Let’s face it, the American university as we had known it since World War II lies in ruins. The buildings still stand. But the Ivory Tower of the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s (when it was indeed possible to get a good liberal arts education there) has been retrofitted. It serves now as Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon” was famously said to, in Michel Foucault’s landmark reflections on modernity’s array of exquisite psychological tortures, perpetrated by means of constant observation, continuous monitoring and ubiquitous “normalizing” exercises—power scrubbed of all apparent physical violence to more cleanly vivisect the human spirit in the name of totalitarian control. As Foucault writes in Discipline and Punish: “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” (New York: Vintage Books, 1995, p. 228). Were he alive today, what would he say Twitter and other social media resemble?
In their fancy prisons, glued to their phones, students are no longer taught to think and act for themselves, but to internalize prohibitions and behave themselves. They are watching! They are being watched! By teachers, administrators, and above all, each other. Is it any wonder they take it on themselves to monitor their teachers, too, in return? The “genius” of this panoptic surveillance is that it operates in all directions at once.
Courses are still offered. But syllabi that once proudly displayed names like Aristotle, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, and Sigmund Freud (when it was indeed possible to encounter great authors, ungarnished by some adjunct instructor’s crippling aversion to “stereotypes”) have been hollowed of meaning, as the formerly inspiring experience of being introduced to canonical texts of Western civilization has been replaced by a routine, joyless training in moral hygiene. It’s as if humanities faculty had decided that what their subhuman wards needed was not access to the inheritance of human civilization as their birthright but humanizing and civilizing itself—or to be remade in the image of “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” administrators, as creatures trained in the manners and mores of Silicon Valley. Say this. Don’t say that. Use these words, not those. Here’s what’s upsetting nowadays (misgendering somebody). Here’s what’s not (grooming children in politically correct attitudes toward sex).
Top institutions (the Ivies, certain of the UCs, et al.) still possess cache as “brand names,” boasting lavish accommodations for budding elites in quest of “networking.” But beneath the decals and diplomas, the quality of merchandise is not what it was. It’s as if Gucci or Ray-Ban had sold the license to their logo for it to be slapped on cheap imitations. Even the venerable promise of four years of recreational libertinism for those whose parents could afford it, and that may have once seduced some into the vicinity at least of liberating thought, has vanished. The panopticon does not allow it.
How long, then, before consumers catch on? How much time is left until the buildings are not just denuded of intellectual substance, but emptied as well of paying customers, choosing to make their connections, launch careers, and meet eligible members of the opposite (or same) sex in alternate venues? Hasn’t all that migrated to the online metaverse anyway? Moreover, will it collapse of its own weight, or does it need a push? Or maybe both. (Two important interventions in the same year have brought this question to the forefront and placed it on the agenda. See Arthur Milikh, “Preventing Suicide by Higher Education,” National Affairs 55 [Fall 2020]. See also John M. Ellis, The Breakdown of Higher Education: How It Happened, the Damage It Does, and What Can Be Done [New York: Encounter Books].)
Even as the vacuous multicultural monstrosity for the production of cheap, hysteria-inducing propaganda teeters on its last legs, it looks as though the shove is coming too—from fed-up parents sick of seeing children brainwashed into despising them as “bigots,” to concerned civic organizations and think tanks worried that citizens are being taught to hate their country, and even from inside the academy itself, where what remains of genuinely “critical” thinking per se is also now being heard from.
In this regard, it’s worth noting some striking recent indications of growing awareness concerning the extent of the damage. At the level of ideas, if not yet public policy, more and more it seems that informed, thoughtful reflection leads to the inescapable conclusion that the “inclusive” university—or the idea of universal access to higher education—includes everything but the quest for excellence in pursuit of universal values. There’s no more “adult swim time,” so everybody jump in and splash around as you please. Except there’s no water in the drained pool anymore, either. Plenty of lifeguards though! What the curriculum lacks in content, it makes up for in mechanisms of control.
