The indoctrination is probably unnecessary. After all, studies show that today’s high school graduates – especially those who listened well, earned the best grades and gained admissions to top schools – are more likely to identify themselves as “liberal” or “far-left” than at any time since the early 1970s. They are more committed to “social justice” and increasingly support efforts to shut down speakers whose views they disagree with (no wonder the left fights so hard to preserve the public education status quo).
And during four, five or six years on campus – sorry mom and dad – students will be instructed by professors who support Democrats. In their book, “Passing on the Right,” Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr. noted five major studies that “all placed the percentage of Republican professors between 7 percent and 9 percent in the social sciences and somewhere between 6 percent and 11 percent in the humanities.”
Nevertheless, North Carolina’s top schools make sure to signal the rules of the game from the get-go through the books they ask every incoming freshman to read.
UNC-Chapel Hill is assigning “How Does it Feel to Be a Problem?” by Moustafa Bayoumi, which argues that America has always needed a group to hate and that since 9/11 Muslims have held that dubious distinction.
N.C. State’s 2017 Common Reading Program selection is a memoir by the African-American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Between the World and Me,” which, the schools says, “lays bare the struggle of an individual to understand his lived experiences in the context of systemic inequalities, most notably racial and social class inequities, which have not been well-addressed in our society.”
Duke is asking its incoming first-years to read Richard Blanco’s memoir about growing up as a gay Cuban-American, “The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood.”
These picks are not outliers. Last month, the New York Times reported that about 40 percent of college orientations include discussion of a common book and that “the books are almost always tied to current events and often make strong statements on issues like immigration, race and the perils of technology.”
As a classical liberal, I find the left-wing tilt of these books disturbing. Their underlying message is that American culture is cruel and close-minded, a problem to be overcome. Training our future leaders to see we the people as members of separate identity groups engaged in a Darwinian struggle is a form of national suicide.
I also see the sad logic of it. The elite culture these schools are training students to join is defined by a bundle of progressive attitudes. These include the idea that there are single right, unquestionable answers on a range of complex issues, from race, gender and identity to climate change and health care.
I do not deny that African-Americans, Muslims, LGBTQ Americans and others face special challenges.
My concern is that the books assigned do not leave room for the larger purpose of education: to question and challenge ideas, to truly engage in what the left calls “courageous conversations.” The three books selected by the North Carolina schools are, at bottom, personal stories. They are not collections of facts – which can be debated objectively – but of opinions, which, by their nature, are unassailable.
They are words to be heard, not scrutinized or challenged.
Colleges and universities should not teach students what to think, but how to think. Their role is not to inculcate empathy; that’s the work of family, friends and life itself, which are doing a pretty good job considering the broad gains we’ve made since World War II. Their job is to help students develop critical thinking skills – and a lifelong love of learning – so they can make sense of all around them.
It is this core mission that needs attention. A recent report in the Wall Street Journal about a study of 200 colleges across the country that found “at more than half the schools, at least a third of the students were unable to make a cohesive argument, assess the quality of evidence in a document or interpret data in a table. ... At some of the most prestigious flagship universities, test results indicate the average graduate shows little or no improvement in critical thinking over four years.”
Indeed, the growing intolerance we see on campus reflects this failure. Such authoritarian behavior is the long-favored response of those who see the world in black and white, who insist that their opinion is Truth, and who lash out in frustration because they lack the words to form a cogent response.
Addressing that is higher education’s greatest challenge.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.