I started this current series to discuss what is wrong with our country and what we need to do to fix it. While I have discussed some of the topics that I will be including in this series, they have been included in other articles. In this series I will concentrate on a single topic. This will also mean that some of the articles may be slightly shorter than my readers have grown accustomed to, however they will still be written with the same attention to detail. This series will have no set number of articles and will continue to grow as I come across additional subjects.
‘Like A Band-Aid On Gangrene’: Why Forgiving Student Loans Is Unconstitutional
President Joe Biden recently announced that he is going to forgive $10,000 of student loan debt for those who make less than $125,000 ($20,000 to Pell Grant recipients). Contrary to the pontification of the political pendants promoting the President’s plan, the debt does not magically disappear. Instead, the debt is transferred from the individual students to the national debt.
This student loan transfer program is an accounting gimmick taking over $300 billion in secured national debt and transforming it into unsecured national debt.
I agree that the cost of education has far outpaced inflation or the earning potential of students. Schools are not on the hook if the student can’t pay the loan back. Over the last several decades, school administrations have become bloated with bureaucracy. Schools are so focused on increasing their budgets that they are not ensuring that the students have the education necessary to enter the job market with skills that the workforce needs.
Many are talking about how unfair this is to those who chose not to take out student loans or have already paid them off. Regardless of whether this is fair or unfair, the biggest problem is that the U.S. Constitution does not give spending power to the president. Article 1, Section 7 reserves for Congress the power of the purse.
In reading the Fact Sheet put out by the White House, I could not find one word that even attempted to explain how the president had the authority to forgive these loans. I have studied this issue and I cannot find anyone who can show me any provision in the statute that gives the president this authority.
Late yesterday, however, the General Counsel for the Department of Education published a memorandum opinion revealing how they think the President is justified to make this loan transfer.
This memorandum is just the government lawyers opinion on how they think they can expand the authority of their boss. Congress gave the President the authority to modify the payment schedule of a loan during a local or national emergency so that a student who is affected by the emergency is not put in a worse position financially.
This memorandum makes the false assumption that since the President can modify the payment schedule during an emergency, Congress intended them to be able to modify the outstanding balance. The memorandum does not change the fact that Congress has the constitutional power of the purse and they never gave the President the power to reallocate debt from secured debt to unsecured debt.
Our founding fathers believed that allowing Congress to control taxing and spending would be a strong check against the executive branch from becoming just like a tyrannical monarch. They understood the disastrous consequences that would occur if one individual could control the nation’s finances.
Our founders understood the need to limit the powers of the executive. They understood the need to balance the powers between the states and the various branches of the federal government. Rather than give the executive power over the purse, our founders gave this power to Congress. Congress makes the decisions on how we spend our taxpayers’ dollars.
While some argue that we forgave large loans under the PPP, this is not a fair apples-to-apples comparison. Congress authorized the PPP program that way from day one. Businesses who took out PPP loans knew that if they dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s they would not have to pay that money back. Regardless of whether this was a good policy should not cloud the discussion about the president’s unprecedented power grab to render Congress unessential. If a president has the power over the purse, why have a Congress? Let’s just eliminate Congress, let’s just eliminate the Senate and the president will have complete control over every aspect of the federal government.
The terms set out by Congress on these student loans are that the student would have to pay it back and that they could not file bankruptcy to avoid paying the loan. A president does not have veto power over laws that have already been enacted by their predecessors.
I agree we must have a serious discussion about the abuses that have led to the $1.6 trillion in student debt. We need to make these schools more responsive to the needs of the community and the students that they serve. However, two wrongs do not make a right. Just because schools have abused the student loan program, does not mean that we should throw away our constitutional republic and allow America to be ruled by a tyrannical dictator.
Transferring $300 billion of secured debt to unsecured debt is not going to fix the $1.6 trillion- problem. Even if Biden had the authority to transfer this student debt to the shoulders of future American taxpayers, this executive action is only paying lip service to the problems. Biden is just putting a bandaid on gangrene. There is a major problem that needs to be solved and Biden is just kicking the can down the road while placating his political supporters.
American Democracy Is Sick. Can Colleges Be Part of the Cure?
Nancy Thomas has plenty of experience talking to college students about American democracy. Still, she didn’t expect the question one student asked her during a recent symposium at a university.
Was the election stolen?
“I was stunned. This is a person on a college campus. I said, ‘Unequivocally, there is no evidence of widespread fraud or that the election was stolen,’” recalls Thomas, the director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University. “The mere fact that a student is asking me that is evidence that student isn’t getting the memo on how to spot disinformation and lies.”
Thomas has long worried about whether higher education prepares students for the responsibilities of democracy. These days, she’s not alone. Educators are alarmed, and surveys of people ages 18 to 24 about the state of America’s democracy and values show “there is sort of a consensus among young people that they’re worried,” says Kelly Siegel-Stechler, a senior researcher at the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
There’s long been a belief that a more perfect civic education can lead to a more perfect union. Colleges tried service learning. Then they pushed to get out the vote. But the political events and rhetoric of the past few years—culminating in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol—have heightened the sense of urgency that higher education do something more to patch the widening cracks in American democracy. In an era of viral digital disinformation, eroding governance norms and increased political violence, the same old campus “civic engagement” programs no longer seem sufficient.
So now colleges are rethinking their efforts. In June, the University of Virginia announced that a new Institute of Democracy is in the works. In July, the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University won a grant to create a research framework about colleges and democracy. September saw the birth of the Civic Learning and Democracy Engagement coalition, led by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Complete College America, College Promise and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.
“We see this as central: to preserve democracy by drawing people together in civic discourse grounded in the civic purpose of higher education,” says Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Several of these new initiatives have a specific focus on racial equity. The idea is to educate students “for a strong and inclusive democracy,” says Thomas, the Tufts researcher. “It’s not the democracy we have, it’s the democracy we want and need. A more aspirational democracy.”
But at a time when officials in dozens of states are pressuring educators not to teach about race, programs that are “committed to an ethos of justice” are bound to “be alienating to some people,” says Demetri L. Morgan, a founder of the Higher Education & Diverse Democracy Project.
And even as some observers may critique new efforts as going too far, others worry they won’t go far enough toward equity—by teaching more explicitly about extremism, or embracing the political participation of student activists, or addressing the needs of students who lack resources.
“Oftentimes when people invoke ‘democracy,’ they want it to be for everybody, and then we depoliticize it,” says Morgan, an assistant professor of higher education at Loyola University Chicago. “What are we not going to equivocate on and not be willing to settle on?”
‘No Consensus’ About Citizenship and College
Ask how U.S. colleges got into the democracy business, and you may get a bit of a history lesson. There was President Truman’s “Higher Education for American Democracy” report from the 1940s. There was John Dewey’s book “Democracy and Education” from 1916. Laurent Dubois, who directs democracy programs at the University of Virginia, takes it back further, to the period he studies, the Age of Enlightenment.
“The idea that you could study humanity, understand humanity—and therefore contribute to better societies, better systems, better government—suffuses the work of the American founders,” Dubois says. “The modern university has roots before the 18th century, but a lot of it is shaped from that kind of culture, basically of optimism, that you could study the world and improve it by studying it.”
The very process of studying “can really embody some democratic ideals,” Dubois adds. On a campus—at least, in theory—students and professors are free and encouraged to explore, express and exchange ideas with others who have different backgrounds and perspectives—making it, Dubois says, the type of “shared space of compromise” required for a democracy to work.
Then there’s the fact that colleges are institutions of great social and economic influence, both within local communities and nationwide. Millions of people learn at them, work for them, and live near them.
“It gives them stature—or at least a toehold—as conveners, problem-solvers, educators,” Thomas says.
Research has indeed found links between higher education and participation in and attitudes toward democracy. People who complete college are more civically active and knowledgeable. In the U.S., people with at least a bachelor’s degree have “especially weak inclinations toward authoritarian political preferences,” according to a 2020 report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
Why exactly this is the case is not totally clear, however. It may be because of the liberal arts curriculum, the Georgetown report suggests. Or perhaps because a college degree often improves people’s economic security. Bringing different types of people together to learn from each other and “communicate across differences” might also help. So could the influence of peers on voting and other civic behaviors.
