“If you were to examine any speech made by a university president fifty years ago, you would find that the word ‘excellence’ occurs with great frequency…. If you made the same examination now, you’d find that ‘diversity’ has taken its place.”
This quote summarizes the main idea behind the book, The Breakdown of Higher Education: How it Happened, the Damage It Does, and What Can Be Done, by John M. Ellis.
Dr. Ellis is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of German Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Now, he is at the end of a fifty-year career following a trajectory that has not been happy.
The author describes the modern university as “a fantasy world, a radicals’ paradise in which things that everyone in the real world knows to be false can be true, and indeed is the only permissible truth.” (emphasis added.)
The fantasy world is full of imagined repression. The radicals believe that every nook and cranny of the university teems with gun-toting white nationalists, eager to impose their will on helpless women, Hispanics, African Americans, and “sexual minorities.” This is not true, but the partisans of this postmodern world disregard inconvenient facts as examples of that same repression.
Today’s universities have whole departments designed to prevent people from dealing with the real world. The list of offerings at Dr. Ellis’s UC – Santa Cruz is mind-boggling. The Community Studies Department helps students “identify, analyze, and help construct sites for social justice movements, nonprofit sector advocacy, public policymaking, and social enterprise.” Critical Race and Ethnic Studies majors examine “present-day racial/ethnic ideologies such as multiculturalism, colorblindness, and post-racialism as well as contemporary social phenomena such as changing working conditions, new migration patterns, and emergent cultural expressions.” Feminist Studies is “an interdisciplinary field of analysis that investigates how relations of gender are embedded in social, political, and cultural formations.”
If these offerings are insufficient to prevent tender psyches from dealing with people of differing values, there are a plethora of “resource centers.” There are separate centers for African-Americans, American Indians, Asian America/Pacific Islanders, Chicano/Latinos, “Queers” and Women.
The immediate culprits of this transformation were changes sparked by the “baby boom” and the Vietnam War. From a demographic perspective, Dr. Ellis points out, “In 1965 there were 3.97 million college students at American public institutions, but by 1975 that figure had more than doubled, to 8.83 million.” Thus, the average public college needed to double its faculty. The colleges found their new faculty members among the recently graduated Ph.D.’s. The urgent need to fill chairs led to a decline in the academic standards for professors.
At the same time, “The political turmoil and the unusual degree of radicalization on campus brought about by and increasingly unpopular war [in Vietnam] naturally had its greatest effect on those of draft age, which was precisely the group from which the huge expansion in college faculty numbers would have to come.”
The radical faculty members made no pretense of objectivity. As older colleagues died, they gained power over committees, hiring new faculty members in their image. The campus grew less tolerant of any non-leftist viewpoint. Asking questions that critically examined extreme positions became unacceptable.
This outlook leads to the intellectual dead-end of cultural relativism. Thus, universities are no longer places where students unlock the truths of generations. They are now little more than indoctrination centers. Challenging the radical hegemony spawns violence, as scholars Charles Murray and Heather McDonald can testify when they were not allowed to speak on liberal campuses.
Unfortunately, the shortest part of the book is the most important one. It asks the question: What can we do? Dr. Ellis argues, “Real change can happen in one way alone; by dismantling, as far as possible, the radical faculty regime…. It will go away only when the broader society that academia exists to serve… decides that the destructive rule of radical activists on campus must be brought to an end.”
There is a need for public awareness, which will presumably cause parents and taxpayers to question the usefulness of higher education. If state legislatures cut off funds and parents decline to send their children, the radicals lose their institutional lifelines. Dr. Ellis hopes that liberal state legislators can come to see that they have more in common with conservatives than they do with the radicals. He also urges accreditation agencies and the Federal Department of Education to use their power to end this radical abuse. He concludes, “The measures I’ve discussed… will all depend on the public will to reform academia. Ultimately, reform will depend on the people who demand it.”
The Breakdown of Higher Education shines best in its treatment of how this situation came to pass. John M. Ellis had a ringside seat to observe the process that he describes. His book is not a memoir, but the reader can almost see him sitting through endless faculty, department, and committee meetings as the radicals eviscerated the school. The author’s political leanings are unstated, but he seems to be a one-time liberal who got “mugged by reality.”
There are two shortcomings in Dr. Ellis’s analysis that need to be mentioned. He states. “Up to about 1800, the standard way of looking at the world was in tribal terms…. It was the European Enlightenment that began to cultivate a sense that we share a common humanity.” Dr. Ellis fails to acknowledge the enormous role of the Catholic Church that conceived the idea of the university and shared humanity during the Middle Ages, a full five hundred years before 1800. Further, those “Enlightenment” ideas helped sow the seeds for the modern university’s decline.
The second issue with this book is a “chicken or the egg” dilemma. Dr. Ellis argues that the current “rot” has spread from the university to elementary and high schools. However, the rot set in primary and secondary schools long before the radical sixties and seventies. The first wave of radical professors grew up in schools influenced by John Dewey, the “father of progressive education.” Their political radicalization began long before the Vietnam War gave a focal point to Dewey’s world view.
Even with those two reservations, The Breakdown of Higher Education is well worth reading.