Higher education must stand up for itself in the face of culture war attacks
In 2023, higher education is a political dartboard and educators are being struck by darts thrown by conservatives and progressives. How those of us in higher education respond will be crucial for the future of our institutions and American democracy.
Those throwing darts at educators are combatants in culture wars sparked by the success of diverse liberation movements in the second half of the twentieth century, when women, people of color, LGBTQ communities, various religious minorities, and people with disabilities demanded and ultimately won concessions that ended many informal and legal restrictions on their ability to fully participate in American life.
The culture wars now embroiling the nation are about whether to continue on the path of liberation or return to a world where Christian, white men rule, and LGBTQ folk and people with disabilities are closeted. Often caught up in this battle, higher education needs to assert its own culture, and share its many achievements.
What is higher education’s culture? At its best, it understands every reasonable idea as open to examination, study and revision. Our only sacred cows are a commitment to reason, critical thinking and adhering to established practices in our different disciplines. In our capacity as researchers, we pick a topic to study, read the extant scholarly literature on that topic, discover and gather evidence, subject that evidence to scrutiny, prepare our work to be shared, and then revise our work in light of criticism.
Higher education’s culture delivers the goods. In the sciences our contributions include breakthroughs in medicine, engineering, agriculture and many more fields of study. In the humanities, social sciences, and arts, there have been equally impressive contributions.
The U.S. model of higher education — and its culture — explains why the United States has been an innovative leader for the better part of the last 100 years.
It is time for those of us who work in higher education to assert ourselves in the culture wars. We must aggressively affirm who we are, what we do, the value of our work, and our ways of working. To accomplish this, we must overcome our many differences by organizing around what we share: A commitment to fact-based reason; to the creation of new knowledge; to open mindedness; to sharing our work as teachers and scholars.
From the left, critiques of our culture take the form of opposition to studying some ideas that are offensive, bigoted and objectionable — particularly to those who are facing longstanding forms of discrimination. This opposition manifests itself in two ways. Most visible, relatively rare, but widely publicized, are protests against invited speakers who are visiting elite campuses. More frequent, less visible, and present on elite and non-elite campuses, are student complaints about the ways that difficult subjects have been handled by professors.
Recently, St. Paul, Minnesota has taken center stage in this arena with dust ups over the display of an image of the Prophet Mohamed during an online art history class at Hamline University, and an art exhibit at Macalester College that showed contemporary depictions of Muslim women. The final outcomes of these events are not yet known, indeed the incident at Hamline University is now in the courts. But among the many moving parts are the precariousness of contingent academic workers, best practices for addressing potentially divisive subjects in class, and the many challenges associated with teaching the humanities, the arts and the social sciences in a multicultural setting.
From the right, critiques of higher education’s culture are fueled by a fundamentalism that objects to the very idea of open mindedness. We often see bad faith defenses of free speech from conservatives (like when protests arise over right-wing invited speakers).
Yet for the most part, what bothers the right about higher education’s culture is that there is room for the critical examination of ideas they find objectionable and those they find sacred. And what does the right find objectionable?
For that, we can turn to Florida. In the Sunshine State, Gov. Ron DeSantis casts a shadow over free speech and critical thinking. He has fired the president of New College and stacked its board with political allies; condemned an AP African American Studies class as indoctrination and possibly pressed the College Board to modify the course to remove hot-button concepts; passed the Stop Woke Act; announced an overhaul of higher education to end programs that “impose ideological conformity to try to provoke political activism” while fundamentally altering long-standings principles of tenure.
In total, DeSantis has sought to eliminate discussions of race, class, gender and sexuality in classes from kindergarten through undergraduate, and has expanded this agenda to corporate governance as well.
Whether the attacks come from the left or the right, higher education’s culture is the target. We must respond by defending the culture of higher education and trumpeting its successes.
Since the challenge from progressives comes from inside our campuses, we can deal with it internally. We can and must do better when we examine triggering ideas. We must address all subjects and ideas professionally, respectfully, and with thoughtful intention. If faculty are not skilled at addressing sensitive topics, they should avoid them until they are.
If faculty act unprofessionally and disrespectfully, then the university, and the faculty, need to be made accountable.
For schools that claim to be part of the liberal arts tradition, we must make clear that in the classroom, students are not customers. When students choose to join us, they need to know they will almost certainly be made uncomfortable. They will be asked to examine almost any and every idea. Our task, as the old cliché suggests, is “to make the foreign familiar and the familiar foreign.”
This needs to be stressed when we are recruiting students and at orientations to the campus.
To be sure, colleges and universities must respect the students from the many cultures that join us. Just as importantly, everyone who joins us needs to embrace open mindedness, critical thinking, and professional standards of scholarship. If you are not comfortable with or in this culture, choose a college or university that stands outside this tradition, either for ideological or religious reasons.
The challenge of the right cannot be addressed internally because it is political. It will require that we publicly explain, proclaim and defend our culture with our local communities, our states, and the nation. We must be clear and accessible, free of jargon and without contempt for those who haven’t attended college.
We must organize and actively engage with every form of media and at every level of government, for as long as it takes. In defense of higher education’s culture, we need to work as a team and include everyone who works in our sector. This will require that we take a clear eyed look at the ways contingent faculty face challenges that tenured faculty do not. Basic solidarity requires that every person involved in educating students needs the same protections of academic freedom as set out by American Association of University Professors.
We need to make clear that except for the labor movement, no institution has done more to produce the American middle class than colleges and universities. We also need to stress our culture’s intellectual diversity.
The culture wars are not going away. They are threatening our nation’s entire system of education. The stakes are high. If education loses out in the culture wars, so too will American democracy.
Our only hope is to enter the fray with our own culture in mind, and to insist on respect. If we stay on the sideline, we will lose. If all of us who participate in higher education join the fight, we will win.
A different version of this essay was originally published by the History News Network and reprinted with permission.