American Universities Are the Envy of the World

Campus of Columbia University in New York City (Mike Segar/Reuters)
There is much that is in need of reform on campus. But there also is much that is wonderful, inspiring, and enriching.

One of these days, I will make a list of all the people who have been right when they have told me: “You should know better.” There will be a couple of priests, several editors, and at least one police officer on that list, but I am afraid our friend George Leef must be excluded, at least for the moment.

Leef, who does excellent work excoriating the failures and excesses of American university life at the Martin Center, wrote yesterday on the Corner: “Lots of people who should know better claim that our higher education system is ‘the envy of the world,’ but it isn’t the best by a long shot.” What’s needed, he writes, is . . . libertarianism. If we would only implement that, Leef writes, then “we would get the optimal system.” I do not know if he had me in mind when he wrote that, but given that I have used exactly those words to describe our universities on many occasions, I’ll deputize myself to respond, if only because the words “optimal system” always give me the willies.

I am a libertarian myself, and a few years ago I wrote a book about how many things (including education and health care) might be radically improved by taking a more market-oriented, spontaneous-order approach to them. The title of that book, “The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome,” refers to the decline of the dominance (often monopoly dominance) of government-based and politically managed programs at the most sensitive pressure points of American life: education, health care, retirement, etc. The book also contains a critique of lazy libertarianism of the sort Leef offers above, treating some variation of “the free market will take care of it” or “private philanthropy will take care of it” like the ultimate abracadabra. The free market will take care of health care for the poor? Okay — what does that actually look like? It is not that I do not think that we could — and should — radically improve health care for everyone (providing an especial benefit to the poor in the process) but I want something a good deal less vague than “Let markets work.”

Some libertarians are conservatives and some are not. Some libertarians are utopians or quasi-utopians, who offer the same answer to every question — laissez faire! — as though such a thing possibly could be dispositive. What Leef offers is really a kind of variation of the familiar progressive approach. He begins with a “study says” indictment (“A new study by AEI scholars Jason Delisle and Preston Cooper looks at 35 nations’ higher ed systems and concludes that no nation is ‘the best,’” he writes) and then follows up with an ideologically satisfying promise: “If we (or any other country) would take government out of higher education and allow the spontaneous order of a free society to work, we would get the optimal system.”

For the ideologue, “take government out” is a self-recommending policy. The conservative might take a different view, as I do. There is a lot that is silly, meretricious, distasteful, and genuinely destructive going on in American universities, especially at the second-rate institutions and in second-rate programs. (The thing about second-rate schools is, they’re second-rate.) But there also is much that is splendid, productive, admirable — and, indeed, the envy of the world.

And if you do not believe that American universities are the envy of the world, ask the world. The number of students from abroad who travel to the United States to study dwarfs that of any other country: The United Kingdom, whose top universities have for centuries attracted the best and brightest, doesn’t have half the foreign students the United States does. France has about a third the number; Germany, a quarter.

And top academics from around the world flock to American campuses, too — for good reason. If you are among the world’s best in any significant intellectual field, chances are excellent that an American university is the place you want to be. For a rough indicator, consider which universities have the most Nobel laureates associated with them. What do you imagine that list looks like? The top ten includes the two British universities you’d guess (Oxford and Cambridge) and eight U.S. universities: Harvard, Berkeley, Chicago, Columbia, MIT, Stanford, Cal Tech, and Princeton. You won’t find a continental European university on the list until No. 13 (Humboldt) and only four more in the top 20 (University of Paris, Göttingen, Munich, Copenhagen). You won’t find a single Asian, African, South American, or Middle Eastern university on the list.

Envy of the world? No question.

Libertarianism in action? No, not really. But we ought not to let our ideological commitments blind us to the fact that these splendid universities do a great many wonderful things that enrich our lives — and our national life — in important ways. There is much to criticize about my alma mater, the University of Texas. But whatever it lavishes on Jim Allison’s work is money well spent.

Germany would love to have an MIT, a Berkeley, a Stanford, or a Cal Tech of its own; having all four would be beyond its dreams. (Yes, Berkeley comes with some hippies — life is full of tradeoffs, and that’s a good one.) American educational excellence has consequences far beyond the college campus: Quick, what’s the hot new technology startup in Germany? (Don’t worry, I’ll wait.) What’s the big innovative Internet company in France? In Italy? More than half of the world’s most valuable firms are domiciled in the United States, according to PwC. China has twelve, the United Kingdom five, Germany four, France four, Switzerland three. Japan, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark each have one. And Europe’s big companies are big, old-fashioned conglomerates such as Unilever and Nestlé, while the United States has enjoyed the growth and innovation of Apple, Facebook, Alphabet, and Microsoft.

That’s nothing to harrumph at.

Conservatism is, at its foundation, a creed of love — a love of real things and people as they actually exist, defects and all, rather than a longing after more-perfect glories promised by this or that theory. To love is not to love blindly, but the conservative can only take the world very much as he finds it.

Fallen as he is and imperfect as his works must be, we love man for who and what he is, and so we abhor the inevitably inhumane schemes to produce New Soviet Man, or whatever this year’s model of progressive perfection is, because such programs of transformation are based on reducing and mutilating man, suffocating his endless inventiveness, forcing conformity and homogeneity upon him, and stamping out the infinite variety of his communities.

This is not to be confused with a creed of sentimentality. Conservatives, as Russell Kirk put it, “feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems.” (Harvard, founded 1636, is about as long-established a social institution as this country has.) At the same time, Kirk writes, conservatives understand that “to seek for utopia is to end in disaster. . . . The ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the 20th-century world into a terrestrial hell.”

Libertarians can be utopians and ideologues, too. Theirs may be a less destructive and bloody kind of utopianism than that of the nationalists and socialists and national socialists, but it can cause them to undervalue wonderful and productive institutions right here in the real world, right here under our noses, while they dream of theoretical optima.

The United States is the world’s financial capital (sorry, London), the world’s technology capital, and the world’s cultural capital, but conservatives detest Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood, along with the Ivy League and other elite universities, Broadway, publishing, the media industry, the fashion industry, the architecture and design industry, New York City, Los Angeles . . . Apparently, America’s dominant military position and its world-beating oil-and-gas industry are the only commanding heights to which conservatives believe it to be worth aspiring. There is something wrong with that. “Make America Great Again, But Burn It All Down If Mark Zuckerberg and the Chairman of the Princeton English Department Don’t Share My Politics!” is a funny kind of way to look at the world.

There is much that is in need of reform on campus — and in the church, in the state, and everywhere else in American life. But there also is much that is wonderful, inspiring, and enriching. For that, we should be grateful. A conservatism without gratitude and grace is not one worth having.


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