The list goes on and on. Higher education is bursting with classroom and extracurricular “interventions” that can “spur these civic engagements and attitudes,” says Matthew J. Mayhew, a professor of educational administration at The Ohio State University who studies the effects of college on the worldviews of students.
But ultimately, he adds, “there’s no consensus on exactly what citizenship is deconstructed to look like.”
The interventions colleges have intentionally tried haven’t all been especially successful. The rise of campus service learning—education that incorporates volunteering—may be one example. A 2012 report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that more than 70 percent of college students reported participating in service learning—yet also that, over time, students’ actual civic learning “is neither robust nor pervasive.”
It’s very easy to do a service learning experience but not learn that we don’t have free and fair elections in some parts of this country.
“It’s very easy to do a service learning experience but not learn that we don’t have free and fair elections in some parts of this country, or our judiciary may or may not be independent at this point,” Thomas says. “There are many acts of citizenship that colleges promote, but where do they go?”
The most recent civic engagement trend to sweep higher education has been “a hyper-focus on voter engagement,” according to Morgan, a focus largely agnostic about who students actually vote for. And in recent elections, youth voter turnout has been notably high.
Yet if the Jan. 6 insurrection is a kind of report card on higher education’s efforts to strengthen democracy—and Morgan argues that it is—driving students to the polls may have failed to improve the country’s civic health.
In the aftermath of that violent episode, experts offer varying diagnoses and prescriptions. Educators need to be better trained to help students grow into citizens, Mayhew argues. Courses need to teach more explicitly about white nationalism and “creeping authoritarianism,” Thomas says. Colleges need to be bolder, Morgan adds.
“Who could be against voting? Who could be against volunteerism?” Morgan asks. “Every time there’s a rousing cry and call for higher education to be more engaged in safeguarding democracy and democracy building, what we see is higher ed chooses this safe, apolitical route.”
What About Activism?
Talk to college leaders and researchers about American democracy, and you’ll hear the same word repeated: “aspirational.” Democracy and higher education have that in common. Both systems boast of soaring ideals that don’t always match reality.
It’s true that, compared to the days when many colleges were largely reserved for wealthy white men, “access to higher education is far more democratic than it used to be,” Thomas says. Participation broadened notably after WWII, when federal education benefits helped (mostly white) veterans go to college, and in the late 1970s, when women passed men as the majority on campus. Meanwhile, historically Black colleges have long been champions of what scholar Monica P. Smith calls not civic engagement, but “liberation engagement”—efforts that “address systemic problems that oppress people within the democracy.”
“When you educate historically marginalized groups, you are educating for empowerment. You are educating for leadership. And it’s their reason for being,” Thomas says. “They have the corner on the market in doing it, just by virtue of the constituencies they serve.”
Now, about two-thirds of high school graduates enroll immediately in higher education (although a much smaller share end up completing a degree). Still, race and class disparities persist at colleges. And just as people left behind by democracy have had to push the system to live up to its promises, the same seems true in higher education. Yet even as the field shifts to thinking about “equity-committed civic learning”—in the words of the Civic Learning and Democracy Engagement coalition—that kind of activism is not always welcomed on campus, or viewed as a legitimate form of political participation.
“Nobody wants to be in the newspaper,” Thomas says. “It’s almost like one force pushing for issue awareness and knowledge and discussion and leadership, but then this countervailing force stops at the doorstep of activism and protest or anything disruptive to the college environment.”
Charles H. F. Davis III studies student organizing—he and Morgan co-edited a book on the subject. And his research makes him skeptical of what campus civic engagement programs can offer to student activists.
Activism at its best is what makes democracy accountable to itself.
—Charles H. F. Davis III
“Activism at its best is what makes democracy accountable to itself,” says Davis, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education. “Electoral politics, service learning, or civic engagement I think are very different.”
Sometimes, Davis argues, college leaders use institutional systems that have a civic engagement veneer to co-opt students’ political power. It might look like inviting a prominent activist to serve as student body president. Or creating a task force to study student policy demands slowly, over many years. Or turning a Black cultural space on campus into a multicultural center for all students.
Davis also isn’t convinced that college campuses—where segregation exists in majors, housing and social life—are inherently democratic environments. Or that encouraging college students to communicate across their differences typically leads to positive outcomes for students of color.
“They don’t want their lives to be made intellectual matters,” Davis says. “We reduce things that are deeply racist, sexist, homophobic to ‘matters of opinion,’ as if those don’t have consequences.”
Equity in Action
What student activists do tend to want is access to resources—or shifts in how universities use their resources within their broader communities, Davis explains. And that’s not necessarily what institutions are prioritizing in the latest iteration of their democracy-focused programs.
“We’re finally seeing conversations about equity. My opinion is, it’s pretty lukewarm,” Morgan says. “It’s not reflected in the leadership of organizations. It’s not reflected in the model they’re putting forth.”
But what if some of the goals of student activists and higher education leaders are more closely aligned than they realize? What if rethinking access to resources could actually make a difference in civic learning outcomes—a bigger difference than the other strategies colleges have tried in the past?
That’s one of Morgan’s theories. He points to research showing that the experiences students have in educational contexts sets their expectations for how responsive other institutions will be to them throughout their lives.
“If I grow up in a school where I feel like my voice is heard, I know who to go to for change, and I see that effected, that’s going to give me a much greater sense of political efficacy throughout my life than if I don’t have those kinds of experiences as a young person,” says Siegel-Stechler of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
In this framing, students come into colleges expecting to be treated in certain ways, and having access to a more-equitable and responsive experience might change their trajectories, especially for students who didn’t grow up accompanying their parents to the polls or talking about elections around the dinner table. Maybe the key to getting students to vote and participate in public life later on is not to give them more or different civics courses or volunteer opportunities, but to empower them—all of them.
“College can level that playing field by creating really positive experiences for minoritized students—pathways and models for how students can engage in those experiences—and translate that to other democratic practices,” Morgan says. “How do we create higher-ed spaces where minoritized students can be successful and flourish?”
Naming equity as a goal in civic learning is one challenge. Figuring out what that looks like in action is another.
But Morgan thinks it’s worth the effort for higher education: “It’s one of the few institutions left, arguably, that can ameliorate the challenges of democracy—but also produce and establish a citizenry that is prepared for building democracy anew.”
(Higher) Education Is Destroying America
“[Y]ou offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they … seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.” – Plato’s Phaedrus
“I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University,” conservative icon William F. Buckley notoriously remarked. I have always thought of his oft-quoted quip as just that: a clever quip. But we have reached the point today where, given the choice Buckley was contemplating, I would vote for the 2,000 Average Joes over the 2,000 professors in a heartbeat. Even in a firmly Democratic-blue city like Boston, where the politics of ordinary citizens might resemble the professors’ political preferences far more than they would resemble mine, I wholeheartedly believe that those 2,000 random names would bring to the task of governance more common sense and more diversity of opinion. They would ultimately create a healthier, more vibrant and more livable society. And I strongly suspect that I am increasingly far from alone in that view.
Consider this apparent paradox: commanding, as they do, behemoth corporate entities, the media, the entertainment industry and the social media and tech hubs of Silicon Valley, the educated today arguably wield more power, influence and ubiquitous social control than they have ever wielded in American history, and yet they are also as scorned and distrusted as they have ever been. The prevalence of loony conspiracy theories on the political right notwithstanding, less educated people have their reasons for feeling conspired against and for distrusting those who are ostensibly their betters. They distrust the educated contingent’s claims to knowledge and expertise because they both consciously and instinctively know that such “experts” can no longer be trusted, that knowledge claims by the educated elites now routinely come packaged with liberal doses of barely concealed political prejudice. Experts are the ones who tell us that Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden will defeat Donald Trump in a blowout and that Democrats are set to pick up significant gains and take control of both houses of Congress in the 2020 election. Experts are the unelected backroom technocrats at Twitter and Google who take it upon themselves, despite having transparent political biases and no obvious qualifications for such roles, to intervene on the side of “Truth” in complex political and factual debates — inevitably citing as backup for their decisions some of their favorite sources, such as CNN or The Washington Post — and then proceed to label, take down, bury and censor competing claims and their conservatives or contrarian sources. Experts are the ones who issue confident pronouncements about Covid-19, only to issue inconsistent but equally confident pronouncements a few weeks or months later, the ones who tell us masks don’t help to protect healthy individuals only to completely reverse that guidance, the ones who command us that frequenting religious services, Trump rallies, restaurants, hair salons or family gatherings poses a mortal risk to our health while turning a blind eye to or even throwing full support behind massive #BLM protests or disregarding their own edicts and going unmasked into chic hair salons or large parties at expensive French restaurants. And, as I’ll have reason to discuss in more detail below, the kind of “expertise” that emanates from the mainstream media or the educational establishment is egregious in its political biases.