Victor Davis Hanson, for example, blames compulsory feminism and the stifling of manly debate in the hypersensitive classroom. The feminization of the university as a “safe space” for the proactive avoidance of giving offense, first and foremost, has tracked with a precipitous decline in male enrollments, he observes. Hanson says it plainly:
Monotonous professors hector students about “toxic masculinity,” as “gender” studies proliferate. If the plan was to drive males off campus, universities have succeeded beyond their wildest expectations.
Who wants to sit and be lied to, day after day, about how bad men are for the thoughtcrime of “objectifying” women as “sexual objects”? What normal, red-blooded American male would tolerate it if he doesn’t have to?
And he doesn’t. Anecdotal evidence confirms statistics cited in Hanson’s article: women comprise as much as 60% of today’s undergraduate population, he reports, and a greater majority than that in the humanities. Yet the long battle for women’s equality has not resulted in the apocryphal “gender neutral” classroom or “sex blind” egalitarian faculty department, in which men and women overlook each other’s biological differences to focus on their cognitive similarities. Instead, conventional male attitudes are pathologized with pseudoscientific, technical sounding, phony made-up concepts like “microaggressions.” The frail constitution of a presumptively traumatized, indeed hystericized, student body demands condescending “trigger warnings” to accompany classic works of art—duly stigmatized in advance as possibly dangerous, probably immoral, likely “harmful” to the reader. What incipient adult—boy or girl for that matter—really wants to be so infantilized? But it hits young men hardest, as it insults their pride and sense of autonomy. (Men and women are different. See Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development [Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983].)
So, the feminist head of one English department, not long ago, answered a question in a department meeting about declining male enrollments that appeared to maybe correlate with a radically renovated curriculum under her guidance (a turn toward “intersectionality” and Critical Race Theory as practically inescapable, nearly omnipresent elements of course offerings) as follows: “Well, I’ve never seen it as my job to attract men.” That the room of tenured professors and adjunct instructors alike erupted in laughter (none daring to quip in return, “no chance of that”) fits with Hanson’s grim prediction of higher education’s doom at the hands of an at least partly salutary, natural and necessary demographic change. Alas, it has been forced to map unnaturally with the unnecessary, destructive, ideological strangulation of any sort of remotely realistic discussion of sex/gender in the classroom—let alone “heteronormative” romance, the theme of many a great poem, classic novel, and film.
Oddly, then, the rise of “Gender Studies,” as an overarching metadiscipline with a specialized jargon and predictable package of pieties to dispense, has meant the end of the actual study of the fascinating mystery of gender differences per se. For there can be no debate about what the latter consist in or how to understand them in classes that “monotonously” (as Hanson says) denounce “patriarchy” as their raison d’être. To so much as question the wisdom of any such approved preconception is to become the object of derision, the butt of jokes if not the accused subject of a punishing investigation. Not only men but dissenting females, too, had better watch what they say. (For one notorious example among many of late, see Jeannie Suk Gersen, “Laura Kipnis’s Endless Trial By Title IX,” The New Yorker, September 20, 2017.)
Though he puts it more bluntly than some, Professor Hanson (of the Hoover Institution as well as Hillsdale College, one of the few notable exceptions to everything said here) is not alone in questioning academia’s rigged political economy from the inside. Most notably, the leading independent journal of academic “critical theory,” Telos, has produced its latest issue under the subtly provocative title, “The Place of Truth at the University.” It begs the question, of course: is there a place for truth there any longer?
