Sometimes I think about what higher education looked like to a smart kid in the early 1960s. I’m sure the picture is rosier in hindsight, but even at the time it must have been impressive—wealthy, expanding, dynamic. No wonder young radicals saw higher education as an ideal place to start their long march through the institutions. C. Wright Mills’s “Letter to the New Left” already predicted in 1960 that the young intelligentsia would take over the proletariat’s role as history’s agent of change. That same year, the Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-ins were started by four college freshmen, sparking a new phase in the civil rights movement that drew support from a multiracial youth coalition. In 1962, the Students for a Democratic Society’s Port Huron Statement announced the arrival of a generation of students—“bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities”—ready to change the world. Universities had power, and it looked like they had the potential to change, radically, for the better.
You know what happened next. Real gains were made over the coming decades, especially in diversifying a system dominated at each rung of the ladder—students, faculty, administrators—by white men. The material rewards of education kept rising, especially for postgraduate degrees. Even if the radicalism of the professoriate is overstated, the spectrum of debate within most universities moved decisively to the left.
All of which sounds like a success story, until you consider the other side of the ledger: slashing of state funding for higher education; skyrocketing student debt levels; the waning of tenure-track positions and the rise of the adjunct; the declining position of the humanities and social sciences that don’t put students neatly onto a six-figure career path; and—speaking of six-figure salaries—the metastasizing of a bloated administration.
Most important, with the electorate increasingly divided along educational lines, academia has become a prime battleground in the tribal struggle that defines both parties. Conservatives have been griping about tenured radicals since before William F. Buckley Jr.’s God and Man at Yale was published in 1951. But when Buckley was making his reputation, faculties were a more ideologically mixed lot than today, and college-educated voters were reliably Republican.
Back then, unions made Democrats. Now universities do—and the right knows it. Like other elite institutions, academia has traded the broad influence it developed in the less polarized politics of the postwar years for a more or less open embrace of the Democratic Party.
That’s fine in blue strongholds, though even then it doesn’t guarantee public funding for higher education. But the situation is bleaker in red states, where conservative politicians score easy points by asking why taxpayers should subsidize an arm of the progressive movement.
With all that in my head, I try to think about what higher education looks like to a smart kid in the early 2020s. My guess is that they see it as a place where most people are trying their best but nobody has a real sense of what it’s all supposed to add up to. Sure, deans and college presidents sound high-minded at commencement, but I doubt anybody’s buying it. What’s obvious is that universities do a great job at perpetuating hierarchy. That’s the dark side of pointing to the cash value of a college degree: good news for the 32 percent of the adult population with a BA or higher, a tough break for everyone else. And the higher up you go on the scale of prestige, the blurrier the line gets between meritocracy and aristocracy.
I bet this smart kid also knows that things are about to get even worse. Undergraduate enrollments are shrinking, and forecasters predict the trend is going to accelerate in the coming years. Institutions that are already teetering will be wiped out, and many more will struggle to survive.
The odds of a government rescue look grim. Getting a New Deal for higher education will require something like a New Deal majority. Unfortunately, college graduates are not the majority, and the highly educated activists who make up the new progressive infrastructure haven’t always shown the best political judgment. (See, for instance, the smoldering wreckage of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign.)
Which leaves me with the question of what to do. I’m writing to you because I’m not sure, but I do know the way that left-wing academics like us talk about the problem isn’t helping. As it does everywhere else on the left these days, the generational divide asserts itself. Boomers point to achievements, sometimes telling a not terribly persuasive story about the radicalism of incremental change. Millennials and zoomers demand structural reform, with equally unpersuasive stories about how to get it. Both sides tiptoe around the university’s place in the culture wars, not willing to give up ground in the struggle for hegemony, but unable to explain how Democrats are supposed to save us when they can’t even save themselves.
You had a front-row seat to the history I’ve described here. Does anything in it give you hope for a better future?
It was the German radical Rudi Dutschke who called on his fellow New Leftists to embark on a “long march through the institutions” in 1967. On both sides of the Atlantic, that slog began in the universities, conquered the heights of the humanities and social sciences—and then pretty much stopped there. At least it did until the Great Recession revived left movements and expectations, especially in the United States. But right-wingers still love to hate academia just as much as they did in the mid-1990s, when Lynne Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, bashed the newly issued National Standards for United States History as a “‘grim and gloomy’ monument to political correctness.”
