Last month, while on a highway in Wisconsin, I flipped on the radio and heard a voice outlining some disturbing developments in higher education. West Virginia University had just announced it planned to make drastic changes in its curriculum and programming, including making its foreign language offerings online-only. The move impressed the host of the radio show as yet another triumph of money and utility over the ideals of liberal education. I wasn't inclined to disagree.
He went on in this vein for a few minutes, reading an indignant commentary on West Virginia's move and aligning it with a general assault on free inquiry by Republicans. He added a grave warning about another campus, however, which went something like this: “If you want to know what they want the future of higher education to be, take a look at what they're doing down in Florida at New College.”
As R. R. Reno has mentioned in the magazine a few times, I'm a trustee at New College, appointed by the governor in January. So, when the host invited callers to weigh in, I dialed the station number.
“Hello there, what's your name and where are you calling from?”
“Hi, I'm Mark, driving through Madison.” (I believe it was a Milwaukee radio station.)
“Oh, one thing,” I cut in. “Mr. Daniels mentioned a moment ago what some people were doing down at New College. I'm one of those trustees. Would Mr. Daniels like to ask me some questions on the air?”
Three seconds of silence. Then, “Oh, why, yes, uh, can you hold a moment?”
“Sure.” A commercial played as I waited.
“Yes, he'd like to talk. We have some callers lined up after the break, then we'll get to you. That work?”
Other callers gave their opinions, mostly about the Trump indictments. This was hyper-lefty talk radio. They set up my conversation to come with a feverish joy and impatience over Trump's legal troubles, anticipating an arrest-trial-conviction-imprisonment that in their eyes should have happened six years earlier. The host stayed right with them.
When he introduced me, the tone changed. He was altogether polite. We had a 12-minute exchange, and he let me correct the record. He spoke of how highly regarded New College is. I told him that the college has been in financial and managerial trouble for years. It ought to have 2,000 students (the size of Williams College, for instance), but enrolls only 680. The grounds are shabby, buildings deteriorating, food awful. A few years back the campus was almost closed by the legislature. One state representative's “No” vote saved it. But now all of that is changing.
As for foreign languages at West Virginia, the trend has been happening for years. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 2019 that 650 departments and programs had been closed in recent times. Today, less than 1 percent of all four-year degrees in America go to foreign language majors. If students filled foreign language courses at West Virginia, I told the host, the school would not have slashed those departments. Undergraduate demand is key to such decisions.
And there's a reason foreign language majors have slipped. Colleges used to include some foreign language coursework in their general education requirements. When freshmen had to take those courses, the enrollment count for those departments looked good. The requirement also inspired a portion of those students to take a few more courses in later years and, in some cases, to declare a major. Exposure in freshman year made the fields more popular.
Those requirements have been reduced, however; courses in diversity and multicultural categories have taken their place. Strangely, identitarian approaches to the curriculum don't emphasize foreign languages in the study of “the Other.” If you want to censure West Virginia, I concluded, you should include the faculty among the culprits.
That was all. He thanked me and we hung up. I hadn't said anything brilliant or secret. This wasn't insider knowledge. The problems of New College and the flight of students from humanities fields have been broadcast before. Many news stories that have trashed us trustees have acknowledged the school's financial and enrollment failings. Only a little bit of digging would bring those facts forward.
The ease with which the host's conceptions were refuted, the minimal effort needed to undo this narrative of conservative guilt for college problems, doesn't prove how weak they are. The opposite is the case. A frail, false belief upheld by a large number of people signifies an effective propaganda machine at work. Liberals believe that conservatives are anti-higher ed, anti-intellectual, anti-inquiry—this is the result of a “narrative,” not of facts.
The lesson for conservatives is that the debate is different from what they expect. Facts don't break through a mindset that has been shaped by school, Hollywood, news media, academia, politics, and activists since early childhood. Facts are empirical; the mindset is psychological. It is the genius of this propaganda to have produced a population of individuals who identify their own identity, their well-being, with the narrative. To contest the narrative, then, is to assail the believers personally.
It's a tough situation. We don't wish to offend, we don't want to cause pain, but we do aim to defeat identity politics. The cost of doing so is, indeed, the anger of the identitarians. I see no way of avoiding this. Let it be personal to them. It's not personal to us.
Mark Bauerlein is a contributing editor at First Things.
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