Why College?

What has mass higher education done for us? The standards at universities have slipped to lower and lower levels, as shown by a new Roper survey of the top 55 schools. One hundred percent of seniors can identify "Snoop Doggy Dog" as a rap singer, but only a third could name George Washington as a general at Valley Forge. Not even a majority knew anything about Valley Forge or the basic principles of the US Constitution. In general, 81 percent of the college seniors surveyed last December received a grade of D or F on history questions drawn from a dumbed-down high-school curriculum.

Fortunately the news arrives during times of dramatic technological change, when the central myth of mass higher education is finally being exposed. For generations, parents have been fooled by the "experts" into thinking that higher education leads to higher incomes-when, in fact, the causation tends to run the other way. In market-driven professions, smarts are what lead to higher incomes-not for everyone, but most of the time-and the brainy can choose from a wide range of occupations, as the ranks of dot-com millionaires demonstrate.

Not understanding the basic statistical fallacy, parents have shelled out tens of thousands every year in the belief that their children are guaranteed success so long as they have a degree in hand. As a result, and for several generations, the prime productive years between 18 and 22 have been spent trapped in the clutches of an increasingly left-wing professorate devoted to falsifying history and rubbing out common sense, excelling in mind control, and bent on destruction of bourgeois institutions.

If you’ve read The Shadow University by Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglate, you know what I’m talking about. Campuses today offer a bitter brew of ideological regimentation and moral libertinism, with the two bleeding into each other in arbitrary and unpredictable ways. The main goal seems to be to tear down millennia of good sense and replace it with outlandishly egalitarian systems of thought control dictated by grasping pressure groups.

The practical effect of this appears in the weekly Chronicle of Higher Education, which runs many inadvertently hilarious stories in every issue. For example, this week we discover that a women’s studies class at Wesleyan entitled "Pornography: Writing of Prostitutes" required students to make a pornographic movie as a final class project. One student followed through this year and solicited actors for his new movie "Wesporn." But instead of being heralded, he was denounced as an enemy of women and a proponent of violence. As part of his punishment, he was forced to listen to a tape of (allegedly) women being beaten on campus by men.

What does this have to do with traditional higher education, with Cardinal Newman’s Idea of a University? Nothing, of course, so why is the university wasting kids’ time and parents’ money with this nonsense? Because curriculum and discipline are determined by the lobbying of interest groups, not the wisdom of the ages. Matters are particularly insane in areas like race and gender studies, but it is increasingly difficult to find areas of campus life that aren’t at least a little crazy.

Another item from today’s academic news: a Yale geology professor just pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography. This isn’t one of those cases where the feds overreach to nab someone with bathtub photos of their children. Two videos of children engaged in sex acts were filmed right in a certain geology lab on campus. Yes, what wonderful mentors youth have these days.

The same issue of the Chronicle that reported the porn stories also relays this gem:

Duke University is no longer concealing the fact that a student who died in November was a victim of bacterial lung poisoning — a direct result of inhaling vomit induced by excessive drinking. What made the university come clean? Another student just barely survived a similar case of poisoning.

But, you say, young men do crazy things. Why should universities be blamed? Because it’s hardly an isolated case. Students don’t tell Mom and Dad, but everyone knows that heavy drinking is endemic on campus. The real question isn’t why universities aren’t able to control their student populations, but why students feel they have the luxury to major in booze rather than studying. The sad reality is that for most students today, reading and scholarship play very little role in their college years.

The final example of revolting campus news comes from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Indiana University, and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, which have bowed to protests to join the Fair Labor Association. And what idiotic cause does the Fair Labor Association support? Banning the sale of campus clothing made with "child labor" in the third world. This is what passes for moral indignation on campus.

Now, if these protestors and cowering administrators knew anything about economics, they would know that "child labor" is the best thing that ever happened to the third world. It is a necessary step on the way to economic development, and rescues the children and their moms from lives of prostitution and begging. The peasants of the third world cheer when the multinationals come to town. They don’t need privileged leftist demonstrators in the developed world denying them lifesaving work.

Here again, you have to ask: what has this mindless protest to do with education? Well, when the only "education" consists of heralding anti-capitalistic social movements and individuals throughout history, students may be tempted to join one. And they might be deluded enough to think they are doing the world some good.

Sure, there are students who ignore the circus around them, latch on to a good professor or two, and, through discipline and guidance, educate themselves in the older tradition.

Most likely, these are the sort of students who would have attended college before the second world war: they are there to train for a demanding profession, or to become real scholars. The mystery is why the rest are there, and why prestigious universities court them.

In the midst of it all, the mass media have finally discovered a campus situation they find disgraceful and, indeed, intolerable: Bob Jones University. Now, by reputation, its academic standards are high (its accounting school turns out some of the best in the business), but its courses are mixed with old-line Protestant standards of ethics. For example, strict rules govern dating, and mixed-race dating is prohibited in particular.

Naturally, George W. has been castigated for speaking there, while the academic cesspool gets high grades from the PC police. Most absurdly, we are supposed to hate Bob Jones University because an official statement calls Catholicism a cult.

Speaking as a Catholic, I don’t believe it should be considered a hate crime to sympathize with the Protestant Reformation. Are we now supposed to hate and attack any sect that regards itself as uniquely free of error? Whatever happened to that line from Voltaire about "defending to the death" your right to say something I disagree with?

Here are some questions for anyone who attacks Bob Jones. What have you done to decry the legions of socialist and black-power intellectuals teaching at prestigious schools in the northeast? In what way have you denounced anti-Christianism in philosophy and ethics courses around the country? If we are to oppose anti-Catholicism, are we also to oppose anything that wreaks of anti-evangelicalism? In that case, a number of media outlets would be in big trouble.

Now, for good or ill, it is the academy that nurtures the ideas that determine the future course of civilization. But the ideal university should recruit and cultivate only a select group to its ranks. Probably no more than 10% of the present college population belongs there. The idea of mass university education-of democratizing enrollment regardless of intellectual capacity-is only about 50 years old, and was made possible only through massive government subsidies.

The answer isn’t to have better history instructors or to change the policy on 78 percent of American campuses that require no American history classes. Far better just to cut the public subsidies that keep people in school when they should be getting practical experience in the workplace.

Thanks to the hi-tech boom, young people have the option of bypassing the entire morass and still succeeding in business. It is innovation and the service ethic that business pays for. The hottest labor commodities right now are not newly minted MBAs, but kids who spent the last three years building websites and programs and are thereby up to speed with the latest programming techniques.

Instead of spending their formative years learning how to drink, sleep around, and spout back left-wing drivel, kids not cut out to be scholars or professionals can learn something about individual responsibility and the work ethic. And be far better off in the long run.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and editor of a daily news site, LewRockwell.com.