“Where did Anthony Fauci acquire the medical authority and credibility to impose a lockdown on America and arguably mislead the public? College. …Where did Somali-born Ilhan Omar learn to seemingly hate the country that saved her from the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya? College. Where did Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez learn that America must be bankrupted and evidently obliterated from within? College. Where did Nikole Hannah-Jones, the author of The 1619 Project, spread her revisionist history prior to joining the New York Times? College. Where was Barack Obama first inspired with a goal of fundamentally transforming America? College. Where was Hilary Clinton converted from a Goldwater Girl to a Saul Alinsky radical? College. Where was Critical Race Theory spawned? College.”
Charlie Kirk, The College Scam
“I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University.”
William F. Buckley
College isn’t too popular at the moment. Polling last year found that “the share of Americans who believe colleges and universities have a positive impact on the country has dropped by 14 percentage points since 2020.” Bill Maher, in a rant last year that was viewed millions of times on YouTube, called college a “racket that sells you a very expensive ticket to the upper middle class.” Maher complained that colleges “have turned into giant luxury daycare centers,” citing universities that have spent exorbitant amounts of money building lazy rivers. For Maher, college is essentially worthless except in giving people a credential that will allow them to join the upper middle class. For Maher, it’s a “giant scam” where there is rampant grade inflation and students are taught more about microaggressions than higher mathematics. He concludes that we should not be trying to reduce the cost of college, but should instead make sure good jobs don’t require a college degree: “the answer isn’t to make college free, the answer is to make it more unnecessary, which it is for most jobs, so that the two-thirds of Americans who either can’t afford to or just don’t want to go don’t feel shut out.”
A lot of the animosity toward college comes from conservative pundits. The “Don’t Go to College and Get Brainwashed By The Left” book has become a cottage industry on the right, which pushes out books on the subject faster than Marvel can release Avengers movies. The tradition began with William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, and now includes such literary classics as Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education, Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals, and Ben Shapiro’s Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth. Most recently we have Charlie Kirk’s The College Scam: How America’s Universities are Bankrupting and Brainwashing Away the Future of America’s Youth.
The details vary, but for the right, a lot of the grievances have remained the same over the years. In God and Man at Yale, the young Buckley was indignant about the broadly liberal alignment of his Ivy League professors, whom he described as indoctrinating students to reject Christianity. Interestingly, while Buckley resented the lack of conservative views on campus, he was not committed to what is today called “ideological diversity.” He didn’t want colleges not to indoctrinate students; he wanted them to push the correct doctrines. Buckley defended the suppression of progressive viewpoints and rejected the liberal ideal of pedagogical neutrality. What Yale needed more of was “value inculcation”:
“I hasten to dissociate myself from the school of thought, largely staffed by conservatives, that believes teachers ought to be ‘at all times neutral.’ Where values are concerned, effective teaching is difficult and stilted, if not impossible, in the context of neutrality; and further, I believe such a policy to be a lazy denial of educational responsibility.”
Buckley’s book kicked off a movement that saw universities as fundamentally hostile ideological sites, and sought to reclaim them for the right in what amounted to a Gramscian struggle for hegemony. The temperature of debates around colleges kicked up considerably in the 1960s when student radicalism was conceived as a dangerous threat to conservative causes. Nixon famously denounced the student radicals as “bums” and described professors as “the enemy.” (In our own time, senator J.D. Vance has directly repeated Nixon’s denunciation of The Professors. )
In the mid-1980s, Allan Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind, which became an unexpected bestseller and warned that students at American universities were united in “their relativism and their allegiance to equality.” Bloom’s book infamously describes Mick Jagger’s hips as dangerously seductive to the youth, but his core point was that the professoriat was no longer doing its job of properly educating the next elite. Rather than teaching the classic texts of eternal value, like Plato and Machiavelli, the university was said to focus on trendy critical and “nihilistic” authors that work to deconstruct everything and lead students to the conclusion that ultimately nothing matters and any viewpoint is as good as any other. While Bloom’s book wasn’t directly partisan, and he even characterized the popularity of important right-wing authors like Heidegger and Ayn Rand as symptomatic of educational decline, it was widely seen as providing conservatives with further ammunition in the culture wars. It helped formulate a positive ideological program focused not just on what conservatives didn’t want—far less critical theory, critique of capitalism, radical feminism, and ethnic studies—but more on what they did want: a Great Books education of the kind practiced at Hillsdale College (and that other august institute of conservative higher learning, Prager U).
Conservatives tend to go back and forth between arguing that universities simply need more “ideological diversity”/neutrality and arguing that a real or “classical” education would mean teaching the “objective truth” of their own ideology. Ben Shapiro, for example, will attack universities one day for “brainwashing” students, and the next day defend an approach to education focused on the twin peaks of “Athens and Jerusalem,” claiming we more or less got the right political principles down circa some combination of Locke and Burke in the 18th century. In The College Scam, Charlie Kirk recommends most students not go to college since it is potentially a waste of money and will ensure they get brainwashed by “woke” and “Classical Marxist” professors. But if they do go to college, Kirk thinks they should avoid “indoctrination” by going to a transparently partisan school like Hillsdale, whose president Larry Arnn “unapologetically contends for truth, liberty, and the development of good character” and which has been described as a “shining city on a hill” for conservatives.
