It's a perennial question that gets people on both sides of the debate pretty riled up — should everyone go to college? With the cost of higher education continuing to climb since the postwar era — a time when many people were able to pay for college with part-time jobs and generous government assistance like the G.I. Bill — is getting a university education even worth it these days? In 1987 an educator by the name of Herbert London argued that for most people it wasn't. But London explained that there were also many factors other than price that would lead to nothing less than the inevitable extinction of the university system. One of the most important, London argues, was the public's disillusionment with liberal politics on campus.
In the May-June 1987 issue of The Futurist magazine London laid out his case that, given all he'd witnessed as the dean of the Gallatin Division of NYU, the university as an institution would most certainly not survive much longer. With tuition costs of the late 1980s climbing faster than inflation, London argued that many people would be priced out of a university education. And despite intense lobbying for federal aid, London insisted that government could not provide a sustainable way to keep prices down.
The end of the baby boom was also cited as a reason for the future collapse of the American educational system. Just as new schools at all levels had to be built to educate America's swelling population after World War II, those schools would have to close up shop if the echo boom (or what we now call Millennials) didn't provide enough bodies to fill those classroom seats.
It's easy to understand where London was coming from. School has indeed gotten really expensive and our government has failed a lot of people who want an education but cannot afford one. But London goes on to make a strange argument that perhaps resonates with many people who think that American universities are little more than breeding grounds for brainwashed flag-burning pinkos.
London writing in The Futurist:
Perhaps the most important reason for the public disenchantment with the university is its politicization since the 1960s. During that decade, the university became the launching pad for anti-Vietnam activities and other assorted causes. The once-passionately defended "objectivity" of the university caved in before the onslaught. It is not a gross exaggeration to suggest that the student radical of yesteryear is now a tenured professor.
The university is the one institution that provided sanctuary to radicals intent on fostering change in society. Academic freedom became the apparatus for protection from criticism. If academic opponents disliked the propagandizing, the flag of academic freedom was raised along with vague references to McCarthyism.
Yet the rules of the academic profession have indubitably changed. Prior to the 1960s, one was loyal to the canons of scholarship and the requirements of a discipline; now, they are often subservient to politics. In some instances, there is no distinction between the discipline and politics. Sociology, for example, has been infused with Marxist shibboleths that masquerade as tools of analysis, such as C. Wright Mills's The Power Elite.
If the academic responsibility of the past was to nurture youthful minds and provide a context for judgment, it is now an exercise in conversion. This is not to suggest that these professors are necessarily successful. But it does mean that a conventional wisdom on campus has emerged. Feminism is a given, invariably accepted without questioning. Affirmative action is a desirable policy. Investment in South Africa is an undesirable policy. Nuclear weapons' modernization is a bad policy. The rich are exploitative. Businessmen are avaricious. These positions are asserted as a catechism. There is no give-and- take; these comments are simply axiomatic.
As a former college student of the 21st century, I must take issue with the idea that our public universities are seething with liberal bias. My own education included educators of all political stripes. I had my fair share of teachers who spoke openly about what they saw as the positive role of unions in American history, and were quite openly against the second Iraq War. But I also sat through an Intro to Psychology course where a professor insisted that The Bell Curve should be taken seriously, an Astronomy course with a creationist professor, an Environmental Studies professor who believed that the government should stay out of forest management, and a Journalism instructor who said of Ann Coulter, "She may be a bitch, but at least she's our bitch."
The university system may be in danger for any number of reasons, but I dare say that a fear of American campuses being too liberal (or conservative) is not a primary concern. At least not for those thousands of potential college students who are just trying to figure out how to pay for it.
Image: "17th April 1965: A group of anti-Vietnam War campaigners from the University of Michigan stage a protest in Washington, D.C." via Getty Images