America’s higher education system is sick, and that sickness is spreading. Political rancor, cultural divisiveness, even violence shadow daily life, as civil unrest has turned to rioting across the country that has now even touched our Capitol. Depression and suicide amongst our young have increased, and it’s the ideologically driven curricula and repressive “cancel culture” most universities disseminate that are the source of this despair.
Critics have been sounding the alarm for decades, yet nothing has changed. Conservatives, especially, have been prolific in their laments. From William F. Buckley’s “God and Man at Yale” to Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” to Alan Charles Kors’s essay “On the Sadness of Higher Education,” for more than a century there have been biting diagnoses accompanied by merely tinkering around the edges.
We’ve established institutes, endowed chairs, and expanded student groups committed to the American experiment, yet we haven’t gotten to the root of the problem. We’ve witnessed important initiatives, but nothing substantive has changed. Instead, our higher education system has dug its heels in deeper, continuing to scorn the achievements, wisdom, and above all the freedoms of speech, thought, and conscience that are the bedrock of our civilization.
Unfortunately, society has followed suit. Today, nihilism and government coercion increasingly infect everything from the entire entertainment industry to corporate boardrooms. As liberal commentator Andrew Sullivan recently described, “We all live on campus now.”
This is where the ideology taught in our universities — according to which there is no truth, but only power — inevitably leads. Indeed, the Pew Research Center recently found that nearly 40 percent of American adults “think colleges and universities are having a negative impact” on the country, a 12-point increase just since 2012.
The good news is that there are increasing indications young people are waking up and seeking out dissident academics and alternative voices to guide them. The podcast revolution, for instance, has taken on an outsized role in contemporary culture.
The University of Toronto’s Dr. Jordan B. Peterson has become a guide for millions who seek meaning in truth amidst the chaos of our postmodern world. Yale University professor Dr. Laurie Santos of “The Happiness Lab” uses deep dives into behavioral research to encourage her millions of listeners to reconsider what makes life truly worthwhile. Joe Rogan of “The Joe Rogan Experience” facilitates unfettered conversations for vast audiences.
These individuals all offer something that has gone missing from our schools and in our culture. Yet they alone cannot replace what has been lost from our decaying colleges and universities.
Woefully, our institutions of higher education continue to get worse, not better, we must admit dire consequences if we fundamentally fail to change course. We must begin thinking more creatively about what can be done.
The answer is not a mystery. The remedy to any low-quality, user-unfriendly, seller-rigged industry has always has been competition.
Despite the existence of more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, there is little meaningful choice. What’s available are many iterations of the same intellectually weak, morally corrosive experience. Only real competition in higher education will give students and parents the opportunity to reject indoctrination-as-education, dismiss coercion of all kinds, and instead seek out institutions devoted to free thinking.
If there is a silver lining to the corruption of our educational institutions, it is that there is now a vast marketplace for those with the clarity and courage to offer the real thing. As Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute recently noted, what’s “needed is a new norm, one rooted in the creed of institutional creation.” Instead of focusing only on existent institutions that commonly prove immune to reform, we ought to create new ones.
This is the goal of Ralston College, of which I’m the founding president. We believe renewal can come about by building a college where students can cultivate genuine independence of mind and prepare to tackle the enormous problems facing us today. Based in Savannah, we anticipate a 2021 online rollout of short courses and symposia, as well as an M.A. in the humanities.
To be clear, Ralston does not seek to be the conservative David to the leftist Goliath. Our goal is education, not indoctrination. It’s our ambition to inspire a movement of intellectual freedom and courage. To that end, we call upon scholars, students, philanthropists, and others to join us in thinking boldly and creatively about what can and must be done.
Within a few years of their arrival on these shores, the early settlers of our country established colleges all along the eastern coastline — places like Harvard, Princeton, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, and William and Mary — in an effort to provide institutions where their religious beliefs, ethos, and ideals could be perpetuated. Four hundred years later, we must view ourselves as the new settlers, building colleges that provide a place for thinking freely.
The time is right for competition in higher education from superior alternatives, but the hour is late. Civilizations have no promised future. Whether ours will have one depends on our action now.