A History of the Conservative War on Universities

The GOP tax bill is the latest example of an anti-intellectualism that’s been brewing for decades.

A statue of Socrates is visible behind a tree.
Petros Giannakouris / AP

The Republican-controlled Congress is now poised to pass one of the most dramatic changes to the tax code in more than a generation—one with significant benefits for the wealthiest sector of society. Yet an aspect of this legislation receiving little attention is how it marks the culmination of a decades-long renouncement of higher education by portions of the American conservative movement.

The GOP and the American right consistently position themselves against the universities. This is a commonplace of the culture war. But why? America’s universities regularly rank among the most prestigious worldwide, making undeniable contributions to medicine, science, technology, economy, the arts, athletics, and the humanities. America’s universities also attract some of the world’s brightest minds, spurring innovation and dominating globally by countless measures. Conservatives might be proud of the universities as particularly stunning examples of American pluck and ingenuity. Instead, the tax bill appears to be symptomatic of the GOP’s growing disillusionment with higher education. This is, at least, how a number of college presidents and leaders have interpreted it.

For one, the legislation would for the first time ever require universities to pay taxes on their endowment income. Universities have traditionally received tax exemptions on those assets in part because they are viewed as contributing to the public good. In addition, the House bill includes provisions to end graduate-student tax breaks, leading professors and graduate students at top universities to worry that studying for a Ph.D. will become unaffordable for all but the wealthy. (The Senate bill doesn’t include the latter provision; the two pieces of legislation head to conference committee shortly.) With tax analysts identifying corporations as the Republican plan’s biggest winners, a politics of factionalism seems implicit in the bill: Private corporations deserve even greater assets, while America’s universities merit higher levels of taxation.

Other factors are at play, of course. For instance, some have suggested that the right’s rejection of higher education is instead a response to the public perception that while tuition costs rise, the economic return on degrees has depreciated. There is no doubt some truth to this suggestion. But it does not account for the rise in sharply hostile ways of talking about the universities among conservatives in the last fifty years.

Anti-intellectualism in America has deep and complex historical roots, as shown by historians such as Richard Hofstadter and, more recently, Susan Jacoby. For instance, Americans have long prized what they see as practical business activity over the intellectual reflection associated with the liberal arts—as is evident in the fact that by far the most popular undergraduate degree in the country continues to be business.

Yet the trope of portraying American universities as a threat to society emerged with particular intensity in the 1970s and ‘80s. Neoconservatives including the journalist Irving Kristol and the philosopher Allan Bloom developed a discourse around what they saw as the moral laxity and corrosiveness of the 1960s counterculture. As one neoconservative intellectual put it, thinkers like Kristol and Bloom saw themselves as being born out of a “reaction against the Left’s nihilistic revolt against conventional morality and religion.” Kristol is an early figure in the development of this discourse, and his 1972 lecture “Capitalism, Socialism, and Nihilism” is a seminal text. In the lecture, Kristol argued that economic libertarians such as Milton Friedman were unable to philosophically rebut the counterculture’s political agenda. This is because libertarians reduced political life to economics. But where the old, Marxist left had been chiefly concerned with economics, the new, “hippie” left did not “think economically.”

Instead, the new left’s goal, according to Kristol, was a radical cultural revolution that would demolish the religious traditions and virtues that sustained a democratic form of free-market capitalism. Although the counterculture generation often presented itself as a moral movement (antiwar, ecology, women’s liberation, etc.), Kristol characterized it instead as a species of nihilism—or the effort to repudiate an objective moral order in favor of a relativistic hedonism. For Kristol, the counterculture’s definitive feature was its rejection of sexual mores and traditional religion: “The enemy of liberal capitalism today,” he wrote in his 1972 lecture, “is not so much socialism as nihilism.”

If Kristol’s contribution to conservative discourse was to reduce the hippies—one of the most moralizing generations in American history—to the category of relativists and nihilists, Bloom’s achievement was to target America’s university system with the same critique. Indeed, Bloom’s notion of America’s universities as hotbeds of nihilists was so influential that within a matter of a few years it had entered the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education, William Bennett.

According to Bloom, the rejection of an objective moral order on America’s college campuses was the direct result of former ‘60s-generation activists taking over the professoriate and indoctrinating their students. In a 1982 article for the National Review entitled “Our Listless Universities,” Bloom opened with what has become a standard trope in right-wing circles ever since:

Students in our best universities do not believe in anything … An easygoing American kind of nihilism has descended upon us, a nihilism without terror of the abyss. The great questions—God, freedom, and immortality, according to Kant—hardly touch the young. And the universities, which should encourage the quest for the clarification of such questions, are the very source of the doctrine which makes that quest appear futile.

