In response to: What Worlds Have They to Conquer?: A Higher Ed Dystopia
Robert L. Paquette has penned a dystopia that places a respondent like me in a difficult place. Because so much of it is based on difficult personal experiences, part of me feels rude for taking issue with its argument. Considering, however, that his Liberty Forum essay rightly rejects the hyper-sensitive attitudes to be found in an academic culture of trigger warnings and safe spaces, I will treat the world he sets before us as an “arena into which [I will] spiritedly march, armed with evidence and argument” and in honest search of “vital information about the nature of human beings.” I have borrowed his words, and hope he greets my reply in the spirit of those words.
For the uninitiated, Professor Paquette is a distinguished American historian whose research on slavery in the New World is mandatory reading in the field. He also spearheaded an effort to start the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization at Hamilton College. The inspiration for the AHI was fallout from the college’s 2005 invitation of Ward Churchill to speak on “the limits of dissent.” The day after the September 11 attacks, Churchill wrote an essay referring to the victims as “little Eichmanns”—as complicit in evil as the Nazi German architect of the Holocaust. Naturally, the invitation provoked outrage among Hamilton alumni, and they demanded the college act. Which it did, with an effort to introduce greater intellectual diversity and a higher level of discourse, and the AHI, with its multi-million-dollar grant, would serve as its cornerstone.
Over time, however, the college’s faculty and administrators grew suspicious of Paquette and the apparently conservative faculty who would serve on its board. Eventually, the faculty senate pulled the plug on the institute, forcing Paquette and others to establish it off-campus. The whole affair took up the better part of a decade. Any greater detail is out of place here, but other articles can provide additional information.
Hence, for a reader unfamiliar with this background, Paquette’s essay might seem quite specific to his own college and career. It is obvious that he endured deeply personal frustration and professional isolation during and after the AHI affair. For these, he has my sympathy. However, how informative are these experiences for those of us taking stock of higher education in the early 21st century? With respect, I believe the answer is less than Paquette seems to believe.
My response will center on the issues that he raises but that I think conservative scholars should move beyond. These are: 1) the state of the academic job market; 2) the near-future of higher education, and 3) the real threat to teaching the liberal arts, which is the informal alliance of intrusive administrators and risk-averse students and their families.
Where the Story Starts and What That Tells Us
The beginning of “What Worlds Have They to Conquer? A Higher-Ed Dystopia” mentions the protagonist’s low incoming salary and the bucolic campus setting. His early years of experience are something of a calm before the “alien imperium” arrives with its “Army of the Grand Axis,” after which the guardians of Hamilton’s “shining city on a hill” betray the city to them. It is unclear from his dystopia when the armies arrived but the 1990s is likely. Up until their arrival and even during their early occupation, we are led to believe that our protagonist was taken up with all the usual business of full-time faculty members—teaching, research, committee work—as they work their way to tenure and promotion to full professor.
For those academic readers of Law and Liberty who suffered through the academic job market crash of 2001, and especially those who continue to suffer under the now-permanent crash of 2008, Paquette’s story is not likely to seem very dystopian. No matter what has come upon academia with the full onslaught of the Grand Axis—all the frustrations and humiliations they impose—Paquette’s protagonist already experienced the best of the best life that higher education had to offer.
Paquette started out poor but happy, and the advent of the Grand Axis left him isolated and humiliated. What is not taken to account is that isolation and humiliation are the status quo today for academics under 40; and in fact the period of which he speaks was by comparison far less bleak. Toward the close of the 20th century, new faculty members were still able to find tenure track jobs in elite history departments. Even those who joined less prestigious institutions were not incurring tremendous debts from attending college or graduate school, nor were they spending years shuffling among temporary and adjunct positions while slogging through rejection upon rejection on the academic job market.
Dozens of colleagues of mine have endured truly dystopian experiences. One academic couple I know both received tenure-track offers, luckily for them, but at different colleges. Each took the job that was offered out of necessity, and they ended up spending the first years of their marriage roughly 700 miles from each other before they found a dual appointment. They could be considered lucky, as I say, for another young scholar of my acquaintance managed a journal, a scholarly society, and a conference while moving to three jobs across the country in four years—at one point getting evicted from his house after his landlord decided to move back into it. This young scholar spent four years among the “precariat,” enduring rejection after rejection before finding a permanent position.
Then there are the many female scholars I know who have worried about delaying having families because of the extreme financial strain they are under. Then there are the first-generation college graduates I know who, after four years, gave up finding academic work and took jobs in the federal government to forestall bankruptcy and worsening mental health problems. One of my acquaintances was teaching an overload at a non-tenure track job and was not given time off to mourn the death of his infant son. While composing this essay, I read a Facebook post by a friend who found himself unable to contain his anguish, writing, in part:
I am at that point in my Ph.D. program where I am staring joblessness in the face in mere months. It is a great wealth to be able to study and have such academic opportunities, and I am immensely grateful for so many blessings. But to see no path for passing on what I have received despite such great sacrifices from my family, and to know no answer for how to provide for them next year, that all brings challenging feelings to a father. But it would be absurd to be called and equipped for such a thing to have it all collapse. Thus, there must be something hidden on the horizon. But I cannot see it, and I am worn out. So many faculty job applications, so much silence, and so much crushing debt for this single income family. We need a break. We need healing for various things. We need prayers and a miracle, perhaps a half dozen miracles.
