There is no more reliable cliché in the news business than “if it bleeds it leads.” But the rule of thumb that was just as dependable, if not quite as catchy, in the years I spent at legacy newspapers is this one: campus craziness sells. It sold to readers of The Wall Street Journal just as reliably as it did to readers of The New York Times. If conservatives and progressives can unite over anything it’s that neither can resist hate-reading a story about Oberlin kids protesting the cultural appropriation of dining hall banh mi.
Until very recently, though, neither group took those kinds of stories very seriously. Neither did most of the editors who commissioned them. They were not unlike the crossword puzzle: a fun distraction. A nice mix for the reader dutifully getting through serious, important coverage about foreign policy and the economy and politics.
Sure, sure, the kids were doing crazy things. And yes, some of it was a little excessive—even most of the progressives could agree on that. But this was college! Remember Berkeley and Columbia and Cornell in the 1960s? Campus was always a radical place. Everyone assumed that the kids would grow out of it. That the politics of the quad would inevitably fade as these young Americans made their way in the world, onto marriage and kids, onto mortgages and life insurance policies, and onto jobs at places like JP Morgan and Bain, Amazon and Random House.
This isn’t at all what happened. Rather than those institutions shaping young people in their image, it’s the young people who are fundamentally reshaping those institutions in their own. As Andrew Sullivan put it: We all live on campus now. It turns out those campus stories were serious in ways many couldn’t—and still refuse to—imagine.
But you already know that. If you’re a Common Sense reader you’ve long noticed that one of our main areas of focus from the start has been education. Our reasoning is simple: We believe that if you want to understand what’s coming for the country and the culture you better pay very close attention to what’s happening on college campuses. Also: our high schools. And increasingly, our elementary schools. Even our kindergartens.
That’s why we’ve done deeply reported stories about the transformation of America’s elite high schools and the radicalization of our medical schools and our law schools.
It’s why we’ve run whistleblowing essays, like Paul Rossi’s first-person account of his refusal to indoctrinate his students and Gordon Klein’s essay about suing UCLA.
It’s why we’ve reported on the smearing of parent activists and free-thinking professors—and introduced you to courageous figures like Kathleen Stock, the University of Chicago’s Dorian Abbot, and Peter Boghossian, who resigned his post as a philosophy professor at Portland State University last year with these words: “For ten years, I have taught my students the importance of living by your principles. One of mine is to defend our system of liberal education from those who seek to destroy it. Who would I be if I didn’t?”
For every professor who refuses to cave, though, there are so many more who don’t. Indeed, the major theme that has emerged in our reporting is institutional retreat—schools that have abandoned their founding mission, leaders that have decided to follow, and professors paid to think for themselves who seem very scared of doing so. Exhibit A: Suzy Weiss’s story last week on the destruction of David Sabatini, the world-renowned molecular biologist who, until recently, was a star at MIT’s Whitehead Institute. Now he’s unemployed. Sabatini is a symbol of a system and culture that has eaten its own.
But it’s not all bad news—not by a long shot. Just as we have exposed what’s gone so wrong, we have been moved as we watch people, often ordinary Americans, try to make things right.
Those builders include the parents behind the homeschooling boom—which appears to be even bigger than we understood when we reported on it back in September; the fascinating group that has convened around Synthesis; and those who have planted a flag in Texas with the University of Austin, or UATX. Since Pano Kanelos, the university’s inaugural president and former head of St. John’s College, broke the news of the new university in Common Sense half a year ago, UATX reports that they have raised over $100 million in donations, pledges, and land from more than 1,000 donors. Perhaps most amazingly, the school has received some 5,000 inquiries from prospective faculty. This summer, they are offering their first summer school program in Dallas. I’ll be there, along with teachers like Niall Ferguson, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Rob Henderson, Thomas Chatterton-Williams, Nadine Strossen and Arthur Brooks.
None of these projects lack naysayers. But I’m bullish on the builders.
It’s hard to think of a system that deserves a shake-up more than one that has resulted in $1.7 trillion of debt. In which young people are paying upward of $80,000 a year for degrees that don’t guarantee a job. In which students—and we hear from them daily—are closeted and live in fear of being found out as politically normal.
Here’s something worth remembering: The founders of Yale were Congregationalists who believed that Harvard had become too theologically lax. Princeton was started by men who were frustrated with Harvard and Yale’s opposition to a Presbyterian movement—frustrated enough to settle their new school in New Jersey. The point is that everything we now regard as institutional and prestigious started as something scrappy built by people who were pissed off about the status quo and decided they weren’t going to wait around for someone else to fix it.
So, given the commencement ceremonies taking place around the country, we give you our inaugural graduation week. Happy summer.
And please, if you haven’t yet, there’s no better time to . . .