America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered in the Obamacrats)
by David Gelernter
Encounter Books, 200 pages, $23.99
When Roger Kimball wrote Tenured Radicals back in 1990, for conservatives and traditionalists the thesis quickly congealed into the explanation for the ideological climate of college campuses. Sixties leftists failed in the political sphere but found a home in academia, becoming professors, taking over humanities and social science departments, and transforming higher education into an ideologically skewed, politically correct tutelage, a deformation fully accomplished by 1989. The tenured-radicals tale ran from Port Huron to the Duke English department, where cutting-edge theorists of deconstruction, sexuality, and capitalism institutionalized adversarial thought and transgressive action.
At first sight, David Gelernter’s America-Lite tells the same story. Students have never “heard anything good about Western civilization, America, Judaism, Christianity, whites, males.” Their teachers sneer at patriotism and deride religious faith. “In modern America, the left gets its way not by convincing people but by indoctrinating their children.”
But Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, tells a much larger story, and a more troubling one, than the standard tenured-radicals narrative. It begins well before the 1960s and runs to the present, and instead of uncovering forms of ideological brainwashing, it finds a different but no less damaging education taking place.
He starts with the university before World War II, when prestigious schools served mainly not to produce knowledge and advance research but “to allow the WASP elite to reproduce itself.” Universities had a supportive relationship with America at large, their faculty acting as “schoolmasters,” not researchers or critical thinkers, dutifully passing along social norms as much as academic content.
The social mission of the university could last only as long as undergraduate admissions stuck to WASP social classes, and when, after World War II and the GI Bill, veterans, Jews, and, not long after, women poured onto campus in rising numbers, the social purpose of higher education changed. These new students didn’t fit the social prep model, and so administrations developed vocational and professional programs to accommodate them.
In other words, radical ideology didn’t change the university—demographics did. The adjustment to new populations with different demands led to a “Great Reform”: not just an opening of university admissions but a revolt against the social purpose of higher education. Students started going to college for different reasons, and the very character of the teacher shifted.
Teachers began to challenge the status quo, question longstanding norms, rethink personal and political goals. Schoolmasters turned into intellectuals. It wasn’t enough to open the pipeline of success to non-WASPS. The values and worldview, the whole way of life, had to be subverted.
WASP leaders encouraged this shift. Self-hating ones such as McGeorge Bundy and Kingman Brewster fomented the revolution from the front, as when Yale’s Brewster stated in response to a Black Panther murder trial in New Haven: “I am appalled and ashamed that things should have come to such a pass in this country that I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States.”
An adversarial outlook that was once espoused in Greenwich Village, the Partisan Review , and the alcoves of City College spread to Princeton, New Haven, and Palo Alto. Before, the university had the distinctive social duty of perpetuating the social elite. Now, it assumed a special critical function in American life as the place for Big Picture thinking and brilliant theories that held suspect the conventions of American life. This posture aligned with liberal thinking, and the university steadily drifted left.
At the same time, the expansion of the undergraduate body produced another revolutionary result: The university extended its reach into areas of American society it had never touched before. Coursework and accreditation became a requirement (or at least a plus) for elementary and secondary education, finance, and journalism. Scientific research, too, became an ever more academic endeavor, with mid-century hyper-specialization nicely managed by the bureaucratic structure of higher education. Even entertainment media began to rely on an academic pipeline, Gelernter observes. Look at Hollywood today and you will find Ivy Leaguers everywhere.
Hence his subtitle, “Imperial Academia.” Academia’s authority has never been stronger, reaching from the Manhattan boardroom to small-town kitchen tables. In 1935, few American families regarded college as an ordinary step, and most employers didn’t recruit graduates. Today, the Obama administration claims (as did the Bush administration) that college is for everyone, and it is commonly understood that an individual without a BA or BS has no career future.
