More than 4,725 colleges and universities, public and private, exist in the United States. They enroll more than 20 million students. Each year, more than 1,870,000 students graduate from them, earning degrees in subjects ranging from business (363,799 graduates and by far, at almost 20 percent, the most popular) to library science (99 graduates). Other popular disciplines include the health professions and related programs (199,000 graduates), social sciences and history (173,000), psychology (117,000), biological and biomedical sciences (105,000), and education (99,000). Areas of undergraduate specialization have proliferated: homeland security, law enforcement, and firefighting (62,723 graduates), and transportation and materials moving (4,711). Many schools, many students, and many ways to graduate.
Higher education in the United States is an enormous industry, older than the nation itself and one of its dominant creations. With each passing year, millions of Americans and others benefit from its powerful resources to enhance their careers. But that power comes with controversy. Admiration of the schools is mixed with suspicion about what they do. They attract critics of every kind, and from every political position. Since so many people in this country have been college students, and since very few have forgotten the experience, opinions about them abound. For many graduates, it is easy to admire one’s alma mater; an even easier step is to love alma mater while finding fault with all the other schools. Perhaps “my” school has done well, but that does not mean that the others have. One last step to take is to take aim at the entire culture of higher education, both “my” school and yours.
Thus the story of Middlebury College in Vermont and Charles Murray. The college’s enrollment of some 2,450 students represents 0.012 percent of the national enrollment. Those students, none of whom will study either homeland security or transportation and materials moving, gained admission to the school in a process so competitive (16 percent of applicants admitted) that it renders them highly unrepresentative of American college students in general. Middlebury professors, all 270 of them, are similarly unrepresentative of American college teachers, of whom there are 1.5 million. They teach small classes, most of them enjoy the privileges of tenure, and they are better paid than most of their national colleagues. Middlebury is small, prestigious, and remote.
But when the controversial and itinerant political scientist Charles Murray was invited by some Middlebury students to speak at the college in February, he was angrily denounced by other students and was prevented by denunciations and threats from giving his talk. Protected by public safety officers, he was ushered away from the lectern; the professor whom he was scheduled to debate suffered an injury in the melee.
In the weeks thereafter, Middlebury (founded 1800) became, for the first and only time in its history, the face of American higher education.
Almost no one defended what had gone on with Murray. Given what he had written or said in the past, some critics on the Left said that he never should have been invited. Others, on the Right, said that he should have been allowed to give his talk but had not been provided sufficient protection to do so. Many proclaimed his “First Amendment” rights to talk; others said he enjoyed no such rights, given that he is, in their view, a racist and white supremacist. The event prompted comments of every kind and from every quarter, on and off the campus.
But the angriest and most sustained of the commentary erupted from those who proclaimed that the Murray/Middlebury debacle was a revelation. It showed just how badly disoriented higher education had become in this country. In the Wall Street Journal, Professor Jonathan Haidt of NYU’s Stern School of Business is quoted as observing the rise of “a new religion” on campus made up of “very intimidating” fundamentalists who have cowed administrators “who won’t stand up to them.” Peter Wood of The Federalist, seeing the same Orwellian specter, denounced Middlebury’s president, Laurie Patton, saying that “those who were planning to disrupt Murray had just been handed a permission slip, a smiling indulgence from the college administration.” Like Haidt, Wood saw the events at Middlebury as a dramatic exposure of the rot within the nation’s colleges and universities: “Middlebury is in trouble. It is not alone. Many colleges and universities are in similar trouble. They have lost the key to open intellectual debate.”
The denunciations were soon cascading wildly in different directions. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times rendered his judgment, writing that “the lack of ideological diversity on campuses is a disservice to the students and to liberalism itself, with liberalism collapsing on some campuses into self-parody.” Jonathan V. Last of The Weekly Standard angrily declared that Murray was not only worth heeding, and the student protesters wrong, but “Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you can sit and listen to Murray for an hour and not learn something, then you’re an idiot.” According to Robert Schlesinger of US News & World Report, what went on at Middlebury was “depressingly familiar: A highly controversial speaker was invited to campus, prompting objection from students and faculty, and things went sideways from there.”
