Anyone seriously concerned about the souls of our youth should seriously ponder Vigen Guroian’s recent essay, “Dorm Brothel: The new debauchery, and the colleges that let it happen,” in Christianity Today (February 2005), 45-51. A professor of theology at Loyola College in Baltimore, Guroian confirms what Tom Wolfe describes in his widely discussed novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, a searing portrait of the corruption of a young woman who attends an elite university such as Stanford or Yale. Wolfe believes that colleges and universities have replaced churches as sources of moral authority and abandoned students to the anarchical nihilism described in his novel. In her favorable review of I Am Charlotte Simmons, Professor Mary Ann Glendon, of Harvard Law School, laments that its descriptive passages of “binge drinking, foul language, academic dishonesty, and predatory sex” portray “a parent’s worst nightmare” (First Things, February 2005, p. 41). Sending your children to war in Iraq may very well less threaten their character than sending them to Harvard or MIT!
The collapse of standards on university campuses was anticipated by William F. Buckley’s 1952 treatise, in God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom,” written within months of his 1950 graduation from his alma mater. A 50th anniversary paperback edition has recently appeared (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2002) and provides one with a helpful beginning point with which to chart the course of higher education since WWII. Buckley wrote book to reflect his concern for “God, for country, and for Yale . . . in that order.” Though an allegedly “Christian” university, Yale was clearly slipping away from even a passing commitment to God and His reality. Arriving in 1946, after serving two years in the Army, Buckley (a very traditional Roman Catholic) believed “that an active faith in God and a rigid adherence to Christian principles are the most powerful influences toward the good life” (p. lxiii). Though Yale officially claimed, in those days, to be solidly Christian and freely took money from donors who believed it, Buckley’s assumption that the university would encourage such faith dissipated almost immediately. Undermining the university president’s pious pronouncements was a critical agnosticism that typified the faculty and infected many students.
For example, the most popular “religion” class was “entitled the Historical and Literary Aspects of the Old Testament” (p. 5). Taught by the warmly winsome college chaplain, it was popular mainly because good grades were readily available for minimal effort. A Philosophy of Religion class was taught by a professor who claimed to be a “nondogmatic” Christian who was, in fact, equally “open” to all religious positions, endorsing the “pluralism” that now characterizes many religion departments. Another professor, a former Congregational minister described himself as “80 percent atheist and 20 percent agnostic” (p. 8). Yale’s philosophy department featured Paul Weiss, an agnostic, who delighted to “debunk” the Christian religion, along with various professors who immersed their students in the works of Bertrand Russell, David Hume, and assorted skeptics. By assiduously sorting through one’s options, students could find a defender of orthodox Christianity, but the university’s instructors generally promoted the relativistic, instrumental views of John Dewey
Similarly, most professors advocated varieties of socialism, condemning in the process the traditional American way of life. They were especially critical of America’s individualism and free enterprise capitalism. Commencement speeches, presidential proclamations, and catalogue declarations notwithstanding, Yale’s professors consistently espoused versions of collectivism. Only a stalwart few openly sympathized with Karl Marx, but Marx himself had urged two routes to utopia: 1) violent revolution or, 2) “a slow increase of state power, through extended social services, taxation, and regulation, to a point where a smooth transition could be effected from an individualist to a collectivist society” (p. 42). The second, more gradual approach obviously appealed to many Yale’s professors who claimed to support the American way but consistently celebrated the demise of “rugged individualism” and endorsed the equalization of income, the “just” redistribution of wealth, steeply progressive death and income taxes, and the apparently infinite expansion of the welfare state.
Having distanced itself from God and country, Buckley argued, Yale had lost its raison d’etre. To a large extent, he thought, this was because professors recklessly indulged themselves, rationalizing “academic freedom” as a license to promote personal ideologies rather than carrying out the mission of the university. On some issues, of course, Yale was intensely dogmatic, says Buckley. A racist would be quickly fired from the faculty. Yet an atheist promoting his agenda in this “Christian” institution would almost certainly gain promotion and tenure! Sadly, Buckley says, Yale’s professors failed to take seriously their calling, which is to guard the treasures of civilization and rightly shape students. They had the power to affect “the destiny of the world” (p. 172). But they were promoting an anti-Christian and pro-collectivist agenda that would destroy it.
