PROF ELLWANGER: The true function of the university

Over the last 50 years, academics have taken an institution that requires an elitism to properly function, and they have tried to force it to operate democratically.

Adam Ellwanger is a professor of English at the University of Houston - Downtown. His primary areas of expertise are rhetoric and critical theory. He writes political and cultural commentary for outlets like Human Events, Quillette, American Greatness, The American Conservative, New Discourses, Minding the Campus, and many more. 

In the aftermath of Claudine Gay’s resignation as President of Harvard for academic dishonesty, many Americans are wondering: how did our universities become so broken? This is a difficult question, and finding an answer requires that we consider the function of the university in American life.

Many people today think that the central aim is to prepare young Americans for careers, thereby ensuring the nation’s future economic vitality. Others think that higher education exists in order to produce new knowledge. Certainly, American universities do these things, but they are not the purpose of our institutions. After all: we can accomplish the aims of career-training or production of new knowledge without having colleges or universities.

Allan Bloom, a famous political philosopher in the late-twentieth century, knew the real answer – the thing that universities can do that other institutions within our society cannot. In his 1987 book entitled The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom examined the merits and shortcomings of modern democracy. He knew that democracy relied on a radical idea – that all people are equally fit to govern. Bloom also showed how modern democratic ideology sets the values of equality, reason, and autonomy at the center of social life.

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But taken to an extreme, the problems inherent to democracy become manifest: nature ensures that men are not equal in their capacity to reason. By denying these differences and elevating people of mediocre talents to positions of power, democratic societies are prone to mismanagement. The masses – which are comprised of the most average individuals – occupy the seat of the sovereign. Public opinion (often uninformed opinion) usually has the final say when it comes to the direction of society. Aristocracy (literally “the rule of the best” in Greek) is seen as the antithesis of modern democracy, ensuring that suspicion of “elites” lies at the heart of American culture.

As Bloom understood it, the university was meant to be an elite institution within a democratic society. Higher education functions best when it enshrines elitism: that is, when it maintains high standards and rewards excellence and merit. By creating a space for a culture of excellence within the sea of mediocrity that defines democratic life, the university should play a role in protecting society from the excesses of democracy. In this capacity, academics can offset the levelling force of public opinion, entertaining thoughts and ideas that are off-limits in everyday life.

So, for those wondering how the American university got so dysfunctional, Bloom has the diagnosis: over the last 50 years, academics have taken an institution that requires an elitism to properly function, and they have tried to force it to operate democratically. They have done away with various admission standards. They utilized quotas and affirmative action measures which have ensured that excellent candidates were denied admission and underprepared applicants were accepted. They have institutionalized grade inflation in an effort to engineer the “success” of those underprepared students. DEI initiatives work to further install mediocrity at the heart of the institution.

For all these reasons, it should come as no surprise that as the elite university was rewired as a democratic institution, our schools have proven less resistant to public opinion. The political left achieved a coup. There are many reasons that coup was a success, but chief among them is that leftists are more eager to dismantle the status quo in society: thus, democratizing the university brought in more people who were dissatisfied with the traditional norms of the institution.

The left won by stoking the resentments of those who had been (justifiably) left out of higher education, and then admitting those same people en masse – non-elite citizens for whom the institution was never intended. Without a proper understanding of the social functions of the university, the newly-admitted students eagerly began “dismantling” a system they didn’t really understand.

With the left now firmly in power, it’s painfully apparent that the more democratic the university becomes, the more safe spaces, free speech zones, and trigger warnings we find. The more “open” higher education gets, the more difficult it is to find new ideas and diverse opinions on campus. The university is taken over by the same left-progressive, secular pieties that define all the other revolutionary institutions in our democracy: journalism, Hollywood, the medical establishment, etc.

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Ultimately, nearly every major problem in academic life can be traced back to the democratization of the university, which has eliminated every hierarchy, all merit-based standards, and any rewards for individual excellence. It’s not just that the university was designed to be an elite institution; it’s that it cannot function properly without a culture of elitism. Given that it is now thoroughly democratized, it is also thoroughly dysfunctional.

Bloom observed that “the university risks less by having intransigently high standards than by trying to be too inclusive, because [democratic] society tends to blur standards in the name of equality.” He continues: “The university as an institution must compensate for what individuals lack in a democracy […] It must be contemptuous of public opinion because it has within it the source of autonomy – the quest for and even discovery of the truth according to nature.”

This pursuit of the truth according to nature is what protects society against the excesses of democracy. Ideologues in the university have replaced the pursuit of truth with an overwhelming effort to remake the world according to a utopian vision of “social justice.” Bloom warned that the endurance of the university would require that it “resist the temptation to try to do everything for society.” What a tragedy that no one heeded his advice.

Editorials and op-eds reflect the opinion of the authors and not necessarily that of Campus Reform or the Leadership Institute.