Peter Wood on The Radicalization of the College Campus

Dr. Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, anthropologist, author, and former provost, talks with Andy Nash on how the ideology that began as political correctness has resulted in radicalizing thought and scandalizing free inquiry.

Key Take-Aways

  • 1:29 – NAS focuses on academic curriculum and education bubble (1 min)
  • 3:30 – NAS opposes racial preferences in admissions. (1 min)
  • 7:21 – Liberals far outweigh conservatives in humanities and social sciences (1 min)
  • 8:45 – Classrooms should be free of ideology, politics should end at door (1 min)
  • 11:00 – Mass education results in regression to the mean/poor performance (1 min)
  • 12:19 – Nearly 1/3 of college students (7 million) learn virtually nothing in four years (1 min)
  • 13:25 – Idea of college shifts from culture transmission to societal transformation (30 seconds)
  • 14:20 – Political agendas of radical left and mass education movement converge (30 seconds)
  • 15:45 – College itself does not produce social, economic or personal prosperity (30 seconds)

Andy’s Show Notes

What does mass higher education (sending everyone to college with the hopes of a good education presumably for greater prosperity), have to do with the politicization and radicalization of academia?

In our most recent interview with Dr. Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, we coalesced that very subject by examining NAS’s founding mission and efforts since their inception in 1987.

Two recent stories have emerged in the news.  The first is the research study and subsequent book by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses; and the second is the controversial NYT article Social Scientist Sees Bias Within, spotlighting the “statistically impossible” disparity among academics–particularly in psychology and sociology– along political and ideological lines.  These are just the two newest installments, serving as reminders, of the trends and problems in higher education that have been stewing for decades, for which groups like NAS were founded in the first place.

In Academically Adrift, the authors reveal an alarming level of a lack of critical thinking skills being developed by most college students today.  Dr. Wood even mentions that about a third of college seniors (about 7 million students), under a testing instrument called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, were shown to have learned virtually nothing more than when they were freshmen.  Marty Nemko, in our previous interview, pointed out similar trends; and consequently not only argues for the reform of universities, but questions the very idea behind mass higher education by pointing to the large proportion of students unprepared and unable to handle what should be the rigor of collegiate level work. 

In the subject of political bias, Dr. Jon Heidt observes a “tribal moral community” among many academics, who “embrace science whenever it supports their sacred values, but they’ll ditch it or distort it as soon as it threatens a sacred value”.  In our interview with Dr. Wood, he cited the Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society from 1962.  He explained that the push to politicize and radicalize the universities came as a result of the American working classes proving too uninterested in fomenting revolution.  But universities produce future leaders, writers, journalists, scholars, thinkers, opinion leaders, etc.  By 1972, he says that the idea that institutions assumed they could be the instruments of societal transformation became pretty mainstream.

So how does that tie into mass higher education?  Presumably, the more people you send to college, and the more you use college as the vehicle to transform certain social ideals, then the more proponents you’ll have for those changes.  Thus Dr. Wood argues, in sending everyone to college, the benign well-intentioned desire to ensure everyone’s educational and economic betterment begins to converge with the agenda of the radical Left.

But we should consider an additional effect of mass higher education, in relation to politicization.  If the research studies and statistics are true, and so many students are not honing the critical thinking skills they should in college, then how can they evaluate and critically analyze politicized agendas in the classroom, especially when they are subtle?  It stands to reason they’d be all the more ill-equipped to challenge, scrutinize, and demand more from their professors.  After all, is not he who is uncritical and of undisciplined mind more susceptible to ideologies of the day?

But while some may argue that the watering down of grading, course-work rigor, and degree requirements, combined with general apathy and laziness has left many students oblivious to social and political agendas, others contend that the rigors of humanities and social science curricula has suffered at least in part directly from the shift in academia’s mission.  One of the very issues that NAS identifies is “the post-modernist evisceration of the humanities”.

Clearly these issues are distinct, but they conflate as far as shaping what modern higher education has become and the effect it has had on today’s college student.  Will students continue to be saddled with enormous amounts of debt to attend college, developing no real skills or scholastic achievements, while being imbued with advocacy of socio-political change? And will or can such graduates successfully change society at all, and if so into what?  And what can groups like NAS do about it?

Find out in our interview with Dr. Peter Wood, and in our ongoing series at InsideAcademia.tv.