There is this month, in First Things, a must-read essay on the transformation of the modern university by Roger Scruton, who (as usual) brilliantly identifies exactly what the Left’s long march through the culture has wrought.
[T]he university extolled by Newman was designed to protect the privileges of an existing upper class and to place obstacles before the advance of its competitors. It imparted futile skills, which were esteemed precisely for their futility, since this made them into a badge of membership that only a few could afford. And far from advancing the fund of knowledge, it existed to safeguard the sacred myths: It placed a protective wall of enchantment around the religion, the social values, and the high culture of the past, and pretended that the recondite skills required to enjoy this enchantmentâ€”Latin and Greek, for exampleâ€”were the highest forms of knowledge. In short, the ÂNewmanite university was an instrument for the perpetuation of a leisure class. The culture that it passed on was not the property of the whole community but merely an ideological tool, through which the powers and privileges of the existing order were endowed with their aura of legitimacy.
Now, by contrast, we have universities dedicated to the growth of knowledge, which are not merely non-elitist but anti-elitist in their social structure. …
[H]owever, a visitor to the American university today is more likely to be struck by the indigenous varieties of censorship than by any atmosphere of free inquiry. It is true that Americans live in a tolerant society. But they also breed vigilant guardians, keen to detect and extirpate the first signs of â€œprejudiceâ€ among the young. And these guardians have an innate tendency to gravitate to the universities, where the very freedom of the curriculum, and its openness to innovation, provide them with an opportunity to exercise their censorious passions. Books are put on or struck off the syllabus on grounds of their political correctness; speech codes and counseling services police the language and thought of both students and teachers; courses are designed to impart ideological conformity, and students are often penalized for having drawn some heretical conclusion about the leading issues of the day. In sensitive areas, such as race, sex, and the mysterious thing called â€œgender,â€ censorship is overtly directed not only at students but also at any teacher, however impartial and scrupulous, who comes up with the wrong conclusions.
Of course, the culture of the West remains the primary object of study in humanities departments. However, the purpose is not to instill that culture but to repudiate itâ€”to examine it for all the ways in which it sins against the egalitarian worldview. The Marxist theory of ideology, or some feminist, poststructuralist, or Foucauldian descendent of it, will be summoned in proof of the view that the precious achievements of our culture owe their status to the power that speaks through them, and that they are therefore of no intrinsic worth. …
Moral relativism clears the ground for a new kind of absolutism. The emerging curriculum in the humanities is in fact far more censorious, in crucial matters, than the one that it strives to replace. It is no longer permitted to believe that there are real and inherent distinctions between people. All distinctions are â€œculturally constructedâ€ and therefore changeable. And the business of the curriculum is to deconstruct them, to replace distinction with equality in every sphere where distinction has been part of the inherited culture. Students must believe that in crucial respects, in particular in those matters that touch on race, sex, class, role, and cultural refinement, Western civilization is just an arbitrary ideological device, and certainly not (as its self-image suggests) a repository of real moral knowledge. Moreover, they must accept that the purpose of their education is not to inherit that culture but to question it and, if possible, to replace it with a new â€œmulticulturalâ€ approach that makes no distinctions between the many forms of life by which the students find themselves surrounded.
To doubt those doctrines is to commit deepest heresy, and to pose a threat to the community that the modern university needs. For the modern university tries to cater to students regardless of religion, sex, race, or cultural background, even regardless of ability. It is to a great extent a creation of the state and is fully signed up to the statist idea of what a society should beâ€”namely, a society without distinction. It is therefore as dependent on the belief in equality as Cardinal Newmanâ€™s university was dependent on the belief in God.
Be sure to read the whole thing.