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Graduates Who Know Little and Can’t Think

An Excerpt from 'The Breakdown of Higher Education'
By John M. Ellis | February 19, 2020

It is sometimes said that the ranting of politically radical faculty on college campuses does little harm because students see through them and laugh at their folly. And that may well be true for many students, though it should not reassure us to think that they are having so much of their time at college wasted by fools. However, it is far from true that all students see through them. Unscrupulous proselytizing radicals have enough influence on the more easily led students to change the political complexion of the nation to a significant degree, and this is by no means the least of the harms that the politicized campuses have done to our nation.

More than half of 18-to-29-year-olds now look favorably on a political system that has brought misery wherever it has been tried, and that their own country has achieved remarkable success by avoiding.

A Gallup poll published on August 13, 2018 found that in the Democratic Party a comfortable majority (57 percent) now have a positive view of socialism, and that they outnumber those with a positive view of capitalism by a full 10 percentage points. According to Gallup’s press release, this was the “first time in Gallup’s measurement over the past decade that Democrats viewed socialism more favorably than capitalism.” Even worse is that on this question the percentage for the 18–29 group overall (not restricted by party) is now 51 percent. We must always remember that this climate of opinion is still building: as years go by, a larger and larger percentage of the population will have had a radicalized college education. And there can be no doubt that when campus radicals talk about socialism, what they mean is generally not the political system of Norway, for example, which is a free-market (thus capitalist) country with a well-developed social welfare system, but rather the kind of socialism rooted in the ideas of Karl Marx.

These figures should really make us sit up and take notice: more than half of 18-to-29-year-olds now look favorably on a political system that has brought misery wherever it has been tried, and that their own country has achieved remarkable success by avoiding. It is a system so unpopular with people who live under it that brutal dictatorships rely on violence to keep it in place when their own people come to understand what it really amounts to.

There is nothing wrong with teaching about socialism; indeed it should be taught. It has been a major factor in the history of the last century and so it should be thoroughly understood by college graduates. Teaching it should mean, here as anywhere, a hard look at the arguments for and against, an examination of both its core tenets and its variant versions, a comparison of this political theory with its competitors, and above all a careful scrutiny of the historical record of how it has fared whenever it has been implemented. And that record, as any reasonably well-informed person should know, has been so disastrous that it has been discarded by almost all nations that have tried it.

When we now see a sudden surge in enthusiasm for this almost completely discredited system of government, it must be obvious that socialism is not really being taught—not being analyzed to promote greater understanding of it, but rather preached on the campuses. Students are kept innocent of the disastrous history of socialism, and brain-washed into believing that it will give them a wonderful life, which it never has. Education informs, but indoctrination must keep students ignorant.

Education informs, but indoctrination must keep students ignorant.

Some observers play down the importance of all this when they tell us that we shouldn’t be too frightened by the large numbers of young people who are now enthusiastic about socialism, because they don’t really understand what they are saying. Yes, indeed, they don’t. They can’t, because if they did understand it’s unlikely that they would have these beliefs. But should it really be of any comfort to us that a majority of our young people are so abysmally ignorant of matters regarding which they have such resolute beliefs? Surely not. The fact that so many have absorbed this destructive ideology on campus without understanding what it really means matters a great deal, and is a scandal of immense proportions.

It can scarcely be doubted that indoctrination by unscrupulous radicals is now having a major effect on national politics. It has changed the entire shape of the Democratic Party, which as a consequence has taken a sharp turn to the left. And the character of that change is exactly what the SDS manifesto envisaged so long ago. Such a radical change in the national political scene could not have been accomplished by a bad actor here and there in the classroom. It could only have happened through the widespread, systematic abuse of campus classrooms for political advantage on the part of very large numbers of proselytizing radical leftists.

Only a few years ago, Senator Bernie Sanders was a man that no one took very seriously as a viable figure on the national scene: he was openly socialist at a time when to most people that seemed to be the outlook of a dunce. But to everyone’s surprise he very nearly took the Democratic Party nomination for president in 2016. How could this have happened? Sanders got very large numbers of votes from the campuses and from recent graduates. Since then a young woman (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) who displays deep ignorance on almost any topic she speaks about took the party’s nomination for a congressional seat from a senior Democratic congressman because she pronounced herself a radical socialist. While she won a democratic election, its outcome no doubt owed much to the leftist control of college classrooms—a means by which radicals are achieving what they could not have done by democratic means alone.

The fact that so many have absorbed this destructive ideology on campus without understanding what it really means matters a great deal, and is a scandal of immense proportions.

The effect of campus radicalism on national politics is not limited to this leftward shift of the Democratic Party. The entire political climate of the country has become significantly harsher and more divisive. To understand how this has happened we need only look at how the political monopoly on campus is sustained. Politics usually means debate, and where there are two opposing sets of arguments, both proceeding by reason and appeals to evidence, the outcome can never be predicted. From the radicals’ point of view that is a bad situation, and so they routinely seek to scuttle debate by painting one side of the argument as evil and ethically subhuman. If they succeed in doing that, they can prevent the other side of the argument from seeing the light of day on campus, and the political monoculture will be maintained. Right-of-center voices are a danger to a radical politics that is logically fragile, so those voices must be vilified before they can have any effect. The political life of the campus must be poisoned in order to sustain the one-party monopoly. And it is precisely this kind of poison that is spreading into the political life of the nation, which is why our national political culture is now more spiteful and hostile than it has been for some time. There too, right-of-center voices are often treated as if criminal.

