Volume > Issue > Briefly Reviewed: September 2022

Briefly Reviewed: September 2022

The Breakdown of Higher Education: How It Happened, the Damage It Does, and What Can Be Done

By John M. Ellis

Publisher: Encounter Books

Pages: 240

Price: $17.99

Review Author: Preston R. Simpson

John M. Ellis, distinguished professor emeritus of German literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has been speaking out for years about the politicization of university campuses. He defines the breakdown of American higher education as the takeover of campuses by radicals whose goal is not to impart a liberal education, in the classical sense, but to indoctrinate students in a leftist political ideology. The subtitle of Ellis’s latest book lists three aspects of the problem, and the text provides the history, a damage report, and proposed solutions.

The book’s middle portion, on the damage done, is practically self-evident and needs little elaboration. In short, instead of teaching undergraduates how to analyze problems using the wisdom gained across two millennia of philosophy, literature, and political science, the modern academy imparts a radical leftist program based on Marxism and identity politics. Indoctrinating students in leftist ideology is now the goal. To put it another way, students are not taught how to think but what to think, and only one line of thought is permitted.

The most interesting parts of Breakdown are Ellis’s analyses of how this came about and, especially, how to address it. He sees the transformation of the university from a place of free inquiry to a hall of indoctrination as the result primarily of a conspiracy by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and its followers, beginning in the 1960s. SDS was fortuitously helped along by the turmoil and rancor generated by the Vietnam War, the massive expansion of universities as baby boomers reached college age, and “the morphing of the civil rights movement into a powerful regime of identity politics marching under the banner of ‘diversity,’” as Ellis puts it.

There is some truth to all that, but surely it is more complicated. Ronald Reagan said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” but I do not think he saw the risk as one of conspirators taking over. I view it as more like a societal illustration of the second law of thermodynamics: Left alone, things tend toward disorder, chaos, and, in the case of societies, authoritarianism. Maintaining order requires output of considerable energy, and when the will to exert that energy is lost, disorder and dictatorship ensue. It has taken more than one generation to ruin American universities. William F. Buckley Jr.’s God and Man at Yale (1951) catalogued the way his alma mater was already jettisoning free-market economics and Christianity well before SDS formed. Furthermore, American society in general has seen declining church attendance and increasing acceptance of depravity over the past couple generations, phenomena not directly attributable to SDS or radical academics but more or less parallel to them. At root, they likely represent a gradual loss of social cohesion and respect for traditional moral boundaries.

Ellis laments the decline of interest in the study of English language and literature, history, classics, and philosophy, in which great minds of the past are examined and evaluated. I suspect part of the problem is that the massive expansion of the college-going population and technological changes in our society have produced large numbers of students who have no interest in these disciplines. The notion that everyone should go to college in order to maximize future earnings has resulted in the need to accommodate large numbers of young minds with widely different goals. I recently encountered young people with college majors in sports entertainment management, converged broadcast media, and critical cultural industry studies. I am so ignorant that I don’t even know what those are, but I doubt they have much to do with Plato, Herodotus, Shakespeare, Locke, or even Churchill.

I share Ellis’s revulsion at the emergence of one-party campuses that are intolerant of dissenting views to the point of excluding, shouting down, and even physically assaulting those who offer such views. He provides extensive documentation of these tactics. The problem of what to do about it is a vexing one, however, and comprises a relatively small portion of the book.

After discussing proposed solutions that he believes will not work, Ellis offers several correctives. His view is that the campus will never reform itself and, therefore, must be dismantled from the outside and rebuilt. The only conceivable source for this effort is state legislatures that might find the political will to withdraw funds from public universities or command their reform by putting them into a type of receivership. Ellis believes the public is already aware of the problem in general terms and suggests an educational effort by a committee of inquiry composed of true academics of the traditional type. He seems to have forgotten that in an earlier chapter he described his own 2012 report, as president of the California Association of Scholars, documenting the problem in the University of California system where he taught for years. The report was ignored and then buried by the president of the University of California system despite publicity the report received in prestigious news media. Nevertheless, there is the possibility that a (smaller, conservative) state might recreate a traditional liberal university that would become the envy of others and attract truly inquisitive students. In any case, all this would have no effect on private schools, and the effort would face withering opposition from entrenched political forces sympathetic to the radicals. Ellis seems to admit this is a long shot but feels it is the only effort that might succeed and is worth pursuing. He further acknowledges the inconsistency of advocating political means to solve a problem after he has spent most of the book railing against political ideologues illegitimately taking over campuses. It’s a moral dilemma, but he seems to throw up his hands and say, You gotta do what you gotta do.

The other corrective, which certainly could run alongside efforts by state legislatures, is for parents and students to vote with their feet and go to online sources or to the few, mostly private, schools where sanity remains. Clearly, there are logistical problems with this. One is simply the price tag. Public universities have at their disposal huge sums of public money taken from taxpayers, many of whom cannot pay again for a private-school education. Online courses are cheap, but they lack the interaction with faculty and fellow students so important to a liberal learning experience. And highly talented faculty who can deliver the liberal education needed and desired are not so easily found.

These vexing problems await further analysis by people concerned with the state of American higher education. Ellis’s book offers a good framework for beginning the discussion.

