Urban America would be a different – and lesser – place without universities. They provide vocational instruction and prepare young people for the workforce. But more importantly, the liberal tradition in higher education increases our capacity to understand and reshape the world far beyond the university. Yet liberal education is under siege throughout a range of states in the United States.
Today we invited a guest essayist, Dr. Michael Schwartz, Professor and President Emeritus of Kent State University and Cleveland State University to write about one part of this siege.
Dr. Schwartz’s essay addresses the all-too-widespread claims that universities, and university faculties, have been taken over by leftists and become hotbeds of far-left ideology.
Dr. Schwartz experienced first-hand the political turmoil on campuses in the 1960s, initially as a student and then as a faculty member, then rising to the positions of Provost, then President of Kent State University. He devoted well over a decade working to heal the Kent State campus community after the tragic shootings on May 4, 1970. Ever since he remained active in the lives of universities in the roles of revered President, Trustee, mentor, and advisor to University Presidents. There are few people in the country more qualified to opine upon this topic.
State Sponsored Imposition of Ideology on American University Campuses
I have often wondered why it is that we academics have come to be viewed as uniformly politically left of center. My own experience, after a fifty-year career in university life, is that professors are all over the map politically, although the drift to the center and center left over the years has been unmistakable.
That drift has been crescive, which is to say marked by gradual and spontaneous development in response to many different forces including our own history, especially that beginning in the late 1950’s and through the 1960’s. It has been, among other things, an effort by academics to respond to the questions brought to them by one of their primary constituents—their students.
In the course of teaching our students about the several ways of thinking available to them, it seems to me we have done a creditable job of giving them a healthy dose of skepticism without turning them into cynics. That is no mean feat. Our success in that has not been uniform; there have been notable failures. Some of our students have indeed become cynics to the point that they won’t entertain points of view contrary to the ones that they have come to hold dear.
These are the “cancel culture” warriors who think that some ideas are too dangerous to be heard and who disrupt speeches by people who hold views contrary to their own. Lest one believe that such culture warriors exist only on the left, be assured the political right has produced their fair share of them, although that production line tends to be off the campuses and in other institutional settings and some less formal ones.
Nevertheless, the students have caught on to what they have heard: ideas of liberty and justice and how those things are not always the same but nonetheless intertwined in complex ways. They have caught on to ideas of virtue—a passion of the founders—and how, while virtue may have roots in religion, it may also be defined in other ways that further intertwine it with liberty and justice.
How complex! How messy life gets! How one question leads to still more questions! And every now and then, it becomes still more clear that having the right answer isn’t the only real purpose of this crazy discussion we’re in; the purpose is to ask a still better question! University life is not for people with a low tolerance for ambiguity and a high need for closure in their lives.
And this perceived, crescive, organic drift to the left goes on in the disciplines that deal with those matters of human organized social life—in the philosophy and religion departments, in the sociology, psychology, and anthropology departments; in the economics departments, in the political science departments (although, as a friend of mine used to say, “beware of any academic department with the word “science” in its title). The departments of history, English, foreign languages and literatures, and area or regional studies are also hot beds of thought that deal with the clarification of questions of some moment to students.
All of these are places where students come to grips with the complexities of human social life as technology, population shifts, values (and the meaning of “values” itself), social organization and culture, the meaning of social control, and the meaning of personal character begin to impinge on their daily lives more and more and present conflicts of view.
It’s pretty heady stuff for 18- to 22-year-olds, and it is to be expected that some will be confused by it; others will seek a safe harbor in the storm of ideas, latch on to the latest system of thought that they’ve been studying, take it home at Thanksgiving break and disrupt the entire family at dinner with all of this new found heresy direct from Big State U.
But having my own three children go through all of this and having very fond memories of having gone through it myself, there is some wisdom, I think, in understanding that life itself is “crescive,” that it is to say it changes organically, it is influenced by experiences both in and out of the universities. It grows. It takes information acquired in the high schools and colleges and changes it into knowledge. And then life, which is to say time and experience, takes that knowledge and changes it into wisdom.
And by the time that well-tempered wisdom is finally acquired, we seniors find that, quite frankly, there’s almost no market for it.
But if anyone were to be listening (or, in this case reading), I’d suggest that the burr under the saddle on so many state legislators’ right wing horses, aren’t burrs at all. They’re just little added weights that come with letting students be students, letting them wrestle with the enormous complexities of life and morals in man-made societies that are imperfect while recognizing that “perfect” is an “imperfect” concept.
In short, the higher education process is neither inherently “leftist” or “rightist.” Despite what the right wingers may think, their real objection isn’t to the political bias they may perceive on our campuses, their real objection is to the process that has served us well throughout history.
Beginning in or around 1080 with the founding of the University of Bologna, there have been efforts to control ideas on the campuses—open contests for control of these institutions and the ideas expressed in them. The churches and the princes understood the profound power of ideas in seeking to control that power. It has always been that way.
Now we’re witnessing the American version of it. We haven’t seen it before because the churches were free to establish their own colleges as were the states. But now, as the separation of church and state is being sorely challenged on several fronts, the contest for control of ideas is again appearing, and in state after state around the country, including Ohio’s imposition of extra-academic “academic units” on five campuses by legislative fiat, we are seeing the imposition of a state sponsored ideology in our academic lives.
It is not an ideology that has “crescively” or organically grown out of centuries old debate. It is instead the imposition of curriculum that has always been the prerogative of the faculties and (depending on the historical period) the students.
One final note on this. In 1978, I was one of three Americans who was invited to attend the 400th anniversary celebration of the founding of the University of Vilnius, in Lithuania. You will recall that Lithuania was then a captive nation of the Soviet Union. But we had a small but interesting Lithuanian studies program at my university and a good collection of Lithuanian materials in our library.
While I was visiting in Vilnius, I had a “host professor” who literally got me out of bed in the morning and put me to bed at night. In a conversation with him (he was sold to me as a historian) he remarked that the Soviets believed that academically they would bury the Americans and that our problem was that we “had no ideology.”
I suggested to him that we did in fact have such an ideology and that I’d be happy to send him copies of our founding documents if he thought they could get through his postal system. He (a fine Lithuanian historian, I am sure) had no real idea of our founding documents. They would have been kept under lock and key in his university’s library, available only to a privileged and reliable interested few.
So what’s next? Now that states are managing to impose a state sponsored ideology, shall we keep the state sponsored ideologies of other even more authoritarian governments under lock and key in our libraries? I’ll bet that I could have had one terrific academic week or more with my students just talking about the meaning of “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer.”
A guest post by Michael Schwartz