The war against Israel has provided a window into the ugly side of higher education
Op-ed originally appeared on Fox News on October 31, 2023
The response of American college and university campuses to the mass murder, burning, raping and abducting of Israelis by Hamas has left many of us with a burning questions: how?
How could American university students celebrate, and many university presidents equivocate or just stay silent, in response to the brutal Hamas attack? The celebration of Hamas’ atrocities by students and faculty seems beyond comprehension. University administrators’ non-judgmentalism 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 ugly 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.
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 deeply broken in our elite universities.
The moral relativism promoted in America’s classrooms is a contributing factor to this disease. We were warned of this back in 1987 by Allan Bloom, who 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, all moral statements are merely about power relations.
As far back as 1943, C.S. Lewis warned in “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. 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 calling the Hamas assassins “resistance fighters” who are “taking back their land from the colonizers,” “from the river to the sea.”
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, we need a move away from the radical skepticism promoted by the secular academy that says there is no such thing as truth or objective moral right and wrong.
Second, we need to return to an older model of education where we again teach moral formation grounded in objective reality.
Third, 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. In particular, we need to expose students to the Bible and the teachings of Jesus, so at the very least they are familiar with them. Hopefully more like this will happen.
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.
These are solutions based on my experience as a university president and now university chancellor. Yours may 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.