These are troubling times for American higher education. On one side, some students at a handful of elite universities have made harsh anti-Israel statements, some crossing the line into outright antisemitism, and some university presidents have been diffident and mealy-mouthed in their responses. Ugly as these events have been, however, there isn’t much reason to believe that the quality of education at these institutions — which, in any case, account for a small fraction of America’s college enrollment — is under serious threat.
On the other side, the State University System of Florida, which has more than 430,000 students, is under intense political assault by the state’s Republican government. The American Association of University Professors recently released a report titled “Political Interference and Academic Freedom in Florida’s Public Higher Education System,” which details a takeover of key administrative and oversight positions by partisan appointees and growing pressure on faculty members to avoid teaching anything that might be considered woke. This political assault almost certainly will degrade the quality of higher education for large numbers of students, in ways I’ll talk about in a minute.
But first, let’s ask the obvious question: Which of these two education issues has been absorbing our collective attention, and which has flown mostly under the radar?
You know the answer.
It’s true that we are a much more elitist and class-ridden society than we like to admit and that graduates of elite institutions have an outsize influence on public life. (Full disclosure: I didn’t go to Harvard — they rejected my application — but was, as a result, forced to get my bachelor’s degree from, um, Yale.) But even given this influence, I’d argue that we pay far too much attention to institutions that educate so few Americans and are so unrepresentative of the national education scene.
What explains this disproportionality? To some extent, it’s because the people who shape public discourse are often themselves graduates of elite institutions. To some extent, it’s a spillover from celebrity culture — a focus on lifestyles of the soon-to-be rich and famous.
To be clear, the re-emergence of antisemitism among some factions on the political left is indeed disturbing. There are people with ugly views — antidemocratic as well as antisemitic — on the left as well as the right. While political scientists often criticize the horseshoe theory of politics, which says that the far left and the far right may resemble each other more than either resembles the political center, I’ve always found that theory plausible.
And I’m not going to make any excuses for college presidents who bobble this issue. After all, navigating their institutions through intellectual and political minefields is, to a large extent, these presidents’ job.
Nonetheless, it’s crucial to keep a sense of perspective. The extreme left may be morally no better than the extreme right. But in America the extreme left has almost no political power, while the extreme right controls one house of Congress and a number of states.
Which brings me back to Florida’s universities.
The A.A.U.P. report goes into considerable detail about the legal and administrative actions taken by the Republican governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, and his appointees so far. But the general overview is that public higher education has become a key front in DeSantis’s “war on woke.”
What counts as woke? The answer isn’t clear, but that lack of clarity is, in a way, the point. Teaching students anything that might be considered politically liberal or progressive could be construed as wokeness. According to the report, one Florida professor “was told not to teach that the Civil War was a conflict over slavery” — a proposition with which, for example, Ulysses S. Grant, who knew something about it, would beg to differ. This slipperiness creates a climate of fear that inhibits teaching on many subjects and appears to be driving out some of the system’s best teachers.
And anyone who imagines that there are clear limits to how far the intimidation might reach — hey, maybe it’s a problem for social science and history, but hard science is safe — is being naïve. Do you really find it hard to imagine pressure on faculty members to stop presenting the evidence for man-made climate change?
So, yes, let’s hold college presidents’ feet to the fire when they bungle on a major issue. And let’s denounce calls for violence wherever they come from. But let’s also focus on the biggest threat to our system of higher education, which is coming not from left-wing student activists but instead from right-wing politicians.