Michael L Budde and my colleague, John Wright, have edited Conflicting Allegiances: The Church-Based University in a Liberal Democratic Society (Grand Rapids: BrazosPress, c. 2004). Inevitably, the essays are uneven in quality, but the general thesis of the book, summed up in Professor Wright’s Introduction: “How Many Masters? From the Church-Related to an Ecclesially Based University,” deserves careful consideration. Christian institutions–by definition it would seem–should promote orthodox theology and encourage virtuous character. They should, in short, be Christian! But all too many of them–as Buckley’s portrait of Yale illustrated–claim to be what they’re not and largely leave students to their own devices. Consequently, Wright insists, they will be shaped by the surrounding non-Christian culture rather than the Church. To correct this, he argues the Christian university should reconfigure itself as an “ecclesially based” institution that openly and fervently seeks to “initiate and socialize” both professors and students “into the polity and practices of the church” (p. 26). Rather than prepare folks to work in the world, they should be ready to die for their faith!
Fundamental to Wright’s project is the radical overhaul–if not displacement–of the “liberal arts Christian college.” For two centuries churches have conducted a great experiment: inviting students to blend “faith and learning” in their colleges. The faith was understood to be the faith of the Fathers, the traditional doctrinal and ecclesial positions of the community of faith. The “learning,” however, was to be that of the broader world. Thus the curricula and textbooks of “Christian colleges” almost always mirrored that of the secular world. In time, Wright argues, the “Christian” aspect of the college could not but fade away. Consequently, only a more militantly committed community–the “ecclesially-based university–can maintain its integrity.
Sharing Wright’s position, William T. Cavanaugh, in “Sailing Under True Colors: Academic Freedom and the Ecclesially Based University,” argues that the liberal version of freedom enshrined in secular universities–a commitment to unlimited professorial autonomy–slowly erodes what must be central to a Christian institution: the authority of Scripture and Tradition. To Cavanaugh, “academic freedom” should be corporately understood, and any given university should be free to espouse its peculiar ideals. But within a given university, consensus and commitment to the mission should preempt personal professorial preferences. So a Christian college should freely and openly indoctrinate rather than offer options to students.
Wes Avram, having served as Chaplain at Bates College (once an American Baptist but now unaffiliated “Christian” liberal arts college), writes perceptively about his role in “With Friends Like These: Pathetic Chaplaincy and the Ethos of the Ecclesial College.” In the 1990s, Bates’ vaguely Christian identity was, sadly enough, probably best evident in its buildings–ornate tombstones bearing witness to an earlier epoch. At Bates College in the ’90s, egalitarian and politically correct rhetoric had replaced theological pronouncements, and the college’s Baptist founders were unfailingly praised as social reformers rather than clergymen. Spiritual concerns–sin, salvation, holiness and hope–had been shifted to health and counseling offices, and humanitarian service projects had replaced worship and personal discipleship. Any form of evangelism was now frowned upon as fervently as inclusive, inter-faith services were praised. Virtually nothing but “fundamentalism” could be safely denounced. Working within this environment without embracing its ethos was, to say the least, challenging for Avram. But his essay both illustrates the dead-end of the secularizing process and provides helpful hints as to how one functions and works within such a secularized “Christian” college.
John Milbank, as one would expect from an eminent advocate of “radical orthodoxy,” urges readers to recover a more ancient and worthy perspective in “The Last of the Last: Theology in the Church.” Rather than follow the “critical” pathways of academicians, he wants to get back to the pre-modern world where the Church was stronger and theology better. He especially insists that “Scripture, tradition, and reason were not seen as separate sources prior to 1300” and should not be today (p. 240). In particular, he urges us to recover the richness of Thomas Aquinas, rooting ourselves in a worldview prior to the devastating incursions of nominalism (ironically rooted in an essentially Islamic perspective) and restore a solidly Christian theology.