While deemphasizing the “feminization” of academic space as perhaps the most tangible sign of changing conceptions of truth in recent decades, the critical theorists instead blame, more broadly, neoliberalism’s hyper-commodification of “post-critical” thinking at large. As the minting of fashionable tokens of tribal affiliation—precious badges of inclusion among favored in-groups—replaces the inculcation of humanistic learning as the institution’s goal, deviance from prescribed articulations of requisite sensibilities marks those who stray as among the out-groups. Watch what you criticize! “Brand English,” for example, “attracts students committed to social change and the advocacy of the disempowered” (J. E. Elliot, “Brand English and Its Discontents: Situating Truth and Value in the University Today,” Telos 200 [Fall 2022]: 131–52). If you want to market yourself this way, we’ve got what you need. If you want to learn about literature, shop somewhere else. In other words, as not only institutions but whole disciplines, nationwide, are “branded” as commodities—you get what you pay for.
In a quest for the kind of certainty that advocates and agents of social change yearn for, an even deeper strand of Western culture’s own longstanding juxtaposition of rationality and feeling is exacerbated, such that institutionalized “hyper-rationalism” and “hyper-emotionalism,” in a schizophrenic classroom torn between these poles, leaves little room for the elevating cultivation of an enriched common sense (integrating thought and feeling), which used to define the promise of a “liberal education” (Greg Melleuish and Susanna Rizzo, “Universities: Truth, Reason, or Emotion?,” Telos 200 [Fall 2022]: 44–65).
Put another way, phenomenology (or the judicious prizing of careful attention to manifest appearances accessible to all) is squeezed out from both sides of the rationalism/emotivism binary, by a superstitious neo-Gnostic faith that a veil of deception, draped over this fundamentally evil (racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc.) and deceptive, “merely” apparent world of ours, must be pierced by essentially spiritual practices (right knowing, sensing, saying, and doing). Only thus can one gain access to the “real” world (the end of patriarchy, white supremacy, etc.) obscured by malign illusion. Like the ancient Gnostics of the First-Century Middle East, dreaming that life as it is given to us is the product of a demon, and that our true home with God is elsewhere, the postmodern faculty of the East Coast, West Coast, and Midwest have convinced themselves there are keys to the doors of perception ready-to-hand. Instead of teachers, the young are guided by magicians in the guise of technocrats.
Little enough room for reasonable discussion aimed at spontaneous discovery and improvised invention of shareable understandings grounded in evidence is left by these shamans of Progress, in an environment dominated by the “woke” reinvention of religious fanaticism’s spirit of intolerance. Instead, the repackaging of each one’s reflected inner-victim is sold back to her in the shape of a merit badge for the suffering of “systemic” injury, in place of learning anything new that might even quell one’s resentment a little. As Russell Berman observes,
Instead of calling into question the scholarly quality, logical coherence, or evidentiary validity of claims one disputes, opponents now demand their nullification as well as personal consequences for the offending party. Instead of disproving the opponent with rational discussion and convincing argument, the goal is to impose silence and prevent the articulation of nonconforming views. (“Toward a Post-Critical Public Sphere in Germany and the United States,” Telos 200 [Fall 2022]: 67–89.)
Because the prize is easy salvation by means of submissive socialization in scapegoating rituals, not the more rewarding, if also more demanding, work of measuring oneself against “the best that has been thought and written” (Matthew Arnold), heretics are both a threat and an opportunity. Each time one is sacrificed, the solidarity of the community is reinforced.
Thus, while the Telos authors do not dwell, as Hanson does, on the academic industry of gender manipulation, per se, as motor of the university’s demise, it is difficult to separate this kind of “aspirational censorship” (Berman) from the specifically feminist project to remake the university as a place where the “offending party” is to be confronted at every turn, if not officially censured, for the unpardonable offense of…saying something deemed “offensive.” No matter that the tabooed observation, opinion, or just query even, might be one shared by half the population of the country. All the more reason, in fact, to “reeducate” the miscreant. While tenure continues to offer certain valuable protections to the lucky few, still, the omnipresent threat of sanctioning, wielded in circumstances where, cynically enough, it is rightly said that “the process is the punishment,” is enough to intimidate most.
