Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Progressive University

How is it, considering the economic nonsense she spouts, that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could graduate cum laude from Boston University, with a degree in international relations and economics? Worse, how is it that her generation could embrace the very economic system that destroyed Eastern Europe and collapsed Venezuela, which sixty years ago was one of the top three economies in the world?

In Finland, which is still a capitalist country, the government resigned over being unable to push through free-market reforms vital to the survival of its health care system, which is projected to collapse without them. Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Greece teeter on the verge of economic breakdown because of unsustainable social programs.

Denmark has very high taxes and high social benefits. It also has the largest household debt relative to income of any of the industrial countries. Automobiles carry 180% tax and sales tax is 25%. Many young Danes emigrate for economic opportunities.

The idea that the Nordic economic model is the panacea that will “save” America is mythical. Nordic countries are small, relatively homogeneous societies that possess the philosophical bond, which originated in Lutheranism, of community sharing.

America is a multicultural society with vastly different ideas about sharing, taxation, and the role of government.

To understand the attraction of American capitalism, you might want to attend an expat party in Silicon Valley. There are, for example, 142,000 Frenchmen and women living in the United States. About a quarter of them are estimated to live in and around Silicon Valley. I asked one young woman who ran a software company why she didn’t create her company in France. She laughed that it would take forever to get a business license and even with California’s convoluted attitude toward business, she was up and running in less than a year.

So why does a generation of millennials want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg? Welcome to the changing values movement in higher education.

The most cited and influential educational philosopher of the twentieth century was John Dewey. Known largely for his bringing the real world of pragmatism to educational philosophy, Dewey is less known for his democratic socialism and progressive economic theories.

Schools of education adopted not only Dewey’s pragmatic approach but also his zeal for collectivism and statism. In the late 1950s, Philip E. Jacob authored Changing Values in College, a book that was seized upon in colleges of education to show that value-based outcomes could be the desired goal of education.

For the most part, these ideas were confined to colleges of education, but they received strong reinforcement when Paul A. Samuelson’s Keynesian economic theories increasingly took hold in departments of economics.

But the most dramatic impact of progressivism, however, came from the expansion of the higher education bureaucracy as it responded to the twin demands of multiculturalism and affirmative action in the late 1960s.

The implementation of quotas masquerading as goals required the expansion of the bureaucracy to oversee programs, implement coercive requirements, and placate government bureaucrats who conducted audits of diversity achievements.

Colleges of education responded to these demands by increasing their programs in higher education administration. Those who survived the “rigorous intellectual demands” of such programs could sit on an administrative perch and control budgets and personnel decisions of faculty that viewed them as the ignorant children of a lesser god.

This resulted in a new class of professional administrators drawn both from colleges of education and from faculty who no longer possessed a desire for scholarship as much as a desire to implement a progressive agenda.

The new class’ behaviors could find parallels in the writings of Yugoslav philosopher and critic of communism Milovan Djilas. Academic administrators became a class unto themselves with their own ideology and interests that increasingly departed from the historic purposes of higher education.

This new class was nurtured on the philosophy prevalent in colleges of education that higher education was about taking the progeny of the “great unwashed” and reeducating them to become committed progressives. College was about changing values and educating students to embrace the leftist view of “social responsibility” and “social justice.”

Such shibboleths as diversity, multiculturalism, and social justice became mechanisms for implementing revisionist history, substituting activism for scholarship, and indoctrinating a captive audience of naïve young adults into the glories of progressive solutions to complex economic and social problems.

The captive audience of the classroom was, nonetheless, insufficient to satisfy the new class’ quest to remake the university into a hothouse for progressive ideology.

Like all bureaucrats seeking a proliferation of new offices, they quickly discovered the untapped resources of the college dormitories and orientation programs, what has been described as the “shadow university,” could provide additional venues for coerced political indoctrination. Many of these programs were fashioned on the theories and approaches of Lawrence Kohlberg, whose “Just Community” outcomes, like John Dewey’s, were inspired by collectivism.

It is no accident that Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spouts socialist banalities. This is what colleges teach. 

As progressive ideologies and political correctness became woven into the cultural fabric of higher education, people who did not share those values did not look upon higher education as a career -- unless they gravitated toward the sciences and technical fields.  

Political correctness produced the activist scholar, who, in the true Marxist sense of the word “praxis,” demands to use university resources for tribal leftist political activism while arguing that activism be considered a glorified substitute for scholarship.  

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the product of the modern university. We might find her naivete and ignorance laughable, but the joke is on us because she is but a symptom of her generation, and we have subsidized the making of that ignorance. 

Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science who has spent 35 years in academia at major research universities. He was a Bradley Fellow with the Heritage Foundation and is currently a distinguished Fellow with Hyam Salomon Center.

If you experience technical problems, please write to