James Piereson, who directed the (now closed) conservative John M. Olin Foundation for many years, writes a very erudite (rather lengthy) article that explores the political and social dimensions of the left’s dominion of American higher education.
Piereson lays the groundwork for his conclusions by examining the history of the American university beginning with early parochial academies that based learning in ancient knowledge and truths. He describes how the university model went through a major change in the four decades following the Civil War to become what he terms “the liberal university,” which “was based on reason, science, free inquiry, and the pursuit of new knowledge.”
Piereson explains how the liberal university ended up somewhat at odds with traditional American thought. “The American Revolution and Constitution were grounded in the writings of Scottish and English thinkers of the 18th century, but the modern university was shaped more by continental ideas arising out of Germany and France.” Many academics “were sharp critics of the Scottish Enlightenment and the tradition of British empiricism.” They promoted a continual search for truth in all areas, including law, stating that the Constitution was not the ultimate voice in that arena.
The liberal university was originally nonpartisan, since no party espoused its ideals until the Democrats adopted them in the 30s and 40s. Being research based, universities began offering services to governments to allow more informed decision making. However, the anti-capitalist and anti-business intent of the universities soon became clear in the policies they espoused.
Liberal universities were very effective in establishing barriers to external private and public influence over their curricula. Following WWII record numbers enrolled and it eventually became clear that a university education was the ticket to a better lifestyle.
What the liberal university did not protect against was an attack from within. Academia had been comprehensively critical of capitalism, but had basically failed to effect any real change. This left them weak and prone to “revolt from within their own family.” That is what happened in the decade starting with the mid-60s when the left “generally used the tactics of street politics to take over the university.”
For more than a generation we have had what Piereson refers to as the “left university.” Academia has become an ideology closed to liberal thought outside of the left’s proscribed parameters. There has been a strong move away from hard-core studies to soft ones (i.e. multiculturalism) meant to promote leftist ideals. Piereson makes the case that the left university’s myopia has left it open to yet another revolt – this time a conservative one.
Piereson cites a long list of “important developments of the past generation that academics in thrall to left-wing doctrines did not foresee and do not understand.” He includes the fall of the cherished system of communism, the thorough discrediting of socialist programs, the emergence of the U.S. as the sole superpower, the global interest in expanding liberty, and the increasing takeover of meaningful research by private foundations. He says his list “is just the beginning of an extended catalog of errors, illusions, and misconceptions.”
Piereson cites “developments represent[ing] just the leading edge of a growing movement to challenge the practices of the left university.” The public wants an accounting. Businesses want graduates that are actually useful. In contemplating the change underway, Piereson’s conclusion is most insightful. “The left university should not be replaced by the right university. It should be replaced by the real university, dedicated to liberal education and higher learning.”