G-d and Man and Sex on Campus: Moral Relativism Goes to College, An Historical Perspective, Part III
Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on Higher Education in the 21st Century. You can read the introductory post for the Symposium here. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, click here. This the last part of a three-part series.
In his 1979 work, The Culture of Narcissism, historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch took aim at several American institutions, outlining what he believed were the ways in which they had failed the nation’s citizens. Among these institutions was the university–or multiversity, as he called it–which had increasingly seen its content diluted through the “collapse of general education; the abolition of any serious effort to instruct students in foreign languages; the introduction of many programs of black studies, women’s studies, and other forms of consciousness raising for no other purpose than to head off political discontent; [and] the ubiquitous inflation of grades…” All of these developments, Lasch suggested, had lowered the value of a university education.
What Lasch described as the “crisis of higher learning in the sixties” had its roots in the rise of the modern university in the late 1800s when “advocates of research, social service, and liberal learning vied for control of the institution. No single faction emerged victorious but, by around the time of the World War I, a compromise emerged in the form of the elective system, which survives pretty much intact to this day, albeit with a vastly expanded menu of electives.
For Lasch, the elective system combined in uneasy balance “the demands of the undergraduate college, still organized around an older conception of general culture, and the research-oriented graduate and professional schools that [were] superimposed on top of it.” This marriage came at a cost:
Unfortunately, the elective system… relieved the faculty from the need to think about the broader purposes of education… and about the relation of one branch of knowledge to another. At the same time the union of college and professional schools in the same institution preserved the fiction of general education, on which university administrators heavily relied in their appeals for funds.
Holding the enterprise together required an ever-larger administrative apparatus to determine and oversee policy-making. Combining liberal education and professional training in the same institution removed from faculty the responsibility “of confronting larger questions of academic policy.” Such questions now fell under the purview of administrative bureaucracies,
…which grew up in order to manage the sprawling complexity of institutions that included not only undergraduate and graduate colleges but professional schools, vocational schools, research and development institutes, area programs, semiprofessional athletic programs, hospitals, large-scale real estate operations, and innumerable other enterprises.
Students accepted this new status quo because they had little choice. Besides, the new arrangement had its benefits–lots of non-academic diversions and the still genuine promise of economic advancement upon attainment of a college degree. If the academic programs students encountered lacked intellectual coherence, then so be it.
The social upheavals of the 1960s and early 1970s, however, challenged the status quo on college campuses across the country. As Lasch noted, not only did the 1960s see an unprecedented number of students enroll in university, but social activists among the student body challenged the traditional curriculum. Angered by the research university’s allegiance to the military and large corporate interests, students and faculty began to attack its priorities.
While Lasch regarded this attack as largely legitimate, he decried its increasing anti-intellectualism, which, he argued, eventually corrupted and ultimately absorbed the student movement with pernicious effect on both the movement and the higher learning. In essence, the crisis of the sixties resulted in the dumbing down of college education:
Those who teach college students today see at first hand the effect of these practices, not merely in the students’ reduced ability to read and write but in the diminished store of their knowledge about the cultural traditions they are supposed to inherit… In the space of two or three generations, enormous stretches of the “Judeo-Christian tradition,” so often invoked by educators but so seldom taught in any form, have passed into oblivion… Yet this loss coincides with an information glut, with the recovery of the past by specialists, and with an unprecedented explosion of knowledge–none of which, however, impinges on everyday experiences or shapes popular culture.
Unlike other critics of modern higher education, Lasch was not particularly concerned about the rise of moral relativism on campus. Instead, it was the demise of genuine programs of general education that upset him. Most general education programs offered students a smorgasbord of choices, allowing them to pick and choose from alternatives but providing little in the way of intellectual cohesion. “Under these conditions,” Lasch sighed, “the university remains a diffuse, shapeless, and permissive institution that has absorbed the major currents of cultural modernism and reduced them to a watery blend, a mind-emptying ideology of cultural revolution, personal fulfillment, and creative alienation.”
The Conservative Attack on University Education and The Professors Who Provide It
Lasch’s critique of higher education was merely part of one chapter of The Culture of Narcissism, but it was consistent with his idiosyncratic approach to politics and culture. The book managed to piss off opponents both left and right. As Lee Siegel has noted, Lasch tweaked the right for its veneration of the “free” market and the left for its cultural progressivism, arguing that both forces weakened family ties and community. His defense of general education and cultural literacy went hand-in-hand with the communitarian politics he grew to favor toward the end of his life.
In more recent decades, however, critiques of university education, with their concomitant celebration of the Western canon, have become largely the province of the right. Two of the most notable examples of this genre are Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals (1990) and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education (1992).