What gets obscured by the hysteria over critical race theory and gender speech codes and whatever the latest target of Tucker Carlson’s sneers might be is that, to paraphrase Gramsci, the ruling ideas in the university do have a way of becoming powerful in society at large. Multiculturalism, feminism, LGBTQ rights, slavery’s central role in U.S. history: none of these ideas were born in academia. But give the legion of professors and graduate students who wrote and taught about them over the past half-century a good deal of the credit for making them popular, if hardly hegemonic.
What people learn in college also has a big impact on the institutions in which they make their careers: witness the spread of anti-racist, gender-conscious views in big corporations and even the military. And the attempt by legislatures and governors in some red states to decree what K–12 teachers can say in history classes will soon run up against the reality that those teachers learned about Reconstruction from reading, first- or second-hand, the work of Eric Foner, not William Archibald Dunning, and tend to agree with what Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem wrote about feminism, not Phyllis Schlafly. You can’t force them to teach ideas they think are mistaken, factually and morally.
Most of those teachers also happen to belong to perhaps the strongest labor unions in the nation, so the culture warriors on the right won’t be able to fire them and hire conservatives instead—even if they could find replacements. The authors of the Trump administration’s 1776 Report described universities as “hotbeds of anti-Americanism, libel, & censorship.” The nouns are absurd, but the alarm is justified. They realize that leftists and liberal academics have a massive influence on “students and in the broader culture.”
That influence is likely to grow because more and more Americans are going to college. The 32 percent of graduates you mention is roughly three times higher than it was when I was tearing around Harvard Yard more than fifty years ago. Almost half of all adults between twenty-five and twenty-nine have at least an associate degree; many enrolled in a four-year school but, due to finances or family responsibilities or other burdens, were not able to graduate. So it is harder for conservatives to brand college leftists a bunch of elitist snobs who hate “middle Americans” than it was during the heyday of SDS and the movement against the Vietnam War.
Still, I wish campus leftists today were more absorbed with subjects and routinely spoke in ways that might appeal directly to the majority of Americans who never see the inside of a lecture hall. One doesn’t have to agree with those intellectuals who accuse woke dogma of replacing honest dialogue and critical thinking to recognize that some academics and their students are wasting valuable time policing the language of their peers.
At times, the hypersensitivity on matters of race and gender does become risible. Take, for example, a recent document issued by officials at Brandeis about how to spot “oppressive language.” It advises the members of the campus community to avoid saying “trigger warning” because it evokes violence, warns against “African-American” because the term “can be interpreted as othering” (why “Black” is OK is not explained), and shuns both “victim” and “survivor” in favor of a “person who has experienced . . .” or “person who has been impacted by . . .”
Academic leftists who are serious about changing our grossly unequal economy should not just use language that most Americans of all races and genders already speak. They might also propose ways to make college education more accessible and show solidarity with the problems and struggles of working people within their campuses and outside them. Argue for open admissions to at least some public universities, call for decent pay and union recognition for campus workers, and join and nurture institutions that connect students and faculty with movements demanding far-reaching social and economic change.
A fine example of such an institution can be found at Georgetown University, where I teach. The Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor funds research and promotes activism on a range of programs that reflect its name, both in the D.C. area and nationally. It brings unions and city residents together to bargain with employers “for the common good,” demands that Catholic bodies treat their workers with the dignity of decent pay and conditions on the job, takes part in coalitions to advance immigrant rights, and advocates for an economy that gives equal opportunities to people of all races. Led by the labor historian Joseph McCartin, the initiative hires Georgetown students to create and develop these programs and also offers short-term fellowships to union activists.
The primary job of leftists in academia is and should always be teaching well and producing excellent scholarship, accessible, one hopes, to non-specialists as well as to one’s peers. But only a sturdy alliance between people like us and millions of wage-earning Americans can ever make it possible to build the kind of society we want and deserve. We will have to avoid talking just to ourselves, waging discursive skirmishes that, at most, change the universities in small, rather cosmetic ways. I like to think a smart kid with leftist ideals would realize that and act accordingly.