In light of all this, it’s tempting for a leftist to say that conservatives just don’t like college because learning too much makes it harder for ordinary people to accept the right’s worldview. If the success of their ideology depends on ignorance, of course they want to discourage people from getting too educated. We do know that four years of college education makes students slightly more likely to identify as politically liberal, although one study found that the shift is not huge. (Furthermore, “at the time of their graduation, students were just as likely as when they began college to report that political conservatives make positive contributions to society and are ethical people, as well as agreeing that they share things in common with political conservatives and have a positive attitude toward political conservatives.”)
If you are a conservative, this is proof of brainwashing, while if you’re on the left, it may be confirmation that learning more about the world and thinking harder makes you less likely to be a reactionary. If you actually dive into the facts of, say, America’s history of white supremacy, or the way major corporations exploit the world’s poor, your investigation will make it considerably harder for you to accept conservatives’ arguments that racism is a thing of the past or that capitalism is an unambiguous good for everyone.
When Charlie Kirk criticizes a professor for unpacking the sugar industry’s mistreatment of workers because this supposedly makes people “feel guilty for everything,” Kirk never addresses the inconvenient fact that the professor was telling the truth. Being exposed to the unpleasant details of where the commodities we use in capitalist societies actually come from may make us question whether the way they are produced and sold is in fact just. It may even put into our minds the question of whether we should change things. Indeed, that was in part Marx’s point about commodity fetishism in Capital. Marx pointed out how we often treat the things we buy as though they had magical properties and just sprung from nowhere—rather than as real material things people had to work hard to produce and for which they receive minimal rewards.
But another reason conservatives don’t much like college comes from the very heart of their worldview. From the beginning, conservatives have idolized what Roger Scruton approvingly called “unthinking” people. The most sophisticated right-wing intellectuals are often admirably more candid about this than their sloppier populist counterparts. There is a strongly anti-democratic current in right-wing philosophy which does not believe that the people ought to think for and govern themselves. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke insisted that “sublime principles ought to be infused into persons of exalted situation” because “whenever man is put over men, as the better nature ought ever to preside, in that case more particularly, he as nearly as possible be approximated to his perfection.” By this, he meant that those at the top of social hierarchies ought to be seen as deserving of their power. Too much “light and reason” might cause the people to decide that “a king is but a man, a queen is but a woman.” By contrast, Burke admires the men and women who are content with staying in their “little platoons” and who submit themselves to his sublime authorities happily and willingly. In his recent book Conservatism: A Rediscovery, the political philosopher Yoram Hazony makes the same point more emphatically:
“When people reason freely about political and moral questions, they produce a profusion of varying and contradictory opinions, reaching no consensus at all. Indeed, the only thing that reasoning without reference to some traditional framework can do with great competence is identify an unlimited number of flaws and failings, both imagined and real, in whatever institutions and norms have been inherited from the past. Where individuals are encouraged to engage in this activity, the process of finding flaws in inherited institutions proceeds with ever greater speed and enthusiasm, until in the end whatever has been inherited becomes a thing of lightness and folly in their eyes. In this way, they come to reject all the old ideas and behaviors, uprooting and discarding everything that was once a matter of consensus.”
It is precisely because college may generate free-thinkers and skeptics, then, that it is dangerous to those who believe society ought to be governed by traditional authorities. Put young people in a place where they can “reason freely about political and moral questions” and they might “reject all the old ideas and behaviors,” finding “flaws in inherited institutions.” Seen this way, the teaching of Critical Race Theory at universities is not objectionable to the right as a form of brainwashing. It’s objectionable precisely because it isn’t brainwashing. It’s encouraging students to think they can be critical of institutions whose foundations conservatives would prefer not be interrogated. Once students are encouraged to be skeptical and think for themselves, what if they start asking questions like: Why should we defer to what the Founding Fathers thought the country ought to look like?
The conservative wariness of higher learning, then, is natural, because higher learning may inculcate students with a critical disposition that will inspire them to regard the hierarchies and systems of power in their society as just so many “pleasing” (or not so pleasing) illusions. When these ideas (the sacredness of the Constitution, the fixed nature of gender roles, the moral exceptionalism of the United States, the existence of God, the fairness of capitalism) can be interrogated and evaluated rationally, they are destabilized. Educated students who have been encouraged to think for themselves will not regard their society as consisting of “sublime” and eternal institutions and embodying perfected values. Instead, they’ll see them as emerging within history, the inevitable product of compromises, injustices, and all too human failings. Furthermore, what emerged historically and contingently is not inherently necessary, and so can (and perhaps should) be reconceived and remade. A little learning can therefore be a very dangerous thing.