Kimball’s book, a third edition of which was published in 2008, addresses the supposed infiltration of radical professors into universities–and most particularly into their humanities departments–since the 1960s, and assesses the subsequent impact these professors and their allies have had on the traditional liberal arts curriculum. None of it is good:
All across the country, colleges and universities are busy revamping their educational programs according to criteria that only a decade or two ago would have been considered blatantly inappropriate for determining the educational program of a respectable institution of higher learning. It is a measure of how drastically things have changed that although the ubiquitous triumvirate of race, gender, and class is still considered to be blatantly political, it is now the very reason increasingly held to furnish the only appropriate criteria for determining the content of the curriculum and the focus of pedagogical interest.
Nowhere is radicalism on campus more apparent than in the “assault” on the Western canon.* For Kimball, the canon is an “unofficial, shifting, yet generally recognized body of great works that have stood the test of time and are acknowledged to be central to a complete liberal arts education.” He contends that radical feminism poses the biggest challenge to the canon “as traditionally conceived” because it “seeks to subordinate literature to ideology by instituting a fundamental change in the way literary works are read and taught.” In short, “radical” feminists want to read works written primarily by white men from a female perspective, taking gender into account when analyzing them. Kimball argues that feminists and other critics of the canon view the study of it as oppressive, the privileging of one set of voices over all others.
Kimball further contends that the political ideology of multiculturalism also poses a threat to liberal education. He argues that for modern academics multiculturalism is not about recognizing actual cultural diversity, but is instead about “undermining the priority of Western liberal values in our educational system and in society at large:”
The one thing your literary deconstructionist, your Lacanian feminist, your post-structural Marxist, your new historicist, and your devotee of what goes under the name “cultural studies” can agree on is that the Western humanistic tradition is a repository of ideas that are naive, repressive, or both.
D’Souza takes the critique of radicalism on campus a step further. Describing what he sees as “the victim’s revolution on campus,” D’Souza claims that minorities have converted victimhood into a “certificate of virtue” which provides them with “a powerful moral claim” that renders opponents “defensive and apologetic.” Victimhood thus enables minorities to attack the Western canon as “white aesthetics, white philosophy, white science.” Yet victimhood also imprisons them for, ironically, “even as they rail against their oppressors, minority activists cannot afford to lose their victim status.”
D’Souza at least recognizes that changes on campus reflect changes within American society itself. He remarks that the United States is “rapidly becoming a multiracial, multicultural society,” resulting in a “recolorization” of America that is further enhanced by the fact that minority birth rates exceed those of whites. D’Souza wonders what will happen when America “loses her predominantly white stamp:”
… what impact will that have on her Western cultural traditions? On what terms will the evanescent majority and the emerging minorities, both foreign and domestic, relate to each other? How should society cope with the agenda of increasingly powerful minority groups, which claim to speak for blacks, Hispanics, women, and homosexuals?
Despite D’Souza’s angst about the politics of race and sex that beset the university, he nonetheless sees it as the right location for both minority and white students to “undertake their project of self-discovery.” He draws on the work of Cardinal John Henry Newman, who, in his 1867 work The Idea of a University, wrote that the purpose of liberal learning was “that true enlargement of mind which is in the power of viewing many things at once as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining mutual dependence.” D’Souza too pins his hopes on the power of education:
This knowledge of ourselves, and of the geographic and intellectual universe we inhabit, is ultimately what liberates and prepares us for a rich and full life as members of society. The term liberal derives from the term liberalis, which refers to the free person, as distinguished from the slave. It is in liberal education, properly devised and understood, that minorities and indeed all students will find the means for their true and permanent emancipation.
The works of D’Souza and Kimball seem to place a heavy burden on the university to construct and convey a common cultural heritage to students, to enable access to the “universal” truths that they believe undergird all knowledge and provide cohesion to education. While they don’t call for a metaphysics to unify college studies, as did Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, both believe that study of our nation’s Western heritage and its literary, political, and philosophical classics will act as an antidote to the politics of gender, race, and class that preoccupy professors across the country. For them, a liberal education, properly conceived, can help turn back the tides of radicalism released by the 1960s.
There is, however, no turning back. Conservative critics of higher education generally refuse to concede any legitimacy to the calls of women and minorities for inclusion of other viewpoints in the college, viewpoints long excluded from college campuses that, up until the 20th century, were largely the domain of the white men who comprised the majority of students, professors, and administrators. It’s easy for conservatives to caricature left-wing extremes as representing an almost unassailable whole, but far more difficult to discern what really goes on in the average college classroom.
* Kimball also rails against post-structuralism, deconstruction, feminism, gender studies, affirmative action, multiculturalism, and a number of other ills that have beset the university since the 1960s, transforming it into a hotbed of radical political thought.