The protests unfolding on college campuses across the country this week did not happen in a vacuum, nor did they emerge mysteriously and whole-formed like Venus born from a shell. What you are seeing at Mizzou, Yale, and other universities right now is the inevitable result of decades-long policy fights at all levels of the American education system. And whereas the press coverage of these events emphasizes liberal and even leftist attitudes among students, the war on American education has largely been a right wing phenomenon that takes advantage of the liberal arts tradition in order to destroy it. Mewling complaints about ‘political correctness’ are a smokescreen for the ongoing war against college students and liberal education. However incomprehensible we may find the students’ actions, or how mis-aimed their efforts may seem to us, they are pushing back against very real oppressive forces that their fiercest critics pretend not to see.

Control of education at all levels is the first, last, and constant objective of all culture wars. Primary schools, high schools, and universities are always centers of revolution and social change, whether from within or without. The famous 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision, which began the relatively-brief era of public school desegregation, was the end result of decades of work by the NAACP, while implementation of the decision lasted decades longer, and the project was largely abandoned in an incomplete state before 1990. One of the subsidiary Supreme Court decisions of that era, Green v Kennedy, created the modern religious right as a political force when the justices revoked tax exemptions for all-white private ‘segregation academies,’ and evangelicals have never looked back as they organized to remake American education in their own image. The takeover of the Texas Board of Education and rewriting of textbooks, for example, has not been an ad hoc affair, but a carefully-husbanded long-term strategy of de-liberalizing the curriculum to shape a more conservative generation, and by extension, a country more amenable to jingoism and polarizing religiosity.

Race and religion are just two dimensions of this conflict. Written just months before Richard Nixon promoted its author, corporate attorney Lewis Powell, to the Supreme Court, much of the 1971 Powell Memorandum is concerned with the challenge the campus presented to systems of power and privilege at the time. In this passage, Powell outlines a strategy for businesses to “restore balance” to the academic world in a way that sounds suspiciously like the ‘Affirmative Action’ programs that reactionary forces have sought to strike from the American campus since…well, since the moment they took down the ‘whites only’ signs from the drinking fountains.

Perhaps the most fundamental problem is the imbalance of many faculties. Correcting this is indeed a long-range and difficult project. Yet, it should be undertaken as a part of an overall program. This would mean the urging of the need for faculty balance upon university administrators and boards of trustees.

The methods to be employed require careful thought, and the obvious pitfalls must be avoided. Improper pressure would be counterproductive. But the basic concepts of balance, fairness and truth are difficult to resist, if properly presented to boards of trustees, by writing and speaking, and by appeals to alumni associations and groups.

This is a long road and not one for the fainthearted. But if pursued with integrity and conviction it could lead to a strengthening of both academic freedom on the campus and of the values which have made America the most productive of all societies.

If all this “fairness and balance” to make centers of learning “productive” sounds familiar, bear in mind that fossil fuel billionaires Charles and David Koch have spent millions of dollars on hundreds of programs at campuses across the country to promote libertarian economic theology, climate change denial, and conservative ideology — especially at colleges with a reputation for liberalism. And thanks to a nationwide, ideology-driven defunding of higher education by state governments, administrators of the academe are always willing to make these Faustian bargains. The students are no fools: scheduled to graduate with six-figure debts, they know their overpriced education provides nice salaries for an ever-growing army of administrators and bureaucrats even while the faculty who teach them have largely fallen out of the middle class. Given that just over half of all students of public schools currently live below the poverty line, today’s freshman arrives with plenty of reason to object to the way ‘the system’ works against their social mobility.

And it is always ‘the system’ which absorbs the full force of student uprisings, a characteristic of student activism that creates most of our confusion and alarm with such events. As framed by liberal Jonathan Chait and a host of scolds representing the full spectrum of political views, Nicholas and Erika Christakis of Yale are martyrs to the revolution of a leftist student body intent on tyrannical control of everyone’s Halloween costumes. But from the perspective of students, their reasoned call for debate is just the administrative system preserving the privileges and prerogatives of the powerful — as usual. We might ask why the students don’t redirect their anger towards a seemingly more-appropriate figure on campus, such as Professor Timothy Snyder, whose latest book is a mess of Holocaust revisionism and Nazi apologetics, but Snyder is an objectionist ‘outsider,’ not a defender of the status quo, and whatever we think of their purposes or tactics, the students of Yale are trying to change a system they justifiably see as corrupt. When gay students at Colorado College object to a film about the history of their equality movement, they are not ‘banning’ a movie by a gay director, they are opposing the status quo of the film studies department.

