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Academic Descent

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books and culture

Academic Descent

Two books survey how the university came to prize ideology over ideas. May 21, 2020
Education

The Lost History of Western Civilization, by Stanley Kurtz (National Association of Scholars, 153 pp., $20.99)

The Breakdown of Higher Education, by John M. Ellis (Encounter Books, 224 pp., 25.99)

Over the past 40 years, American universities have descended into a kind of academic Cubism, which can be defined as the “ability to make the familiar unrecognizable—without providing new insights.” Stanley Kurtz’s short, brilliant book, the Lost History of Western Civilization, is an account of a key chapter in the development of this institutionalized obfuscation: the deconstruction of the once enormously popular Western Civilization course at Stanford University. It was precisely its longstanding popularity, notes Kurtz, that initiated the attack on Western Civ in the 1980s, most notably by Gilbert Allardyce, a Stanford graduate and 1960s radical.

In 1982, Allardyce wrote an article for the prestigious American Historical Review entitled “The Rise and Fall of the Western Civilization Course.” He argued that “Western Civ” as an academic staple was invented at Columbia during World War I to explain to American troops why they were fighting in Europe. In the nineteenth century, argued Allardyce and later revisionists, Americans saw themselves as exceptional and rejected the thesis of continuity with European history. The “West,” as a cultural and intellectual entity of shared values and concerns, was a false construct.

Debunking Allaryce’s claims, Kurtz observes that “the 20th century Western Civilization course was essentially a condensation . . . of large tracts of the nineteenth century curriculum into a single course.” Radical historians borrowed from postmodernist theorist Michel Foucault’s claim to have uncovered “a regime of truth,” but these critics imposed an ahistorical ignorance on American academic life. Their deconstructionist playbook, which saw family, culture, and national identity as instruments of oppression, had no room for the likes of the great nineteenth-century French liberal intellectual and politician François Guizot, whose 1828 Histoire générale de la civilisation en Europe was widely read by American academics. Guizot’s defense of British liberties and condemnation of the excesses of Jean-Jacques Rousseau had an enormous influence on Alexis de Tocqueville—and it was Tocqueville who saw the centrality of American exceptionalism for a life of liberty.

In January 1987, Stanford students, accompanied by then-presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, kicked off the modern culture wars by chanting together “Hey, hey, ho ho/ Western Civ has got to go.” Go it did. In a suicidal thrust, one university after another eliminated the Western Civ course, along with a general interest in the humanities.

The Lost History of Western Civilization was published by The National Association of Scholars, a center-right organization in California led for many years by John Ellis, an English professor at UC Santa Cruz. In 1990, Ellis’s book Against Deconstruction offered a pathbreaking dissection of what can be described as the higher irrationalism. His new book, The Breakdown of Higher Education, is broader in scope than Kurtz’s, but it, too, describes the descent of pedagogy into indoctrination and the proliferation of fads, fashions, and hoaxes that have turned academia into a self-parody.

Writing in vivid prose, Ellis draws on a wide range of empirical studies and notable incidents. Ellis describes the loss of intellectual integrity that’s left contemporary students of elite universities—the vanguard of today’s Democratic Party—not only ignorant of American history and culture but also deeply hostile to their country’s norms and achievements. The University of California Academic Senate, for instance, has ruled that promoting political causes in classrooms is a normal and acceptable practice.

The upshot, Ellis argues, is that our vast investment in education is “achieving minimal benefit.” Minimal benefit, yes, but not minimal effect—student indoctrination at the hands of such writers as Foucault, Howard Zinn, and Edward Said has poisoned our political system. Even the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), which I’d assumed to be an island of sanity, have been infiltrated by the soft Stalinism of the social-justice ideology. The ideologues increasingly central to the vast academic bureaucracy impose diversity standards on STEM appointments just as they do on those in the humanities and social sciences.

The Stanford fight over Western Civ was an inflection point in the evolution of academic intimidation. The notion that the liberal arts and the pursuit of truth through inquiry were phallocentric, racist endeavors entered the mainstream in the late 1980s and has since become a truism in elite media and academic circles. Scattershot accusations of racism—“the last best issue for those who believe in nothing” worthwhile about their country or culture, as Ellis puts it—render truth beside the point. What matters is charging others with heresy. “Perpetual racial outrage,” notes Kurtz, became the means by which American elites imposed their will. These two books are like geographic surveys that show us how we got to such a barren place.

Photo: aimintang/iStock

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