The Corner

Education

The Decline of the American University — as Forecast in 1968

Members of various anti-fascist groups yell at police officers on the campus of Michigan State University outside of a Richard Spencer speech in East Lansing, Michigan on March 5, 2018. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

The last few years have witnessed a lot of turmoil on our college and university campuses, but that is nothing new. Back in the late-60s and early-70s, they were wracked by riots, building takeovers, and even bombings. Talk about “unsafe places.”

A famous American academic, Richard Hofstadter, warned of trouble to come in a commencement address he gave at Columbia University in 1968. In today’s Martin Center commentary, Jay Schalin looks at his prescient thoughts on the direction we were taking.

Schalin writes, “Hofstadter had been a Communist Party member in his early career, but gradually shifted his political beliefs to more standard mid-20th century liberalism. The commencement address signified an even greater departure from his leftist past; he saw in the student protests the very sort of ‘anti-intellectualism’ for which he had often criticized the political right.”

Hofstadter correctly foresaw that strong forces were building up to turn American higher education away from the search for truth and into an engine of political change. In his view, education was about unfettered inquiry into all sorts of truths. He was right to see danger to that. Many questions are now forbidden because they challenge entrenched “progressive” ideology.

His mistake, in Schalin’s view, was in failing to see how the faculty (which Hofstadter regarded as “the university”) would turn away from academic norms and embrace radical politics.

Hofstadter also thought that our universities needed governance reform to “redistribute power.” That was a bad idea, Schalin notes: “Governance structures in place at that time gave little power to those who wished for universities to maintain their academic focus and to uphold standards of excellence. Any reform that has occurred since then has made the wrong constituencies more powerful, not less. As a result, truth has been sacrificed for more immediate concerns, and academia has become both more vocational and more political.”

True, and we are much worse off for it.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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