The Reactionary Mind: Why “Conservative” Isn’t Enough

By Michael Warren Davis

Publisher: Regnery Gateway

Pages: 248

Price: $28.99

Review Author: Thomas Banks

A few chapters into The Reactionary Mind, I realized that I have read its message more than once under other titles, and I hope that I shall read it again in whatever future forms it may appear. Its thesis will be familiar to Catholic readers and may fairly be paraphrased thus: The modern world, dating from roughly A.D. 1500 to the present, has been a mistake, and a return to sanity will involve a reordering of society along more or less medieval lines. Probably no thinking man really expects such conditions to materialize, at least not in his or his children’s lifetimes, and anyone who reads this book either hopeful or fearful that he will see its wishes fulfilled must be alarmingly credulous.

That said, Michael Warren Davis is one of those writers one gladly follows while he chatters on in a spirit of buoyant good cheer about his beloved, and largely fictitious, Age of Chivalry. In its manner of both attack and defense, his book is mostly an act of entertaining exaggeration, and after finishing it, I felt as if I had been led through a museum of feudal history with the ghost of Chesterton serving as docent. Very little in Davis’s disquisition surprised me, apart from a generous defense of the Puritan culture of colonial New England, which, as a Catholic, he might have been expected to dislike. Certain of his comments on the early period of our nation’s history are healthy corrections and are enough to show that Davis is capable of more than mere dissemination of secondhand thinking.

But even here, Davis’s addiction to overstatement proves a besetting weakness. Take, for example, the following judgment of America’s first poet: “Bradstreet was a bigger man than all the dandy poets in all the decadent courts of Europe.” Presumably these include such effeminate nonentities as John Milton and Andrew Marvell, no? Every writer ought to be allowed an occasional shot of hyperbole, but Warren’s indulgence of the effect amounts to something close to dipsomania. His description of the material conditions of medieval peasant life supplies an even more bombastic instance of this:

Imagine a land where the average citizen lives on about twelve acres of land, and the poorest of the poor get by with just one…. Their skin is a healthy bronze; their hands are strong and calloused; their muscles are hard and taut, and eminently practical, earned through long days of wholesome labor…. In spring, the men stay up all night drinking craft beer, roasting pigs and lambs for the Easter feast. This they’ll eat with apples and plums and wild strawberries. The boys will crown the girls with garlands of wildflowers and woo them with memorized poetry.

And so on. Like Davis, I am quite sure that the record of European life between A.D. 500 and 1500 has suffered from much cheap misrepresentation in popular history as practiced by writers from Edward Gibbon to Jules Michelet, but warping the record in the opposite direction hardly amounts to an improvement.

Perhaps it is possible in the 21st century to write about the centuries from St. Benedict to Savonarola without pretending, on one hand, that its only amusements were the hunting of heretics and burning of witches, while on the other not surrendering to the illusion that all history that has elapsed since has been only so much noise and horror. This is a discipline that requires not only intelligence and magnanimity, which Davis clearly has, but finely balanced historical judgment, which he seems to lack. His imagination of different eras works in extreme chiaroscuros; his sense of the past is one that can only envisage the virtues of one period by contrasting them with the enormous vices of another. Hence, he valorizes the High Middle Ages by defaming subsequent generations: “The Renaissance was not the moment Europe emerged from darkness, but the hour it descended into mania, an all-encompassing obsession with antiquity that swept the educated classes.” He paints its broad reshaping of arts and culture as “posturing and pretension, little different from the posturing and pretension we see among our educated elites today, who separate the world into the respectable educated classes like themselves and the uneducated deplorables who might disagree with them.” Grand denunciations of this kind may earn a few cheers from the pews, but no real student of history can take them seriously — any more than the opposite kind of Whiggish rhetoric, the champions of which would have us believe that Christian men only enjoyed their first taste of liberty when Martin Luther posted his theses or René Descartes formulated his Cogito. Neither tale is authentic history so much as it is ideologically colored sentiment with certain conditions of the past arranged to explain most conveniently certain conditions of the present. Historical truth is less acquiescent to our demands upon it.

When he considers vanished ages, Davis permits reverence to blind him — a fault, albeit a fault on the right side of honor. So much being admitted, he has clear eyes to see and plain speech to describe what now stares him, and all of us, in the face every time we manage to raise our eyes from our screens and other favorite distractions. Davis, like a great many sane people, is a self-proclaimed Luddite, and he spends one of his better chapters gleefully inveighing against the many devices we have sought out for ourselves. I found myself applauding, and it was only thanks to the sensible intervention of my wife that I was dissuaded from breaking the windows of and setting fire to our local Verizon store. Those other loves and hatreds our author cultivates he preaches with the same hearty extravagance; such makes for good reading, whatever it lacks in terms of literary polish.

Where Davis writes of the personal, he stands on firm ground. He enjoys pipes (and would have us smoke them too) and detests cigars, the preferred combustible of Latin American dictators and the ambitious flunkies of the GOP. He is a writer of bad and lively occasional verse, one or two welcome examples of which appear in The Reactionary Mind. His approach to tea-making, as he describes it, is almost Japanese in its formality. His other hobbies he sketches with similar affection, and he does so without creating the impression that he is superciliously rehearsing his accomplishments. He has, I should think, any number of worthwhile personal essays in him, which some of us prefer to even the most robust manifesto.

Few readers who do not already share Davis’s beliefs regarding the chief ends toward which society and government ought to be directed will be converted by reading this book. This is not to say that it is not worth reading, as it contains many sound observations and much strong common sense. It is Davis’s first book, and I imagine and hope it will not be his last.


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