The widening divide in national politics and the inability to agree to disagree is not only affecting the national discourse but college campuses as well. There is growing concern about the state of higher education today. Many parents see less value in the role of higher education in their children’s future. This is increasingly true as institutions of higher education focus less on graduating students capable of a lifetime of critical thinking, learning, and innovation and instead becoming boot camps for social activism.
Where parents once saw higher education as a way for their children to achieve a fulfilling and possibly lucrative career, many now question whether the investment is worth it. As a parent who places great value on education, I count myself among those parents who increasingly view higher education institutions with skepticism. The rapid rise of critical theories as the intellectual orthodoxy on college campuses, the lack of political diversity, and the diminution of free speech are just a few reasons for concern.
In a recent keynote address, James Lindsay, author of Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody, shared several things that resonated with those concerns. For example, based on the idea that people who do not know who they are and what they believe are easily manipulated, he advocated for restoring core institutions and values currently being attacked by the progressive left.
Lindsay called for reclaiming the institutions of faith, family, education, media, and the law. Additionally, he advocated for reestablishing crucial values such as truth, excellence, responsibility, accountability, merit, and forgiveness. During his speech, he explained how critical race theory has contributed to the decay of these crucial institutions and values, creating a neo-Marxist, racial divide. His lecture was particularly timely based on reports of viewpoint discrimination on campuses throughout Oklahoma.
Future leaders in higher education, administrative leadership and faculty, are being directed to internalize and regurgitate an agenda-driven course of study mainly composed of critical theories, particularly critical race theory. One might reasonably expect a program focused on developing administrators and other education leaders to focus on how to run an institution of higher education, including responsible resource management or how to design curricula and incorporate innovative content delivery that is responsive to a modern understanding of the science of learning. Instead, these future administrators must engage in an academic, cultural, legal, and social revolution boot camp.
Today’s students, including those who will become tomorrow’s leaders, are constantly subjected to one-sided rhetoric that preaches the evils of classical liberalism, free-market capitalism, and even meritocracy. The advent of critical theory as the dogma of higher education seems to have come at the expense of critical thinking.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to colleges and universities teaching ideas with which I disagree. I am okay with critical theories being taught in postsecondary schools so long as other competing theories are given similar treatment and students are taught to think critically and permitted the intellectual space to disagree. It is unacceptable for public higher education institutions to become bastions of dogma when reasonable counterarguments exist on controversial topics. Students deserve to be taught and have access to competing views.
While confirmation bias is natural, it is perilous in homogenous institutions of higher education. In college, students should be exposed to competing ideas that counteract confirmation bias and should be taught how to think critically about differing opinions. Unfortunately, as we have seen with cancel culture, discriminating against certain viewpoints is prevalent in higher education. A restrictive approach to campus speech increases the risk that higher education become an echo chamber of progressive ideology.
In Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt highlight a well-known observation that those who teach in higher education are likely to lean left in their social and political views. It has been that way for many decades. According to one poll, in 2011, left-leaning professors outnumbered right-leaning professors five to one. In some academic fields, the ratio is dramatically higher. For example, that ratio is ten to one in most core humanities and social sciences and seventeen to one in psychology. This divide is even greater in “elite” universities.
While professors should be permitted intellectual freedom, they have plenty of opportunities to proselytize through their research. The classroom should be a place where the quality of rational thought is taught, not where dogmatic ideologies are memorized and regurgitated. Some of the best professors I ever had did not allow their political views to influence classroom discussions. They excelled at helping students think through ideas on both sides of an argument.
Unfortunately, as universities become increasingly ideologically homogenous, students will no longer have meaningful access to divergent intellectual approaches and, consequently, will be hamstrung in critical thinking. It is challenging to think critically about competing views if you only get one side of the argument. Lukianoff and Haidt point out that the lack of political diversity on college campuses denies students exposure to half the political spectrum, leads students to generally come down “left of the truth,” and can transform the academy into an entity that is intolerant of views that challenge the campus’ prevailing political orthodoxy.
While many universities are hyper-focused on diversity, perhaps the focus should be on intellectual and political diversity. Political homogeneity does a great disservice to students in the pursuit of knowledge, truth, and wisdom. Leaders in higher education today need to reclaim higher education institutions as places where students learn how to think, not what to think.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.