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The test facing modern higher education

The real challenge is bigger than any political agenda

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., on Feb. 21. Associated Press/Photo by Wilfredo Lee

The test facing modern higher education

For anyone wanting to see the cross-pressures facing institutions of higher education at the moment, the current difficulties faced by the King’s College in New York and New College in Florida provide excellent and instructive examples.

The King’s College is in the midst of a financial catastrophe that could lead to its imminent closure, and that at a point in the academic year when the hiring cycle for academic year 2023-24 is coming to an end. Faculty members in particular face the very real possibility of hardship and professional catastrophe through no fault of their own, the college’s fate apparently being the result of dependence upon a narrow donor base whose principal member is now deceased.

As this occurs at the same time as Trinity International University in Chicago has announced that it is moving all of its undergraduate degree programs online for next year, the question of income streams for Christian institutions with small endowments is clearly pressing in with some urgency as an older generation of Christian philanthropists passes away.

New College in Florida presents a somewhat different scenario. Here, Gov. Ron DeSantis has appointed a conservative majority to the board and the results have been dramatic. Not only has the new board fired the old president and installed a new one (with a controversially high salary) but it has ended the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives that the college had been pursuing. The predictable protests from students and faculty have followed, along with the usual apocalyptic rhetoric.

DEI is, of course, a classic example of how unimpeachably good-sounding words have been repurposed to suit a political end. Just as the Committee of Public Safety presided over the butchery of the Terror in the French Revolution, so committees for DEI ensure that organizations are just as diverse, equitable, and inclusive as the powerbrokers of our contemporary culture will allow. And that is a culture where drag queens are included but parents who think that their 14-year-old daughter who thinks she is a boy may, just may, be confused, are typically excluded. Inclusion is the new word for exclusion.

How do we engage issues surrounding higher education in a way that does not end up simply degenerating into a species of Nietzscheanism?

Yet the developments at New College also ironically represent the triumph of progressivism in general, even as it suffers defeat in this particular instance. For decades now, progressives have ensured that we have become used to the idea that educational curricula are deeply political in nature. Now it is becoming clear that the terms of debate also see administration and governance as deeply political too. Progressivism has sought to politicize everything—or, as progressives might themselves claim, to expose the latent political nature of everything—and it now appears they have won.

DeSantis’s move may be applauded by conservatives, but it also points to the fact that education is deeply politicized, and deeply polarized, in all of its departments. Now it is not only the postcolonial theorist but also the head of the human resources department who is the creature of Foucault and his ilk.

And this is where the challenge for conservatives lies. How do we engage issues surrounding higher education in a way that does not end up simply degenerating into a species of Nietzscheanism, whereby the pursuit, for example, of the good, the true, and the beautiful becomes merely the tool by which we beat the opposition? That would simply be to replace one powerful elite with another. If the humanities truly depend upon the existence of a sphere of human existence that is prior to, and independent of, the trivial political obsessions of the immediate present, we have to work out how to recapture that in a world where everything has been politicized.

Gov. DeSantis can beat the progressives by transforming the leadership of a school, but can such a move become a foundation for the critical move: recovering an education that reasserts the importance of the truly human? Might one argue that in having to act this way to restore sanity DeSantis yet concedes the terms of engagement to the progressives?

Do not misunderstand me: I consider the developments at New College to be profoundly encouraging. They show us that the tide can be turned, the lunacy can be stemmed, and the reduction of education to our current politics of bespoke identities can be challenged. But we must not rest satisfied with a culture where institutions of higher education become just another arena for the politics of power. We also need to recapture a vision of education that can ultimately be separated from the power struggles of the political class. That is far more challenging and difficult than the transformation of one college’s board of trustees.

Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen before moving to the United States in 2001 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 2017-18 he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.  Since 2018, he has served as a professor at Grove City College. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at First Things. Trueman’s latest book is the bestselling The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He is married with two adult children and is ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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