The assault on American higher education

If you have been following news about things happening on US university campuses, you might have got the impression that they are hotbeds of indoctrination and intolerance, where radical students have taken them over and are imposing a rigid orthodoxy in speech and thought. This is an image that is being widely promoted by the right-wing as part of their assault on higher education, as this article illustrates.

Why does a kid go to a major university these days?” said [Frank] Antenori, 51, a former Green Beret who served in the Arizona state legislature. “A lot of Republicans would say they go there to get brainwashed and learn how to become activists and basically go out in the world and cause trouble.”

Antenori is part of an increasingly vocal campaign to transform higher education in America. Though U.S. universities are envied around the world, he and other conservatives want to reduce the flow of government cash to what they see as elitist, politically correct institutions that often fail to provide practical skills for the job market.

Though Trump has largely ignored higher education during his first year in office, his son Donald Trump Jr. recently excoriated universities during a speech in Texas, for which he was paid $100,000. On college campuses, he said, “Hate speech is anything that says America is a good country. That our founders were great people. That we need borders. Hate speech is anything faithful to the moral teachings of the Bible.”

Trump hit higher education hard in his first budget proposal, which called for sharp cuts to the federal work-study program, the National Institutes of Health and other programs that fund university research. The House recently approved a tax overhaul that would cut corporate rates while imposing a new tax on the endowments of many of the nation’s wealthiest universities and eliminating the deduction for student loan interest.

In a series of 23 Tweets, Noah Smith counters the bogus image that is being controversy about the intolerance and indoctrination on college campuses.

The people trying to paint this false picture have seized upon a few incidents to portray them as more widespread than they are. Smith points out that campuses have always pushed the limits on pretty much everything because they attract young idealists who envision a world that can be much better than the one that exists and are impatient to bring it into being. In their passion they will say and do things that outrage their elders. But it has always been thus and to act as if the current crop of students is out of control is to look back on the past with blinkers.

What this fake controversy manufactured by the right is trying to do is distract us from the fact that the right-wingers want nothing less than the dismantling of American higher education, since it is not seen as sufficiently subservient to the right-wing agenda. After all, why not? They have already attacked public K-12 education and they have successively undermined many of the other institutions that once used to be emblematic of American excellence: manufacturing, roads and highways, national parks, infrastructure, postal service, science, technology, etc., all in order to benefit a few.

While K-12 education in America has problems (though not the ones usually emphasized by the right-wingers), American universities used to be the most sought after when it came to college and post-graduate education. That will soon no longer be the case. With the cuts to funding, increasing control by state legislatures, and restrictions on letting in foreign students and the hostile climate they face when they get here, the center of gravity for excellence in education, especially in science, engineering, an technology will shift to other countries. Why would students want to come to a country that is hostile towards them when they have good options elsewhere?

Soon the only thing that the US will be the leader in is the number of billionaires and the number of mega-banks, since the financial sector is what now rules the US and that the government now seeks to serve.

Sometimes I wonder if the political leaders in the US are deliberately trying to drive the country into the ground. Because if so, they are doing a great job. The leaders of countries like China and Russia must be looking on amazed as their main rival seems to be pursuing a course of self-destruction. They don’t have to do anything. All they have to do is pursue a steady course and watch the US decline.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Apparently the Russians did help us out a little bit last year, and continue to apply nudges here and there.

    But we coulda done it almost as fast by ourselves.

    Can anyone think of any historical parallels, nations in which about 1/3 of the population thought and acted so destructively to their own countries’ interests? More importantly, can you think of any which went through such a suicidal phase and survived?

  2. says

    My pet hypothesis is that virtually no one thinks of themselves as evil or as doing evil, except for cartoon villains. Consequently, I don’t think that people like Ryan, McConnell, Trump, et al., see themselves as “deliberately trying to drive the country into the ground”, even though all objective evidence may point to that as the most likely outcome. I think they honestly believe they are doing the right thing (certainly for themselves and their pals, but probably for their in-group as well; and the out-group are not seen as good people so they deserve the short end of the stick). The problem is that they’ve swallowed some economic/political/social dogma in which they truly believe, and which is reflected back to them by their in-group, reinforcing their commitment to it. You couple that with the Dunning-Kruger effect and we find ourselves where we are.

    The entire “fake news”/alternate reality aspect only makes it worse by having “our experts” counter “your experts”, even if some of those “experts” have no more expertise than a dog.

    I have no easy solution to this. My only thought is that it is absolutely imperative that we get money out of politics. If groups cannot buy influence and if a political career is not highly profitable (via the revolving lobbying door), then at the very least the job won’t attract the true grifters along with at least a portion of the lies and distortions we casually refer to as “marketing”.

  3. jrkrideau says

    As I said in another thread, wow this is great. Just not for the USA , of course.

    The rest of the world stands to pick up some outstanding students. I was thinking mainly graduates since the other thread was linked to graduate funding, but if the Republicans keep it up, almost any top-notch university outside the USA stands to benefit even from undergraduate enrollment.

    Students choosing universities looks like an excellent example of the free market in action, and competition is fierce across schools and countries. The party of free enterprise does not even see this?

  4. jrkrideau says

    # 1 Pierce R. Butler
    Can anyone think of any historical parallels, nations in which about 1/3 of the population thought and acted so destructively to their own countries’ interests?

    I think the Athenian condemnation and execution of their four best admirals in one of the Athens — Sparta wars is up there but it was a single instance, not sustained idiocy.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    jrkrideau @ # 4: …the Athenian condemnation and execution of their four best admirals in one of the Athens — Sparta wars is up there …

    I have to admit I’m not up on my Peloponnesian Unpleasantness these days, but suspect that, aside from its singularity, that episode did not feature a prolonged ideology (except, perhaps, immediate gratification and frustration at lack thereof). (Note I do not say a coherent ideology, just a lasting one.)

    Your example reminded me of the execution of Lavoisier et al. during the French Revolution, even after his contribution to the war effort by improving methods of gunpowder production. But by that logic, just about every revolution turns into madness, and the similarities with the present US predicament get too vague to help us (me, anyhow) understand anything.

    Maybe I should go read Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds again…

  6. says

    @Jimf No. 2,

    That’s true, you’re absolutely right. People who act badly do not think they’re evil, to paraphrase William Faulkner, they don’t even thing they’re acting badly.

    The worst people in history were all well prepared to offer rational justifications for their actions. Cognitive dissonance is a horrible condition.

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

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