The True Antidote to the Rot in America’s Universities

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Tyler O’Neil | The Daily Signal 

American higher education is reeling from a litany of well-deserved scandals, most recently from the congressional hearing on antisemitism last week, which pulled back the curtain to reveal the world’s oldest hatred cloaked in the language of “diversity” and “inclusion.”

Harvard President Claudine Gay’s hedging when asked to condemn antisemitism during the hearing and her new plagiarism scandal follow years of universities mandating COVID-19 masking and vaccines; the pay-to-play “Varsity Blues” scandal; and a decade of embarrassing scuffles over “microaggressions,” “trigger warnings,” and the cancellation of conservative speakers. The university has abandoned its fundamental purpose: the search for truth in an atmosphere of free inquiry.

America’s colleges and universities deserve opprobrium, and perhaps even a complete uprooting to start over again.

The Marxist ideology pitting the “oppressed” against “oppressors” has ravaged higher education, discarding the wisdom of the ancients in a destructive pursuit of intersectional one-upmanship that is poison not just to the pursuit of truth but to the foundations of the social order and prosperity we take for granted.


The antidote, however, is not a wholesale rejection of higher education but a return to the animating force that gives higher education its value—the artes liberales, or “liberal arts” education. Not liberal in the sense of the Left or the Right, but in the sense of equipping a person with the skills to enjoy and maintain freedom.

What Is Liberal Education?

Oxford professor and theologian John Henry Newman wrote that a liberal education entails a “process of training, by which the intellect, instead of being formed or sacrificed to some particular or accidental purpose, some specific trade or profession, or study or science, is disciplined for its own sake.”

The liberal arts trains students to contemplate the good, the true, and the beautiful, which Aristotle said was the highest end of mankind, and to articulate the truth once it has been discovered. The great thinkers of the West raised timeless philosophical questions that students should ponder, and the Western intellectual tradition laid the foundation for the freedom and prosperity we enjoy today.

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Liberal arts involves embracing the roots of our civilization, studying them, questioning them, and learning from them. This kind of education can produce great reformers who are wise enough to know what to change without rejecting our heritage wholesale. It fosters intellectual curiosity, humility, and a resolve to change things for the better.

Even amid the rot of higher education today, diamonds in the rough like my alma mater, Hillsdale College, keep the liberal arts spirit alive, teaching students that pursuing truth is an end in itself and equipping them to learn from the rich tradition of education in the West.

Hillsdale knows better than to discard Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke in pursuit of a “racial justice” that sees these luminaries as building blocks in the structure of oppressive white supremacy. Hillsdale students learn from these thinkers, and if students ultimately reject their ideas, they have at least expanded their minds by seriously considering them.

Hillsdale seriously wrestles with the Western tradition and America’s heritage, teaching students to read the original documents and contemplate how they shaped the world around us.

While this kind of education may not be for everyone, it represents a good in itself, and America would be wise to preserve it amid the reckoning in higher education to come.

A Reckoning for Higher Education

Such a reckoning is long overdue. C.S. Lewis highlighted the central problem in his book “The Abolition of Man.” He noted that human beings have to learn to navigate between our animal appetites and our reason, and this requires a well-trained moral compass. Yet modern education teaches the young to debunk morality and follow their own course. Lewis calls these people “Men without chests”—men and women without grounding in a proper response to the way things really are, a foundation that makes it possible to live a good life.

“In the older systems, both the kind of man the teachers wished to produce and their motives for producing him were prescribed by [conscience]—a norm to which the teachers themselves were subject and from which they claimed no liberty to depart,” Lewis explained. “They did not cut men to some pattern they have chosen,” but rather “they initiated the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity which over-arched him and them alike.” It was merely “old birds teaching young birds to fly.”

The new morality is more a form of “conditioning,” forcing students to follow a particular ideology.

In recent decades, the university has become dominated by a Marxist ideology teaching that society is fundamentally oppressive and the oppressed (women, minorities, LGBTQ people) must throw off the yoke of the oppressors (men, white people, straight people). This great revolution justifies tossing out the entire Western heritage and producing people who adhere to a new “woke” morality. It increasingly brooks no dissent, encouraging students to view with suspicion anyone who questions its pseudo-religious tenets.

These ideas themselves represent a threat to liberal education. They aim to transform the sanctuary of learning into a factory of ideological warriors bent on pulling down the very foundations on which it stands.

Americans should vehemently oppose this ideology and demand reform in higher education. Such reform should not aim to abolish the universities but to restore them to their original purpose—the artes liberales.


Editor’s note: The author of this column is a graduate of Hillsdale College.

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