The reason for the problem is simple: the “educated” have become a stale, stagnant monoculture, a culture within which groupthink reigns, within which prejudice predominates, bad ideas go unchallenged and the worst ideas get insulated from scrutiny by strictly enforced taboos. In fact, the more “elite” the quality and quantity of the education people receive, the more herd-minded, prejudiced and intolerant of dissent they become. The danger of this predicament is not just one for political conservatives to bear; when a diversity of ideas is choked out by years of ideological indoctrination and enforced conformity, when thought police patrol our public and private spaces and factual claims and ideas remain untested in the crucible of free and open debate, the resulting harm is borne by all. As I will explain in what follows, the ultimate issue springs from a tectonic shift in the complexion of our educational institutions. It will not be solved until those institutions are shaken to their very foundations and remade from the ground up.
In recent studies, education — the very thing that is supposed to open minds — has repeatedly been found, instead, to create closed-minded filter bubbles. A 2019 study by the polling and analytics firm PredictWise, retained by The Atlantic for the purpose of analyzing partisan prejudice, found that a high level of education was strongly correlated with political intolerance. The Atlantic reported as well on prior research from University of Pennsylvania professor Diana Mutz that had concluded that “white, highly educated people are relatively isolated from political diversity” and that “people who went to graduate school have the least amount of political disagreement in their lives.” Mutz’s explanation was that such people are less likely to talk with those who disagree with them.
A 2019 study by the “More in Common” project that analyzed the accuracy of people’s perceptions about their ideological opposites reached similar conclusions. Among its notable findings was that “the more educated a person is, the worse their Perception Gap” — their distorted view of and tendency to attribute extreme positions to those on the “other side.” But the “one critical exception” to this finding is that it applies only to Democrats, not Republicans:
[W]hile Republicans’ misperceptions of Democrats do not improve with higher levels of education, Democrats’ understanding of Republicans actually gets worse with every additional degree they earn. This effect is so strong that Democrats without a high school diploma are three times more accurate than those with a postgraduate degree.
Why does this differentiation exist? The “More in Common” research echoes Diana Mutz’s conclusion: “Highly educated Democrats are the most likely to say that ‘most of [their] friends’ share their political beliefs.” While the political composition of Republicans’ circle of acquaintances does not correlate with education, for Democrats the correlation is very direct: the more education they receive, the less likely they are to associate with anyone who disagrees with them. And there is good reason to believe that the composition of those with whom one pals around plays a causal role in creating polarized groupthink: as research by Cass Sunstein, David Schkade and Reid Hastie has demonstrated, when people spend time discussing issues with like-minded others, their views predictably become more extreme.
Education’s Left Turn
Has education always cooked up an over-saturated brew bubbling over with an overpowering flavor of left ideological extremism? No. Pew Research Center findings from 2016 show a widening ideological gap between 1994 and 2015 among those who are more versus less educated. One metric examined the extent to which people’s views have become monolithically down-the-line liberal or conservative over the years. In 1994, one percent of those whose educations stopped after their high school graduation or even earlier leaned “consistently liberal,” while that number was four percent for those with “some college,” five percent for college graduates and seven percent for post-grads — a small upward progression but, all in all, not a massive difference. By 2015, however, the educational divide had become a gulf: five percent of those in the high-school-or-less category were consistently liberal in their views, but those numbers were 12% of those with some college, 24% of college graduates and 31% of post-grads. No similar pattern obtained for those who were “consistently conservative.” Both in 1994 and in 2015, the percentage of down-the-line conservatives hovered between six percent and 11 percent across all education categories, with no particular correlation with education to be found. The massive growth in the consistently liberal-minded over the course of these two decades had not come at the expense of conservatives, but rather, largely at the expense of those with less partisan and more “mixed” political views. While 53% of the “high school or less” crowd had held ideologically “mixed” views in 1994 and 48% held mixed views in 2015, among post-grads, that number had declined from 38% in 1994 to 24% in 2015. The conclusion: something has shifted dramatically over the course of the past 20 years to yield a direct correlation between how many years of education we have had and the extent to which we are immersed in an across-the-board liberal monoculture.
What changed is education itself. Beginning in the late 1980s — not long before the political opinions of the “educated” began to veer sharply to the left — education itself went from being a universally touted pathway to personal enlightenment and professional advancement to becoming a one-sided purveyor of political ideology. Belying any notion that university professors are inherently liberal-minded mainly because liberals are simply more curious and open-minded than their conservative brethren, not so very long ago, a fairly even split in political affiliations could still be found: in 1984, 39% of college faculty identified as left/liberal, while 34% identified as right/conservative, as reported in a 2005 paper from Stanley Rothman et al. A massive sea-change materialized over the course of the ensuing decade-and-a-half, according to the same paper: by 1999, 72% of faculty (and 81% among humanities faculty) identified as left/liberal, and 15% identified as conservative. By 2018, the situation had become still more dire, especially at the most elite universities. A comprehensive National Association of Scholars report from April 2018 headed by Mitchell Langbert of Brooklyn College, which tracked the political registrations of 8,688 tenure-track professors at top liberal arts colleges, found that “78.2 percent of the academic departments in [his] sample have either zero Republicans, or so few as to make no difference.” At the leftward end of the spectrum were the newly emerged ideological fields, such as gender studies and Africana studies, in which there was not “a single Republican with an exclusive appointment.” Again, casting serious doubt upon any notion that academics are overwhelmingly liberal simply because liberals are better suited to be eggheads, the political affiliations of university administrators are now similarly skewed far to the left. A 2018 survey of 900 college administrators by Samuel J. Abrams of Sarah Lawrence College revealed that 71% identified as liberal, and only 6% identified as conservative.
I have explored the causes of this seismic shift at length elsewhere, and suffice it to say here that the gradual replacement of a highly literate elite by a techno-financial elite dislodged the academic humanities from their once-vaunted perch in which they had served a pragmatic economic function (not a function that I believe true higher education should serve in any event, as I will make clear later). This change opened the door for a takeover of these departments by 60s radicals entering their 40s and 50s and positions of peak influence in the mid-to-late 1980s and 1990s. These original culture warriors succeeded in repurposing the humanities (dragging other university departments behind them to greater or lesser extents), deflecting them from the tasks of education, enlightenment and career prep and re-orienting them to the mission of social critique. The academic humanities, having been displaced from their prestigious mission of preparing a new generation for elite careers, found a new way of clawing back what they had lost by adopting a less practical but, in their eyes, still more critical mission: preparing a new generation of those who could claim elite status by virtue of their ability to stand in judgment over the rest of us. They spawned a new array of ideological victimology departments within academia and a market for diversity consultants and sensitivity training within corporate America and for hysterical and sensationalized media coverage of alleged oppression and persecution of “marginalized” and “vulnerable” minorities of every sort.
Distorted Academic Priorities
It is the lack of ideological diversity, not liberal bias per se, that presents the bigger challenge. I would not want universities or other institutions to be dominated by conservative groupthink any more than I want the current alternative. Thoroughgoing conservative bias at universities that are supposed to cultivate out-of-the-box thinking and groundbreaking research would, I assume, result in stagnation. But this is not the reality with which we are dealing. What we have is overwhelming liberal bias, not conservative bias. And liberal bias at institutions principally intended to instill a love of learning, an appreciation of a great tradition and the pursuit of lux et veritas creates its own specific problems.
