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College Education, Ethics And Yardsigns

On Tuesday, November 6th – the day of the midterm elections – a woman was filmed on the streets of Athens, Georgia taking and destroying campaign signs for Republican candidates.  When identified, the woman, Melissa Link, admitted on Facebook that she did, indeed, destroy the signs, claiming that they were placed in violation of the law.  As it turns out, she was wrong about the law, but nevertheless insisted that such signs should be destroyed because Republicans “can’t win without cheating.”

Melissa Link is a publications specialist at the University of Georgia, and the Managing Editor of Ethics and the Environment, a journal that “focuses on conceptual approaches in ethical theory and ecological philosophy.”

If you’re at all surprised that an “expert” in ethics at an institution of higher education would be caught doing something likely illegal and certainly unethical, then you haven’t been paying attention.  American universities aren’t what they once were, and the academic conception of “ethics” has little to do with the values and ideals that once dominated our society.

It has been nearly thirty years now since Roger Kimball – the editor of The New Criterion and the Publisher at Encounter Books – exposed the ideological drift of American higher education in his classic tome Tenured Radicals.  Nevertheless, Kimball’s warning to the American people about the nature and substance of the pabulum force-fed college students in the name of “education” has largely gone unheeded.  In the January, 1991 edition of The New Criterion, Kimball penned a follow-up to his book, warning that the condition of the American university was even worse than he initially thought, and that it would only get worse still.  He wrote:

Unfortunately, subsequent developments in the academy have shown that if Tenured Radicals erred in its indictment, it erred on the side of understatement. It is not just that the peddlers of such politicized nonsense are in many cases among the most celebrated academics in the country: senior professors safely ensconced at Yale and Stanford, at Princeton and Harvard, Duke, the University of California, and other premier institutions, where they chair departments, sit on promotion and tenure committees, and busy themselves developing and implementing radical curricular changes for their own and other institutions. That was already clear in the late 1980s. Nor is it simply that, unlike most of their moderate colleagues, such tenured radicals tend to be indefatigable proselytizers, bent on winning converts in their war against the traditional moral and intellectual values of liberal-arts education. Troubling though that be, it, too, has been obvious for some time. Nor, finally, is it news that even the most bizarre writings and proclamations coming out of the academy, instead of being regarded as exotic or repellent curiosities, are often instrumental in setting the terms of debate both in the classroom and within the profession as a whole. No one familiar with the land of thing that passes for scholarship today will be surprised to discover—to take just one example—that the presentation of a paper called “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” at the 1989 annual meeting of the Modern Language Association was matched by a paper at the 1990 meeting on “The Lesbian Phallus: Or, Does Heterosexuality Exist?”[1] (One might have thought that the evidence for the existence of heterosexuality was well established, but evidence does not necessarily count for much among our new academic elite.)

All this is wearisomely familiar. What is new is the extent to which the constellation of radical trends that dominate the teaching of the humanities at many of our best institutions has found common cause in the rise of a new political ideology: the ideology of multiculturalism. Notwithstanding the emancipationist rhetoric that accompanies the term, “multiculturalism” as used in the academy today is not about recognizing genuine cultural diversity or encouraging pluralism. It is about undermining the priority of Western liberal values in our educational system and in society at large. In this sense, multiculturalism provides a convenient umbrella for the smorgasbord of radical ideologies now regnant in the academy. The one thing your literary deconstructionist, your Lacanian feminist, your post-structuralist Marxist, your New Historicist, and your devotee of what goes under the name of “cultural studies” can agree on is that the Western humanistic tradition is a repository of ideas that are naïve, repressive, or both.

The questions we are left with, given all of this, are “How did we get here?” and “How do we find our way back?

The answer to the first of these is linearly easy, if somewhat philosophically complicated.

In 1927, Marxism was nearly dead.  Lenin had been in the ground for three years, and his successor, Josef Stalin, was not a Marxist so much as a thug, a man concerned not with ideology, but with the power of the “total state,” a totalitarian, if you will.  In Western Europe, Hitler was rising, and Mussolini had been ensconced in power for five years, two as a dictator in his own right.  And while both were Leftists, neither was a Marxist.  The last real redoubts of Marxism were in the intellectual underground in Germany and in a prison in Turi, Italy.

In Turi, resided a tiny, sickly, and brilliant thirty-six-year-old man, serving a 20-year prison sentence on a trumped-up charge of attempting to assassinate Mussolini.  That man – Antonio Gramsci – would change Marxism, ever so subtly, and would, in the process, change the world, dramatically.  As a dedicated Marxist, Gramsci was deeply distressed by the Left’s troubles.  The great revolution was elusive.

Gramsci argued that the Left must forsake the effort to inform the proletariat about the wrongs they are suffering at the hands of capitalists, as well as the Marxist expectation that they will eventually conduct a violent revolution.  Instead, he maintained that the communists must take control of all of the cultural institutions within a target nation, beginning with the educational establishment and the mass media, culminating in the total destruction of the Christian religion, to be replaced by communism.

But while Gramsci wallowed in prison, the job of facilitating this “cultural” revolution fell to the members of the German intellectual underground, and specifically to a Hungarian Marxist named György Lukács.  Like Gramsci, Lukács believed that the problem with Marxism was the existing cultural order, which had to be destroyed in order to free the proletariat from its false consciousness and thus allow the masses both to understand and to demand their own true interests.  Lukács had been the architect of the proto-cultural revolution intended to destroy the existing culture in his native Hungary, and he believed that the effort had to be replicated, on a civilization-wide scale.

Lukács found his way to Germany, penned several underground books, all in keeping with the spirit of the Gramscian understanding of the revolution’s failure, and became acquainted with an Argentinian-Jewish intellectual named Felix Weil.  Weil, in turn, went on to found (and fund) a small Marxist think-tank that would become known as the Frankfurt School, animated by the ideas of Gramsci, Lukacs, and Karl Korsch.  The Frankfurt School became the intellectual home to the likes of Carl Grünberg, Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse, the latter of whom would become known in the 1960s as the “Father of the New Left.”

For nearly a decade, the Frankfurt School promoted its version of cultural revolution in Germany.  In 1933, however, with Hitler rising to power, Horkheimer moved the establishment to Geneva, then to Paris, and finally, in 1935, to New York City, where it became affiliated with Columbia University.  From this perch atop American academia, the Frankfurt School undertook that which Gramsci acolyte Rudi Dutschke dubbed the “long march through the institutions.”

What all of this tells us is that the answer to the second question above – “How do we find our way back?” – is not so easy.  The takeover of the American university by the cultural and economic Left was no accident.  It was coordinated and calculated, the implementation of a plan designed specifically to destroy the vestiges of Christian morality and ethics in education, in order to clear the way for the long-awaited yet eternally-elusive revolution.

And so, the road back to decency, morality and the eternal values of the Judeo-Christian tradition can be no accident either.  We must retake the culture, which means that we must retake the institutions of that culture, starting with higher education.  If we are ever to retake the cultural high ground, we must begin by teaching students – and especially those who will run our world’s governments and businesses – right from wrong, good from evil, and the importance of traditional virtues in organizing a productive society and the good life itself.

Steve Soukup, M.A. is Senior Fellow for History and Culture at the Culture of Life Foundation. He is Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum [1] and co-author of “Know Thine Enemy: A History of the Left [2]” with Mark Melcher.