s birth.”

The assault wasn’t merely on the idea of universalism, which assumed that, as Sidney Hook explained in a 1989 essay that Sacks and Thiel summarize: “There exist truths that transcend the accidents of one’s birth, and these objective truths are in principle available to everyone—whether young or old, rich or poor, male or female, white or black.”  A distinct view of human nature was being proposed instead, one that rejected the belief that individuals, and indeed humanity as a whole, “are not trapped within a closed cultural space that predetermines what they may know.”  Sacks and Thiel warned that by this rejection, the Stanford protestors of 1987 “would pave the way for a very different kind of academy.”

Fast forward 20-some years and the “different kind of academy” is everywhere around us, proudly kowtowing to the demands of (certain) identity groups and wearing its heart on its sleeve about its profound commitment to, as the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Amherst constantly reiterates, “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”  The pressures have intensified and grown more and more unabashedly political, as evidenced in UMass’s recently revised “cultural diversity” courses, which go well beyond the standard inclusion of particular identity groups.

Whereas in the past the university had concentrated on prohibiting offensive speech, via the sorts of “harassment” policies that exist to chill speech in virtually all universities today, UMass now also compels certain types of speech and attitudes.  The new version of  “cultural diversity” courses, of which all students are required to take two, must now explicitly critique inequalities and injustices, oppression and hegemony, in order to lead students to pursue change on behalf of “social justice,” yet another overused and vague term (see Patai and Silverglate).

Related: Race-baiting in the Name of Justice

At Yale University, to take another recent example, in 2016, in the context of the numerous protests across the nation that campuses were not addressing “systemic racism,” undergraduates in the English Department crafted a petition to “decolonize” (not just diversify) the department’s two-semester famed basic course sequence, Major English Poets, pre-1800/1900, which focused primarily on eight great poets.  In the petition, the students claimed that the absence of women, people of color, and queer folk from these two courses “actively harms all students, regardless of their identity” by creating “a culture that is especially hostile to students of color.”

The existence of many courses in the department (and out of it) related to race, gender, ethnicity and sexuality was deemed insufficient, since these were mainly upper-level courses. The demand shows that the students’ motivation is not to make available to them courses including or devoted entirely to non-white-males (since such courses already exist), but rather to force other students to study what these student activists believe they should study.

The Yale Daily News account of this episode is followed by 20 comments critical, often scathingly so, of the petition. One of these quotes at length from W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk:

I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of [the] stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?

It is likely that most student protesters today are ignorant of this passage (and of so much else), or, if they knew of it, would merely sneer at its universalist underpinnings, or dismiss it as nothing but a “reinscribing” of dominant views.

As Sacks and Thiel foresaw in their book, the diversity myth has devolved into a host of additional myths rooted in identity politics and ideological policing, while the reality of a debased education, deliberately made subservient to present political passions, goes unaddressed. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, however, was still optimistic at the time she wrote her foreword to Sacks and Thiel’s book.

Stressing the alarming core argument of The Diversity Myth, she nonetheless believed that the book was “appearing at a moment of mounting public consciousness of the ways in which our educational system is failing our young people. We all know that we are doing something wrong.”

Related: A College Guide to Viewpoint Diversity

Such warnings, along with numerous similar ones, as it turned out, went unheeded, as the ever more extreme episodes of politically correct demands on college campuses over the past two decades indicate.  An ironic detail confirms this reality:  Just before their book was released, Sacks and Thiel published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (October 9, 1995) ridiculing the new curriculum as “mindless.”

This in turn inspired Stanford’s president to write in protest, labeling their op-ed “demagoguery” and accusing them of concocting a “cartoon” image of the new curriculum.  By now, sadly, it is hardly possible to satirize American universities, since even not-yet-dead white administrators rush to embrace perspectives that used to be held mostly by angry students.

Increasingly, students these days present their grievances as non-negotiable demands. In addition to the ever-expanding identity categories, in recent years we have seen both administrators and faculty members forced to resign for holding the “wrong” opinions or not capitulating rapidly enough to the demands of student protesters. In other words, what Sacks and Thiel argued very clearly more than two decades ago was on the mark. They saw that the real issues roiling universities had to do not with education or intellectual diversity or even equal opportunity (long since replaced by the demand for equal outcomes, “safe spaces,” and “comfort”), but rather with promoting particular aggrieved identity groups and their political views, in the classroom and out.

Stanford’s story doesn’t end with the curriculum revision thirty years ago, however.  As it happens, in 1987 Peter Thiel was a co-founder of the Stanford Review, created to promote campus debate beyond the perspectives that were rapidly acquiring the status of a new orthodoxy.  In the spring of 2016, the Stanford Review, still pursuing its contrarian mission, sponsored a ballot initiative to restore, as a requirement, a two-part freshmen course on the Western world.  The result – which ought to shock everyone but in fact surprised few people in the academic world – was that the initiative was roundly rejected, garnering less than 15% support from the student body.

The strict limitations, both political and cultural, that define multiculturalism and diversity are also displayed in the spate of disinvitations in recent years of Commencement speakers, lecturers, and other guests whose political views do not suit the petty tyrants on college campuses (see FIRE’s “Disinvitation Report 2014: A Disturbing 15-Year Trend”).

To take just one example, which also demonstrates that to campus ideologues, having the correct politics trumps even race and gender, consider the case of Somalian-born writer and human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  In 2014, Brandeis University rescinded an invitation to Hirsi Ali, who was to receive an honorary degree at Commencement. A campus petition objecting to the award, on the grounds of her impassioned criticisms of Islam, was signed by nearly 25% of Brandeis’s faculty and 6,000 others inside and outside Brandeis.

FIRE’s Disinvitation Report noted that the trend was growing, and that severely restrictive speech codes were typically found at those schools with the highest numbers of incidents of disinvitation. There is a sublime irony in the spectacle of self-righteous individuals at an elite university using the liberal values of free speech and open debate to denounce a fearless critic of female genital mutilation and other practices of violence that she experienced as part of the Islamic culture in which she grew up. This intolerance of “diverse” points of view is particularly telling at the present time, when Islamist terrorism is on the rise worldwide but, mysteriously, is seldom addressed on college campuses.

For her outspoken positions, Hirsi Ali is accused of “hate speech” and “Islamophobia” – even as equally adamant critics of, say, the U.S. or Israel are welcomed as speakers and faculty members, and universities and professional academic associations seek to enforce the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.  In fact, as Andrew Anthony wrote in The Guardian (April 27, 2015), Hirsi Ali “is loathed not just by Islamic fundamentalists but by many western liberals, who find her rejection of Islam almost as objectionable as her embrace of western liberalism.”

Perhaps the students at these prestigious universities need to read the work of historian Niall Ferguson, who moved to Stanford’s Hoover Institution in 2016, after 12 years at Harvard.  Ferguson’s book Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011) presents a thorough account of 500 years of Western civilization’s contributions to the world, in terms of such basic measures of well-being as health, economic prosperity, and civil and political rights.

No doubt all this counts for nothing among today’s student protesters, who are incapable of spotting anything other than racism, sexism, and imperialism in the West. Although these university students are among the very people who benefit the most from all that Western culture has achieved, they evidently lack the imagination to grasp what it would mean to actually live in a society that controls their speech and movements, deprives them of the right to be heard, and imposes a rigid political ideology (not the one they happen to support) on their education.  But to truly understand the values they so blithely reject, they’d probably need a course in Western culture.