According to Bloom, instead of exploring the objective meaning of the good life in “great books,” the universities taught students to treat all the past as culturally relative at best and ethnocentric at worst. Students were also told that ethical life was a matter of individual choice in a “lifestyle”—not the discovery of a universal philosophical truth. Bloom thus accused American universities of becoming breeding grounds for egoistic hedonism and the rejection of an objective moral order.

Bloom went on to expand on his arguments in a national bestseller—The Closing of the American Mind (1987)—one of the 20th century’s most influential tracts on American education. In it Bloom argued that American students had become closed-minded in their “openness.” Almost without realizing it, college students had slipped into becoming relativists all in the name of a politically correct tolerance. They had succumbed to what Bloom referred to as “nihilism, American style.”

The accusation that American higher education is a hotbed of moral relativists and nihilists spread widely from there. As mentioned above, high-ranking officials in the state—including Education Secretary Bennett—repeated the claim that universities were “nihilistic.” Leaders of the so-called “Moral Majority” and of the evangelical Christian movement reiterated this analysis as well.

Today, the discrediting of universities by the right’s intellectual leadership is part of a broader erosion of conservative support for academia. According to a recent Pew poll, a majority of Republicans now believe that America’s colleges have a “negative effect on the country.” This implies that many ordinary people in the conservative movement do not look at the universities and see the enormous contributions to science, health, technology, culture, and the arts. They do not look at the universities in their towns and states and see one of today’s greatest educational systems and an impressive accomplishment by American society.

Instead, a new generation of Republicans has taken up Bloom’s tack, characterizing American campuses as seedbeds for radicals opposing all basic moral order. For example, Ben Shapiro, a political commentator who has become enormously popular among young conservatives, regularly leverages the trope of college students and faculty as out-of-touch nihilists. “College is supposed be a time when young adults discover who they want to be … but the former hippies of the 1960s have charted a different path as university leaders … delving into sexual experimentation, nihilism, narcissism, and hedonism,” he wrote in his 2005 book Porn Generation: How Social Liberalism Is Corrupting Our Future. In this way, although many neoconservatives (including Irving Kristol’s son William Kristol) have denounced the new right-wing populism, the neoconservative discourse of “nihilism” nonetheless now helps fuel a populist rejection of the universities tout court.

The conservative portrait of higher education, if true, is devastating. However, it has a number of serious flaws. The first is that it is empirically inaccurate. America’s universities are not monolithically left-wing. Rather, a battery of recent evidence on higher education shows that although the professoriate tends to lean left, conservative students and faculty continue to flourish in significant numbers. Moreover, as the philosopher Charles Taylor argued at length in his 1992 book The Ethics of Authenticity, “nihilism” has never been an accurate or fair account of the American counterculture. Rather, Bloom mistook a disagreement over morals as a rejection of them.

The second problem is that, contrary to what conservative critiques often imply, a difference of moral or political viewpoint is not the same as incompetence to teach or do research. Should natural-science departments hire more political conservatives on the basis of intellectual diversity? What about engineering or medical schools? If polling found that the majority of science and engineering faculty at M.I.T or Cal Tech happened to be liberal, it would hardly be the same as showing their competence to teach and research had been undermined.

What lies beneath the rightwing attack on higher education is perhaps instead a hostility toward a handful of elite liberal arts colleges and universities. What disappears entirely from view is the sheer diversity of institutions and viewpoints that comprise American higher education (a point I made at greater length in The Atlantic last winter). In other words, when it comes to America’s colleges and universities, conservative anxiety is best expressed as being about a small set of marquee positions of honor and prestige in the liberal arts that happen to be largely staffed at present by those whose political commitments lean left. A recent study suggests that faculty at elite liberal arts colleges in the New England region skew dramatically to the left; this reality is not necessarily reflective of the land-grant universities, religious institutions, and community colleges where the politics often differ.

And the fact that liberal-arts professors at elite colleges lean left does not mean they stop being among the best scholars and teachers their disciplines have to offer. The deeper tension here is over who is authorized to teach or educate in a democracy. Take the classic example of Socrates as educator of democratic Athens. Socrates was condemned by his fellow Athenians as an enemy of the democratic polis and deemed unfit to live let alone teach because of his nontraditional beliefs. According to accounts left by his most famous student, Plato, Socrates was skeptical of Athen’s traditional religion and gods, deeply questioned the justness of its legal institutions, and offered radical alternatives to economic and political life such as communalized property, gender equality, the abolition of the family, and rule by philosophers. What Socrates meant by these teachings is the subject of ongoing debate, but there’s little doubt that he was executed for these impieties.

Could 2017 be a pivotal year in the fate of American universities and democracy? Will it be remembered by future generations as the year when Americans gave up on Socrates?