Warning Signs about Higher Education

In a recent conversation with a major American Jewish philanthropist I was shocked to find that this individual has all but given up hope of reforming colleges and universities. Irretrievably corrupted by leftist politics, institutions of higher education have a deeply negative impact on American society, its sense of cohesion and dignity, its perceptions of right and wrong, and ability to do good in the world. This individual has decided to take his money elsewhere.

Such a reaction might be expected from a philanthropist who has become sadly accustomed to big talk, small results, and general disappointment. Perhaps more telling then is the reaction of two of my own relatives, both successful physicians, and both with college age children. They shared deep apprehension about sending their kids to college. One was ultimately prevailed upon to send his son to a state college, because the political environment was less extreme than an Ivy League school. The other rejected college for his son altogether, at least until he was older and better able to cope with the hostile environment toward people with traditional religious beliefs.

When American Jews reject higher education, something is very wrong with the system. Few groups in America have benefited from higher education more than American Jews, and few in turn have contributed more in return, thanks to that education. But a small yet very telling subset of the American middle class now finds itself alienated from higher education.

Price is obviously a factor. The reasons why the cost of higher education has far outpaced inflation are many. The proliferation of Federal mandates has only given impetus to the natural growth of bureaucracies in academia, which serve only themselves and not students. But students and parents also expect colleges to be equipped like expensive spas, with 24 hour fitness centers and free—flowing sushi. And competition for good, or paying, students has grown intense. Colleges market themselves as consumer products, which of course, they are.

But the middle class's dissatisfaction is not simply about money. If it were, they would find a way to pay, as always, by borrowing. But the alienation is really about values. More rightly than wrongly, the middle class believes that academics and the environment they create on campus, in politicized classrooms and generally in terms of permitting or even encouraging any type of behavior, is antithetical to the values it has struggled to convey to its kids. These include a healthy but not slavish respect for authority, a tolerant attitude toward others' beliefs and the expectation of the same in return, and a simple notion of America as basically a good thing.

Parents increasingly perceive colleges and universities as nothing of the sort. Having strong beliefs is not the problem. Forcing them down the throats of adolescents is. So some are beginning to opt out. With enough programming skills in Java or the latest computer language, do kids really need college? The liberal arts no longer appeal for their own sake to a wide swath of the middle class, since they no longer reflect values of free inquiry and tolerance for others. Rather they have increasingly come to mean a form of pure opposition to American culture. For the best and brightest, the shared culture provided by a liberal arts education is being replaced by a shared technological facility.

To be sure, Jews are still important donors to universities, and are strongly represented among students. But these should not be taken for granted. Among Jews, as in the larger American population, there are many currents at work, some of which are encouraging separation from the American whole and the American ideal. Such currents, shared by many Christians and above all by Muslims, are motivated in large part by religious interpretation and anxiety about modernity. The hostility of academia to religious belief is certainly a factor. The net result, however, is that some small but significant percentage of American society's next generation of best and brightest is passing up on a college experience that could, in theory, be strengthening their commitment to a shared concept called America.

There is no easy answer of how academia should reengage the middle class. The first step is for academia to realize that it is they who have lost touch, with their arcane language and politics masquerading as scholarship, from the intellectual life of the country and its needs. Americans do not need or want to be 'liberated,' least of all from their sense of shared Americanness, or have the virtues of quasi—religious belief systems like Marxism, social constructivism, or transnational progressivism preached at them. It is academia that has cocooned itself in false consciousness, not the rest of us.

Another step is to honestly address the fact that universities have become places of intellectual conformity where, among others, people of faith often feel unwelcome. But the answer is not to treat religious people like a sheltered minority, only to make the environment as a whole conducive to the free exchange of ideas. Recognizing that professors' politics are inevitably embedded in their classroom presentations, and making honest efforts to separate the two, is another step. Doing so requires creating a culture that puts scholarship and the difficult ideal of impartiality above confessional politics and easily recognizable passion. In a general culture where feelings are valued above knowledge, this is no simple task.

Universities as big businesses go on, but their contradictory devotion to the almighty dollar, and to slapping the hands that feed them, cannot be overlooked. But if steps were taken, for example, if college presidents took stands not against individual faculty members but for scholarship and impartiality, would be a welcome sign. Jews and others, whose belief in education is of great heritage, would find some reassurance.

