Peter Augustine Lawler
DeVos and Trump trumpet school choice in the spirit of deregulation and in the service of equal citizenship. The same opportunities for a variety of kinds of quality education should be available to everyone—and not just folks in their bubbles. The focus should be on sustaining through deregulation the diversity in our whole system of higher education.
So I’ve gotten quite a few notes with this question: What should we do about Middlebury?
My answer: Nothing!
Well, some of those notes are from prominent conservative or moderately liberal faculty who either went or sent their kids to that college. They have a lot of affection for the place, and certainly it has a distinguished record in higher education in literature and the languages. Well, they, as parents or alumni, can step up and exert their influence. Middlebury faculty, most of whom, I gather, were pretty shocked by the uncivilized behavior, should do the same.
But, for the rest of us, we should let Middlebury be whatever Middlebury is going to be and just do what we can to sustain the huge amount of genuine diversity there is in the singular American system of higher education.
The real problem at many or most of our elite schools was captured well by William Dereciewicz in the American Scholar: “Unlike the campus protestors of the 1960s, today’s student activists are not expressing countercultural views. They are expressing the exact views of the culture in which they find themselves (a reason that administrators prove so ready to accede to their demands).”
Believe it or not, I’m not dissing the students’ idealism, and their desire to make a difference in the world in which they find themselves. My point is that they are ending up doing nothing but reinforcing the prejudices of their culture. And they really haven’t been taught to reach out to those not of their kind. Their world is shaped by why Dereciewicz calls “the hegemony of identity politics,” which is blind to real issues concerning faith, virtue, economic class, worthwhile and dignified work, the respect accorded all citizens, and those left behind in a world dominated by a complacent and at least faux cosmopolitan meritocracy based on productivity. As Charles Murray would have told them, they live in a bubble populated by people who are in many ways admirable and sensible but willfully oblivious to the equally admirable struggles of those in their country outside their circle of concern. They don’t see the irony in thinking of themselves as on “the right side of history.”
Apparently, during a war it’s safer just to run all conservatives off campus (and, in the case of Middlebury, out of town) as allies of Trump.
One reason I found hope in elite students’ attraction to the campaign of that loud old socialist Bernie Sanders is that he really did, in some ways, challenge their establishment complacency by calling attention to ways in which much of the American workforce is being proletarianized. It goes without saying, I hope, that Bernie wouldn’t have approved of students silencing Murray as if he were nothing but a bigot from whom they could learn nothing. After all, Sanders, while condemning the brutality that deformed Trump’s know-nothing campaign, adds that the president is not wrong about everything, and he’s willing to work with him when he is right. And President Obama, more than once, has told students not to be so risk-adverse as to want to silence all words they regard as discouraging or some threat to their self-esteem.
When Bernie talks about free higher education for everyone, I think he has in mind his experience at the City College of New York, where socialist emigres taught the great books. Those old-fashioned leftists regarded literature and philosophy as elevating and liberating experiences that would be enjoyed by everyone in a just country. Racist, classist, and sexist those books might be at times, but they also showed us all how to live well as beings born to know, love, and die. And, at their best, they transcended the limitations of their origin to educate us all about the perennial existential questions.
Now, I’m not actually for free public education for all students, in part because the effectual truth today would be to empower further the heavy hand of government and starve our rather stunning variety of excellent private institutions. I can, though, be moved a bit by the selective nostalgia for a time before the era of political correctness that animates Bernie’s words.
I might join Sanders in encouraging our elite schools to get back to that kind of egalitarian, existential radicalism. But, for now, it’s clear that the election of Trump has made them more closed or defensive about their bubble. I read in the usually moderate Slate, for example, that what the Middlebury students did can be justified as something like a wartime measure. Given the president’s assaults on our freedom and dignity, it’s essential to silence anyone who gives aid or comfort to his cause. Trump is, so far, the greatest stimulus package political correctness has ever received.
Consider how Murray was branded by the protestors at Middlebury: an anti-gay white nationalist, a typical Trump supporter. But Murray, in fact, is a libertarian who’s all about people living as they please (including in same-sex marriages) as long as they accept the consequences of what they do. And he was, for that reason, not a Trump voter. Apparently, during a war it’s safer just to run all conservatives off campus (and, in the case of Middlebury, out of town) as allies of Trump.
Let conservative efforts be directed to deregulating higher education to allow all our institutions of higher learning be what they want to be.
Now, it’s ridiculous for conservatives to think they can do anything about Middlebury and the other elite bubble schools. No, the Department of Education can’t credibly threaten to cut them off the government payroll for all their violations of free speech. Those schools, in fact, would relish that conflict as giving nobility without all that much real risk to their cause. And those futile efforts would be taken as evidence that Trump and all conservatives hate reason, science, and real education. Trump’s supporters should, across the board, resist the temptation of using the power of the government to get revenge, even in the service of somehow commanding “viewpoint diversity” at every institution of higher education.
So let Middlebury be. And let any disciplining be done by market forces, by the choices of young people to go elsewhere. Let conservative efforts be directed to deregulating higher education to allow all our institutions of higher learning be what they want to be.
So let BYU be BYU. And Thomas Aquinas be Thomas Aquinas, Calvin be Calvin, Berea be Berea, St. Johns (Annapolis and Santa Fe) be St. Johns, Morehouse be Morehouse, and Oral Roberts, The Citadel, Antioch, Agnes Scott, Texas A&M, Azusa Pacific, Gordon, and Christendom be what they are according to the mission each school has chosen.
