The response of American college and university campuses to the mass murder, burning, raping, beheading and abducting of Israelis by Hamas has left many of us with a deeply disturbing question: how?
How could American university students celebrate, and many university presidents equivocate or just stay silent for so long, in response to the brutal Hamas attack? The celebration of Hamas’ atrocities by students and faculty seems beyond comprehension. University administrators’ nonjudgmentalism and lack of moral clarity in response to this savagery seems not just irresponsible, but reprehensible.
Such moral laxness signifies a massive failure at the heart of American higher education.
The war against Israel has provided a window into the dark side of higher education. Just as parents of K-12 students became deeply disturbed during the pandemic-era school shutdowns when they discovered what was being taught to their children, people are waking up to the moral madness being propagated in many of our universities.
Something is broken
This only adds to a deepening crisis of confidence in higher education, a confidence that Gallup reports has been dropping for almost a decade.
Something is badly broken in our elite universities.
The moral relativism promoted in America’s classrooms is a contributing factor to this disease. Were we not warned of this back in 1987 by Allan Bloom, in his prescient book “The Closing of the American Mind?” Over 30 years ago he wrote, “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes or says he believes, that truth is relative.”
The relativity of truth is not simply a theoretical insight, said Bloom, but also a moral postulate. It is the one virtue students are taught.
He said the modern university teaches that there is no truth, only lifestyles. Postmodern ideologues doubled down on this, convincing a generation that there is no objective truth, no objective right and wrong, and all moral statements are merely about power relations.
As far back as 1943, C.S. Lewis warned in his prophetic book “The Abolition of Man” that “such is the tragi-comedy of our situation — we continue to clamor for those very qualities we are rendering impossible … In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
C. S. Lewis understood the national consequences of miseducation.
Even the former dean of Harvard College, Harry Lewis, warned us in 2006 about what was brewing in his book “Excellence Without A Soul: How A Great University Forgot Education.” He wrote, “Harvard today tiptoes away from moral education, little interested in providing it and embarrassed to admit it does not wish to do so.” What is the reason for this? He says, “there is no consensus on what counts as good character.”
Looking at higher education, he wrote, “The great universities, the universities that educate a disproportionate share of the nation’s future industrial, political and judicial leaders, struggle to explain the overall point of the education they offer. Anything resembling moral principles or suggestions of the ultimate values has been isolated within the curriculum, if not removed entirely.”
So, today, how can we be so shocked? The warning signs were all around. And since 2006, things have only intensified. The curriculum at many schools has been transformed. In too many places, ideology has become more important than scholarship.
There has been an intentional project to deconstruct the Judeo-Christian worldview and Western civilization and replace it with the ideologies of neo-Marxist critical theory, including post-colonial theory, all the while refusing to take seriously radical Islamist claims (i.e., the intent to obliterate Israel by terror groups and governments like Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran).
These currents have led us to the place where the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement has sought to undermine Israel, declaring it an “apartheid state.” We are seeing the creation of Jew-free zones on university campuses. And all this was before Oct. 7! But it gives us some insight into why students were justifying this massacre of civilians and then calling the Hamas assassins, not terrorists, but “resistance fighters” who are “taking back their land from the colonizers,” “from the river to the sea.” And, of course, when they use that last phrase, they are referring to the destruction of Israel.
So how do we fix what is broken in higher education? Some have said we simply have to protect free speech and protect students (especially Jewish students). I certainly agree with that. But will that be enough?
Others suggest we start teaching ethics courses; but teaching ethics will only be as strong as the moral foundations underneath it. Still others are calling us back to a liberal arts focus with more emphasis on critical thinking. That will surely help, but that alone is not sufficient.
Let me suggest something even more radical.
First, universities need to speak out much sooner and much more clearly than what we’ve just witnessed across the country. Colorado Christian University started speaking out on X (formerly Twitter) and Facebook within 24 hours of the attack.
We knew this was not a minor event. I put out editorials. We signed statements (“Evangelical Statement in Support of Israel,” which I signed, and also the “We Stand Together” statement that appeared in the Wall Street Journal signed by our President Eric Hogue).
Why did we do this? For many reasons: because of the inhumanity, barbarity and enormity of the attack; because Israel is our best ally and friend in the Middle East, an outpost of Western civilization, and because the state of Israel is the guardian of most of the world’s Jews today, a protectorate since the Holocaust.
And of course, as a Christian university, I’ll add more. The Jews are the relatives of our Lord Jesus Christ, uniquely called by God to be a light to the Gentile world. And when chants were going up on American campuses and around the world to essentially exterminate the Jews, we said — this is horrific, this is evil. That’s why.
Second, we need to move from the radical skepticism promoted by the secular academy that says there is no such thing as truth or objective moral right and wrong.
We need to return to an older model of education where we again teach moral formation grounded in objective reality. Moral relativism and the practice of abdicating character training altogether, has produced deformed graduates. They are more concerned with making a good living than living a good life. They are now entering business, science and technology without a moral compass, or with one that no longer indicates “true north.”
Specifically, we need to return to the Judeo-Christian tradition, which alone has the ethical and spiritual roots to restore our moral sanity and the foundations of our civilization. Secularism and liberalism have not provided these.
In particular, we need to expose students to the Bible, the Ten Commandments, and the teachings of Jesus, so at the very least students are familiar with them. Hopefully — they will be shaped by them. Before you dismiss this suggestion, understand that my view here is not strange. The Western University and all the early American universities were founded on this model. And look what they produced! Also, recall that our first two presidents stated that religion and morality (and by that they meant the Judeo-Christian tradition) were indispensable pillars for our constitutional system.
I might add that we ought not turn down our noses at those faith-based colleges and universities that are still working from a more rooted, more vibrant model of higher education — one that emphasizes not just competence, but also character and religious faith. It was the interplay between faith and reason in the Middle Ages that first gave birth to the university. Today, faith-based colleges and universities are providing some of the best training in the liberal arts, the humanities, the arts and the sciences in the nation. Many of them have not been distorted by all the trendy ideologies, which undermine education.
These are solutions I propose based on my experience as a university president and now university chancellor. Yours might differ, but we all must give serious thought to how we fix what is obviously broken in higher education.
It has been said that what is taught in colleges today will be played out on the streets tomorrow. Or as historian Victor David Hanson puts it, the time from a crazy idea in the faculty lounge to its emergence in popular culture is only five years. Right now, there are lots of upside-down ideas that have percolated in the faculty lounge and are now visible for all to see. We need something better.