Thomas Sowell wrote in The Quest for Cosmic Justice that one could tell a worthy vision from an unworthy one by determining “whether visions provide a basis for theories to be tested or for dogmas to be proclaimed and imposed.” The latter has prevailed in academia. The current dogma requires examining which group one belongs to in order to determine whether one is the established holder of power or the subject of oppression. Any societal move towards equity must naturally oppose these embedded groups of power.
This vision operates within categories and generalizations; examining individual facts is overshadowed by the more important task of expanding and existing within a unitary vision of how the world works, while discounting and silencing those who oppose this critical vision. Paradoxically, the generalizations necessary for this vision discount the nuanced nature of human life and make assumptions about other people’s “lived experience” as a consequence. Thus, higher education – once an institution that had embedded within it the principles of academic conversation and, by extension, the liberal pillars of a free society – has now become the primary engine for social engineering.
This development is not without its pitfalls, nor exceptions, such as the University of Chicago’s adoption of a free expression statement. An academic culture that promotes identity politics, along with its subsequent student activism, presupposes that all incoming students have a deep understanding of injustice, and of the social and economic systems that exacerbate it, and uniformly agree to the forceful remedies deemed necessary to cure society’s ills.
This reshaping of higher education has not occurred in a vacuum. A humane education at the secondary level, which provides a solid foundation for understanding our civilization, is lacking. Instead, many share the progressive view that schools act as a lever of oppression, and thus opt for a curriculum that creates a lens through which students view subjects of study in terms of their own oppression – or their place among the social tyrants.
All of this takes place at the strange nexus of education as social justice movement and education as vocational training. This deprives students of an education that engages with the history and the importance of the institutions that have undergirded the West. That there has indeed been a chronicle of humans falling short and wielding power for their own benefit does not negate the importance of these institutions. Rather, it demonstrates precisely how important they are.
Does this mean that education should be devoid of politics, as some educators suggest? Not necessarily. One would be hard-pressed to identify any aspect of life that is not impacted in some manner by the state and its instruments, and thus made the object of political debate. Attempting to avoid discussion of an inherently political nature today is therefore perhaps similar to attempting to dodge rain in a storm.