Bernie Sanders has attracted an amazing following among Democratic youth. In Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Super Tuesday states, he’s grabbed the overwhelming majority of the 18 to 29 age group, and a solid majority of those aged 30 to 44.
Given that he’s capturing so much of the millennial vote, it bears asking how an old socialist is making his message new again, and appealing so strongly to America’s youth. The answer lies partly in higher education and what American young people are learning—and especially what they’re not.
In 2014 a group at Texas Tech University asked students on campus basic history questions, followed by questions about celebrities. In it, students struggle to answer simple questions such as “Who is the current vice president?” but easily produced answers about Snookie and Brad Pitt.
This video has been criticized and the producers accused of cherry-picking the most embarrassing moments. Nevertheless there is something disturbing about a college student who can’t instantly reply “the North” or “the Union” in response to a question asking who won the Civil War.
What’s more, other sources agree that recent college graduates are alarmingly ignorant about civics and U.S. history. In a survey done by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), 40 percent of recent grads were unaware that Congress has the right to declare war and 10 percent think Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court. This begs for a closer look at what U.S. colleges are teaching the millennial generation.
Progressives Take Down Core Classes
In most American universities, students are required to take some core classes. Traditionally, these were courses in U.S. and European history, literature, language, economics, and math. It was assumed that these were the necessary building blocks to create not just a sound intellect but also an informed citizen. However, progressives challenged and changed this way of thinking mid-way through the last century.
Academics in the 1960s identified what was perhaps a legitimate problem in university education. Too few courses discussed minorities, non-Western histories, or alternative analyses of our own history. But as often happens when progressives begin trying to right a perceived wrong, they went too far.
Rather than merely having these courses available as electives or requirements alongside the core requirements of U.S. and European history, such classes have now taken their place. In part this is because classes in Western Civilization are considered to be oppressive and patriarchal. So, while a few schools still require courses in Western heritage (like my alma mater Hillsdale College), most treat them as electives. In fact, only 18 percent of 1,100 universities ACTA surveyed required a foundational course in U.S. government or history.
The new status quo is that students must take a set number of courses in different subjects, but the selection of courses to fulfill those requirements is broad and uneven. Take for example, Ohio State University, which has the third-highest undergraduate enrollment in the country. Students in the College of Arts and Science must take one history course. Their choices range from foundational courses like “Western Civilization, 17th Century to the Present,” to courses like “The Sixties,” “Love in the Modern World,” “History of Medicine in Film,” or “Civil Rights and Black Power Movements.”
At the University of California Berkeley, students can take “US Social History from Civil War to Present” to fulfill their history requirement. This course looks at the experiences of “ordinary people” in order to explore the themes of the destruction of the middle class, the establishment of the welfare state, and “the reconstitution of gender norms and race relations.” The reading list is made up of five books, including “The Feminine Mystique.”
The Left Feels Free to Propagandize in the Classroom
Students are no longer required to learn straightforward histories about the facts of a given era, their causes and effects. These kinds of classes have been supplanted by ones that present a narrative that fits academia’s progressive social theories.
Focused and well-informed students can fight their way through the jungle of social justice courses and receive a foundational education. But students often opt for the flashier and more specific courses because they are exciting and often much less challenging. While a real history course might actually require a student to remember dates, names, and ideas, a class like “History of Modern Sexuality” (Ohio State) will instead require an essay regurgitating the critical theory analysis that the professor has provided.
It isn’t just the course’s subject matter that’s the problem. It’s the absolute intolerance for dissent against academic dogma. Witness a student at UC-Santa Barbara who recently wrote an op-ed about the political indoctrination occurring in the department of women’s studies. He took a class in which gender as a social construct and male privilege were taken as fact. Disagreement was not allowed nor were any alternative points of view discussed. One fellow student reacted to his article on Facebook by saying she wanted to “stab” him.
In short, students are learning how to interpret the world through a political lens. They aren’t learning actual history from which they can draw their own conclusions and interpret the present.
How can we possibly hope younger generations will be able to manage the country if they don’t know where it’s been? They may know something about 1960s social movements, but in what context? How will they understand the civil rights era if they don’t even know anything about the war that began the long road to equal rights for blacks in America?
Don’t Know Much about History
Last month, students at the University of Texas at Austin spray-painted #BlackLivesMatter on a memorial to men and women of the Confederacy. They also spray-painted the marble pedestal on which stands a statue of Robert E. Lee. Do they have any idea that Lee freed all of his slaves in 1862, in the middle of the Civil War?
Nor do these young people know much about the socialist political ideology that they are supporting. They’ve never learned about the dangers of authoritarian rule, the Cold War, or the horrors of communism. They walk around wearing Che Guevara t-shirts saying they’re warriors for social justice, completely oblivious to the real history of Guevara’s involvement in Cuba with Fidel Castro.
As Peggy Noonan recently pointed out, today’s youth aren’t old enough to remember socialism for themselves, unlike older generations who are less enthused about Sanders. Instead they’re learning about it through the filter of progressive academia. Sanders is essentially feeding back to them exactly what they learned in college: the evils of American capitalism, social injustice, Keynesian economics, and all the rest. So naturally they find him and his talk of radical change appealing.
College students in any era are already primed to join a revolution. They are discovering the world of ideas, and want to make an imprint on it all. But students today are even more involved. Freshmen entering college in 2015 are more likely to participate in student protests than they have been since 1967. Sixty percent of them said there’s a “very good chance” they’ll vote during their time at college, a 10 percent jump since last year. These students will learn all about Marxism and inequality, but little about history.
All the while, their professors will be encouraging them to burn it all down. As they put their vote firmly behind Bernie Sanders, they just might.
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