As usual, we share the same goals: a political movement rooted in the working class and supported by dorks like us; a university system that’s both an agent of social mobility and a haven for rigorous academic inquiry. But my concern—not a deeply held conviction, but a fear I can’t stop returning to—is that the left’s long march through the institutions has run into a dead end.
Maybe the problem goes back to class. You’re right that the increase in the college-educated population is a victory worth celebrating. But it hasn’t stopped conservatives from tarring higher education as a refuge for the elite. And, frustratingly, there’s more than a grain of sociological truth in their argument. Yes, more people are graduating with four-year degrees, and generous financial aid policies can open the doors of wealthy schools to students from blue-collar backgrounds. But most poor kids don’t go to college, and a vanishingly small percentage—less than 0.5 percent, according to a 2017 study—enroll at the elite institutions that set the tone for the rest of academia. Across dozens of universities—including the two where you and I teach—students are much more likely to be children of the top 1 percent than the lower 40 percent. These facts aren’t going to change anytime soon, and neither is the underlying tension between the egalitarianism at the center of any decent left politics and the elitism that’s baked into higher education.
Not even public universities are immune. When state governments cut budgets, administrators filled the gap by turning to out-of-state students whose parents could afford to pay higher tuition rates. Rising sticker prices for tuition, stagnant median incomes, and an influx of rich kids all combined to make it increasingly difficult for working-class students to imagine themselves on campus. That alienation feeds into educational polarization, hammering one more nail into the coffin of the New Deal coalition. In Michigan, for instance, support for Donald Trump was inversely correlated with the percentage of the population that attended the University of Michigan: the more Wolverines, the more likely a county was to go blue. And as higher education is increasingly seen as a playground for the wealthy, the public’s confidence in universities has declined to the lowest levels in polling history.
I’m not a nihilist on this issue. It’s possible to do meaningful work in imperfect institutions. (And since all institutions are imperfect, that’s a very good thing.) The Kalmanovitz Initiative should be an inspiration to all of us. Nor am I persuaded—yet—that higher education is barreling toward an extinction-level event.
But we should consider the costs. Some are personal, like the former student radicals turned university administrators cracking down on graduate labor organizing. Others are structural, like the warping of politics around the educational divide. Then there are cultural changes, harder to pin down but important nonetheless. I’m thinking in particular of a disposition that is growing among liberals—who aren’t my tribe exactly, but are close enough for me to care—that they can count on institutions to do the heavy lifting for them. Twitter will make Trump go away, the mainstream media will protect readers from learning nasty things about Hunter Biden, even corporate America will punish red-state legislatures if they go too far (while looking the other way at human rights abuses in global supply chains).
Although the shifting mood is bound up with a litany of broader changes, the enlisting of universities in the culture war has played its part. That’s been damaging for universities, contributing to the decreasing support for higher education found in polls. And it could be even worse for politics, deluding progressives into thinking they’ve persuaded the public when they’ve really just won over the staff at the Washington Post. I picture a bunch of liberals in lab coats standing around an old-fashioned computer terminal labeled “hegemony machine.” The poor thing has been running on overdrive since Trump went down the escalator in 2015. Now smoke is pouring out the sides, and I worry that we’re one sanctimonious Oscar speech away from a total meltdown.
Both academia and the left get something out of their relationship: the former borrow the moral authority of progressive movements, the latter gains a foothold in a major institution, with all the attendant material benefits. But each side loses something too: higher education is drawn even farther into the culture wars, eroding the legitimacy that’s important to the system as a whole and essential to public universities; leftists adjust themselves—sometimes consciously, sometimes not—to better fit the needs of organizations that exist to train the elite, tying our cause to an establishment that’s losing credibility with the broader public.
Here I think it’s useful to look at the example offered by the right. Instead of gambling on a takeover of high-powered institutions, movement conservatives followed a more eclectic path. They built an alternative right-wing intellectual and political ecosystem by establishing new think tanks, publishing houses, foundations, magazines, and the occasional university. Or they looked to places like Hillsdale College, a previously obscure Midwestern university that became a feeder school for the right-wing political-media complex. And they made safe spaces for themselves within the establishment, allowing conservatives to feel like they were in but not of the elite. Think of the Federalist Society ushering right-leaning law students through Yale or Harvard, then into plum clerkships, and finally onto the bench, all while cultivating a sense that they are part of a larger movement. Leftists in the 1960s talked about the counterculture, but it was the right that created one, while radicals were either absorbed into the establishment or pushed to the margins.