A recent study from SUNY New Paltz’s Glenn Geher et al. — a study, it should be noted, that the authors had trouble publishing because of its politically explosive conclusions — building upon the prior work of prominent NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt, found that the profound liberal bias in much of academia today is not without consequence. The researchers surveyed 177 academics in a variety of universities about their political orientations and personality characteristics as measured on the “Big Five” model of personality and then asked them to assign weights to five possible priorities: academic rigor, academic freedom, student emotional well-being, social justice and the advancement of knowledge. What they found is not surprising, but it is disturbing: liberal professors were significantly more likely to place a higher value on social justice and student emotional well-being than were their conservative colleagues, who tended to place a higher value on academic rigor and the advancement of knowledge. While many modern-day liberal academics — whether following in the tradition leading back to the prominent mid-20th century liberal Columbia sociologist C. Wright Mills or of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci — believe in activist scholarship, few of us would disagree that if academic rigor and the advancement of knowledge are not at the very forefront of university professors’ priorities, the reputation and reliability of scholarship suffers, and mass skepticism of the politicized professoriate starts to seem justified. Still more concerning is that these researchers found that, of the academics surveyed, those who taught in schools of education — the places that teach the teachers to whom our kids are handed over for instruction — were the most likely to hold social justice and student emotional well-being in highest esteem. Indeed, we are seeing pre-college education today becoming both radicalized (with 79% of teachers leaning left, including 87% of high school teachers and 97% of English teachers, and becoming increasingly hostile to religion, so much so that they are one of the primary causes of its decline) and racialized (with school systems throughout the country beginning to teach The New York Times’ discredited, ahistorical and hate-filled “1619 Project” as actual history).
Finally, the study found the Big-Five personality trait of “agreeableness” to be positively correlated with a preference for social justice and student emotional well-being and negatively correlated with academic rigor and advancement of knowledge. While the researchers’ proffered explanation for that result is that agreeable people are more likely to be “inclined to help students with issues that are not strictly academic,” my interpretation of their data would be different: agreeableness is known to be correlated with “conformity to social norms and expectations,” while disagreeable people are less concerned with what others think. Because liberal pro-social justice dogma is unquestionably an ascendant orthodoxy at universities, while dissent requires real intestinal fortitude, it makes total sense that those who are most agreeable are most likely to follow the herd. From this standpoint, therefore, the disturbing aspect of the role of agreeableness in these research results is that it signals that many academics are not so much joining a dominant consensus due to their own independently reasoned conclusions as they are, for fear of bucking the tide, reflexively hopping aboard a bandwagon — and, in the end, adding dead weight to what is fast becoming a sinking ship.
Sowing Ignorance and Stifling Debate
As I have already begun to suggest above, the impact of this comparatively rapid transformation in the core complexion of university staff upon the rest of society has been monumental and remains one of the great under-reported stories of the past few decades. Today, nearly three-quarters of students enrolled in U.S. News & World Report’s top ten colleges identify as liberal, while only 15% identify as conservative. Far from cultivating any spirit of open-minded inquiry of the sort one might expect to be the outcome of a university education, however — but consistent with the findings of the Glenn Geher et al. research profiled above — those top universities are leading the anti-intellectual crackdown against “disfavored” viewpoints. Here, according to FIRE’s survey of 20,000 students from a variety of American universities from earlier this year, are some of their attitudes concerning measures they think may appropriately be taken with respect to speakers with whom they disagree:
|Students from Universities Ranked 50 or Below||Students from Top 10-Ranked Universities|
|Okay to tear down speaker flyers/announcements||60%||73%|
|Okay to block entrances to speaker events||37%||50%|
|Okay to use violence to stop speakers||17%||21%|
These numbers, as a whole, will be disturbing to anyone who values open-minded intellectual inquiry, but the numbers from top-ranked universities are especially alarming, showing a pronounced inability on the part of our purpotedly “best and brightest” to abide opposing views.
More evidence concerning the unrepresentative and muddle-headed beliefs of the highly educated comes from the large 2018 “Hidden Tribes” demographic survey of political attitudes. The survey found that the left-most grouping — those who could be described as “Progressive Activists” — are the wealthiest and most educated subgroup in America, with 59% of this overwhelmingly white subgroup having completed college, as contrasted with a 29% average in the general population. Such people are far more likely to be politically engaged (73% as compared to a general-population average of 35%) and, for that reason, “have an outsized role in political debates.” Such people are also obsessed with what they perceive to be racism, sexism and other identity-based discrimination, and a whopping 69% of them (as compared to 24% of all Americans) are “ashamed to be American.”
Zach Goldberg’s 2019 discussion of data pertaining to such white liberals documents the fact that their leftward shift in beliefs is of relatively recent vintage but largely predates Trump’s Presidency and is, thus, not attributable to him or his policies. Among the highlights:
- The percentage of these liberals who thought anti-black discrimination to be a “very serious” problem did not change much between 1996 (27%) and 2010 (25%), yet it shot up to 47% in 2015 and to 58% in 2016.
- In 1995, 2000 and 2007, white liberals were evenly split among those who thought the criminal justice system fair to blacks and those who thought it biased against them. But by 2014, there was a 70%/20% gap in favor of those who thought the system biased.
- 29% of white liberals perceived there to be “a great deal” of discrimination against immigrants in 2000; in 2013, that number had risen to 57%. The percentage of liberals feeling “very sympathetic” to illegal immigrants rose from 22% to 42% between 2006 and 2014.
Notably, in each of these cases — and especially in the cases of racial issues, with our first black President having still been in office through the end of 2016 — there was no obvious, relevant real-world change for the worse that would have spurred the very significant attitudinal change reflected in these numbers. It is the skewed content of their education, not rational considerations spurred by real-world changes, that is getting these highly educated liberals to alter their views.
At least four more of Goldberg’s conclusions with respect to these white liberals merit attention:
- The attitudes of these liberals on race issues and immigration issues are significantly to the left of the attitudes of the very minorities they claim to represent.
- These white liberals have recently developed a significant pro-outgroup bias, meaning that, by a significant margin, they prefer other racial groups to their own. Goldberg calls such an unusual bias “unprecedented,” and of course, no other group — blacks, Hispanics, Asians or non-liberal whites — exhibits such a bias.
- Their “lack of awareness of how fast and far their attitudes have shifted fosters an illusion of conservative extremism,” whereas the data indicates that “[i]n reality, the conservatives of today are not all that different from the conservatives of years past.”
- Consistent with the conclusion of the “Hidden Tribes” survey, Goldberg observes that while “[w]hite liberals make up 20-24% of the general population, … [they] exert an outsize political and cultural influence. They are more likely to consider themselves activists, are more active on social media, and, significantly, they are one of the most affluent groups in the country.”
That last point, in particular, merits further reflection. Rich, university-educated white liberals are precisely the kinds of people who rise to prominent and influential positions in what used to be called “media” but what, at this point (for much the same reasons professional wrestling is now commonly known as “sports entertainment”) should rightfully be called the “infotainment industry” — combining, as it does, the likes of formerly white-shoe, traditional media publications that have long since buttoned down and given themselves over to unvarnished advocacy, shameless scandal-sheet propagandists, social media “influencers,” Silicon Valley tech authoritarians, moralizing musicians, woke jocks and other species of shrill B-list celebrities.
As The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf has written, “The New York Times, New York, The Intercept, Vox, Slate, The New Republic, and other outlets are today less ideologically diverse in their staff and less tolerant of contentious challenges to the dominant viewpoint of college-educated progressives than they have been in the recent past.” Predictably, the role of the infotainment industry in broadcasting out to the masses the messages our politicized educators have taught them cannot be understated. The “Perception Gap” research of the “More in Common” project that I discussed above reaches this conclusion about the depressing role of the media in driving distorted perceptions of reality:
You might think that people who regularly read the news are more informed about their political opponents. In fact, the opposite is the case. We found that the more news people consumed, the larger their Perception Gap. People who said they read the news “most of the time” were nearly three times more distorted in their perceptions than those who said they read the news “only now and then.”
