by Bruce S. Thornton
Part two of a symposium on the educational impact of Obama and the New Progressivism. Read part one on the economic prospects and part three on culture.
What changes might we expect in higher education from an Obama presidency? The answer is easy: none. What we will get is just more of the same. The ideology that underlies Obama’s “progressive” political philosophy in areas such as health care, the economy, or defense has in fact long dominated America’s colleges and universities. Indeed, this ideology has been entrenched for so long that the last eight years under Bush passed with barely a ripple on the vast ocean of politicized mediocrity. The slight improvements in campus life that did occur — rollbacks on unconstitutional speech codes, for example, or exposures of politicized curricula — were the work not primarily of Republican politicians, but of organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
To take one example, affirmative action policies have been only slightly modified by recent Supreme Court decisions, and so we can expect these policies to continue. In other words, an Obama presidency will most likely not expand or strengthen them because they are already working quite well for someone with his political perspective. The fact is, admissions and hiring processes have incorporated subjective criteria — essays documenting “challenges” the student has faced, for example — that can outweigh more objective criteria such as test scores or GPA. Something like “overcoming racism” or other proxies for racial identity can be put in the scales and thus deliver the same result as an unconstitutional quota. So too with hiring. On my campus, despite a California state initiative banning the use of race in hiring decisions, our recruitment procedures are rife with explicit racial awareness. We still gather data on the race and sex of applicants, we still record the race and gender of search committee members, and we still must have an “Equal Employment Opportunity” commissar whose imprimatur is needed for a hire to proceed. All the state initiative achieved was the substitution of the title “EEO officer” for what used to be called the “Affirmative Action officer.”
Likewise with the Big-Brother intrusions into campus life created by sexual harassment law. Eight years of a Republican administration did nothing to mitigate the self-censorship and damage to academic freedom fostered by a law that enshrines the subjective, transient perspectives of the thin-skinned, malevolent, or neurotic as the determiner of actionable sexual harassment. The machinery of these laws — the campus inquisitions, re-education programs, and disciplinary mechanisms — is firmly in place and needs no help from Obama in order to keep performing their most important function: policing and punishing politically incorrect speech.
These stealth affirmative action and Orwellian sexual harassment policies, however, serve the deeper ideology that now controls the university at every level, regardless of which party is in power. That ideology is “diversity.” The scare-quotes are necessary because what is called “diversity” on most college campuses is quite the opposite: the imposition of a unified leftist orthodoxy on every level of the university, including hiring, promotion, programs, and curricula. In the imposition of “diversity,” superficial differences of skin color, ethnicity, sex, or sexual preference are used as camouflage for a uniform leftist-progressive world-view. That’s why registered Democrats in many university departments outnumber Republicans 9 or 10–1, when one can even find a Republican to count. So much for the university’s traditional mission to foster independent thought, critical analysis of received wisdom, and a diversity of intellectual viewpoints and perspectives, let alone Matthew Arnold’s goal of promoting “the free play of the mind on all subjects.” Ask the ousted Harvard President Lawrence Summers how that worked out for him.
Once again, Obama only has to let continue the same process of politicization that has been developing since the Sixties and that informs his own political ideology. The orthodox dogma that underlay Obama’s campaign rhetoric — all the world’s ills can be traced to American misdeeds, Western crimes like racism, imperialism and colonialism, or the greed of lupine capitalists exploiting the Third World “other” and ravaging the environment — this dogma can be heard every day in thousands of classrooms across the land. Whole departments such as Women’s Studies, Culture Studies, and Ethnic Studies exist to preach this doctrine of Western criminality. In the traditional disciplines such as History or English, the same melodrama of Western wickedness informs the courses taught, the books chosen for class, and the perspective shaping the presentation of the material. As a result, most students will graduate with scant knowledge of the great tradition of English literature or even the basic facts of American history. Anybody who doubts this should go down to his local college bookstore and scan the titles ordered for classes.
If we turn to K-12 education, the picture is pretty much the same. Again, the Bush years marked a strengthening of trends boding ill for any attempt to improve the dismal condition of these schools. The No Child Left Behind Act, while laudable in its aims of holding schools accountable for their failure, has increased the reach of the Federal government into what should be the purview of the state or local governments. Moreover, what was lost in the pursuit of these goals was an awareness that the remedy (and money) was going to be put in the hands of those responsible for the problem in the first place — the education industry. After all, the monopoly on teacher training and certification enjoyed by Schools of Education is what accounts for the deterioration and dysfunction of American education. Lacking any real content, given that the only useful preparation for a teacher is in the subject matter to be taught, Ed Schools have been prey to every lunatic fad that pops up in the pseudo-sciences like psychology or sociology. Whole language reading instruction, the “New Math,” will-o’-the-wisps like “self esteem” or “values clarification,” and hundreds of other pedagogical equivalents of phrenology or mesmerism have compensated for the simple fact that teaching is an art, not a science, and as such will be learned by actually teaching under the supervision of an experienced and successful teacher, not by sitting in classrooms listening to the latest pop-psychological bunkum about “learning styles” and such.
The real solution lies in breaking the Ed-School monopoly, and opening schools up to market-based competition and accountability through vouchers and charter schools. Bush did little or nothing in this regard, because the political power of the Ed Schools and teachers’ unions is simply too great. And of course, teachers were some of Obama’s most ardent supporters, so we can forget about any improving change coming from the new administration. But will Obama make things worse? How much worse can it get? Again, the ideology of the schools has long been compatible with that of our new President. The progressive world-view and the gospel of “social justice” already dominate the curriculum. Romantic environmentalism, global-warming voodoo, Darwinian fairy-tales, ethnic-cheerleading for victims “of color,” multicultural noble-savage fantasies, Disneyesque myths about American Indians, and donning the hair-shirt of American and Western guilt all comprise the typical grade-school curriculum. These progressive nostrums have displaced the teaching of basic skills, classic literature, and the facts of American history.
The Obama administration doesn’t have to do anything, then, because the educational system we have is already the one he wants. I don’t think it’s any accident that Obama’s candidacy was so popular with young people, who are the worst educated and most uninformed cohort in American history. Given that the youth vote helped him to elect him, why would he change the system that helped create them?
©2009 Bruce S. Thornton