Much of the attempt by figures like Shapiro and Kirk to stress a “classical” education focused on “eternal” truths isn’t so much an attempt to teach people the arguments about the existence or not of eternal truth. Instead, it’s an effort to assert that the kind of society conservatives want embodies these eternal truths, and any questioning of that has to be resisted. Ironically, given the conservative love of Classics, this is exactly the kind of attitude that led the Athenian elites to execute Socrates. He had educated the youth, or “corrupted” them, by encouraging them to ask nettlesome questions and undermining patriotic faith in the city and its gods.
College can be quite the opposite of an indoctrination center. It can be a mind-expanding place where students are exposed to ideas, facts, and even basic questions that they had never considered before. At its best, college is a place where young people can spend four years letting their mind wander freely, exploring whatever intellectual and practical avenues they like (even, yes, the infamous “underwater basket-weaving”), experimenting and figuring out who they are, what they like, and what they think.
In fact, the conservative caricature of colleges is radically out of step with the reality of life on campus. Some of what conservatives complain about—like the “canceling” of the classics or criticism of Western civilization—is better seen as the application of rational criticism to sacred dogmas. Even when excesses of political correctness exist, they are often overstated, and it’s always worth remembering that most students are not Gender Studies or Sociology majors (far more students major in Business than anything else). If anything, there’s not nearly enough radicalism on campus; the tiny number of Marxist professors suggest few undergraduates are actually being exposed to critical perspectives on capitalism; only recently have business professors started considering some alternate economic perspectives, and as Times Higher Education reports, professors critical of capitalism have long since been purged from business schools.
Much of what conservatives dislike about universities is in fact what makes them valuable. Other features they dislike are pure caricature. Nevertheless, some of the most serious criticisms of the contemporary university are perfectly fair. Take Bill Maher’s critique, for instance. Maher is right to note that colleges have increasingly become “businesses selling a consumer product, giving customers what they want.” Indeed, spending tuition money building lavish recreation centers while underpaying the actual teachers is unconscionable. The idea of a university education as a product is what has led to travesties like universities cutting history programs while expanding their investment in esports facilities.
But Maher, instead of pushing for universities to recommit themselves to quality liberal arts curricula, concludes that education itself is a scam. Liberals, he says, think “the more time humans spend in classrooms staring at blackboards the better.” The idea that being in a university involves merely “staring at a blackboard” implies that time spent engaging with the vast body of human intellectual achievement from psychology to history to literature is simply a needless waste of time. That’s why Maher resents public policy that would “pony up hundreds of billions so that everyone can go to college.” Maher says this is unfair, because it forces working class people to subsidize the idle luxuries of the rich: “Is it really liberal for someone who doesn’t go to college and makes less money to pay for people who do go and make more?” He thinks free college means nothing more than free time for rich kids to float in their school’s lazy river, subsidized by those who work for a living.
Maher is wrong to suggest there’s anything inherently financially regressive about free college; it’s not regressive if it’s funded through progressive taxation, and is only a subsidy from the poor to the rich if the funding structure is intentionally designed that way. But more importantly, Maher misses the critical point that, even if a college education is not really necessary for most jobs, getting prepared for a job shouldn’t be the point of going to college. The reason everyone deserves to have a college education if they want one is that everyone deserves to have a few years being intellectually curious without most of their time being put towards a job. Maher says that college should be “unnecessary,” so that “the two-thirds of Americans who either can’t afford to or just don’t want to go don’t feel shut out.” But what if a portion of those Americans don’t want to go to college because it’s “necessary” but because they want to to learn for the sake of learning? The radical scholar Norman Finkelstein put the point well in a recent response to Maher on the Bad Faith podcast:
“That clip filled me with loathing for Maher. ‘Who needs college education?’ … College education is the last opportunity most young people have to think about the big questions in life, to reflect. In my generation, no one [in college] thought about what they were going to do in life. Because our assumption was [that] when we were ready to join the workforce, there would be a job. … So college was not utilitarian. … We never thought about a job. You know what we thought about? We thought about life, the meaning of life, the purpose of life, ideas. And when I hear this sack of shit say ‘They don’t need college education.’ Fuck you, man! Working-class people can’t dream? Working-class people can’t expand their horizons? Working-class people can’t think about the bigger things in life?”
If we respond to the spiraling costs of college by finding ways for people to avoid having to go to college in order to get a job, we may reduce the injustice of student loan debt. But in doing so, we’d be cutting out something valuable from many young people’s lives: the period of intellectual freedom and curiosity that makes college such an important time in people’s lives. Everyone deserves such an opportunity. There’s a common talking point on the right that wanting everyone to go to college is snobby or elitist. In fact, as Finkelstein points out, what is elitist is the view that higher learning should only be for some people, and that others should be funneled straight from high school into manual labor where they belong. But why shouldn’t everyone get to spend a portion of their youth studying French literature or musicology or philosophy or Black history, even if they never intend to make a career out of the subject? American universities have major dysfunctions—administrative bloat, the precarity of adjuncts, sky-high tuition—but we should fix the university, not burn it down. Attending college should be a universal right of all. It should be a place where anyone can go to discover advanced knowledge and be taught by leading scholars. Even if we are cynical about the present state of higher education in this country, college itself deserves a strong defense.