Zach Goldberg reaches similar conclusions in an August 2020 article fittingly entitled “How the Media Led the Great Racial Awakening,” in which he presents a treasure trove of data convincingly demonstrating that, in a word, the media was in the cockpit of our careening craft. In a few short years, beginning roughly around 2010 (thus, again, well before Trump appeared on the national stage as anything other than a vulgar television personality), the media — with The New York Times leading the charge — began to racialize America, vastly expanding its coverage of race and racism, immeasurably expanding its definition of what counted as “racism” or “white supremacy” to encompass anything and everything that, regardless of the reason, did not produce total and utter demographically proportionate equality and, in the end, getting us all to believe, regressively, that “‘color’ is the defining attribute of other human beings.” The opinions of these infotainment industry thought leaders were quickly adopted by their liberal readers, viewers, listeners and followers, leading, finally, in the summer of 2020, to nationwide protesting, looting and rioting due to the mass adoption of a wildly delusional belief that black people are dying every day at the hands of racist white killer cops — the truth, as FBI data and numerous studies have shown, being that cops do not kill unarmed blacks at higher rates than the crime data would predict and, more importantly, that in all of 2019 (the last year for which there is full data on record), 14 unarmed black people, as well as 25 unarmed white people, were killed by police, as compared, for the sake of maintaining perspective, to 20 (presumably unarmed) people killed by a lightning strike in the same year. As Goldberg documents, the black victims of police shootings generated huge waves of sensationalized media coverage, while the white victims were largely met with the chirping of crickets. What the infotainment industry is doing to our perceptions of race and racism, in other words, might best be characterized as a never-ending, omnipresent Willie Horton ad driving us into irrational paroxysms of racialized mass hysteria.
What emerges from the data I have advanced thus far is a picture in which a massive leftward lurch in the composition of university faculty and administrators beginning in the late 1980s and continuing on through the ’90s and ’00s created, some years down the road, a massive leftward lurch among infotainment industry elites, leading together, in turn, to a massive leftward lurch among the “educated” public as a whole and resulting, finally, in the formation of a fissure between the educated and their less educated peers. This is why the main axis along which pro-Trump versus pro-Biden voters were divided in 2020 is not the media’s favorite bugaboo of race, but rather, education. Trump’s many obvious faults aside, we should not mistake the joyful tears of the talking heads on our screens and the delighted yelps of urban bobos, yuppies and hipsters in the streets on that Saturday when the media called the election for Joe Biden for anything other than what it was: the relieved cry of the educated elites that the most organized mass propaganda campaign this side of Stalin had succeeded in toppling the crude, unhinged, nationalist populist championed by the deplorable underclass and installing the easily puppeted, doddering career politician favored by the wealthy, the powerful and the educated. For this reason as well, the Biden administration is expected to be chock-full of college faculty, a straightforward case of dancing with the ones that brung you to the dance.
So education today, and especially elite higher education, is systematically polarizing us, driving misperceptions of the “other” side, fomenting an escalating race war and skewing the composition of the electorate, all while replacing the pursuit of knowledge with politicized groupthink. But is it at least doing a good job of discharging its practical function? Are nominally great universities at least giving us our money’s worth in educating a highly qualified workforce? Not exactly. A recent study demonstrated that when 28,339 graduates from 294 universities — representing universities around the world ranging from the top 50 to 10,000 spots down — were evaluated on various facets of their job performance, for every 1,000 spots lower on the university rankings, the graduates exhibited a performance decline of a measly 1.9%. The starting salaries these students commanded, however, exhibited a far wider gap: while graduates of universities at the top of the rankings had average starting salaries in the high $80,000s or low $90,000 bestowed upon them, graduates 1,000 spots down got average starting salaries in the high $40,000s or low $50,000s, a difference of about 45%. The moral of the story for employers: save your money, and hire the kid from the university a thousand spots down on the list, the one who’ll do almost as good a job but without the political headache and petulant demands the top-tier grad is likely to bring to the job. The moral of the story for the rest of us: highly ranked universities might be paying off financially for some of their graduates (assuming they monetize their credentials rather than pursuing their passions), but they’re not paying off for society as a whole.
What such universities may be producing, in lieu of better qualifications, is what is known as “credential inflation” (a type of phenomenon likely to be especially prevalent during a pandemic-driven recession), in which jobs that never used to — and still technically don’t — require a college education go to college graduates, while jobs that require no more than a college degree go to graduates of the more elite colleges. What happens when we are all reflexively told to go to college is mass underemployment, with, as of September 2020, over half of college graduates and just under half of recent college graduates underemployed, holding down jobs that do not require a college degree. In fact, as a recent Hechinger Report article concludes, college grads could often have gotten similar or higher salaries (without incurring the national average of $28,950 in four-year college loan debt) had they pursued lucrative professional or associate’s degrees in fields such as nursing, construction management or dental hygiene.
What universities may also be producing today is social unrest, not only by mis-educating and radicalizing the public, as I have described at length above, but also by contributing to what the U. Conn. scientist and cultural evolution researcher Peter Turchin has dubbed “elite overproduction,” the phenomenon that occurs when a society manufactures many individuals who would appear to have some claim to elite status — such as by virtue of their educational credentials — without there being enough actual elite job slots to go around to satisfy their inflated self-conceptions. In such circumstances, Turchin argues, history repeatedly shows that these individuals become troublemaking malcontents. They begin to comprise a “counter-elite” that lays the groundwork for revolution by fulminating against their own society, its ruling class and the legitimacy of its governing principles, e.g., against the very notion of American meritocracy. Revolutions, in this empirically driven conception, are not made by Marx’s romanticized immiserated proletarians having reached their breaking point, but rather, by aspiring status-seekers and would-be intellectuals stymied by structural roadblocks that prevent their advancement through acceptable, conventional routes. Consistent with Turchin’s thesis, terrorism — the ultimate outlet for malcontents — is also normally not driven by ignorance or poverty, but rather, by a “lack of adequate employment opportunities for educated individuals.”
That social instability is generally summoned up by alienated elements within the “thinking classes” is something prophetic writers like Dostoevsky understood some time ago: his “commoners” tend to be preternaturally virtuous or preternaturally vicious, but it is various disaffected thinkers — students and the like — who tend to become possessed by dangerous ideas. As Adam Garfinkle has written in an article on the decline of deep literacy published in National Affairs earlier this year, superficial education not vivified by a habit of lifelong learning and deep reading, largely serves to make people ideal victims of and disseminators of propaganda. Such “scantily educated” individuals, emboldened by the official sanction of university credentials and enabled by social media, “contribute scantily supported opinions about things they don’t really understand, validating the old saw that a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing” and bringing into being the kind of “distributed mob … the ancient Greeks warned against.” I would add to Garfinkle’s diagnosis just one more proviso: with education configured as it currently is, more does not equal better. In fact, more education will only make the problem worse, adding more dug-in groupthink, more unwarranted self-assurance and more specialized steeping masking deep ignorance.
For all these reasons, fewer people going to college — and especially to high-price-tag, uber-politicized elite colleges — today is a win-win-win, a win for employers who can pay significantly lower salaries without a comparable drop-off in performance quality, a win, paradoxically, for employees, provided they make strategic choices to go into in-demand fields that pay almost as much as or even more than they would have made without incurring crushing debt in the process and a win for society as a whole, which will be saved much of the polarization, systematically skewed politics and social instability associated with contemporary education.
A Higher Calling
But what of education for its own sake? After all, don’t we want people to aspire to the enlightenment that knowledge itself confers? Yes, absolutely. I am far from being one of those philistine conservatives who values only that which can be monetized. I believe firmly that all of us who are truly willing and able to study “the best which has been thought and said” should have that opportunity … but that is certainly not what universities are teaching today. Contemporary universities are little more than social clubs and credentializing degree mills where kids get to stave off the responsibilities of adulthood for four years while insulating themselves (unless they happen to be conservative) from true challenges and discomforts and learning, repeatedly, the pat PBS children’s moral that everyone (except, perhaps, white male heterosexuals) is great exactly as they already are.
