Thinking About Things: Highlights of the Downward Spiral in American Education

By John DeQ. Briggs

It is difficult for me to think about education in America these days without thinking about how much has changed and how much seems to have been lost. I was recently asked to submit some reflections to my alma mater, Harvard College, on the occasion of my upcoming 55th Reunion. What is set forth below is both an excerpt from and an expansion of those ruminations. There is more to say in a further effort down the road.

What I said in my essay was that I had neither the will nor the energy to put down on paper all the many things that have so defiled the American educational system. But the main points I mentioned implicated the watering down of the curricula, the absence of any common knowledge base among recent graduates of all colleges, the coddling and closing of the American mind (which begins and is sustained on college campuses such as Harvard), the insidious growth of cancellation history and historical revisionism, and the scandalous ways in which influential parents pry their children into brand-name schools. These and many other aspects of higher education all bode very poorly for the future success of current undergraduates and for the country as a whole. Indeed, to the extent that our democracy depends upon a well-informed electorate to be successful, there is reason to doubt the long term success of our entire system.

Many bright and talented young people will enter a world without adequate preparation, and without any expectation that they will ever have to sacrifice anything for anything. The strong pull of individualism is breaking social bonds of family, community, church, employer, and the polity in general. Places like Harvard may think they are preparing young people for a life of contribution to causes greater than themselves, but from afar it looks more as if these young people are being prepared for a life of narcissistic self-absorption, unburdened by exposure to even the mildest of unwelcome points of view, and where they enjoy nearly unlimited rights while shouldering few if any actual responsibilities.

The current state of affairs has been building for many decades. Allen Bloom’s, The Closing of the American Mind was published in 1987, more than three decades ago. Bloom was a professor of philosophy at Cornell, and at the risk of gross oversimplification, a major premise of the book is that a “moral relativism” had taken over American universities and constructed barriers to notions of truth, critical thinking, and genuine knowledge. The book’s subtitle is How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. While no substitute for the book itself, here is a handy summary of its main points from Wikipedia, a kind of modern substitute for Cliff’s Notes. Closing of American Mind. The link contains several summaries of different reviews of the book by substantial supporters and opponents of the book’s premises. For me, that book was the opening salvo in the academic theater of the culture wars.

Flashing forward to the present time we find more familiar critiques, such as in The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, published in 2019, but anticipated in their lengthy 2015 article in The Atlantic (article here) and Anthony Kronman’s 2019 The Assault on American Excellence, summarized here in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece sub. nom. The Downside of Diversity.

Coddling is more up to date than Closing. It focuses on uniquely modern transgressions such as “microaggressions,” most typically in the form of “offensive speech or conduct.”  For example, some campus guidelines condemn as a microaggression asking an Asian-American or Latino American “Where were you born?” because this implies that he or she is not a real American. These are not isolated matters. The deans and department chairs at the ten University of California system schools were presented by administrators at faculty leader-training sessions with examples of microaggressions, including “offensive” statements such as: “America is the land of opportunity,” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”

The 1980s movement chronicled by Alan Bloom sought to restrict speech (hate speech aimed at marginalized groups), but also challenged the literary, philosophical, and historical canon, seeking to widen it by including more diverse perspectives. But now, decades later, the current movement is largely about emotional well-being. It presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. This movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. Coddling’s authors conclude that the new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically rather than critically. Both politically and collegiately students and others are encouraged to make moral judgments largely unhinged from critical thinking. And part of what we do when we make such moral judgments is to express allegiance to “a team.” This further interferes with our ability to think critically inasmuch as acknowledging that the other side’s viewpoint has any merit is runs the risk that teammates may see one as a traitor.

