The Conservative’s Guide to Having Ineffective Education Debates
Impotent caterwauling about colleges and universities has a long and hallowed tradition on the American right. Think of William F. Buckley, often deified in the political imagination as the best that the right wing could ever produce. He launched his career with a book called God and Man at Yale, complaining about the immoral drift of teaching at an elite Ivy League university. When this was published in the early 1950s, only about 7.5% of white males finished four years of college (see here), and they were far ahead of everybody else. By 2014, as reported by PBS, roughly 40% of working Americans of all races held a college degree. Today the 1950s curriculum that worried Buckley feels like idyllic nostalgia.
Not only did the teaching plummet in quality, but the costs rose exorbitantly, debts ballooned, and academia created a vast empire of godless wackos, thugs, and perverts (hence the title of my book, Wackos Thugs & Perverts, which I humbly recommend).
Buckley’s mission could almost be described as prophetic; he stood watching the spiritual collapse of a great nation and sought to stop the downfall from happening. Yet his mission also became a disturbing cottage industry. Many conservatives made fabulous names for themselves complaining about the pitiable state of academia. Indeed, generations of right-wing leaders internalized the basic concept that a true conservative must confront the left in the realm of ideas.
Right-wingers pioneered new solutions: homeschooling, for-profit colleges, think-tanks, independent book clubs, and conservative accredited universities. But there’s a problem: everything conservatives did failed. The problem got worse, and worse, and worse, until now the whole country feels imperiled by the possibility that colleges have destroyed the minds of so many tens of millions of people, there may simply be no way to correct course.
I traveled to Budapest for the World Congress of Families in May 2017. While there, in this romantic city sometimes called the “Paris of the East,” I had a unique opportunity to speak with academics who survived the Communist occupation. The oppression they described sounds similar to the evils haunting American colleges and universities: show trials, smear campaigns, surveillance, censorship, secret files, spies, students snitching on teachers, blacklisting, and the rest. As I spoke with one woman only ten years older than I, she said: “We follow what is happening in American universities with a lot of heartbreak. We have been there before. The difference is we never had that many people enrolled in colleges.”
Where do we expect these legions of “crybullies,” rioters, student council despots, and bias-incident informants to go? They have absorbed a passive-aggressive civics of speech codes, orthodoxy, and Orwellian language games, which they find mirrored in the culture all around them. Like the Red youths churned through the Bolshevik thought factories, they may take over the country and do to America what the SJWs did to Middlebury. A lot is at stake.
Is it enough? Is it enough that Buckley and his intellectual descendants saw the problem and named it? I am not so sure that hagiographies or awards for defending freedom are in order. With the resources, connections, and intelligence that conservatives had, their 65-year battle for the campuses stands out as a uniquely spectacular failure, a flop of Biblical proportions. The prophet Zechariah summarized the fiasco of “God and man at Yale” in the swinging 510s BC in Jerusalem:
For the idols speak falsehood
And the diviners see illusions;
They relate empty dreams
And offer empty comfort.
Therefore the people wander like sheep;
They suffer affliction for there is no shepherd.
My anger burns against the shepherds,
So I will punish the leaders (Zechariah 10:2)
In simpler terms, we always have what Jesus said: “If the blind guide the blind, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14).
A Dynasty of Prophets: On higher education, we have had a dynasty of prophets: Lionel Trilling, Allan Bloom, Roger Kimball, Dinesh D’Souza, David Horowitz, Mike Adams, and Ben Shapiro. But were they shepherds? Was I a shepherd? I must ask myself that with more than a little remorse. These famous education critics have all held honored stations in a Via Dolorosa, sharing their prescient distaste for the direction of America’s intelligentsia in tones ranging from lugubrious to histrionic to snarky.
But when are conservatives going to get serious about stopping what is far deadlier than just a few frat boys being taught ungodly things about Nietzsche at Yale? The Republicans have an astonishing level of control over the government. When will they take decisive action to stop the rot in colleges? My book outlines six practical and doable steps—doable if we are willing to avail ourselves boldly of our republican powers—and I summarized them in the Daily Caller. But interestingly, my article mocking California State University for its campus lunacy got 1,125 Facebook shares while my piece on how to change higher education with shrewd legislative strategy received a total of … 15. I suspect three or four of those were me!
I’ve given umpteen interviews (most linked here), recorded almost 100 podcasts with around 25,000 listens, and strained my friendships with increasingly risky commentary (see here, here, and here). Liberal readers will hear nothing about changing academia. Conservatives have to be the ones to save America from this—but they are incurably hooked on their diet of impotent caterwauling. They do not like being forced to consider the drastic but necessary measures that could plausibly turn the situation around.
Part of me says, “oh, just give up. This 747 is going to crash into the Himalayas, you angered just about everyone you know, you’ve done your part. Shut up and let whatever’s going to happen happen.”
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