How U.S. Universities Became Institutions That Close American Minds

How U.S. Universities Became Institutions That Close American Minds

Over time, progressive teachers have created acolytes who see themselves not as critical thinkers, but as crusaders for a leftist agenda.
Abraham Miller
By

The assault on free speech has become so commonplace in U.S. universities that CNN’s Fareed Zakaria felt compelled to speak openly about the obvious: conservatives have been shut out of the marketplace of ideas on American campuses. Of course, it is not just conservative speakers that are shut down on many campuses; it is also conservative ideas in the classroom, or any ideas with which the Left disagrees.

Decades ago, Alan Bloom fired the first salvo in the cultural wars in the “Closing of the American Mind,” a work that sought to highlight the deteriorating state of higher education. Bloom’s attack was directed at the erosion of the canon of Western Civilization and its replacement with a cultural relativism that substituted ideology for critical thinking.

Yet as time went, on it was not just the integrity of the curriculum that came under assault. The very idea of critical thinking came under fire.

Real Critical Thinking Has Disappeared

Real critical thinking has been transformed from a dispassionate engagement with ideas into a rabid dissection of American values. As a faculty member, I found there came a time when new courses could not be approved unless they contained a “critical-thinking” component. This component had nothing to do with a traditional conception of critical thinking; it had everything to do with tearing apart traditional American values and culture.

At least since the end of World War II, there has been a fundamental belief among many faculty in the social sciences and liberal arts that the college experience should make students more sensitive to socio-political problems and promote the solutions endorsed by leftist academics who perceived themselves as holding the answers to complex social issues. The problem with such engagement is that it crosses the line from teaching students how to think to telling them what to think.

In 1957, Philip Jacob published, “Changing Values in College,” a study showing that four years’ exposure to liberal values at most colleges made absolutely no difference in the way students viewed the world. They entered college as devotees of the values into which they were socialized, and they left the same way. Despite the best efforts of leftist faculty to take it upon themselves to uproot years of parental and institutional socialization, their captive audience remained unconvinced.

Students went to college to acquire better career opportunities and blend into society, not to become advocates for liberalizing society in the terms their professors found appropriate.

For many faculty members, Jacob’s work became a clarion call to work harder to bring about social and cultural change.

Leftists Use Their Classrooms For Indoctrination

Some of the attempts to change student values were as seen in the social foundations movement in colleges of education, where professors espoused primary values as interpreted by leftist policies and sprinkled with welfare-state economics.

Of course, the imperative to change values was not just practiced in colleges of education. It was possible to go through a basic economics course without hearing that free-market economics might be a solution to rather than a cause of societal problems. A course in 20th century American history would typically contain up to a half-dozen supplemental readings on the New Deal specifically and the Roosevelt administration generally, not one of them critical.

It was not surprising to see practitioners of the social foundations movement in the twilight of their careers feted on the academic circuit advocating for oppression and identity studies with almost the same vigor—attenuated by age of course—as they did for changing values. Their mission to re-educate students as good leftists had only become stronger over the years.

Over time, they had created acolytes who defined their roles not as critical thinkers or dispassionate teachers but as advocates for instruction defined by racism, sexism, and homophobia. As part of the indoctrination process for social change, such courses were imposed as distribution requirements because without coercion it is doubtful if any but a group of true believers would enroll in them.

Where Progressives Have Led The American Student

But practitioners of virtue and moral certainty never have enough time or opportunity to disseminate their propaganda. Those who sought to convince the progeny of the racist, sexist, and homophobic society of the evil of their prior political and cultural socialization—not to mention their white privilege—seized upon the residence halls to further indoctrinate students.

This lead to compulsory sensitivity sessions that would have made the creators of the Soviet-style workmen’s circles jump with joy. Instead of being made to confess one’s mechanistic thinking, as was necessary in the workmen’s circle, it now became necessary to confess one’s white privilege or other aspects of oppressive and privileged behavior.

Outside the regular university a shadow university was created under the supervision of the office for residence life to fulfill the need to convince a captive audience of tuition-exploited students of the necessity for their reeducation as good leftist activists.

Obviously, much of this resulted in mere “confirmation bias,” telling the indoctrinators what they wanted to hear. But in every group, there are those who went to join a cause, expatiate themselves of some guilt, belong to something larger than themselves, feel that they have achieved some purity of belief and rage against the “sinners.”

So, it is not surprising that the slippery slope that began decades ago with changing values in the name of leftist social change ended up creating a bunch of uneducated thugs that believe some moral high ground is achieved by shouting down serious conservative intellectuals like Charles Murray and Heather McDonald, whose works they have not read, and whose quantitative examples they could not remotely begin to comprehend.

What Bloom saw as the closing of the American mind with the elimination of the great works of Western Civilization has become the silencing of different opinions. Of course, it is easier to shout down or disinvite speakers than to read their works and debate their ideas in the free market place of ideas. It is easier to shout obscenities at a speaker and feel virtuous in the process than to do something fewer and fewer college students are equipped to do, read a demanding piece of scholarship and critically engage its ideas.

Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati, and a distinguished fellow with the news and public policy group Haym Salomon Center. Follow him @salomoncenter.

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