In an engrossing interview with Bill Kristol, the conservative scholar, author and former Harvard professor Peter Berkowitz paints a dismal picture of our universities. He explains that he sees “a hollowing out of the core. I see a politicizing of the curriculum. I see curtailing of freedom of speech, liberty of thought and discussion on campus. And increasingly, especially these last several years, an evisceration of due process on campus for students accused these days, usually in sexual harassment and sexual assault cases. So I see a bad situation.”
But worst of all, he hypothesizes, is how these institutions are warping the political life of the country:
I don’t have hard, empirical data on this, although I urge my colleagues in the political science world to test this hypothesis, those who are expert in empirical ways. We are told that there is intense polarization in the country. My colleague at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, Morris Fiorina and some of his colleagues have written several books to argue that yes, there is political polarization in the country but it’s really actually confined to the top 10 or 15 percent of the political cultural intellectual elites. Well, where did those people come from? They come from our elite universities. And what do they learn at the universities?
Let’s start with conservatism. One of the unwritten lessons of the university curriculum is we needn’t teach this subject because it’s not important, it’s apparently not interesting. This sends two messages to conservatives, those conservative students on campus, it causes, it induces a kind of resentment. How come the ideas that I care about aren’t even featured in the curriculum? For the liberal students, they get a message of superiority and arrogance; our ideas are the right ideas, we needn’t listen to other ideas.
In other words, what students are experiencing on campus and learning on campus tracks what we see in political life today. We do see resentment among conservatives, and we see arrogance among progressives.
In short, the elite institutions of higher learning are producing generations of students who go through life intellectually blinkered, not only contemptuous of opposing values and views, but utterly unaware they exist. As he remarks, “It’s the absence of opposing opinions and actually the aggressive silencing of opposing opinions or even more, building a university world, building an intellectual life, building a curriculum where lots of ideas, ideas that shaped us – one might add, I would also add ideas that are inherently valuable – but ideas that shaped us are simply off-limits.” It is no wonder that much of popular culture and media is ideological monochromatic and dismissive of conservative ideas.
Unfortunately, the president is a prime example of this phenomenon. He has two Ivy League degrees and poses as a great intellectual, the product of the best and most elite education one can obtain. Now a cultivated intellect should be able to fairly state the opponents’ position, give a defense and then explain why he or she disagrees. (“The liberal spirit consists in at minimum stating the other – stating the other side of the argument,” said Berkowitz. “As Mill points out in On Liberty, we don’t understand our own side. We have self-interest, we don’t understand our own side. As we state the other side, we state it as strong a fashion as possible and figure out how to meet those – how to meet those arguments.”) But in the atmosphere of elite schools, Berkowitz observes, “Students are not learning that.” And the president is incapable of this. He has become infamous for the false choice and straw man style of argument. His opponents are wrong or proponents of Social Darwinism or hyper-partisan or evil; it never seems to dawn on President Obama that his opponents’ have well-thought out reasons for their positions, that they are as sincere as he in trying to address the country’s problems.
There are many reasons to be concerned about the atmosphere on college campuses. But at the top of the list, we should acknowledge, is that their graduates arguably come out less tolerant, less intellectually nimble and less respectful of those with whom they disagree. If we want to deal with incivility, dysfunction and polarization in politics, maybe we should take a look at universities, where so many elites were exposed to only a slice of reality and spared the “offense” of listening to ideas they don’t like.