The Near-Future of Higher Education
The arrival of the Grand Axis is said to have been followed by three major developments: the protagonist’s ostracism, the gutting of the traditional liberal arts curriculum in the name of diversity and inclusion, and the subsequent lowering of his institution’s academic standards. This quasi-fictional account concludes with a kind of “I told you so.” Fine, but the there is more to say about the resurgence of campus protests during just the past couple of years.
American higher education is moving into a new stage, with institutions now suffering the full effects of the protests. The Black Lives Matter student movement provoked demonstrations on campuses like the University of Missouri, and the result was that Mizzou suffered a precipitous drop in enrollment and gifts. Elite liberal arts colleges are similarly exposed, as Oberlin College proved unable to fill all its spots for the class of 2021. Students at the famously progressive Reed College openly revolted when activists occupied the classroom in which college’s required Western Civilization course was being taught. The students just wanted to take their course without all the drama.
It would not be quite right to call this a counter-reformation as much as a correction of excesses. After all, extending higher education to traditionally disadvantaged populations is a good thing. In addition, the coming few years will be one of a tightening market for qualified students in higher education, since these cohorts are simply smaller in number, hence increasing demand among higher educational institutions to enroll them. The “declining standards” Paquette laments may, in fact, simply be market forces at work.
At the same time, Thomas Aquinas College in California, with its traditional liberal arts curriculum, is opening a second campus on the East Coast. Michigan’s Hillsdale College remains a thriving institution. More conventional, elite universities have faculty who are friendly to conservative students, such as departments at the University of Notre Dame, Princeton University, and the University of Houston Honors College. The same is true of liberal arts schools such as Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, not to mention religious liberal arts schools like Assumption College in Massachusetts, Belmont Abbey in North Carolina, Calvin College in Michigan, Yeshiva University in New York, and my own Ave Maria University in Florida.
Students who want a liberal arts education have plenty of options, and many institutions are thriving while meeting that demand. Hamilton College is not one of those colleges, despite Paquette’s admirable efforts. He might consider the example of Anthony Esolen who, after clashing with his colleagues at Providence College, pulled up stakes for Thomas More College. Other institutions would no doubt be happy to have him.
iGen and Economic Insecurity
Not covered in his essay are the underlying motives of undergraduate students today, both the campus activists and their quieter, more numerous cohorts. The so-called “iGen”—those born between 1995 and 2012—often spend more time with screens than pages, and they tend to regard higher education in transactional terms. They fork over dollars in the six figures for a college degree whose importance lies in increasing their chances of securing a place among the vanishing American middle class.
Unlike the under-40 millennial scholars mentioned above, the iGen students did not grow to adulthood and then get waylaid by sudden downturns in their economic futures. Americans of the iGen generation take downturns for granted, since they have been living through them since childhood or early adolescence. In addition, they endured a K-12 education that emphasized utilitarian learning, quantitative assessment, and competition for spots in academic rankings. It is no wonder that the few books that this generation did devour included the Harry Potter series, in which teachers and bureaucrats frustrate the efforts of the student protagonists to learn the magic they need to fend off evil. They also bought in droves The Hunger Games, which is a dystopia that reflects how they see their place in the world: placed into strictly hierarchical ranks according to their output in a society that demands they compete in a deathmatch to avoid compromising the advantages of the older generations.
It is only a small number of current students who would turn away from a liberal arts education out of a belief that it is racist, sexist, transphobic, or what have you. Far more numerous are those who look askance at the liberal arts because, first, they were told they should by educators, corporate leaders, and elected officials pushing STEM education; and second, because they cannot determine their economic utility. In other words, they were raised to embrace the servile arts of mechanics and engineering, whether in material or digital settings.
This greater mass of undergraduates is made up of young men and women who feel isolated and frustrated, but it is not Paquette’s kind of isolation and frustration. They feel as if they were born into a world that has deprived them of real freedom and forced them into a system of economic necessity. The servility of their chosen fields of study reflects the perceived lowliness of their social status, with their precarious economic futures dependent on luck and the caprice of the distant officials who are their elders. One finds that even Black Lives Matter protesters, to judge by some of “the demands” they have lodged at their respective schools, show a remarkable concern for protecting their grade-point averages, and for job openings on campus that either they or those like them might able to fill. Unlike the self-professed “comfortable” activists of the Port Huron Statement, our latter-day radicals keep one eye on the always-lurking economic insecurity that might surface at any moment. It would be prudent to pivot one’s activism into a job prospect.
Beyond the Campus Culture Wars
We need to address, as Paquette does not, the legions of un- or under-employed scholars suffering economic insecurity, the challenging future for higher education institutions to stay open as the market for students declines, and the emerging generation of students who from childhood were taught to prefer servility over liberty. Older academics take for granted economic conditions that are dissolving all around them. The issue is no longer the preservation of liberal arts curricula at elite liberal arts colleges. By now, these institutions have made their choices. The issue now is finding institutions friendly to the liberal arts (elite or otherwise), funding those institutions to keep them open, and assisting those institutions with hiring the precariously employed academics who can teach those undergraduates who are willing to learn.
It’s true that liberal arts curricula and academic disciplines are neglected at too many colleges, but some top public universities are countering these trends.
Whether Americans will lose their faith in a college education is far from certain. Even if they did, a Reformation isn’t necessarily in the offing.
Some colleges have allowed oases to exist, but these are programs. The desirable reform of the liberal arts is curricular not just programmatic.