It’s college commencement time, and the question is the future of the graduates, whether we will have “capable and cultivated human beings” making this a better America, or something else. The quoted words are from the 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill in a graduation address he made, and my worry has to do with postmodernist campus leftism.
I ran across the quote in a Weekly Standard article by the scholar Peter Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution. While he discusses other higher ed subjects — such as the obvious erosion of free speech and how due process disappears when a male student is accused of sexual assault — he also talks about curriculum decay. It increasingly leaves out “the history of literature, philosophy, religion, politics and war,” he observes.
What curricula do focus on, says the journalist Jonah Goldberg, is identity politics. In his new book, “Suicide of the West,” he points out that Yale offers “at least 26 courses on African-American studies, 64 courses on ‘Ethnicity, Race and Migration,’ and 41 courses under the heading ‘Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies.’” He says he found just two courses on the Constitution.
One of the most disgusting outrages of late was at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where students calling themselves Reedies Against Racism took on a yearlong, freshman course that has been around for years. It is Humanities 110, which, with a number of different lecturers, focused on ancient texts of the Greek and Roman civilizations, Mesopotamia, Persia and the Judeo-Christian tradition. In smaller classes, we’re told by the Wall Street Journal, students engage with each other about what the readings say about truth, justice, virtue, beauty and freedom.
It turns out that this exercise is oppressive, Eurocentric and, well, you know, repulsively focused on the West and supremacist white people, even though it is reported there are plenty of classes that deal with other cultural groups. The protestors weren’t shy. They broke up lectures. They grabbed microphones. They shouted down professors, causing at least one woman fearful anxiety. These obnoxious, ignorant, mean-spirited and bigoted young people did get punished, although the school also reframed the course, saying it was headed in that direction anyway.
Humanities courses have become less and less a thing in our universities and tests have shown a majority of students and even graduates not knowing what high school students should know about American history, for instance. On top of that there’s grade inflation easing pressure on students immersed in a social culture that says smoke that pot and drink that booze, and get it that homework is not nearly as exciting as what can be found in the back seat of a car.
We know, too, that diversity is hugely important in higher education in everything except mentalities of professors. Something like 80 to 90 percent of them are Democrats because, as a couple have explained to me, conservatives are dumb. One wonders whether the ideological cocoon has something to do with surveys showing something like half of all millennials today consider themselves socialists, although they are apparently uneducated in exactly what socialism is.
Meanwhile, governmental student loans have made tuition costs prohibitive to the point of run for the hills, unless there is help from scholarships. What’s more, finding and keeping jobs afterward is not what it used to be. The issue just maybe is not too little emphasis on skills courses, such as business management, but on students not living up to what was once expected from the college educated.
Look, excellence persists in higher education and only a minority of students usually go haywire. But unmistakable trends are not to be ignored, and what we want from colleges is not just people more prepared for the work world, but prepared for life in all its challenges. This brings us back to the capabilities and cultivation Mill spoke of, the enlightened acquisition of critical thought, discernment, the capacity for depth, intellectual sophistication, broad-based knowledge and understanding, a morally curious frame of mind.
It’s hard to get there without the humanities and lessened leftism.
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.