Sideways? Yes. Familiar? No. After appearing at Middlebury, Murray went on to speak, and to be heard with only minimal commotion, at Duke, Columbia, New York University, Notre Dame, Villanova, and Indiana University. The Middlebury debacle was not repeated. At Duke, Murray’s talk proceeded peacefully before an audience of 50. At Columbia, 150 faculty members expressed their support of Murray’s right to speak; 60 people attended the talk. The lecture at NYU prompted protest, but those in the audience, all 50 of them, heard it. At Villanova three protestors were removed after some four minutes of sustained objection before Murray spoke to about 100 people. Murray spoke peacefully to a small crowd at Indiana while, outside the room, there was some protest. But since these events had nothing spectacular on show, the commentators had no “revelations” to announce.
When mulling over Middlebury and these other institutions, it is helpful to keep in mind the remaining 4,600 American colleges and universities, public and private. What to make of their calmness? When characterizing American higher education, why turn to Middlebury and Charles Murray? Why is it easy to imagine that what happened in Vermont summed up the state of American higher education? What, if anything, did Middlebury “reveal”?
Edmund Burke, writing about genuinely revolutionary events in 1789, said, “Because half-a-dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.” On most campuses, most of the time, most students are doing what students mostly do: study, talk to friends, waste time, worry, think about the future, party, and behave as young people always behave. They rarely involve themselves in calamitous events. Nor, indeed, do most Middlebury students. Only a small number of them joined the anti-Murray crowd. But a small percentage of a small percentage ballooned into “the American college student.”
This distortion of campus reality has been in the making for some time. An abiding theme for some impassioned critics, indulging their suspicion of higher education, is that the students have become the intellectual captives of the faculty, and that “the professors, not students” have created a “liberal bubble on campus.” A left-wing professoriate has helped to “shake the students’ minds and set the tone for the intellectual climate.” Or so says Samuel J. Abrams, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. His views are shared by many. After the professors have had their baneful way, they argue, students have become their captives. But this notion, assuming faculty coercion and student passivity, neglects the reality that entering students do not appear to be innocent, conservative sheep vulnerable to faculty pressures. Yes, there is substantial evidence, gathered by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, that the American professoriate is “left-of-center” and that incoming freshmen are somewhat closer to that center. But with each new year, those students have become more liberal than those in the past. The Institute observes:
Roughly one-third of the students (33.5%) who entered a four-year institution in the fall of 2015 identify as “liberal” or “far left,” 1.8 percentage points higher than in 2014 and 3.9 points higher than in 2012. This figure represents the highest proportion of left-leaning students since 36.4% of students identified as liberal or far left in 1973.
Students are less docile, and more left-wing, than Abrams assumes. They seem, before even meeting professors, to be catching up politically with them.
A more debilitating problem with Abrams’ argument and others like it is the failure to establish any empirical connection between a professor’s political attitudes and that professor’s pedagogy. Nothing beyond the anecdotal demonstrates that the American classroom or lecture hall has become a center of indoctrination. Use your imagination to understand what might well happen in a classroom taught by a leftist ideologue: Would every student simply surrender to the presiding dogma? Might that dogma, on occasion, be so badly promulgated as to create opposition to it? Or might it prove so boring as to be ignored? On what grounds do commentators outside the classroom understand the peculiar dynamics within it—an arena bringing together older people and younger, some politically committed and some politically indifferent, an arena including the ever-present inclination of the young toward iconoclasm, as well as the ever-present likelihood of the adult misjudging the mind of the post-adolescent.