While the essays I’ve mentioned prove valuable, other essays in the volume illustrate some of the problems of postmodernism. Amy Laura Hall’s disquisition on Edith Wharton, making a “case for women’s studies” that encourages students to be “strategically rude,” is a highly improbable (if predictably postmodern) interpretation of Wharton. M. Therese Lysaught, in “Love Your Enemies,” labors to establish an improbable link between “the contemporary practice of the life sciences and the infrastructure of violence of the liberal democratic state.” To her, the recent Human Genome Project is the “Manhattan Project for biology” (p. 113) and is yet another bastard son of America’s evil war machine.
Lysought’s animosity towards America, unfortunately, taints many of the essays in this volume. That Michael L. Budde, one of the editors, favorably cites Noam Chomsky (one of the most irresponsible and hateful writers in America) indicates something of the ideological bias of the collection. Generally speaking, the essays attack America’s “liberal democratic society” as an almost demonic entity that must rejected if not destroyed. But the real problem with maintaining Christian colleges, in my judgment, is not “liberal democracy.” Christian institutions struggled to retain their identity long before liberalism or democracy flourished in the modern era. It’s “the world, the flesh and the devil,” as St. John so perceptively said long ago, it’s deadly sins–lust, pride, envy, sloth, intemperance–that seduce and destroy far more than fall prey to pernicious political structures.
Jim Nelson Black, former executive director of the Wilberforce Forum, has conducted extensive interviews with students and professors, as well as extensively researched the Freefall of the American University: How Our Colleges Are Corrupting the Minds and Morals of the Next Generation (Nashville: WND Books, c. 2004). For our children’s sake, he argues, higher education in this nation must be overhauled, for the radicals of the ’60s now control the universities, making them centers of leftist activism, aiming “to transform the United States into a socialist utopia” (p. 4) rather than loci of higher learning.
Disciples of Antonio Gramsci and Herbert Marcuse–Bill and Hillary Clintons’ admitted “main academic influence” (p. 221) in their student days–have “marched through American institutions” and established their Marxist ideology. Today’s professors, says USC’s Dallas Willard, more routinely cite Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty, who are fully devoted to the “Marxist idea . . . that rhetoric is everything, and everything is political” (p. 256). They fulfill Norman Thomas’s prediction: “‘The American people will never knowingly adopt socialism, but under the name of liberalism they will adopt every fragment of the socialist program until one day America will be a socialist nation without ever knowing how it happened'” (p. 247). This was clarified by Professor Richard Rorty, one of the luminaries of the current academy, who declared: “The power base of the Left in America is now in the universities,” and it especially thrives in ethnic studies programs, “Women’s Studies programs, and Gay and Lesbian Studies program” (p. 11). Social Justice Centers almost always provide avenues for decrying racism, sexism, ageism, global capitalism, etc. Displacing the despised Western Christian Culture of traditional curricula, the Left celebrates its adversary stance toward both Christianity and America. Destroying traditional sexual standards–so evident in Thom Wolfe’s novel–is but part of a larger assault on all social norms.
Academic standards have softened. “College seniors of today have no better grasp of general knowledge than high-schoolers a half century ago” (p. 29). They don’t study Shakespeare, because courses on “the bard” are rarely offered and never required, even of literature majors. They are generally required to take courses in non-Eurocentric studies, but almost never in American history. To the degree they learn about this country, they hear about the abuses of slavery and patriarchy, of American imperialism and Puritanical prudery. But they know little about the nation’s presidents or generals or founding documents. Thus they’re primed to believe the fantasies of Oliver Stone and Michael Moore, taking as “historical” the rants of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. Consequently, Black says, “There is perhaps no more troubling aspect of the radicalization of the university campus than the revisionism that passes for history today” (p. 163). Even at Harvard, says Professor Harvey Mansfield, too few students think critically, discerning the difference between coherent argumentation and emotional venting.
Moral standards are in “freefall,” according to Black. Promiscuous and virtually anonymous sex–”Hooking up” in today’s parlance–almost defines campus life. Homosexual activity has especially gained approval, with “coming out” festivals and campus organizations vigorously promoting the gay lifestyle. Professors in English departments now deal with subjects like “lesbianism sadomasochism” and “the queer child” rather than Melville and Dickens. “Transgendered scholars” now grace elite academic departments. Pornography is “seriously” studied and various kinds of experimentation encouraged. Consequently, STDs proliferate. According to Meg Meeker, 20 percent of our teens have incurable herpes. “Every third girl has the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV causes 99.7 percent of cervical cancer cases that kills over five thousand women each year. One out of ten has chlamydia'” (p. 203).
