The resignation of Harvard President Lawrence Summers is only the most recent incident in the chronic decline of many of America’s most prestigious colleges and universities. It has been a long process, perhaps beginning with the Vietnam War era when college campuses became the site of choice for many protests and radical political activity.
The issue of the war in Vietnam was fueled by profound changes in American life. A new generation which had been in its youth preceding and during World War II was taking political and economic charge. And another generation (born during and just after that war) was forming a new youth culture.
Of course, each generational transfer has its own character and circumstances. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was an unprecedented velocity of technological and economic change. That generation also knew only a state of world war, a circumstance we now narrate as the Cold War between Western democratic capitalism and Eastern totalitarian communism, a war fought mostly in the regions of the so-called Third World or in undeveloped nations in Africa, Asia and South America.
By the 1980s and 1990s, the velocity of technological, medical and social change became so rapid that the “modern” social contract no longer seemed to be enforceable. The revolt of the 1960s became normal standards as its youth took charge, in its turn, and a new youth generation appeared. A protracted world war that had begun in the 1930s against fascism and continued against totalitarian communism was abruptly ended.
The computer and the Internet indelibly altered contemporary life here and throughout the world. A state of “world cold war” was briefly succeeded by isolated global conflicts and localized problems. America became a sole superpower. Then a new world war against terrorism began.
While all of this was going on, America’s educational system remained structurally the same. Yes, new discoveries were incorporated into curricula, and technological modifications were made. But the basic structures of primary, secondary and college education remained unchanged.
When the phenomenon of “political correctness” appeared, it not only was embraced by most of the nation’s political, educational and cultural elite, but it soon became dominant in the education culture. This was most notable at the college and university level, where so many people who who were alienated from contemporary America life were drawn and found refuge in tenured sanctuary.
It was a perfect arrangement for them. Radical professors could freely express fundamental hostility to virtually all aspects of American government, values and experiences. They were not accountable. They had easy access to try to intimidate a whole generation of American youth, and they were usually highly paid to do so.
Inasmuch as “education” was a sanctified shibboleth in the United States, the general public has appeared to tolerate the rise of political correctness with only occasional mild objection because it initially happened surreptitiously, and seemed to have little impact on society as a whole.
Moreover, it did not happen on every campus and did not overtake every college department where it did occur. It did become dominant in the humanities faculties of most campuses. Scientific, economic, and many professional departments resisted this phenomenon, which Alan Dershowitz, a prominent liberal Harvard faculty member, calls (when describing the Summers resignation) “an academic coup d’etat.”
Mr. Summers, a brilliant former Secretary of the Treasury under President Clinton, reportedly began making major reforms at Harvard when he took over in 2001, and antagonized the entrenched faculty there (who were politically radical but educationally reactionary). He became publicly controversial when he said some politically incorrect things, most of which seem to me (and, I think, to most Americans) as accurate and intellectually reasonable. The “diehard left” faction of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, as Mr. Dershowitz (himself an outspoken liberal civil libertarian) describes them, have succeeded, by forcing Mr. Summers to resign, in corrupting and humiliating a hitherto great institution one more time.
What’s to be done? It’s up to the public, I suggest, that is, the customers of the products of these academic institutions. Parents need to ask more questions and to put aside pretentious reputations. Alumni need to refuse to contribute to college endowments. Society at large needs to reform faculty tenure, and to demand that faculty members be accountable for what they say and do.
Forcing Mr. Summers out of Harvard should be the last event of this shameful period of American education. I suspect, however, that it won’t be. But when public opinion can no longer tolerate the intellectual and moral destruction of its institutions of learning and free speech, and it becomes unmistakeable that we can no longer compete in the international marketplace because of this self-indulgence, the campuses of America will experience a revolution that will make the era of Vietnam War campus turmoil seem like throwing sand in a playground.
Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.