Why Our Universities Have Failed

Something went wrong with the rapidly expanding university in the 1960s, and the new 21st century, high-tech, globalized campus has made the mess it inherited dangerous.
November 29, 2020

Where did Antifa youth rioting in the streets receive their intellectual and ethical bearings? Why are the First and Second Amendments no longer fully operative? How did the general population become nearly ignorant of their Constitution, history, and the hallmarks of their culture? Why do employers no longer equate a bachelor’s degree with competency in oral and written communications, basic computation, and reasoning? How in the 21st century did race and ethnicity come to define who we are rather than become incidental to our individual personas? In answering all these questions, we always seem to return to higher education—the font of much of our contemporary malaise.

The Perfect Storm

A perfect storm of events—many of them reforms with unintended consequences—have conspired to end disinterested education as we once knew it.

The passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971, lowering the voting age to 18—in response to widespread resistance to the draft and the Vietnam War—turned rhetorical campus activism into real progressive block voting. The campuses were no longer just free-speech zones, but woke reservoirs of millions of young voters, a new political and mostly subsidized constituency with clout, to which universities catered.

Globalization enriched the coasts. Seven-billion-person markets were translated into multibillion-dollar endowments of a magnitude never imagined. The Ivy League, MIT, Caltech, Stanford, the UC system, and dozens of other research universities between Boston and Miami, and San Diego and Seattle, partnered with corporations and solicited foreign government money. They opened up overseas satellites, welcomed in hundreds of thousands of foreign students, and began adjusting their curricula to reflect transnational issues.

So university “development” was no longer the sleepy domain of burned-out faculty, who “went into administration” for a few years before retirement to glad-hand a few wealthy alumni. Instead, it became a massive industry of tapping into the huge global fortunes of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, vertically integrated corporations, and mostly illiberal petro-governments in the Middle East and Chinese-communist approved conglomerates.

Floods of cash created new “centers” and “institutes” on campus. The vast majority were boutique left-wing. The disconnected result was often bizarre: students living in upscale campus dorms, enjoying Club Med gyms and recreation centers, and replete with all sorts of influential internships and overseas enrichment—as they cosplayed Marxist activists.

The legions who staffed the new universities were upper-middle class, affluent and the beneficiaries of the privilege which they trashed from 8-5 before returning home to comfort. Few tenured grandees cared about growing percentages of exploited and part-time lecturers, the campus’ version of the interior deplorables, who taught large courses for little pay and no security. It was about 2008 when I began to notice two growing phenomena when I walked to work on the Stanford campus: in the C/student lots, there was a growing epidemic of student Lexuses, Audis, and BMWs, even as student protests were growing shriller, more radical, and intolerant.

Massive immigration—nearly 50 million current American residents were not born in the United States, including 27 percent of the California resident population—redefined the old 88-12 percent white/black American binary into “diversity.” The melting pot of assimilation, in retrograde fashion, was replaced by salad-bowl segregation.

Class and historical issues faded in the face of a new dogma of “white supremacy.” That now empty banality was the banner for a new constituency of 30 percent of the country. Regardless of their own wealth or absence of past grievance, dozens of ethnic and gender groups now were “victimized” on their claims of a non-white or non-male appearance. And they demanded reparatory redress in admissions and applications, and institutionalized their lamentations in the hiring of faculty and administrators.

Wealthy white females, upper-middle class immigrants from Brazil, and the children of Jamaican or Nigerian doctors, all in theory felt the university should provide them some sort of redress for their intersectional, inclusive victimhood. In the zero-sum game of university curricula, deductive “-studies” courses sprung up to indoctrinate students in “what” to think, rather than inductively how and why. Therapy replaced tragedy in the study of the past and present.

Federal loans (see below) infused billions of dollars into the university, while ensuring ever greater moral hazards of default. Students came to believe that student loans were near-zero interest, “free” money. The loans might not really have to be paid back. And they were a pathway to an impressive salary even if some day they were to be called in.

Many loans easily exceed 5-6 percent of compounded interest. Such guaranteed income greenlighted university price-gouging, and were not forgiven (at least not yet). To justify the illiberal usury and Ponzi schemes, progressive universities winked and nodded that in “our globalized world” a “degree”—i.e., their monopoly on branding students—from a “good” college ensured lifetime higher salaries unavailable to “them,” who worked with their hands, built, assembled, farmed, or delivered. These were to be the new despised “losers” who never were properly prepped in “diversity, inclusion, and equity.”

The Wages of Debt

The result is that students and graduates now struggle under $1.6 trillion in aggregate—and growing—student debt. These millions for the most part are not for Ivy League undergraduates, but for students who ran up their debts at thousands of public universities and small, private undergraduate liberal arts colleges. Current calls to cancel that obligation assume at least three things:

1) Graduates who scrimped and saved either to pay upfront for college or to pay off their debts, are seen as naïve if not delusional. So did paying what they owed prove a chump’s decision?

2) Those who either could never afford college or chose to take their chances in the workplace without a degree, as taxpayers, are now obliged to help pay off what their supposedly better educated counterparts would or could not?

3) The next cohort of students, hand-in-glove with rapacious colleges, will learn what exactly from debt relief—that they too can borrow without worry on the expectation of yet another eventual amnesty?

