Fredrik deBoer, the self-described academic and sharp critic of some excesses of progressive ideology, is fed up with what he calls “University, Inc.” In The New York Times Magazine, deBoer rails against “the creeping corporatism of the American university.” According to deBoer, the eroding “free expression of ideas” on U.S. college campuses is not attributable to campus leftism and political correctness gone wild; rather, the problem can be laid at the feet of “the corporatism that has come to infect the soul of the American university.”
As deBoer puts it:
If students have adopted a litigious approach to regulating campus life, they are only working within the culture that colleges have built for them. When your environment so deeply resembles a Fortune 500 company, it makes sense to take every complaint straight to H.R. I don’t excuse students who so zealously pursue their vision of campus life that they file Title IX complaints against people whose opinions they don’t like. But I recognize their behavior as a rational response within a bureaucracy. It’s hard to blame people within a system — particularly people so young — who take advantage of structures they’ve been told exist to help them. The problem is that these structures exist for the institutions themselves, and thus the erosion of political freedom is ultimately a consequence of the institutions. When we identify students as the real threat to intellectual freedom on campus, we’re almost always looking in the wrong place.
I have a fair amount of respect for deBoer, who is very much a liberal but is nonetheless given to criticizing today’s liberalism. In this latest essay, however, he has disappointingly misdiagnosed the source of the problem. “System,” “structure,” “institution”: these are all liberal buzzwords, used most frequently as deBoer uses them here, to obfuscate, inhibit, and distract. Most importantly, liberals use these words to deny individual agency in favor of mythical power systems that somehow force people to do terrible things.
The truth is this. Most of the awful actings-out of Progressive vanity on college campuses are attributable not to the “corporatism” of college life but to the professors and students. The growth of campus bureaucracy is bad indeed, carrying its own significant set of problems, but the causes of the current insane, ultra-sensitive leftist milieu that defines most colleges can be traced most directly to the classroom and those who occupy it.
Professors and Students Are Paranoid
Anyone who has done undergrad at an American university in the last decade will know this. I studied English at Virginia Commonwealth University, a fine example of an average American public university. I had a number of excellent teachers in a number of terrific subjects, but I had more than enough professors who actively contributed to a hostile, toxic educational environment.
These included the professor who accused a student of disliking a book because the principal character was a woman, the one who claimed that I thought my opinions carried weight because I am a white male, the one who implied that the medical industry’s failure to produce a male birth-control pill was due to an anti-woman agenda.
By no means did I get the worst of it. It was still possible to find teachers who enjoyed teaching more than proselytizing, but a significant amount of the campus’s intolerant atmosphere was clearly flowing from the front of the classroom.
It should be unsurprising, then, that the students who are educated in such an environment are given to the same kind of paranoia. One gal stomped out of the classroom after a few of us challenged her claim that all male teachers are worthless. One of my classmates, a young black woman, announced that, when it came to modern racial dichotomies in the United States, blacks were still effectively slaves and whites were still effectively slave owners. Another fellow student declared angrily that white people had “stolen” rock and roll music from blacks (this was in an upper-level Italian class, so it was kind of amusing to hear it rendered in la lingua).
Corporations Create Value
Four years as an undergrad exposed one to a lot of this drivel. While VCU—a commuter school with a significant amount of older and returning students—is not given to the level of tin pot radicalism one is likely to find at Oberlin or Amherst colleges, there was still plenty of it to go around. I would imagine it has only multiplied since I graduated nearly four years ago, since campus intolerance has grown at a startling rate.
This is the state in which much, if not most, of modern academia finds itself: staffed increasingly by aggressively left-wing professors and instructors, attended by angry, confused, wildly egocentric dopes who have been taught to be afraid of diverse thought and hostile to anything and anybody not sufficiently steeped in progressive orthodoxy.
It has nothing to do with corporatism. Corporate culture might be soulless and heartless, but it generally does not function as a merciless, grinding mechanism of hair-trigger hypersensitivity. Besides, corporations generally produce things of value. College culture is generally a toxic feedback loop between liberal authority and liberal students, each reinforcing the other’s nasty little belief systems. The administrative wing doesn’t even have to lift a finger.
DeBoer, in other words, is trying to avoid taking responsibility for what is essentially the chronic shortcomings of academic progressive ideology itself. Modern liberalism gave us this violently delicate and anti-tolerant educational culture. Modern progressives are both the cause of this culture and, as we see in the growing parochialism of college students themselves, its eventual effect. DeBoer is uncomfortable with this reality.
Doubtless, progressives generally feel the same way when looking upon what progressivism has sowed and must now reap. Blaming it on “corporatism” is a useful distraction, but ultimately a transparent one. The problems with the modern university are much more fundamental than this, and much more poisonous.