There is, moreover, no reason for those intent not on the pursuit of knowledge but on lucrative careers as doctors, lawyers, financiers and techies to waste four unproductive, costly years suffering through classes in elite universities in which they will get little more than some inadequately considered radical politics and an admission ticket into the intolerant American intelligentsia. Just like nurses, auto mechanics or electricians, such careerists should go straight from high school into their professional training schools and not be invited to delude themselves into believing that they are informed aristocrats merely by virtue of their elite credentials and resulting compensation packages. It is only when we take the ruse of career prep out of higher education and reserve such education for those few who want to be working their way, line by line, through the glories of Shakespeare or musing about the wildest implications of quantum mechanics that we will have any chance of purging the universities of the unintellectual students not up to the task and the anti-intellectual academics who thrive by giving those very students the sour-grapes license they need to reject our finest traditions.
To say this another way, the bottom-line problem is that when we made the mistake of trying to open higher education to everyone, we opened the campus gates to people who neither had any interest in learning “the best which has been thought and said,” nor the ability to breathe that rarefied air. We then found ourselves in the position of facing and acceding to strident calls of elitism, racism and other -isms and began to dumb our education down to meet people where they were. A wise observation from T.S. Eliot’s mid-20th-century compendium of essays published as Notes Toward the Definition of Culture puts this point better than I could:
[W]hether education can foster and improve culture or not, it can surely adulterate and degrade it. For there is no doubt that in our headlong rush to educate everybody, we are lowering our standards, and more and more abandoning the study of those subjects by which the essentials of our culture — of that part of it which is transmissible by education — are transmitted; destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanised caravans.
Eliot’s essay also contains this absolutely critical observation: “A high average of general education is perhaps less necessary for a civil society than is a respect for learning.” While I will leave it to those more qualified for that task to debate whether or not a trickle-down approach works in the realm of economics, in the realm of culture and education, such an approach is exactly what we need. A society in which higher education is reserved for the few who actually crave the precious gifts it confers is one in which higher learning remains an appropriately lofty and difficult arcana unadulterated by the need to condescend to a mass audience. In such a society, elite educated mandarins and, more importantly, the knowledge they command are held in high esteem because they serve as its protectors, keeping it sacrosanct. Then knowledge retains its luminescence, a polestar towards which would-be-initiates will aspire and a guiding light towards which even their less capable brethren among the masses will incline. Lit up by the glow at the top, an entire society is haloed over.
When, instead, the seal is broken, when higher education is instrumentalized in the service of financial rewards or bastardized to avoid bruising the fragile egos of second-rate students, then sacred syllables and profound mysteries are de-solemnized and set adrift in a generalized sea of indifference in which every crown jewel will be lost and every drop of holy water will be diluted. The more open to the barbarian hordes are the gates of our ivory towers, the more closed will remain the minds of those who scramble in their unimpeded headlong rush to the top. When the unreconstructed barbarian resurfaces at the tower’s very apogee and peers down from his newfound perch upon those he now thinks are his inferiors, he may be shocked to find that, far from inspiring the kind of reverence he had imagined came with the role, he will see gazing up from below slightly more ungroomed and unpolished — though also less haughty and more grounded — versions of himself, a sea of expressions betraying skepticism of his claims to expertise and mirroring his own scorn. And when he flings boulders down in disgust to crush dissent, he will find them hurled unceremoniously right back at him.
The Grown-Ups Are Losing It
If you’re an American schoolchild, you’ve probably spent much of your recent life alone at home in the mesmerizing glow of a screen, twitching between Google Classroom and innumerable online distractions. Perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to spend most days in an actual classroom with two-thirds of your face wrapped up, trying to make yourself heard and hear others, taking 30 seconds to shove your lunch down. Your schedule is often unpredictable; some days there’s no one to teach you at all. During the pandemic, you’ve lost at least three months of instruction—or nearly twice that, if your family is poor—as well as the steady company of people your own age. The grown-ups around you fret incessantly about your “mental-health issues” and “social-emotional learning,” which only makes your anxiety and depression worse.
You’re also the nonvoting, perhaps unwitting, subject of adults’ latest pedagogical experiments: either relentless test prep or test abolition; quasi-religious instruction in identity-based virtue and sin; a flood of state laws to keep various books out of your hands and ideas out of your head. Your parents, looking over your shoulder at your education and not liking what they see, have started showing up at school-board meetings in a mortifying state of rage. If you live in Virginia, your governor has set up a hotline where they can rat out your teachers to the government. If you live in Florida, your governor wants your parents to sue your school if it ever makes you feel “discomfort” about who you are. Adults keep telling you the pandemic will never end, your education is being destroyed by ideologues, digital technology is poisoning your soul, democracy is collapsing, and the planet is dying—but they’re counting on you to fix everything when you grow up.
It isn’t clear how the American public-school system will survive the COVID years. Teachers, whose relative pay and status have been in decline for decades, are fleeing the field. In 2021, buckling under the stresses of the pandemic, nearly 1 million people quit jobs in public education, a 40 percent increase over the previous year. The shortage is so dire that New Mexico has resorted to encouraging members of the National Guard to volunteer as substitute teachers.
Students are leaving as well. Since 2020, nearly 1.5 million children have been removed from public schools to attend private or charter schools or be homeschooled. Families are deserting the public system out of frustration with unending closures and quarantines, stubborn teachers’ unions, inadequate resources, and the low standards exposed by remote learning. It’s not just rich families, either, David Steiner, the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, told me. “COVID has encouraged poor parents to question the quality of public education. We are seeing diminished numbers of children in our public schools, particularly our urban public schools.” In New York, more than 80,000 children have disappeared from city schools; in Los Angeles, more than 26,000; in Chicago, more than 24,000.
These kids, and the investments that come with them, may never return—the beginning of a cycle of attrition that could continue long after the pandemic ends and leave public schools even more underfunded and dilapidated than before. “It’s an open question whether the public-school system will recover,” Steiner said. “That is a real concern for democratic education.”
The high-profile failings of public schools during the pandemic have become a political problem for Democrats, because of their association with unions, prolonged closures, and the pedagogy of social justice, which can become a form of indoctrination. The party that stands for strong government services in the name of egalitarian principles supported the closing of schools far longer than either the science or the welfare of children justified, and it has been woefully slow to acknowledge how much this damaged the life chances of some of America’s most disadvantaged students. The San Francisco school board became the caricature of this folly last year when it spent months debating name changes to Roosevelt Middle School, Abraham Lincoln High School, and other schools with supposedly offensive names, while their classrooms remained closed to the city’s children. Republicans have only just begun to exploit the fallout.
But I’m not interested in joining or refereeing this partisan scrum. Public education is too important to be left to politicians and ideologues. Public schools still serve about 90 percent of children across red and blue America. Since the common-school movement in the early 19th century, the public school has had an exalted purpose in this country. It’s our core civic institution—not just because, ideally, it brings children of all backgrounds together in a classroom, but because it prepares them for the demands and privileges of democratic citizenship. Or at least, it needs to.
What is school for? This is the kind of foundational question that arises when a crisis shakes the public’s faith in an essential institution. “The original thinkers about public education were concerned almost to a point of paranoia about creating self-governing citizens,” Robert Pondiscio, a former fifth-grade teacher in the South Bronx and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told me. “Horace Mann went to his grave having never once uttered the phrase college- and career-ready. We’ve become more accustomed to thinking about the private ends of education. We’ve completely lost the habit of thinking about education as citizen-making.”
School can’t just be an economic sorting system. One reason we have a stake in the education of other people’s children is that they will grow up to be citizens. Education is a public interest, which explains why parents shouldn’t get to veto any book they think might upset their child, whether it’s To Kill a Mockingbird or Beloved. Public education is meant not to mirror the unexamined values of a particular family or community, but to expose children to ways that other people, some of them long dead, think. In an authoritarian or rigidly meritocratic system, schools select the elites who grow up to make the decisions. A functioning democracy needs citizens who know how to make decisions together.
If the answer were simply to push more and more kids into college, the United States would be entering its democratic prime. In 1960, when Richard Nixon chose not to contest an extremely narrow loss to John F. Kennedy, and Nixon partisans didn’t storm the Capitol looking to hang the speaker of the House, 7.7 percent of Americans had college degrees. By the time of last year’s insurrection, that proportion had surpassed one-third. Law degrees from Harvard and Yale didn’t keep Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley from trying to tear up the Constitution. Americans with college degrees are likelier to vote and otherwise participate in civic life than those without; they’re also likelier to spend hours throwing clever online darts. One study found that college-educated Democrats were more likely to hold false views about their political enemies than those without four-year degrees. More education generally makes people more Democratic, but not more democratic.