In fairness, for hundreds of thousands of youth, there is no university assurance that such expensive branding will lead to the sort of job that would allow such staggering obligations to be repaid. Indeed the debt affects us all. It is a drag on half of an entire generation—a fact well known to those who run universities but one that is apparently of little moral concern to them. The ancient formula of four years at a university and a job have metamorphosed into six to eight years now and then in college, as a low-wage job scarcely pays the interest on a student loan.

The result is that our traditional cursus honorum is warped. Marriage? Later than ever. Childbearing? Near record-low fertility. Home ownership? Receding. It is no exaggeration that all the referents of traditionalism and conservatism—the grown-up responsibilities of career, marriage, family, and home ownership—are inert. They seem replaced by ever more prolonged adolescence, as one drifts in and out of near perennial psychological student-hood. And the regression is a particularly dangerous sort of infantilization.

Nothing historically has proven more dangerous to a society than millions of half-educated college students and graduates, indebted, either idle, underemployed, or poorly remunerated, full of pride in their largely suspect majors, and bitter that the supposedly less educated and not as sophisticated cohorts are deservedly making more than they. Their educations ensured that they are glib, but not necessarily industrious. An unemployed sociology graduate, up to his neck in debt, without a good job is a volatile citizen—once he grasps too late in his late 20s that he is no better educated than a plumber or electrician, and far less compensated. Mutatis mutandis, these profiles were the wannabe mid-echelon of the French and Bolshevik Revolutions.

The country is split in two. Red-state conservatives and blue-state progressives roughly balance each other. Not so on campus. Various surveys suggest 95 percent or more of the faculty is left-leaning and often eager to enforce their conformity of thought and ideology on students. The latter enter college worried that their parents’ views may be seen as liabilities by those “enlightened” who grade them. The university makes no attempt to defend its lack of intellectual diversity. By default, one is to assume that it believes that either perfect progressivism needs no balance, or its own biases are properly offset by those of society at large.

Corporate Education

Today’s global research universities are multibillion-dollar enterprises more akin to multinational corporations than to the idyllic undergraduate campuses of traditional lore. Yet huge endowments and their income remain tax-exempt. Few occupations outside academia ensure veritable lifetime employment through tenure—a rarified tradition designed to ensure free expression and diversity of thought, but which may have had the exact opposite effect of guaranteeing unchecked intellectual intolerance and suppression of free expression. The less a tenured scholar produces, and the poorer his teaching will be, so the more likely his idle mind, as recompense for mediocrity, turns to rooting out purporting enemies of the people.

But most importantly, universities no longer inform students of the huge and often dangerous choices they make as teenagers when they enroll. How will they pay off such huge debts? Which majors are likely to earn what sort of income? Can students at least receive an itemized bill of charges to apprise them where exactly their tuition dollars are allocated—and thus where they could be trimmed?

In sum, if universities are increasingly akin to corporations, why then should they assume that the moral hazards of their risky behavior fall on others? Why cannot schools with ample endowments guarantee their own student loans to ensure such exposure reminds them to control the costs they charge students?

If student applicants must submit standardized scores on the theory their prior high schools’ grades are too idiosyncratic to offer reliable constant standards of achievement, then why should not higher education adhere to its own rules?

Why, then, not have exit exams to guarantee employees and professional schools that a BA or GPA from Harvard really is superior to one from a land-grant college, through a standardized national exit exam? Why are GPAs in high schools—but not in colleges—subject to authentication and audit through standardized tests?

Today what is college for?

To teach induction and empiricism, and empower such skills through a common body of knowledge, with shared classical referents of science, mathematics, literature, history, language, and philosophy? To ensure that a student’s future stays inquisitive, enhancing his contribution to his nation? To inculcate a sense of civics and social morality that emphasizes the values of free speech and expression, individualism, tolerance, public service and constitutional government? To seek and reinforce commonalities between citizens of a shared republic?

Progressive Boot Camps

The implicit directive of undergraduate education is so often deductively to enhance progressive values that center on a common but unquestioned core: radical restructuring of the economy to fight “climate change,” the shift from free-market capitalism to state redistributionism, equality defined not as parity in opportunity but in result, the view that the Constitution is fossilized and an impediment to the moral arc of history, the surety that values are mostly race, class, and gender constructs and do not reflect eternal truths of unchanging human nature, identity politics above all, abortion on demand, and real doubt that the American project, now and in the past, has been a force for good.

This is the unquestioned creed of the university, its faculty advocacies, its students’ acquiescence, and the subtext of its themes in internal communiques. If anyone doubts, try the thought experiment of entering a university and throughout those four years suggesting that a heating planet may be primarily a result of age-old and cyclical natural phenomena, or that capitalism has brought far more out of poverty than statism, or praise the Second Amendment, or the melting pot over the salad bowl. Support a ban on partial or late-term abortion, and express faith that America has been good without having to be perfect. At each juncture, a student would not only be questioned but likely would find himself at a disadvantage academically and socially ostracized.

Something went wrong with the rapidly expanding university in the 1960s during the affluence and leisure of the postwar boom. And the new 21st century, high-tech, globalized campus has now made that mess it inherited dangerous.

About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is an American military historian, columnist, former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He was a professor of classics at California State University, Fresno, and is currently the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush. Hanson is also a farmer (growing raisin grapes on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author most recently of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict was Fought and Won (Basic Books).