The historian Polybius famously observed that empires deteriorate either internally or from without. In some cases, however, they fall apart in both ways. This latter situation applies to American higher education, which has succumbed to numerous corrupting influences all at the same time.
To make my point, I’ll discuss the transformation that befell the college where I was employed between 1989 and 2011. Elizabethtown College, located in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, was for most of its history a sleepy Anabaptist college, affiliated with the Church of the Brethren. When the college offered me a position as a full professor, I accepted, welcoming the opportunity to live in a charming setting and to teach at a socially traditional college.
I also imagined that I would be able to converse with a scholarly community, but my teaching experience at Elizabethtown, with a few notable exceptions, was far from stimulating. Most of the students didn’t seem eager to learn and when given the chance, were happy to disparage me and other equally demanding professors on the compulsory “evals.” Worse than the hostility of the disengaged students was the reaction of antiwar faculty colleagues who disliked my philosophy, despite my own reservations about a militantly interventionist foreign policy. Attempts at civil debate with them proved futile.
A new administration took over in 1996. It was headed by a sociologist of religion with Lutheran theological training. He pushed the college in an unmistakably ideological direction from which it would never turn back.
The new president enjoyed going to conferences with other college presidents and schmoozing with the Middle States accreditation agency that the college uses to validate its degrees. Each time he attended such meetings, he would come back with a new diversity program to implement, or he would decide to increase the responsibilities of the college’s diversity dean in fighting for “tolerance.”
This typically took the form of being more “welcoming” to our modest number of non-Christian, non-white students. For awhile, any mention of Christmas by the faculty and staff was frowned on; and even a “Yule Bowl” celebration was awkwardly renamed Holiday Bowl at the last moment, in case a non-Christian student might take offense at a gathering associated with a Christian holiday.
My wife, who was a bookstore employee, brought up certain facts in a letter to the college newspaper: Yule festivals were a pre-Christian Germanic thing and it was ridiculous for a Protestant college to try to obliterate its specifically Christian roots.
My black student assistant (one of the few non-whites on campus) found it strange that the entire school was celebrating Kwanzaa as a “black religious festival,” when his Baptist family in New Jersey cared only about Christmas. I explained to him that his parents were not politically correct blacks, unlike the white administration at the college.
From my conversations with the president, I found nothing to suggest that he believed any of the multicultural doctrines he so energetically pushed. He was just taking his lead from the presidents of other colleges, and undoubtedly trying to make the increasingly leftist faculty like him.
And the faculty seemed delighted with his initiatives. When the administration came forth with an extensive program to integrate multiculturalism into the curriculum, there was enthusiastic faculty approval.
The multicultural pedagogy would furnish the principles for the orientation of new students, inspire the list of guest speakers who would be invited to campus to edify us, and justify the stress on diversity and social justice that went into the college’s new mission statement. Even without injecting the righteous odor of PC into every core course, the entire college would emit its fragrance.
In its effort to get the faculty to vote to make diversity the overriding goal of the institution, the administration, aided by the social work and religion faculties, relied upon the supposed need to fight “hate crime.” We were confronted by events that never occurred, but which were said to throw a pall over the college.
The administration spoke as if there were torrential outbursts of hate against Hindu, Muslim and Jewish students. This was a truly sweeping charge that was not in the least substantiated. An assertion by one Catholic faculty member, who had converted to Hinduism, that two Asian students “walking through campus” were “given a very blatantly angry and hostile stare by another student,” struck me as highly improbable. This was in an issue of the student newspaper (February 2, 2012) that was devoted to the rampant “insensitivity” on campus. In this issue I was accused of being a “racist” for having opposed recent multicultural measures. To the credit of the faculty member who accused others of hostile stares, he did join my wife in criticizing the renaming of the college Christmas tree as a “Holiday Tree.”
And though the president proposed a solution (recruiting more minorities from inner cities) that had nothing to do with the alleged offenses, that didn’t matter. One after the other, faculty members stood up to proclaim, “It’s time we make a statement.”
To make matters worse, there was a low endowment at Elizabethtown, and the tuition-driven college became heavily dependent on certain cash cows. These were primary education, communications, and social work, which all served as vehicles of leftist indoctrination.
The students and faculty who were associated with those majors hardly distinguished between leftwing activism and traditional college study. They were expected to assume certain political attitudes and to act on the basis of them as part of their college education. Students in certain majors were expected to hear all of the politically correct speakers (such as education radical Jonathan Kozol) who were brought to campus and to write papers on what they learned from the speeches.
Even staying in the dorms required getting along with a dean of students, who imposed her political values on recalcitrant residents. Students of mine were dressed down by this dean and the provost for not being sufficiently sensitive to uncorroborated “hate crimes.” In more than one case, honor students (from the political science department) were threatened with expulsion for disputing the diversity dogma that had been proclaimed for the “college community.”
Note that there was an aspect of the college’s Brethren heritage that worked against maintaining college standards. The school claims to “be educating for service,” and one frequently heard students emphasize the joys of being “hands on.” In primary education, one could be “hands on” by joining the National Education Association and by demonstrating with its members. One had an especially good opportunity to be “hands on” by attending the speech by black communist activist Angela Davis last fall, which was sponsored by the college.
Equally significant were the multiple “hires” that took place during this time. Most of the younger people who came on board have better credentials than the older generation of faculty. Unfortunately, they are not much interested in serious scholarship, but delight in complaining about any hints of sexism and racism they claim to have spotted on campus. The primary effect of the younger faculty has been to radicalize the institution beyond recognition.
Elizabethtown’s pitiable transformation corresponds to a widespread degradation of learning. What bothers me about such glib generalizing, however, is the unwillingness of those of my generation to acknowledge that what they are deploring happened on their watch.
This process of change took place in different places and varied contexts, and so when I hear from those who lament what has befallen our college that “it’s really the same all over” I get intensely annoyed. I have no doubt that at Elizabethtown something could have been done to make things less crazy if fewer professors had hidden their heads in the sand. There was rarely a vote on any issue that radicalized the school in which the “nays” could not have won or at least held their own. The critics were just too cowardly or self-centered to let their opposition be known at the appropriate time.
Although this passage from Burke may now be overworked, it seems particularly apt looking back at my college experience: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”