The impact of this increasingly nasty political culture is felt in many areas of our lives. A study of the tech industry recently found that it was so dominated by hostile and intolerant left-wing employees that (according to the executive summary of the study) most center-right tech professionals “cannot bring their whole selves to work.” They “feel their views are at odds with the cultural norms in their workplaces,” and “cannot do their best work because their ideological views are at odds with their workplace norms.” This is extraordinary, and new. To be sure, individuals with differing political views have always argued about them, but an organized workplace culture of bitter ideological hatred toward the politics of half the country is unheard of. “What do you call a Silicon Valley Republican who wants to have friends?” asked Eliot Kaufman. The answer: “A Libertarian.” Who can doubt that the ultimate source of this hatred of anything right-of-center is the bitter political hatreds of the one-party radical-left campus?

The political life of the campus must be poisoned in order to sustain the one-party monopoly. And it is precisely this kind of poison that is spreading into the political life of the nation, which is why our national political culture is now more spiteful and hostile than it has been for some time.

Even a field such as medical training is feeling the impact of this intolerance: in the Weekly Standard, Devorah Goldman reported on campus-style obligatory leftism in the Association of American Medical Colleges:

One MCAT [Medical College Admissions Test] practice question (from a collaboration between the AAMC and online-education nonprofit Khan Academy), for example, asks whether the wage gap between men and women is the result of bigotry, sexism, racism, or biological differences; no other options are provided, and the “correct” answer is sexism. Another asks whether the “lack of minorities such as African Americans or Latinos/Latinas among university faculty members” is due to symbolic racism, institutional racism, hidden racism, or personal bias. The “correct” answer is institutional racism. Yet another asks test-takers to select from a list of debatable definitions for the terms “sex” and “gender.”

It is astonishing to see such heavily partisan and logically dubious articles of faith given the status of unquestionable truth. The AAMC must know that what it offers as “correct” answers are at best highly controversial. This attempted brainwashing and bullying of a captive audience is surely straight from the one-party campus.

Further evidence of politicized medical education in America appeared in a Wall Street Journal article by Stanley Goldfarb, a former associate dean of the University of Pennsylvania medical school. Goldfarb drew attention to the American College of Physicians’ forays into the politics of social justice and reported that medical students are increasingly having time that should be devoted to their medical education taken up with coursework on “climate change, social inequities, gun violence, bias and other progressive causes only tangentially related to treating illness.” But what the Journal’s readers must have found even more chilling than the article itself was the rebuttal letter written by Robert McLean, president of the American College of Physicians. Readers may have expected that a rebuttal would try to show that Goldfarb was exaggerating if not outright fabricating what was happening in medical schools. Not a bit of it: McLean wrote to boast that he was proud of what Goldfarb described, thus confirming that it was all true. Will we next see the appointment of an associate dean for social justice in a medical school? But it’s not wise to joke about this, because that’s exactly what the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California has done.

The radicalized campus is spreading its tentacles into more and more areas of national life. Radical leftism dominates in state bar associations and even in many philanthropic foundations. Journalism schools have made that profession more brazenly partisan than it has ever been. Even art schools are now politicized, as Michael J. Pearce has described: “In art schools dominated by politically motivated professors, social justice activism dominates the work of many students, who can feel pressured into acting and working just like their mentors.” One result is an increase in dropout rates and in school closures. Pearce asks pointedly, “Why would a student interested in an art career want to pay for a degree that leads to a job in political campaigning or unemployment?”

The radicalized campus is spreading its tentacles into more and more areas of national life.

The politicizing of academia has a multitude of far-reaching consequences. The distinguished economist Walter Williams sums up the effect on our culture trenchantly, but not unfairly:

Many of the nation’s colleges have become a force for evil and a focal point for the destruction of traditional American values. The threat to our future lies in the fact that today’s college students are tomorrow’s teachers, professors, judges, attorneys, legislators, and policymakers. A recent Brookings Institution poll suggests that nearly half of college students believe hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment. Of course, it is. Fifty-one percent of students think that it’s acceptable to shout down a speaker with whom they disagree. About 20 percent of students hold that it’s acceptable to use violence to prevent a speaker from speaking. Over 50 percent say colleges should prohibit speech and viewpoints that might offend certain people. Contempt for the First Amendment and other constitutional guarantees is probably shared by the students’ high school teachers, as well as many college professors. Brainwashing and indoctrination of young people has produced some predictable results, as shown by a recent Gallup poll. For the past 18 years, Gallup has asked adults how proud they are to be Americans. This year, only 47 percent say they are ‘extremely proud,’ well below the peak of 70 percent in 2003. The least proud to be Americans are nonwhites, young adults, and college graduates.

If Williams is correct, the nation must find a way to repair this heavily corrupted higher education. With every day, the damage done to the country by the politicized one-party campus increases. The problem is not simply that we are spending a fortune on higher education with little to show for it in the way of educational benefits. Overshadowing even the enormously serious question of the time and money being wasted is the damage to the social fabric of the nation and to its political life.

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John M. Ellis is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of German Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He taught at universities in England, Wales, and Canada before joining UCSC in 1966, serving as dean of the Graduate Division in 1977–86.


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