So the question isn’t just how much education, but what kind. Is it quaint, or utopian, to talk about teaching our children to be capable of governing themselves? Possibly, but I doubt it’s ever been more necessary. The COVID era, with Donald Trump out of office but still in power and with battles over mask mandates and critical race theory convulsing Twitter and school-board meetings, shows how badly Americans are able to think about our collective problems—let alone read, listen, empathize, debate, reconsider, and persuade in the search for solutions. If these habits have something to do with education—and every kindergarten teacher knows that children can be taught to compromise—then democratic citizenship can, at least in part, be learned. We owe our beleaguered children, the victims of our inadequacy, a chance to be better than we are.
We can start by giving them a way to survive the curriculum wars without being captured by one side or the other. The orthodoxies currently fighting for our children’s souls turn the teaching of U.S. history into a static and morally simple quest for some American essence. They proceed from celebration or indictment toward a final judgment—innocent or guilty—and bury either oppression or progress in a subordinate clause. The most depressing thing about this gloomy pedagogy of ideologies in service to fragile psyches is how much knowledge it takes away from students who already have so little. The history warriors build their metaphysics of national good or evil on a foundation of ignorance. In a 2019 survey, only 40 percent of Americans were able to pass the test that all applicants for U.S. citizenship must take, which asks questions like “Who did the United States fight in World War II?” and “We elect a President for how many years?” The only state in which a majority passed was Vermont.
A central goal for history, social-studies, and civics instruction should be to give students something more solid than spoon-fed maxims—to help them engage with the past on its own terms, not use it as a weapon in the latest front of the culture wars. In “The Propaganda of History,” the last chapter of his great study of Reconstruction, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote: “Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things. And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth is ascertainable?”
The truth requires a grounding in historical facts, but facts are quickly forgotten without meaning and context. The Stanford History Education Group, a research organization, has developed a curriculum called “Reading Like a Historian,” which assembles material from various chapters of American history and poses a thematic question for students to answer. For example, to answer the question of what John Brown was trying to do when he raided Harpers Ferry in 1859, they read several accounts, including one by Brown’s son, an excerpt from the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, and a speech and letter from Brown himself.
The goal isn’t just to teach students the origins of the Civil War, but to give them the ability to read closely, think critically, evaluate sources, corroborate accounts, and back up their claims with evidence from original documents. This kind of instruction, which requires teachers to distinguish between exposure and indoctrination, isn’t easy; it asks them to be more sophisticated professionals than their shabby conditions and pay (median salary: $62,000, less than accountants and transit police) suggest we are willing to support. “We have a desperate shortage of teachers,” David Steiner of Johns Hopkins said, just as we’re making teaching more difficult by “politicizing education.” It’s easy and satisfying for adults to instruct children that America is an exceptional experiment in freedom, or a benighted system of oppressions. It’s harder, but infinitely more useful, to free them to think about history for themselves.
To do that, we’ll need to help kids restore at least part of their crushed attention spans. If remote learning taught parents anything, it was that staring at a screen for hours is a heavy depressant, especially for teenagers. One day, and I hope soon, the masters of social media will stand before Congress with their hands raised in the manner of the Big Tobacco bosses, and try to deny what they’ve long known about the damage their products can inflict on human minds, especially young minds. After these hearings lead to belated regulation of web advertising and toxic algorithms, we’ll look back on the amount of time we let our children spend online with the same horror that we now feel about earlier generations of adults who hooked their kids on smoking.
Of course, students can’t quit cold turkey. “It’s not a choice between tech or no tech,” Bill Tally, a researcher with the Education Development Center, told me. “The question is what tech infrastructure best enables the things we care about,” such as deep engagement with instructional materials, teachers, and other students. But kids need help mastering what now masters them. Releasing them to do “research” in the vast ocean of the internet without maps and compasses, as often happens, guarantees that they will drown before they arrive anywhere. A nonprofit called the News Literacy Project helps teachers guide students in assessing the credibility of news articles and social-media posts. Like learning to read as historians, learning to sift through the tidal flood of memes for useful, reliable information can emancipate children who have been heedlessly hooked on screens by the adults in their lives.
Finally, let’s give children a chance to read books—good books. It’s a strange feature of all the recent pedagogical innovations that they’ve resulted in the gradual disappearance of literature from many classrooms. The phrase English Language Arts already sounds at best indifferent to books. The ELA portion of high-stakes testing hacks up literature into what Steiner calls “bleeding chunks of texts”—isolated passages used to assess comprehension. This approach treats reading as just another skill, like long division or woodworking. When students do read whole books, they’re rarely part of the state assessments. “What’s the incentive for teaching The Bluest Eye deeply and seriously?” Steiner asked.
The best way to interest young people in literature is to have them read good literature, and not just books that focus with grim piety on the contemporary social and psychological problems of teenagers. We sell them insultingly short in thinking that they won’t read unless the subject is themselves. Mirrors are ultimately isolating; young readers also need windows, even if the view is unfamiliar, even if it’s disturbing. The ability to enter a world that’s far away in time or place; to grapple with characters whose stories might initially seem to have nothing to do with your life; to gradually sense that their emotions, troubles, revelations are also yours—this connection through language to universal human experience and thought is the reward of great literature, a source of empathy and wisdom.
The culture wars, with their atmosphere of resentment, fear, and petty faultfinding, are hostile to the writing and reading of literature. The novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently predicted that the novels of the next 10 to 15 years “will be awful … Art has to be able to go to a place that’s messy, a place that’s uncomfortable,” she said. “Literature is the last thing that we can depend on to tell us the truth about who we are.” The connection between reading and democratic citizenship might not be direct, but it’s real.
The pandemic should have forced us to reassess what really matters in public school; instead, it’s a crisis that we’ve just about wasted. The classroom has become a half-abandoned battlefield, where grown-ups who claim to be protecting students from the virus, from books, from ideologies and counter-ideologies end up using children to protect themselves and their own entrenched camps. American democracy can’t afford another generation of adults who don’t know how to talk and listen and think. We owe our COVID-scarred children the means to free themselves from the failures of the past and the present.
What if there were no public schools?
It might not be as bad as you think
Whenever we talk about education reform, we talk about the most boring, narrow stuff. You want education reform? I’ll show you education reform.
Imagine that omnipotent space aliens from the planet Zyrglax land on Earth and take control of the United States. But these aliens are somewhat bizarre, and they change only one thing: they teleport all public school buildings into the sun, and prohibit the government from any action or law providing for public education, even ruling out school vouchers and the like. All school budgets are rebated back to the taxpayer. Failure to comply will result in America being blasted to dust from orbit.
What would happen?
I’m serious — let’s game this out. What would happen?
Well, at first it would be chaos. Millions of kids would be out of school, parents would be helpless, and so on.
But what would happen next?
For the upper class, not much would change — except for a handful of magnet public schools, they’ve basically opted out of the public education system.
What about the middle class?
This is where things get interesting. For one, a lot of people would smell a great business opportunity. Average private school tuition in the U.S. was $8,549 per year in 2010. Catholic schools manage to get it down to $6,018, and to $4,944 for elementary. For a middle-class family making $50,000 a year, putting your kids in private school would be a sacrifice, but it would be doable.
And there’s a lot of data to suggest that those prices would be driven down — possibly way down. Currently, schools make almost no use of technology. There are no large education corporations, meaning there are no economies of scale (the Catholic Church is a big institution, but Catholic schools are operationally and financially independent — and the church is hardly known for its management acumen). Competition is hindered by the school district catchment system, and there is little incentive for innovation, given the fact that private schools are undercut by free public education.
Another thing you would see, therefore, would be a lot of innovative schools. You would see a lot more Montessori schools, given the overwhelming research that suggests that this almost 100-year-old method of education produces the best results. Think about it this way: In what kind of industry would a significant productivity enhancement method be ignored by the profession for several generations?