Finally, and from yet another angle, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin and Leila Beckwith have just released an important new report on the ways in which one particular identity—Jewish identity—strangely comes under attack in a system driven by demands for the privileging of certain groups as “protected identities,” to be shielded from abuse, while it’s open season on the rest. The latter, of course, above all includes white males, Christians and patriotic Americans, whose sensibilities/sensitivities can be—and are—disregarded and violated at will in the post-critical university, where daily insults to their beliefs cannot even be challenged in reasonable discussion on grounds of evidence, let alone common sense. Still, as members of the “majority” (in some sense) they have a certain strength in numbers.
But “the rest,” on whom it’s open season for the angry mob, also prominently includes America’s small number of Jews—as Rossman-Benjamin and Beckwith show in their study, “Falling Through the Cracks: How School Policies Deny Jewish Students Equal Protection from Antisemitism.” Though antisemitism has been spiking in the U.S. lately, yet “Jews don’t count” with many administrators and faculty on campuses sensitized to the slightest conceivable transgression against other minority groups. “Jew-free zones” are tolerated, as are ubiquitous attacks on “Zionists” as inherently racist colonizers of their own indigenous homeland (see Kenneth L. Marcus, “Berkeley Develops Jewish-Free Zones,” Jewish Journal, September 28, 2022). As the authors say,
The mainstreaming and normalization of antisemitism among entertainers, athletes, corporate executives, and politicians have reached alarming levels of late, and what were once considered fringe and extremist views are now being spewed publicly on social media, on network television and in the halls of Congress. However, this has long been the reality on U.S. college and university campuses, and the problem is rapidly becoming more acute.
The “place of antisemitism” in America, in other words, has for some time been the university. Is it any wonder that the place of “truth” there is in doubt, as well?
So should vulnerable Jewish students, therefore, be granted the status of another “protected” group, added to the list of those fragile fraternities that experience “harm” whenever is heard a discouraging word? Or should the protections afforded to some be generalized to cover all individuals (thus obviating the need to single out Jews, or anyone else, as one more covered subspecies of humanity)? While the first option palpably goes against the grain of Jewish success in America after World War II (Jews in America the past half century, while subject to intermittently terrifying attack, are hardly systemically “oppressed”), the second risks universalizing the very “victim status” that breeds monsters. Will fewer or more scapegoats be sacrificed to appease the pagan gods and goddesses of WASPish good manners (suitably adjusted to fit the multicultural, online workspace), their hearts torn out to bring “social justice” down from the heavens the way Aztec priests once ensured that the sun would rise, and rains would continue fall?
Either way, why would Jewish parents send their kids to such conformist bastions of what sociologist John Murray Cuddihy, in The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Levi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity (New York: Basic Books, 1974), called the “Protestant Etiquette”? Unless the focus turns back to education, not remediation of, and/or protection from, verbal injury, what’s the point? What self-respecting Jew wants to be caught dead in such a chutzpah-free zone?
Taken together, what these recent exemplary statements suggest, drawn from diverse genres, is that in various realms—from the popular press (Hanson is a prolific public intellectual, authoring weekly op-eds and appearing on podcasts with a wide audience), to academic scholarship per se (Telos has been a trendsetting journal in this space for decades), and civic organizations (Rossman-Benjamin and Beckwith are researchers with the AMCHA Initiative, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “investigating, documenting, educating about, and combating antisemitism at institutions of higher education in America”)—the chickens have come home to roost. As a result of decades of abuse of higher education perverted into a system of indoctrination more suited to the needs of society’s “professional managerial class” to reproduce docile servants than individuals able to grow as persons, the university has been turned into a machine for the manufacture of half-educated midwits. (On the many sins of the “PMC,” see Catherine Liu, Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional Managerial Class [Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2021]). More ominously for the PMC, word is out. The place of truth at the university has been colonized by ceaseless demands for “social justice” from women and minorities. Logically, however, for justice to be just it must apply to everyone. What then?