Is there something phony about Stephen Miller—son of Santa Monica, class of 2007 at Duke—depicting himself as a champion of the forgotten American? A thousand times yes. Is it easier to create institutions from scratch when a plutocratic donor class is shoveling out cash? Also yes. But there’s a reason that right-wing attacks on the powerful resonate, and you don’t need me to tell you about the political strengths of populism.
So after decades of marching through institutions, do you think it’s time for leftists to shift more energy into making their own? Or am I being too bleak? In the age of Biden—when Frances Fox Piven says (sincerely) that our president has grown into “a new FDR”—am I giving up on the establishment just as it’s about to start delivering for our side?
When it comes to the state of higher education in American politics and culture today, we share the same basic concerns: universities have earned a reputation as the bailiwick of an arrogant liberal elite, while their administrators often behave like corporate executives, obeying the wishes of their biggest “investors” (donors) and paying their employees as little as they can get away with. Under attack, many college presidents and professors defend themselves in ways that tend to confirm the gibes of their critics on both left and right.
But I fear your alternative—create our own institutions—is neither practical nor a good idea even if it did come to pass. During the early decades of the last century, leftists established several colleges of their own: two of the more prominent ones were A.J. Muste’s Brookwood Labor College in upstate New York and the Rand School of Social Science down in Greenwich Village, which was staffed by learned members of the old Socialist Party. Both catered to working-class students, offering them knowledge and skills they could use to change their lives and the world. But by the mid-1940s, doctrinal splits and a lack of funding drove both schools to oblivion. How could a contemporary left, far more diverse in every way than those bygone ones yet just as prone to internal conflict, avoid the same fate? Just imagining a curriculum meeting at Debs-Du Bois-Davis University (old DDDU) makes my head hurt.
And you ignore or at least downplay the merits of the liberal education that most existing colleges still try to provide. At best, it requires students not just to learn something vital about everything from history and physics to anthropology and poetry, but to make cogent arguments about all of these subjects and more that might convince a peer, or a professor. Alas, at many elite universities today, students and teachers on the left seldom have to come to grips with well-stated opinions that differ fundamentally from their own. In some four decades of teaching, some of my happiest moments have come when serious ideological debates broke out in class. Students bring those instances up for praise in their evaluations too. If some of the most talented young leftists opted to matriculate at the likes of DDDU, how would they ever learn the difficult but essential art of persuasion? Burrowing further into our own niche is not going to help build the majoritarian coalition necessary to create an egalitarian society.
A better idea would be to show that colleges can serve the interests of those Americans who now see them as bastions of the privileged. The culture wars that have been raging since the 1960s are not about to subside to any great degree, much less end, unless and until one side wins a pretty decisive victory—as the “wets” did over the “drys” in the 1930s. But academic leftists, like their counterparts in electoral politics, can choose to talk about and work on issues on which they find some common ground with people who won’t ever wander into a general education course. In my first response to you, I gave some examples of how that is already happening, albeit too rarely. Like-minded academics around the country could certainly add more.
What’s critical is to put forth a vision of the university that would exist not merely to funnel young people into competitive slots in the capitalist hierarchy or to produce graduates who consider themselves to be members of an enlightened, albeit left-wing, caste. Instead, we might adapt a phrase that Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio believes should be the cornerstone of progressive politics: “the dignity of work.” Develop courses and forms of activism that involve the non-college community; commit ourselves to turning higher education into an empathetic endeavor rather than a career-enhancing one. Or, more realistically, demand that colleges make it possible for students to prepare for careers that will enhance the dignity of all those who work for a living and aid them in taking the power, as the Port Huron Statement put it, to “share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of [one’s] life.” We need a pithy slogan for this new vision of the university. How about paraphrasing Peter Tosh’s great anthem to legalize weed? Democratize it!
Michael Kazin is emeritus co-editor of Dissent. His next book, What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party, will be published next March.
Timothy Shenk is co-editor of Dissent.