So, we get to the difference between critical thinking and emotional reasoning. Critical thinking requires grounding one’s beliefs in evidence rather than emotion and learning how to search for and evaluate evidence that might contradict one’s initial hypothesis. But little about campus life today fosters critical thinking. This seems to be true in the larger world as well. Instead, emotional reasoning increasingly dominates social and political debates and discussions. And claim that someone’s words are “offensive” is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling, it is a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong. It is a demand that the speaker apologize or be punished by some authority for committing an offense. The authors provide examples of punishments meted out to faculty and students alike for what seem like the most trivial of verbal or literary “offenses” (including reading a paperback book against the KKK, but with a cover depicting a Klansman)

Federal law and regulation have amplified the problem. In 2013, the Departments of Justice and Education greatly broadened the definition of “sexual harassment” to include verbal conduct that is simply “unwelcome.” One result is that universities, fearing Federal investigations, now apply this same standard not just to sex, but to race, religion, and veteran status as well. As the Coddling authors put it: emotional reasoning is now accepted as evidence.

Kronman’s The Downside of Diversity begins with the following sentence:

“Diversity” is the most powerful word in higher education today. No other has so much authority. Older words, like “excellence” and “originality,” remain in circulation, but even they have been redefined in terms of diversity.

Kronman is not against diversity in every sense, but only in the sense that it should not be rooted in racial, ethnic, religious, gender, or sexual identity and should especially welcome diversity of thought. The lack of diversity of thought allowed on campuses is probably the most stunning feature of the 21st-century American college and university, at least in my judgment. The demand for diversity has steadily weakened the norms of objectivity and truth and substituted for them a culture of grievance and group loyalty. One of the points he makes, which ought not be controversial, turns out to be just that:

Whatever else it may be, the truth is not democratic. We don’t decide what is true in mathematics or history or philosophy by a show of hands. The idea of truth assumes a distinction between what people believe it is and the truth itself. Socrates drove this point home in every conversation he had. It might be called the Socratic premise of all intellectual inquiry.

And this:

Motivated by politics but forced to disguise itself as an academic value, the demand for diversity has steadily weakened the norms of objectivity and truth and substituted for them a culture of grievance and group loyalty. Rather than bringing faculty and students together on the common ground of reason, it has pushed them farther apart into separate silos of guilt and complaint.

The damage to the academy is obvious. But even greater is the damage to our democratic way of life, which needs all the independent-mindedness its citizens and leaders can summon—especially at a moment when our basic norms of truthfulness and honesty are mocked every day by a president who respects neither.

Especially interesting reviews of this book are here and here.

And then there is the student debt fiasco, about which I have previously written on these pages. Stunningly, undergraduates can obtain massive loans without parental consent. The total amount of outstanding student debt is $1.7 trillion. This exceeds all the credit card debt in the United States put together. This tsunami of readily available cash permits colleges to increase their tuition, room, board, and other fees nearly in lockstep and at a rate of increase that far exceeds any known cost of living index. These loans, like tax obligations, are not dischargeable in bankruptcy either.

At the risk of wading into a fierce political issue, it makes no sense to me to ask people who never went to college, and others who worked while in college to avoid the debt, to take responsibility for paying off the obligations of those who volunteered to incur debts to receive their education. Better one would think to allow this obligation to be discharged in bankruptcy and then to make the educational institution that received the funds responsible for some portion of the defaulted debt, say, 35-50% or so. This is a market-based approach that would provide colleges and universities with some interest in the success of their students and an incentive to minimize their debt.

As with so many things in this country these days, there are enormous economic interests at stake. And there is no political will to think of the problem other than through a few words that can be plugged onto a bumper sticker or into a political slogan. Sensible solutions are, as a result, unlikely. And higher educational institutions have a large financial interest in being part of the problem rather than being part of a solution.

It would be nice to see our colleges and universities do something useful to address the actual problems that beset America, including decreasing the cost of education; educating students in ways that make them share some basic and important foundational material; and more generally to inculcate a set of values that can enthusiastically accommodate a broad spectrum of political views from left to right (or right to left). The strength of our democracy depends on a well-educated voting population, something that is being lost bit by bit and day by day. The way that universities have permitted the arts and the humanities nearly to disappear from the curricula strikes me as subtle evidence of an enormous problem – a disconnect from education writ large. I have my doubts that even our most esteemed educational institutions are up to the task but hope springs eternal.