Black’s data, sadly enough, confirms the Tom’s Wolfe’s poignant portrait of the destruction of young people’s souls by the very institutions that should protect and nourish them.
In Going Broke by Degree: Why College Cost Too Much (Washington, D.C.: The AEI Press, c. 2004), Richard Vedder, for many years a professor of economics at Ohio University, drafts a sobering portrait of the serious financial failings of today’s colleges and universities. Though the book contains ample data and sophistical quantitative analysis, the thesis is clear: in the non-competitive environment of higher education, student fees and tax monies can be endlessly increased in order to provide an increasingly comfortable life for increasingly unproductive professors.
Though costs have soared, there’s no evidence that students are better educated than they were 50 years ago. Student grade point averages have soared while their Graduate Record Exam scores have declined. Students are taught by graduate students–or adjunct instructors–many of whom barely know more than their charges. Monies once devoted to instruction have been diverted to administrative tasks–jumping from 20 percent to 50 percent in 70 years. Professors’ salaries have boomed while their teaching loads have decreased. Smaller classes have been mandated, but though they make the professor’s life easier there’s no evidence that they improve student learning. Enormous investments are made in “research,” but very little of it has value beyond the expansion of professors’ curriculum vita.
To bring sobriety and financial health to the nation’s colleges, Vedder proposes some radical changes, making them competitive and accountable to the broader public. Privatizing public institutions, requiring the kind of strategies and ethics that prevail in the private sector, making educational institutions truly educational rather than “student service” centers, would bring some sanity to higher education.
As a student at UCLA, Ben Shapiro openly challenged his leftist professors. He kept a record of his experiences and then expanded his reaction through research and wrote Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth (Nashville: WND, c. 2004). He endured professors who praised Mao Tse-Tung and Islamic radicals. He discovered that the “Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organization in the US, is riddled with university faculty” (p. 35). Thus Eric Foner, a celebrated Columbia University historian and fervent Marxist, responded to 9/11 with the declaration: “‘I’m not sure which is more frightening: the horror that engulfed New york City or the apocalyptic rhetoric emanating daily from the White House'” (p. 111).
Many of today’s professors, Shapiro says, are only minimally interested in scholarship, for they want to change the world. Environmentalism, especially, has become a fervent faith for many professors. To save the earth is a sacred mission. So they attack SUVs, capitalism, free trade, and even the green revolution that has largely eliminated starvation in China and India. One environmentalist, David Ehrenfeld, even argues that “the smallpox virus should not be destroyed since it kills only human beings” (p. 83). And that, says another professor, CUNY’s Paul Taylor, would be “‘Good Riddance'” (p. 83).
This is obviously the book of a bright and very young writer. Strong on anecdotes and alarming quotations, short on balance and analysis! But it does reflect the reaction of one perceptive student.
Something of a companion to Shapiro’s is Mike S. Adams’ Welcome to the Ivory Tower of Babel: Confessions of a Conservative College Professor (Augusta, GA: Harbor House, c. 2004). He particularly addresses the problems of Political Correctness–the straight jacket of thought imposed on both teachers and students alike on many university campuses. He awakened to the problem not long after he was hired to teach criminal justice at UNC-Wilmington in 1993. At that time he was an atheist solidly committed to the Democratic Party. In 1996, however, he traveled to Quito, Ecuador, where he interviewed a Catholic prisoner on death row who seemed to have a better perspective on life than he did. Three years later he interviewed a “mentally retarded inmate on Texas’ death row” who quoted John 3:16. Those encounters led Adams to buy a Bible and, before finishing it, embrace the Christian faith. He also became a Republican. By that time, since he openly aired his views, he had become a controversial professor, routinely attacked by colleagues for his controversial views. Written as a series of letters, the book gives insight into Adams and his battles, illustrating the general conclusions of the more comprehensive studies earlier discussed.
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