Alexander H. Joffe directs Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum

In a recent conversation with a major American Jewish philanthropist I was shocked to find that this individual has all but given up hope of reforming colleges and universities. Irretrievably corrupted by leftist politics, institutions of higher education have a deeply negative impact on American society, its sense of cohesion and dignity, its perceptions of right and wrong, and ability to do good in the world. This individual has decided to take his money elsewhere.

Such a reaction might be expected from a philanthropist who has become sadly accustomed to big talk, small results, and general disappointment. Perhaps more telling then is the reaction of two of my own relatives, both successful physicians, and both with college age children. They shared deep apprehension about sending their kids to college. One was ultimately prevailed upon to send his son to a state college, because the political environment was less extreme than an Ivy League school. The other rejected college for his son altogether, at least until he was older and better able to cope with the hostile environment toward people with traditional religious beliefs.

When American Jews reject higher education, something is very wrong with the system. Few groups in America have benefited from higher education more than American Jews, and few in turn have contributed more in return, thanks to that education. But a small yet very telling subset of the American middle class now finds itself alienated from higher education.

Price is obviously a factor. The reasons why the cost of higher education has far outpaced inflation are many. The proliferation of Federal mandates has only given impetus to the natural growth of bureaucracies in academia, which serve only themselves and not students. But students and parents also expect colleges to be equipped like expensive spas, with 24 hour fitness centers and free—flowing sushi. And competition for good, or paying, students has grown intense. Colleges market themselves as consumer products, which of course, they are.

But the middle class's dissatisfaction is not simply about money. If it were, they would find a way to pay, as always, by borrowing. But the alienation is really about values. More rightly than wrongly, the middle class believes that academics and the environment they create on campus, in politicized classrooms and generally in terms of permitting or even encouraging any type of behavior, is antithetical to the values it has struggled to convey to its kids. These include a healthy but not slavish respect for authority, a tolerant attitude toward others' beliefs and the expectation of the same in return, and a simple notion of America as basically a good thing.

Parents increasingly perceive colleges and universities as nothing of the sort. Having strong beliefs is not the problem. Forcing them down the throats of adolescents is. So some are beginning to opt out. With enough programming skills in Java or the latest computer language, do kids really need college? The liberal arts no longer appeal for their own sake to a wide swath of the middle class, since they no longer reflect values of free inquiry and tolerance for others. Rather they have increasingly come to mean a form of pure opposition to American culture. For the best and brightest, the shared culture provided by a liberal arts education is being replaced by a shared technological facility.

To be sure, Jews are still important donors to universities, and are strongly represented among students. But these should not be taken for granted. Among Jews, as in the larger American population, there are many currents at work, some of which are encouraging separation from the American whole and the American ideal. Such currents, shared by many Christians and above all by Muslims, are motivated in large part by religious interpretation and anxiety about modernity. The hostility of academia to religious belief is certainly a factor. The net result, however, is that some small but significant percentage of American society's next generation of best and brightest is passing up on a college experience that could, in theory, be strengthening their commitment to a shared concept called America.

There is no easy answer of how academia should reengage the middle class. The first step is for academia to realize that it is they who have lost touch, with their arcane language and politics masquerading as scholarship, from the intellectual life of the country and its needs. Americans do not need or want to be 'liberated,' least of all from their sense of shared Americanness, or have the virtues of quasi—religious belief systems like Marxism, social constructivism, or transnational progressivism preached at them. It is academia that has cocooned itself in false consciousness, not the rest of us.

Another step is to honestly address the fact that universities have become places of intellectual conformity where, among others, people of faith often feel unwelcome. But the answer is not to treat religious people like a sheltered minority, only to make the environment as a whole conducive to the free exchange of ideas. Recognizing that professors' politics are inevitably embedded in their classroom presentations, and making honest efforts to separate the two, is another step. Doing so requires creating a culture that puts scholarship and the difficult ideal of impartiality above confessional politics and easily recognizable passion. In a general culture where feelings are valued above knowledge, this is no simple task.

Universities as big businesses go on, but their contradictory devotion to the almighty dollar, and to slapping the hands that feed them, cannot be overlooked. But if steps were taken, for example, if college presidents took stands not against individual faculty members but for scholarship and impartiality, would be a welcome sign. Jews and others, whose belief in education is of great heritage, would find some reassurance.

Alexander H. Joffe directs Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum