The End of the University?

Anyone with a clear mind who has taught or studied at a university or whose children are currently enrolled in its troubled precincts knows that the academy has fallen on evil days. Preoccupied with “diversity,” “inclusiveness,” affirmative action, and equality of outcome regardless of input, universities have coddled students into a state of planular emotionalism -- “you are loved” and “all your emotions are real,” goes the mantra at Virginia Tech -- and rendered them incapable of grappling with anything that resembles an unfamiliar idea or an unanticipated event. Considering in addition the number of useless and cost-ineffective courses in the Humanities and Social Sciences (e.g., Gender Studies, Peace Studies, Fat Studies, Black Studies, Aboriginal Studies, Queer Studies, etc.), as well as the dilution of even the more respectable subjects in order to make them accessible to the unqualified, the future of the university looks increasingly bleak -- a “strange Twilight Zone,” as Daniel Greenfield writes, where “none of the sane rules apply.”

In an exceptionally civil discourse on the need for civility in academia, Ashley Thorne, executive director of the National Association of Scholars, argues that the two animating principles of higher education are: (1) building student character in the interests of self-examination and growth, and (2) freedom to pursue truth in whatever direction it may lead. The university, however, has betrayed both its founding ideals. Thorne writes in the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory, which has teachers and administrators reeling with disbelief and students collapsing in paroxysms of despair, fear, anxiety, deep uncertainty, emotional trauma and cataclysmic grief, and in desperate need of “relaxing stations,” cry-ins, calming music, teddy bears, and coloring books. Students racked by electoral stress routinely wish to be exempted from taking their finals. A note saying “Suck it up,” posted by an intrepid student at Wisconsin’s Edgewood College, was deemed a hate crime by college authorities. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that an academy administered by a clade of invertebrates and thick with Pajama Boys and Julias does not elicit confidence in its future. Put one Hamas five-year-old in their midst and they’re goners.

The upshot is that practically the entire university culture is sick unto death: the vast majority of professors in lockstep leftism like an army of Star Trek Borgs marching toward an ever-receding progressivist Millennium, next to none with any real-world experience; hiring protocols based on gender credentials (i.e., women) rather than merit; systematic hostility to fair debate and the free exchange of ideas, however asunder the prevailing cultural consensus; Access Service personnel who regard the university as a field hospital or are simply unable to cope with the new and burgeoning category of disability claimants; and the students themselves, some “mismatched” (code for not possessing the academic wherewithal to succeed), others simply incapable of intellectual endeavor or serious application across the curricular spectrum, and, in short, a supine clientele intent on avoiding work, who consider the university as a daycare center when they are not turning it into a Jungle Gym.

The raison d’être of the university is to foster intellectual rigor, to strive for excellence and to graduate the best -- or at any rate, the competent. When it fails to do so, it has violated the reason for its existence and needs to be reformed from the ground up and the top down. I recall, as a freshman at McGill University in Montreal, Chancellor Cyril James addressing the introductory convocation with the chilling remark: “Look to the left of you. Look to the right of you. Next year, only one of you will be here.” He was right. But many rose to the challenge irrespective of our inherent weaknesses, the austerities of scholarship and the terrifying obstacles of academic triage.

Those of my graduating class who survived the curriculum and performance standards then in place became leaders in their fields, names to be reckoned with in medicine, engineering, math and science, law, education, politics, literature, entertainment, music, and television. None of us profited from the “participation trophy” syndrome -- honors awarded for merely being there. James Harrison, a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, reacted to his sons’ receiving such trophies by returning these gewgaws to sender. “I’m not sorry,” he explained, “for believing that everything in life should be earned.” You don’t get to be a star linebacker by hanging around the locker room or claiming special consideration on the field. Similarly, university graduates cannot be expected to achieve real-world results, make their mark or contribute meaningfully to society unless, by hard work and applied intelligence, they have justly and faithfully earned their degrees -- with the proviso, of course, that these degrees are genuinely substantive.

Today, for the most part, the university is no longer recognizable as an institution of higher learning. It has grown moribund, having made a mockery of John Milton’s classic vision of the university sojourn in The Reason of Church Government: “Beholding the bright countenance of truth in the quiet and still air of delightful studies.” The sickness at the heart of the university system is more than the sickness itself. It is the temptation to validate the sickness rather than to attempt its diagnosis -- or even to recognize that the condition exists -- that has fatally compromised the university’s educating mission. It now comprises a cynical leadership laxly presiding over a veritable mob of psychologically unfit and intellectually unprepared students. Distinction has become conceptually extinct.

Chancellor James would have been appalled. Look to the left of you. Look to the right of you. Next year, you will all be here. What we have forgotten is that the university is by nature a hierarchical -- indeed, a sieving -- institution, not a charitable enterprise. Flinging its doors wide to all and sundry, including those who do not possess the requisite aptitudes or disposition to prosper academically, adulterates its quality to the ultimate disadvantage of society as a whole, whose cultural vitality is gradually weakened and infrastructural soundness irreparably damaged.

The university’s disorder is contagious. Unfortunately, unlike the leper colony it metaphorically resembles, it cannot be quarantined. But it can be partly defunded by residually alert alumni and donors and reined in by a patriot government, allowing for disinfected and habitable islands of learning to emerge once again. Or such is the hope.

The really bad news, however, is that when the malady at the core of the university community radiates outward and the culture as a whole is infected, there is no defunding agency or higher authority to appeal to for special accommodation. Course correction will have to come from within or via the “rapture” of catastrophe, something like a miracle cure or creative destruction, but accompanied by much suffering. It’s not a happy prospect. But as they say, it is what it is. After all, it isn’t what it was.

Anyone with a clear mind who has taught or studied at a university or whose children are currently enrolled in its troubled precincts knows that the academy has fallen on evil days. Preoccupied with “diversity,” “inclusiveness,” affirmative action, and equality of outcome regardless of input, universities have coddled students into a state of planular emotionalism -- “you are loved” and “all your emotions are real,” goes the mantra at Virginia Tech -- and rendered them incapable of grappling with anything that resembles an unfamiliar idea or an unanticipated event. Considering in addition the number of useless and cost-ineffective courses in the Humanities and Social Sciences (e.g., Gender Studies, Peace Studies, Fat Studies, Black Studies, Aboriginal Studies, Queer Studies, etc.), as well as the dilution of even the more respectable subjects in order to make them accessible to the unqualified, the future of the university looks increasingly bleak -- a “strange Twilight Zone,” as Daniel Greenfield writes, where “none of the sane rules apply.”

In an exceptionally civil discourse on the need for civility in academia, Ashley Thorne, executive director of the National Association of Scholars, argues that the two animating principles of higher education are: (1) building student character in the interests of self-examination and growth, and (2) freedom to pursue truth in whatever direction it may lead. The university, however, has betrayed both its founding ideals. Thorne writes in the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory, which has teachers and administrators reeling with disbelief and students collapsing in paroxysms of despair, fear, anxiety, deep uncertainty, emotional trauma and cataclysmic grief, and in desperate need of “relaxing stations,” cry-ins, calming music, teddy bears, and coloring books. Students racked by electoral stress routinely wish to be exempted from taking their finals. A note saying “Suck it up,” posted by an intrepid student at Wisconsin’s Edgewood College, was deemed a hate crime by college authorities. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that an academy administered by a clade of invertebrates and thick with Pajama Boys and Julias does not elicit confidence in its future. Put one Hamas five-year-old in their midst and they’re goners.

The upshot is that practically the entire university culture is sick unto death: the vast majority of professors in lockstep leftism like an army of Star Trek Borgs marching toward an ever-receding progressivist Millennium, next to none with any real-world experience; hiring protocols based on gender credentials (i.e., women) rather than merit; systematic hostility to fair debate and the free exchange of ideas, however asunder the prevailing cultural consensus; Access Service personnel who regard the university as a field hospital or are simply unable to cope with the new and burgeoning category of disability claimants; and the students themselves, some “mismatched” (code for not possessing the academic wherewithal to succeed), others simply incapable of intellectual endeavor or serious application across the curricular spectrum, and, in short, a supine clientele intent on avoiding work, who consider the university as a daycare center when they are not turning it into a Jungle Gym.

The raison d’être of the university is to foster intellectual rigor, to strive for excellence and to graduate the best -- or at any rate, the competent. When it fails to do so, it has violated the reason for its existence and needs to be reformed from the ground up and the top down. I recall, as a freshman at McGill University in Montreal, Chancellor Cyril James addressing the introductory convocation with the chilling remark: “Look to the left of you. Look to the right of you. Next year, only one of you will be here.” He was right. But many rose to the challenge irrespective of our inherent weaknesses, the austerities of scholarship and the terrifying obstacles of academic triage.

Those of my graduating class who survived the curriculum and performance standards then in place became leaders in their fields, names to be reckoned with in medicine, engineering, math and science, law, education, politics, literature, entertainment, music, and television. None of us profited from the “participation trophy” syndrome -- honors awarded for merely being there. James Harrison, a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, reacted to his sons’ receiving such trophies by returning these gewgaws to sender. “I’m not sorry,” he explained, “for believing that everything in life should be earned.” You don’t get to be a star linebacker by hanging around the locker room or claiming special consideration on the field. Similarly, university graduates cannot be expected to achieve real-world results, make their mark or contribute meaningfully to society unless, by hard work and applied intelligence, they have justly and faithfully earned their degrees -- with the proviso, of course, that these degrees are genuinely substantive.

Today, for the most part, the university is no longer recognizable as an institution of higher learning. It has grown moribund, having made a mockery of John Milton’s classic vision of the university sojourn in The Reason of Church Government: “Beholding the bright countenance of truth in the quiet and still air of delightful studies.” The sickness at the heart of the university system is more than the sickness itself. It is the temptation to validate the sickness rather than to attempt its diagnosis -- or even to recognize that the condition exists -- that has fatally compromised the university’s educating mission. It now comprises a cynical leadership laxly presiding over a veritable mob of psychologically unfit and intellectually unprepared students. Distinction has become conceptually extinct.

Chancellor James would have been appalled. Look to the left of you. Look to the right of you. Next year, you will all be here. What we have forgotten is that the university is by nature a hierarchical -- indeed, a sieving -- institution, not a charitable enterprise. Flinging its doors wide to all and sundry, including those who do not possess the requisite aptitudes or disposition to prosper academically, adulterates its quality to the ultimate disadvantage of society as a whole, whose cultural vitality is gradually weakened and infrastructural soundness irreparably damaged.

The university’s disorder is contagious. Unfortunately, unlike the leper colony it metaphorically resembles, it cannot be quarantined. But it can be partly defunded by residually alert alumni and donors and reined in by a patriot government, allowing for disinfected and habitable islands of learning to emerge once again. Or such is the hope.

The really bad news, however, is that when the malady at the core of the university community radiates outward and the culture as a whole is infected, there is no defunding agency or higher authority to appeal to for special accommodation. Course correction will have to come from within or via the “rapture” of catastrophe, something like a miracle cure or creative destruction, but accompanied by much suffering. It’s not a happy prospect. But as they say, it is what it is. After all, it isn’t what it was.