Culture wars usually become more heated as one side loses them. In the years since the Powell Memo, American society has steadily become more accepting of diversity and equality, but reactionary forces have simultaneously succeeded in making education more expensive and less valuable. Similarly, American public opinion has become more tolerant of sexual and reproductive freedom, but the religious right’s war against contraception and abortion is just now reaching its highest levels of success. As Amanda Marcotte explains, this not a sidebar to what’s happening on campus, it is a primary example of what students resent the most.

Over the summer, the school tried to take away health insurance subsidies for graduate students, blaming Obamacare. That didn’t last long, but it certainly put students on notice that their basic access to health care was under threat by conservative forces. Then the university got caught up in the state’s heightened anti-choice politics, after state legislators strong-armed the school into forcing a doctor who worked at the school to quit providing abortions at a local Planned Parenthood. The school also canceled contracts with Planned Parenthood that allowed medical and nursing students to gain hours there, in response to the hoax videos that came out over the summer falsely accusing Planned Parenthood of selling body parts. They eventually came to their senses and renewed the contracts, but, as with the graduate student health program, the message was sent: The school was listening to and willing to interfere with the health care and educational access the students had, to pander to the whims of a bunch of delusional culture warriors.

I first encountered anti-Planned Parenthood activism on campus in 1991 when I attended a ‘guest lecture’ that turned out to be a sermon filed with lies and distortions about Margaret Sanger, the same catechism now playing on loop within the closed epistemology of the conservative universe. Why is it a surprise to find the current gang of witch hunters exerting political pressure on our schools to enact their fantasies as if they were real? Why do we pretend the students don’t see what’s happening to them, even if they don’t fully understand it? And speaking of “fairness and balance,” where does Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic suppose students got the idea that they could create psychically-sanitized places impenetrable to facts? To paraphrase an anti-drug message from the Reagan era, ‘They learned it by watching Fox News, okay?’

The resignation of Tim Wolfe has brought these longtime campus culture wars into stark relief, shocking a system of white power and privilege that has ruled Missouri since slaves were forced to build the foundations of the state university system. Conservative objections all feign surprise, as if the entire episode has recently been concocted by a conspiracy of lies (click here to see a particularly noxious example of ‘Mizzou truthers’ exposing themselves as cretins). But in fact Wolfe had failed to respond to a long series of incidents, including one that happened right in front of his eyes — a pretty good argument that Brown v Board has been rendered irrelevant in our time by simple neglect.

The libertarians are not handling this any better than any other class of pundit, by the way. Friedersdorf accuses the students at Yale of being ‘catastrophists,’ but if that’s true then so are his intellectual allies. Just look at this anodyne request from the Mizzou campus police for students to report incidents of hate speech: “While cases of hateful and hurtful speech are not crimes, if the individual(s) identified are students, MU’s Office of Student Conduct can take disciplinary action.” From this, libertarian Eugene Volokh concludes that misguided liberals are criminalizing thoughtcrime and purging campuses of white people with the wrong opinions. Never mind the daily lived experiences of black students, or the white student arrested just yesterday for making threats in social media — the black students tired of being called ‘nigger’ are the ones who are really oppressing people. See how that works?

  • No More Racists

    Beautifully written.

  • I remember we grappled with these same questions all the time at my college. As students, we just wanted to learn to be good people. The school seemed to be supportive of our attempts, so I guess we never felt the need to fight like we’re now seeing at Yale and Mizzou. I don’t understand why we always feel a need to kick students around like this. I suppose the lesson is the refrain of so many who are scolding the students: Don’t make waves, just hit the books like you’re supposed to. But our colleges always tell us we should do more than that. So, we tried to be more than students. I suppose then it must be exactly as you say here, Matt. For my part, I still identify with the Yalies and the students at Mizzou because it sounds like they just want the same things I always wanted.

  • muselet

    Thanks for this, Matt. The “oh-so-oppressive Lefty students/Political Correctness run amok” narrative didn’t make a lot of sense to me, and now I’m understanding why.

    –alopecia