You might see new models emerging like AltSchool, a company that uses computers and small-group instruction to provide a better educational experience. At $19,100 a year, the tuition is unaffordable, but given that the company has raised $33 million from top-tier Silicon Valley venture capitalist firms, one has to imagine that it will over time lower its prices to achieve scale.
We would almost certainly see a great increase in home schooling, especially assisted by technology. Households might get better education, more sanity, and more fulfilling lives — and more financial stability, paradoxically — by having one spouse educate their children.
But wait a second, you say. Maybe that’s true, and maybe we would see a lot of better schools get started and grow to scale — but only for those who can afford it.
To think about that, it’s important to keep in mind the omnipotent, deathray-wielding space aliens from my thought experiment. Typically, if we saw a situation in which kids were kept out of school for being poor, there would be highly justified national outrage and a government program would quickly be voted in. But remember! The space aliens are here, and if you pass a law, they will space-bomb the entire country!
Stick with me here. What will happen is that philanthropy will take over. Yes, there’s a track record of various small government types saying that if you slash this or that program private philanthropy will take over, and yet it seems it never does. But Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have together decided to devote tens of billions of dollars to charitable causes. More than 100 people have signed Gates and Buffett’s “Giving Pledge,” getting billionaires to agree to donate more than half of their wealth to charity. And the most popular charitable cause among hedge fund titans is education.
Let’s not forget the Catholic Church has been educating poor immigrants at below-cost for well over a hundred years. You might disagree with these people’s politics and motives, but you can’t deny that their love for education is sincere.
Today, most of these people don’t build free schools left and right because — well, first because they lack imagination, but mostly because kids already are in schools, albeit bad schools. And most of them prefer to focus on working within the system, trying to improve existing schools. But if there were no schools, and no prospect of getting schools via government program, of course there would be a national philanthropic groundswell to build and fund those schools via private initiative.
So what would happen? Well, as we said, the upper class would be the same. The middle class would probably have better, albeit more expensive, education. And the lower classes would still get free education, and possibly better education. At the end of the day, the number of kids in school would be the same as today. And many families would end up better off, though some might be worse off.
Would it be utopia? Absolutely not. There would be many bad things going on. A roiling free market is innovative and creative, but it also creates disturbances. There would be problems that we can’t foresee.
Should we not only shut down all the public schools, but also prevent the government from having any education policy? Absolutely not. This isn’t a policy proposal. It’s a thought experiment.
One of the biggest problems of human imagination is status quo bias. Just because we have some stuff around us, we can’t think of another way to arrange it. And because of this status quo bias, our debates about the future become impossibly cramped. Education is definitely a victim of this. A lot of people imagine that without public school, children would be left to play in traffic or huff glue, and nobody would ever get educated, except for the children of robber barons. But if you take the time to actually think it through, you realize that it would be a different world.
I leave the policy implications as an exercise for the reader. But first, take the red pill.
Nine Strategies to Fix America’s Broken Public Schools
A New York Times article titled “School is for Everyone” was just published. It promoted the argument that public education is essential to American life. The article’s author, Anya Kamenetz, began with a historical statement relating to Horace Mann—often (and justly) called the father of American public education.
The Purpose of Public Education
Mrs. Kamenetz described Mr. Mann’s goals.
“An essential part of Mann’s vision was that public schools should be for everyone, and that children of different backgrounds should learn together. He pushed to draw wealthier students away from private schools, establish “normal schools” to train teachers (primarily women), have the state take over charitable schools and increase taxes to pay for it all.”
As Mrs. Kamenetz sees it, these were laudable goals, and the schools largely achieved them. Much good came out of public education. Within a generation, a nation that took in many impoverished and illiterate immigrants became one of the most literate nations in the world. Free education opened up many opportunities, making the country and its inhabitants more prosperous.
However, this is not the whole story. Many writers, including myself, have described the disaster zone that much of modern American education has become. Egalitarian ideologies have entered the classrooms and destroyed the climate for learning. Mrs. Kamenetz acknowledges that problems exist. Unfortunately, she blames the wrong people.
Indeed, she blames conservatives. She writes: “All of this emboldened a movement on the right that has for more than half a century sought to dismantle public education and the idea that Americans from diverse backgrounds should learn alongside one another.”
This explanation inadvertently describes one reason that many Americans are abandoning public education. It is simple. Conservatives do not like being branded as a band of raving racists, and we resent the implication. Many of them possess diplomas and degrees from public schools and colleges. Conservatives do not like seeing public schools destroy many of the values they hold dear.
The Road Back to Public Favor
If Mrs. Kamenetz is really interested in making public schools stronger, I would like to offer her nine strategies to help make that happen.
First, restore order. The primary reason schools exist is to educate—and teachers cannot do that amid chaos. All students must know that their actions have consequences, which administrators will swiftly impose on those who disrupt others when trying to learn.
Second, listen to parents with respect. Parents come from all walks of life, but the vast majority love and want the best for their children and our country. Films of parents who speak at school board meetings, only to have their concerns ignored, are not good advertisements for public education.
Third, stop implying that parents are oppressing their children. If teachers and administrators disagree with a parent’s politics, religion, values, morals and so on, they should not use the school as a platform to suggest that these views are oppressive. Telling or implying to students that their parents are stupid, uncaring or repressive should remain out of bounds.
Fourth, acknowledge that the schools are reflections of their communities, not “agents of change.” The focus should be on expanding children’s knowledge and opportunities, not on creating a generation of social activists.
Fifth, don’t teach theories as if they were facts. Any competent scientist will admit that very few established facts exist in any branch of natural science. Everything else is theory.
Sixth, keep controversial ideologies out of schools. The fifth point above is doubly true in psychology and sociology. Aside from basic biology, a child’s sexual maturity is none of the school’s business. The school plays a minimal role in emotional development. “Gender theory” and “critical race theory” are, as the names imply, theories. Not only are they not proven, but they are also unprovable.
Seventh, re-embrace color blindness. The more one talks about race, the more poisoned the discussion becomes. If left alone, children will choose playmates without regard to race. Creating racial hatred or inspiring uneasiness between groups of students helps no one.
Eighth, medical care is a parental prerogative. Yes, there is a place for the school nurse who cleans and bandages wounds sustained on the playground. That place does not extend to the diagnosis of physical or mental diseases. If school officials think something might be wrong, they should tell the parent. If the family cannot afford medical care, suggest a free or low-cost clinic that is not affiliated with the school. Do not initiate treatments without parental consent.
Last but still crucial, acknowledge Christianity’s role in the culture’s development. The prohibition against teaching religion does not extend to historical fact. If you teach about the scientific discoveries of Gregor Mendel or Roger Bacon, you can briefly mention that they did their scientific work in monasteries. You can cite Moses and Jesus Christ among those who inspired our legal system. You can use the title “Father” when discussing Junipero Serra’s role in the settlement of California. Leaving that information out is a sign of intolerance and prejudice.
Rising to the Challenge
Christians and conservatives are not obsessed with the idea of taking over American public education. If public schools want to set themselves up as the educators of all of America’s children, then two words need to enter the education establishment’s vocabulary—respect and humility.
Unfortunately, the above strategies will not be implemented. Protestations about teaching all of the children only camouflage a desire to make them all into an army of “social justice warriors.”
We must not allow this to happen.
I know this article stated Advanced edusction, but unfortunately our educational system is rotten through the core. By the time the student reaches college level instruction the damage is already done and in many cases is irreparable. So we have to start somewhere.
dailywire.com, “‘Like A Band-Aid On Gangrene’: Why Forgiving Student Loans Is Unconstitutional.” by mark Meuser; edsurge.com, “American Democracy Is Sick. Can Colleges Be Part of the Cure?” By Rebecca Koenig; newdiscourses.com, ” (Higher) Education Is Destroying America.” By Alexander Zubatov; theatlantic.com, “The Grown-Ups Are Losing It. We’ve turned schools into battlefields, and our kids are the casualties.” By George Packer; theweek.com, “What if there were no public schools?It might not be as bad as you think.” By Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry; tfp.org, “Nine Strategies to Fix America’s Broken Public Schools.” By Edwin Benson;
What Is Wrong With Our Country?