Or consider those thousands of classes in which ideology of any kind simply is not present. How could “Introduction to Chemistry” (keep in mind those many students majoring in the health professions and related programs or biological and biomedical sciences) be constructed to achieve an ideological end? Or how, if you believe that the American professoriate has been busy creating an “ideological bubble,” to explain the fact that one-fifth of college students major in business? If this is coercion, its successes are hard to detect. One ideological consequence of attending college is, on the other hand, easy to track: how graduates vote. When and if they vote (the current generation is less likely to vote today than older generations) they mirror the voting behavior of the general public.1 Exit polls conducted after the 2016 presidential election show that 49 percent of them voted for Hillary Clinton while 45 percent voted for Donald Trump (the nation in general went 48.2 percent for Clinton and 46.1percent for Trump).
The truth about American college students is not that they are “turned Left” by their professors but that they seem upon graduation ready to join up with mainstream America. Before one charges that the American campus has become a “liberal bubble,” one must instead confront its prevailing atmosphere. It is not one of ideological frenzy or of straitjacket-like political correctness. One of its chief features is career ambition fueled by anxiety about student loan debt. Ideology does not exert anything equivalent to the force of worry about the prospect of a job.
But such sober realities do not figure large in the minds of those convinced that the “Left,” in the form of liberal faculty members, has taken over the campus. For them, little Middlebury speaks for the nation. Such commentators are given some support by evidence that the “leafier”— the more exclusive and prestigious the campus—the greater the likelihood of a Murray-like event. Such disruptions are more likely to take place at, say, Amherst than at the University of Nebraska. The Economist, with data gathered by the Brookings Institution and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, notes that such highly selective institutions, populated by richer students, are more likely to see protests. But such protests are not inevitable and some schools happily thrive without them. In any case, the “leafier” places can’t stand for American higher education in general. We thus return to consider those thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of that British oak.
If a link between professorial coercion and student vulnerability cannot be established, at least one melodramatic commentator has discovered that this is because everyone has been looking in the wrong direction. The campus situation is direr than anyone has suspected: The students are coercing the faculty! In the American Scholar, William Deresiewicz writes that “relations of power have been reconfigured” on the campus and that “students have a lot more power than they used to.” By being the source of tuition payments, they have created a “customer-service mentality in academia.” The result is what he sees as the “proletarianization of the faculty”: “[I]n the inevitable power struggle between students and teachers, the students have gained the upper hand.” The consequences are an avalanche of trigger-warnings, the policing of “micro-aggressions,” and a politically correct atmosphere, rigidly controlled by the students, that makes Deresiewicz think first of the terror tactics of the National Rifle Association and then of…Stalinism!
On what evidence is his sensational account based? It comes from his teaching twelve students in one course during one year at Scripps College. Scripps has 989 students (0.005 percent of all college students). Deresiewicz sees no reason to think that his experience was anomalous or the school anomalous. He believes instead that the situation “is broadly similar across the board.” In his almost comically skewed account, we are asked to see little Scripps as a microcosm of the larger world of American higher education. What could cause such hysterical myopia?
For one answer, we can return to the suspicion of the entire enterprise of higher education in this country. This suspicion is not an affliction confined to the uneducated or the envious. The commentators I have mentioned, and others like them, have gone to good schools. Yet they have little complimentary to say about any campus, their own included. One could argue that they suffer from what many alumni of many schools suffer: the belief that “things were better when I went there.” Such nostalgia, wedding genuine affection for campus life with permanent removal from it, is hard to remedy. Or, for another answer, one could observe that higher education has become so various, complex, far-flung, and deeply interwoven with everything else constituting the bewildering picture of American life that it is easy, using scattered and anecdotal evidence, to castigate an entity so large that it cannot be seen whole. Or, at last, one could consider the possibility that a malady now afflicting large segments of American life—the aversion to evidence and the flowering of apocalyptic scenarios—has entered the thinking of commentators not just on the Right but also on the Left.
Despite such myopia, the spectacle of American higher education in this country—millions of students, hundreds of thousands of teachers, campuses everywhere, and graduates pouring into the economy each year—continues to make its resounding impact upon the nation. It remains a stunning creation. And little Middlebury in Vermont, founded in 1800, having braved its storm, survives.
1Millennials (those between 18 and 35) have the lowest voter turnout of any age group. 46 percent voted in the most recent presidential election, compared to 72 percent of the Silent Generation.