Last fall I taught my last class, ending a teaching career that began in the fall of 1977. During that time I watched as higher education deteriorated under the pressures of leftist ideology, rank careerism, bureaucratic inertia, and philistine utilitarianism. The humanities––English, foreign languages, philosophy, history, the arts––have been particularly corrupted.
Worse, liberal education, the passing on of the traditions, foundational ideas, and collective wisdom of the West, has been virtually banished from most of our schools and colleges. Universities, with a few exceptions, no longer ground students in liberal education, and teach them “to know the best that has been known and thought in the world, irrespective of practice, politics, and everything of the kind; and to value knowledge and thought as they approach this best, without the intrusion of any other consideration whatsoever,” as Matthew Arnold put it, and “through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically.”
Those days are gone. Today our educational institutions are grubby, rent-seeking businesses, and propaganda organs for illiberal, incoherent ideologies based on the “higher nonsense” that has captured “higher education,” and from there trickled down into K-12 schools. No wonder the majority of the products of those failed institutions, like Generation Z, support letting murderers go free, censoring speech that challenges their “stock notions and habits,” joining the anti-carbon “green” cult, and subjecting children to drag-queen shows and inappropriate sexual curricula.
The most important tool in this demolition has been the dishonest idea of “diversity” created out of thin air by the 1978 Bakke decision. The legalization of Constitutionally forbidden discrimination in university admissions and hiring put the weight of federal power behind illiberal identity-politics. As a corollary to the increasing numbers of “protected” classes eligible for affirmative action, there was soon spawned attacks on liberal education for being the products of “dead white males”––not just irrelevant for contemporary students “of color,” but absolutely toxic in their promotion of the defining principles of a peculiarly destructive, racist, imperialist, colonialist Western Civilization, global history’s most heinous villain.
W.E.B Dubois once called reading the great books “cross[ing] the color line,” but in the reign of identity politics it’s scorned as “acting white.”
It was the universities, of course, that also created and promulgated the specious, anti-American, anti-Constitutional narrative justifying this degradation. “Multiculturalism,” a term eclipsed these days by “woke” and “systemic racism,” was the Orwellian tool for imposing identity politics and a mendacious “diversity” on university curricula and policies.
Marketed as merely a recognition of American ethnic diversity and respect for different cultures and ethnicities––a concern of “educators” in the Thirties and Forties, when it was called “pluralism”–– multiculturalism became a melodrama of guilty oppressors and innocent victims. On one side is the wicked West, the purveyors of imperialism, colonialism, racism, sexism, and a generalized contempt for the Rest; on the other side are the peoples “of color” upon whom the West preyed.
This narrative, now repackaged as being “woke,” is a travesty of actual history, as its latest iteration, the “1619 Project,” demonstrates. This attempt to rewrite American history as the chronicle of white supremacy, racism, and slavery, as well as being a rehash of Howard Zinn’s 1980 fantastical The People’s History of the United States, has been refuted by numerous scholars of American history, including liberal ones.
Or take the notion that imperialism and colonialism are uniquely Western evils. But history shows us that peoples migrating, occupying, and exploiting the land and resources of others is the global dynamic of historical change. One of most famous abusers of the scare-terms imperialism and colonialism have been modern Muslims, adherents of a faith that created one of history’s most successful colonial empires.
As Middle East historian Efraim Karsh documents in Islamic Imperialism, “The Arab conquerors acted in a typically imperialist fashion from the start, subjugating indigenous populations, colonizing their lands, and expropriating their wealth, resources, and labor.” And while Europeans have long ago surrendered their colonies, and continue to provide them foreign aid, the descendants of Muslim conquerors and colonizers still occupy lands that were Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian––i.e. Western––for centuries.
Then there’s slavery, a universal human evil found everywhere before the modern age, and regarded as no more exceptional than the domestication of animals. But the now common assumption that slavery is evil started in the West. Only in ancient Greece in the 4th century B.C. can you find an antislavery sentiment like Alcidamas’s unprecedented statement, “The god gave freedom to all men, and nature creates no one a slave.” And it was Christians in England and the U.S. who started the abolitionist movement in the early 19th century that spread, along with Western power and the British Navy, to the whole world.
Or what about sexism? Male domination of women was also universal, despite the myth of matriarchy. But the Western notions of unalienable human rights, political freedom, and equality provided the arguments for women’s liberation from laws and customs that violated these foundational precepts. And it was Western science and technology that liberated women from nature’s ruthless and lethal reproductive imperative, as well as back-breaking physical labor.
Meanwhile, traditional Islamic doctrines have kept women subordinated to men both in custom and in law. The protests roiling Iran today started with a woman murdered by the “Morality Police” for not wearing a hijab––and protesting women who are virgins are raped before being executed, so that they can’t go to heaven. We should also remember the tens of thousands of sex-slaves created by ISIS and other jihadist outfits during their rampage in Syria.
The point is not that Westerners are superior human beings, but that they are the heirs of a dynamic culture that embraces change and improvement over time. The sins of the West are the universal sins of a flawed human nature; but its virtues arose mainly in the West, and from there have expanded everywhere.
Multiculturalism and its “woke” successor have prevailed across our society and politics, from government policy to Disney cartoons, corporate boards and C-Suites, churches, and popular culture. And it thrives because for the last half-century, our universities have abandoned teaching foundational skills, and the liberal education that once taught students how “through this knowledge, [to turn] a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically.”
In other words, our universities have failed in their primary reason for existing: to give citizens the knowledge and principles that make them fit for enjoying and properly exercising the rare gift of political equality, participation, and freedom not limited to the wealthy or well-born. That too is a boon that first arose in the West, a truth acknowledged by the use of “democratic” and “republic” in the names of totalitarian nations.
Finally, cleansing the Augean Stable that comprise our schools is a superhuman task. Too many interests are served, from leftists to corporations, state governments to teachers’ unions. For now our hope lies in the proliferation of school-choice policies, home-schooling, and charter schools. But to paraphrase Adam Smith, there’s a lot of ruin in government agencies. Reclaiming our schools is going to be a long, hard slog.