Willie Sutton robbed banks because "that's where the money is." Connie Francis went to Florida for Spring Break because "that's where the boys are." And if you want to preserve American culture, you have to reform academia because that's where bad ideas come from.
Signs that something is deeply wrong with the Ivory Tower seem to be everywhere. One recent example is an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by unrepentant 1960s Students for a Democratic Society radical Todd Gitlin, entitled "Promoting Knowledge in an Age of Unreason." Professor Gitlin, who teaches sociology and journalism at Columbia University, declares that we are in "an age of unreason," where "political nihilism eclipses reason"; he sounds a clarion call for academics to combat a rising tide of "anti-intellectualism" by speaking out aggressively. "When reason is itself so besieged, the university cannot be content to marinate in defensiveness and self-pity," he writes. "It is in a fight for its life."
Gitlin accurately captures the current frame of mind of the academic left. But that frame of mind is the result of an illusion, one that flips reality on its head. For it is not the national mood that is unreasonable, nihilistic, and anti-intellectual, but Gitlin and his fellow-travelers.
There would be no problem if Gitlin were considered an isolated kook baying at the night skies expecting to elicit a response from the heavenly bodies above. But he is hardly that; he is one of the academy's prized members, having occupied desirable chairs at prestigious universities, headed important programs, and received distinguished awards. It is very likely that his views are much nearer to the political center in academia than are the views of most Americans. That contemptuous dismissal of the majority of Americans as unreasonable, nihilistic, and anti-intellectual by a wide swath of academia is why the academic stables need to be mucked out.
The actual evidence suggests a very different national dynamic than the one presented by Gitlin. For the most glaring recent examples of unreasonable political behavior are clearly come on the left. The Internet is filled with videos that show campus leftists behaving in bizarre and disturbing ways, throwing tantrums and spewing irrational diatribes. Sensible discussion does not exist for these politicized students, such as one young woman at Yale who shrieked hysterically at a faculty member because she felt he was not doing everything he could to provide her with a "safe space" free of Halloween costumes that offended her.
The nation has also seen a growing trend of violent leftist mobs silencing alternate views from being expressed on campus, surely as unreasonable as conduct can be at an institution devoted to the free exchange of ideas. A recent row at Middlebury College, where heralded sociologist Charles Murray was chased off campus (and a faculty member accompanying him assaulted), is representative of this dismaying pattern.
And while these acts are largely performed by students, they have the support of many faculty. There is also no shortage of faculty members who disgrace themselves when speaking out politically (as Gitlin advises faculty to do). What reasonable person would argue that the unhinged rants of professors such as George Ciccariello-Maher and Steven Salaita raise the intellectual or moral level of the national discourse?
As you may recall, Ciccariello-Maher is the Drexel University political scientist who gained notoriety for tweeting on Christmas Eve of 2016 that "All I want for Christmas is white genocide." Salaita is a former Virginia Tech ethnic studies professor who was rejected by the University of Illinois in 2015 for making such comments as "I wish all the f**king West Bank would go missing" after a couple of Israeli teenagers from the West Bank were kidnapped and killed.
Gitlin's argument that mainstream anti-intellectualism threatens the university also betrays his skewed worldview, because the real threat comes from inside the academy. He briefly acknowledges that anti-intellectualism entered the left and academia in the 1960s, but he ignores the extent to which it now dominates both.
Citing historian Richard Hofstadter's celebrated Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Gitlin suggests that anti-intellectualism is the product of "political, religious, and business currents." Business and religion today are generally considered by the left to be to be allied with conservatism, a contention that would support Gitlin's claim that willful ignorance today comes from the right. But he fails to mention that Hofstadter also blamed two other impulses that are foundational to today's left.
The first such impulse is egalitarianism. As British philosopher Roger Scruton pointed out in Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, most of the highly cited academic intellectuals of the last century have been thinly veiled Marxists, adherents of an egalitarian social order. Another egalitarian theme that is ubiquitous in academia today is philosopher John Dewey's concept of participatory democracy as a guiding principle for society and education; Hofstadter soundly criticized Dewey as an anti-intellectual for his leveling influence.
The other anti-intellectual impulse identified by Hofstadter is primitivism. Academia's celebration of postmodernism owes much to this sentiment, as postmodernism attacks the forward intellectual thrust of modernism and its "instrumental reason" (simply, the use of science and technology to improve human existence). Primitivism provides much of the justification for another of academia's current commandments, multiculturalism, especially the belief that all cultures are of equal value.
Gitlin made brief mention of conservatives' attempts to keep the traditional literary canon in higher education as a half-hearted attempt to fend off anti-intellectualism, but for the most part, casts them as villains mounting an assault on the nation's intellectual life that is safeguarded by the academic left. He cherry picks events of the last 70 years or so to forward his dubious perspective of traditionalist America content to wallow in ignorance: attacking Bob Dole for "railing against 'intellectual elites'"; stating that "Fox News, founded in 1996, arose to consolidate a burgeoning market for the eclipse of reason and evidence"; and suggesting that "mainstream Republicans married [George] Wallace's racism to populist suspicion," and so forth.
Gitlin fails to notice that conservatives and libertarians have created a vibrant intellectualism that lives in student groups, in independent academic centers, in outside think tanks, and on the Internet. Rather than giving "little thought to what the university could do to further public enlightenment," as Gitlin described them, conservatives have been successfully enlightening the public through a variety of channels for several decades.
A comparison of today's two political youth movements reveals a wide chasm in intellectual seriousness. Today's college left bears no resemblance to the New Left intellectuals of the 1960s. Many of the politically involved on the left are inarticulate, hyper-emotional, and uninformed; they are more likely to make their point with sneering contempt and pointless ad hominem accusations, such as calling those who disagree with them "racists," than they are through reasoned argument.
Today's college conservatives and right-libertarians are their polar opposite; they tend to be highly engaged with ideas and eagerly pursue the life of the mind while proudly clutching their copies of The Road to Serfdom or Ideas Have Consequences.
This is not to say that the entire academy is anti-intellectual; there are still a great many faculty who embody the concept of "scholar." Yet many are content to remain inside their narrow silos and leave political commentary to their less rigorous peers. Or if they do speak out, they often seem incapable of escaping the rigid ideological constraints imposed by their academic environments.
Yet, unless serious scholars are willing to stand against the substantial and influential radical fringe, the universities' moral standing is compromised. Some liberal professors, such as NYU's Jonathan Haidt, are starting to counter their more extreme peers, but so far they only address the low-hanging fruit of keeping free speech on campus.
As important as maintaining free speech is, academia's problems go much deeper. The fact that Gitlin and so many other 1960s radicals were given academic platforms from which to continue their campaign to undermine our society reveals a sick institution. Ending, or at least limiting, their influence as soon as possible, so that we can once again have an educational system that supports liberty, reason, and prosperity, is a moral imperative.