“American higher education has deteriorated so badly that it cannot be expected to reform itself from within.” So writes Dr. Warren Treadgold, the NEH Professor of Byzantine Studies and Professor of History at Saint Louis University, in his new book, The University We Need: Reforming American Higher Education.
In response to this crisis, Treadgold recommends specific solutions, including a proposal for a new, world-class, more conservative university to challenge the dominance of schools such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
In a recent interview for the New Books Network, Professor Treadgold and I discussed the plight of the American academy and his ideas for reform, which he acknowledges are “big and ambitious.” He also notes, however, that smaller, prior attempts at reform have failed, and the situation is only getting worse.
Regarding the current state of higher education, Treadgold writes, “American college degrees have never cost more and never meant less.” In the chapter titled “The Problems,” he provides a scathing, sobering analysis of the many reasons why universities are in decline. These include:
- A predominance of bad teaching
- Poorly motivated students, who spend only about seven percent of their time on studying
- Widespread grade inflation
- Administrative bloat (with Harvard, for example, spending 40% of its budget on administration)
- Poor-quality research and scholarship by faculty
- Rapid devaluing of higher education in the eyes of the general public
Most damaging of all, and related to the problems above, is the dominance of what Treadgold descibes as the “vague but powerful ideology” of campus leftism. The vagueness arises because “leftist faculty and students have made this ideology up as they went along.” It is therefore distinct from classical Marxism, which derives from systemic arguments.
By contrast, contemporary campus leftism constantly changes, but the changes are rarely defended or explained. It is conveniently slippery, defying consistent terminology, principles, or supporting evidence. Treadgold writes:
“The absence of reasoned argument is in fact one of campus leftism’s sources of strength. Refusing to supply ideological definitions leaves the impression of a viewpoint that depends not on arguments (which could theoretically be refuted) but is instead so obvious to every decent person that it needs no support from logic or reason…. Campus leftism is much more a matter of feeling than of thought and is based much more on passion or outrage than on reasoning. Thus rational counterarguments are often shouted down on the ground that they offend or discriminate against the campus community, while disfavored members of the community are allowed no sympathy if they claim to be offended or discriminated against.”
Such an ideology can only flourish as it does within the prevailing “intellectual fashion” at universities of postmodernism, which for several decades now has “questioned the existence of any objective truth.” In the philosophical vacuum left after the elimination of concepts such as facts, reason, and accuracy, politicized narratives arise, especially those emphasizing the battle of oppressors vs. oppressed.
According to Treadgold, this ideology infects all campus operations. Faculty hiring decisions, for example, focus on countering oppression by choosing from oppressed candidates (minorities, etc.) rather than on finding the best scholar and teacher for the position at hand. Similarly, in the absence of absolute standards, students’ grades float upward and are inflated to the point of irrelevance. Faculty scholarship, meanwhile, is no longer held to rigors of proof and research but rather succeeds to the extent it promotes politicized agendas.
Critically, this ideology eliminates the spirit and forums for classical liberal inquiry and debate. The ends are predetermined, and anyone seen as preventing those ends must be dismissed. Treadgold writes, “The dominant leftist opinion considers fighting racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression to be so vital that it supersedes everything else…. Under such ground rules, arguing with campus leftists is practically useless, and if leftists control a campus, free speech there cannot be much more than nominal.”
The University We Need offers practical, tactical proposals to improve the integrity of course grading and the quality of doctoral dissertations, among other issues. But as the title suggests, Treadgold’s boldest recommendation involves creating a brand-new, ivy league-level university. He writes:
I think the best hope of escaping this impasse would be the foundation of a major new university, which could have an impact similar to the establishment of National Review for journals, the Heritage Foundation for think tanks, and Fox News for television and radio. America has enough conservatives and libertarians with enough money to found a major new university if they choose to do it. As of now, the prospect of real academic freedom, salaries based on merit, and a stimulating intellectual community could attract enough distinguished conservative and moderate academics, including some distinguished writers and researchers from outside academia, to staff a major university of about a thousand professors.
To hear more about Professor Treadgold’s ideas, as well as his explanation of why time is running out for this opportunity, you can listen to the interview here.