Academia is imperial and adversarial, training youths for the American mainstream and undermining mainstream values. How can it prosper? Because, Gelernter explains—and this is another departure from the tenured-radicals thesis—the adversarial posture isn’t genuine.
Yes, higher education holds firmly and righteously to left-liberal ideology, but the education of students in it is a superficial affair. Yes, young Americans experience a system that peddles left-liberalism as truth and justice, the only fitting and proper way to think and believe. But four years of instruction in theories of sexuality, race, gender, social justice, and American power haven’t made them into active and informed partisans. It has made them thoughtlessly partisan, complacently accepting liberal notions in spite of one contrary fact after another (interest rates under Carter, the collapse of communism, the hazards of single parenting, etc.).
Professors don’t so much teach left-liberal ideas as assume them and have students do the same. Higher education has not produced committed radicals ready to spout Marx, collect historical evidence, and craft vigorous arguments against capitalism, patriotism, religion, and family. It has produced blithe adults who imbibe the left-liberal cocktail and go about their business.
The first generation of professor-intellectuals learned from their elders’ cultural traditions and historical knowledge, which they then denounced. But when it came time for them to be elders, they skipped the traditions and went straight into denunciation, though in casual, watery form.
Their students don’t think hard and long about slavery, Hiroshima, and Vietnam—they just know that the United States is guilty. They don’t inquire deeply into Christianity—they just know that it oppresses women. They are the first cohort to come of age after the campus revolution, and they now occupy positions of influence, implementing leftist notions that have failed repeatedly since the Great Society programs and the sexual revolution began.
No one, Gelernter argues, embodies the “Airhead generation” and the “PORGIs” (“post-religious globalist intellectuals”) better than Barack Obama, a man who grew up in a whirlwind of locales, attended elite colleges, and now speaks in passionate but largely hollow terms about justice, equality, and community. “All former leftist movements were driven by ideology,” Gelernter says, but “Obama’s is driven by ignorance.”
Paradoxically, however, the superficiality of left-liberal learning makes it more effective. If too many students came out of college outspokenly ideological, outsiders would object. The softer version allows them to overlook it. Many people acknowledge the tendentious, extremist, or downright crackpot quality of the professoriate, but they believe that most students roll their eyes at the wacky ideas and stilted jargon, play the game, get their grades, and move on to sensible things.
True, Gelernter agrees, but only in part. Enough left-liberalism survives as attitude and assumption among graduates for it to wreak havoc upon American society. The instruction lives on as reflexive notions, not discursive thoughts. Instead of being a dynamic site of revolutionary change, the campus is a hidebound setting where stale and discredited ideas endure.
The situation is too settled and intractable for Gelernter to offer any other prescription than withdrawal. The university belongs to left-liberals, and instead of trying to take the campus away from them, we should take away from them our children’s learning.
“Focus on internet education!” he urges, promoting the “neutral or mildly right-leaning” instruction provided by numerous online elementary schools and colleges. If we patronize them, the older American traditions will not only influence our children, they will triumph, he concludes.
While left-liberals have a lock on the university, their espoused ideas and curricula have two terminal weaknesses. One, they are stuck in time, sequestered from historical events, “re-enact[ing] the same ceremonies of communal confession they invented in the 1960s.” And two, disconnected from sources of greatness and goodness, they have no spiritual strength, moral curiosity, or love of country.
PORGIs are critical, smart, rebellious, and cosmopolitan. Uninspired by God or country, uprooted from Western traditions, and morally wayward, though, they mock the old schoolmasters, but they haven’t the convictions that would enable them to impart a coherent way of life to the next generation. If higher education is to impart the ideals needed for such a way of life, it must offer a fuller experience than internet education can provide.
The old WASP university reinforced the curriculum with extracurricular culture, which expressed all the behavioral norms that went along with WASP society. Online instruction cannot restore this culture and its norms. Gelernter is right in his diagnosis of “America-Lite,” but as far as I can tell, Imperial Academia has no reason to be worried.
Mark Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory University.