For now, the saving grace of our system of higher education is this real moral and intellectual diversity. Students can get pretty much anything they want in higher education, typically, at least for the savvy, at a surprisingly reasonable price. Let that fact be trumpeted across the land. One reform Secretary DeVos could actually achieve is incentivizing our secondary schools to make all students aware of the wonderful menu of choice available to them. And that includes, for the ill-prepared (often through no fault of their own), beginning with community colleges, which are, given their highly practical mission to the genuinely disadvantaged, typically very short on politically correct baggage.
This diversity, to be sure, is under assault by the standardizing forces in our administrative, bureaucratic, and corporate world of interlocking cognitive elites, a world found more or less entirely these days on the privileged side of those who style themselves “multicultural progressives.” I notice that President Trump is about the business of “deconstructing the administrative state.” There are ways in which—beginning with our system of entitlements—that would be right now an ill-advised burden on ordinary Americans. But one meaning I’m sympathetic to is cutting back on the ways administrators regulate or script the behavior of Americans, treating them as clients to be manipulated instead of citizens capable of moral and political deliberation and of managing their own affairs.
Secretary DeVos should deprive our class of administrators of their excuse for their homogenizing scripting.
One way in which the national government is facilitating standardization is by encouraging the increasingly intrusive process of accreditation by the monopolistic regional accrediting agencies. The accrediting agencies are dominated by the class of administrators, and their tendency is to want use the alleged imperative of accreditation to script the behavior of all colleges in a homogenizing direction, facilitated by buzz phrases such as equity and inclusion and high-impact practices. The tendency there, which is easy to discern by reading over the publications of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, is to reconfigure all of higher education according to the twin corporate imperatives of competency and diversity, leaving no safe space for real liberal education and other genuinely mission-driven countercultural diversity. When beleaguered professors, rendered ironic or worse by the infantilizing (and proletarianizing) tendencies of the bubble called “the culture of assessment” (which has just been given the more intrusive name “the culture of improvement”) complain to administrators, the latter blame the federal government.
Well, the administrators have a point. The Department of Education, under the last Democratic and last Republican president, has demanded that accreditation be directed less toward “inputs”—such as qualifications of the faculty and the size of the library—and more toward “outputs” such as measurable learning outcomes. That switch in emphasis allows accreditation to be a way of micromanaging the details of what goes on the classroom and to require that all education be justified in terms of acquiring skills and competencies. That would seem, at first glance, to be a way of demanding proof that students are being prepared for the marketplace, but it actually turns out to mainly function to empty the genuinely countercultural, moral and spiritual, and even bookish civic content of both foundational and advanced courses.
Secretary DeVos should deprive our class of administrators of their excuse for their homogenizing scripting. Given that accreditation doesn’t reveal anything important about the excellence of this or that institution, and that plenty of pretty sketchy places get accredited, she should make it clear that she would be fine with a far more minimalist system of accreditation, one reduced to the proper function of ensuring that an institution is “good enough for government money.” The new system shouldn’t involve, as does the present one, a huge waste of institutional time and treasure—much less any impetus to reconfigure institutional priorities accordingly. It should be based on a close examination—maybe by a team showing up unannounced—of records and so forth the colleges have to keep anyway just to stay in business.
Secretary DeVos should also break the monopoly of regional accreditors by welcoming the development of other accrediting services, ones, in some cases, more attuned to the mission of a particular school. She should, for example, restore the place of the American Academy for Liberal Education as a vehicle for affirming that a place is functioning well enough to allow its students to get government-subsidized loans and so forth. (For my views on the accreditation issue and much else, see my American Heresies and Higher Education)
Government has to side with the people against the monopolists who run teachers’ unions and schools of education—and the elite educational experts who defend them.
In general, the federal government—through the Department of Education and elsewhere—should give a lot less for colleges to comply with. That means, for example, interpreting Title IX as a law to be implemented through promulgated regulations that serve its clear purposes—and not stealthily transformed far beyond its intention through menacing “Dear Colleague” letters. That change shouldn’t reflect any indifference to, say, sexual assault on campus, but only the recognition that the national government isn’t either authorized or competent to tell particular colleges in any detailed way how to handle that real problem.
Ideally, the result should be the laying off of lots of compliance officers. Some colleges will continue to function as if all those regulations were still there, but they can no longer blame the government for administrative bloat and the transfer of intellectual labor on campus from “faculty governance” to administrative strategic planning. And other colleges will be more free to orient themselves around the missions they have chosen for themselves.
It is, after all, in the spirit of deregulation and in the service of equal citizenship that DeVos and Trump trumpet school choice. The same opportunities for a variety of kinds of quality education should be available to everyone—and not just folks in their bubbles. And so government has to side with the people against the monopolists who run teachers’ unions and schools of education—and the elite educational experts who defend them. At the college level, the array of choice is already there, because everyone has access to the whole national market. The job of government is to defend all that diversity through the right kind of deregulation. It’s surely prudent for genuinely countercultural mission-driven schools to wean themselves off federal aid, to, as it were, deploy libertarian means to secure their non-libertarian ends. But, for now, that’s just not possible in most cases.
It would be easy to go on. But to return to the beginning: Let Middlebury be Middlebury, and let the focus be on sustaining through deregulation the diversity in our whole system of higher education.
Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College, editor of Modern Age and author, most recently, of American Heresies and Higher Education.