Culture Friday: A fundamental flaw in education

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Friday, the 15th of March, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Up first, Culture Friday.

EICHER: It is and I’ll welcome John Stonestreet now. He’s president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

John, good morning.

JOHN STONESTREET, GUEST: Good morning, Nick.

EICHER: I was late to this, because it’s a week old now: Peggy Noonan’s column in The Wall Street Journal on the ritual humiliations of the cultural revolution of China, the “struggle sessions.”

The spirit of the struggle sessions, she wrote, has returned and it’s here, and it’s fueled by extreme politics, social media, and loneliness.

If you don’t know what the “struggle sessions” were, here’s how Peggy Noonan described them:

“In the struggle sessions the accused, often teachers suspected of lacking proletarian feeling, were paraded through streets and campuses, sometimes stadiums. It was important always to have a jeering crowd; it was important that the electric feeling that comes with the possibility of murder be present. Dunce caps, sometimes wastebaskets, were placed on the victims’ heads, and placards stipulating their crimes hung from their necks. The victims were accused, berated, assaulted. Many falsely confessed in the vain hope of mercy.” End quote.

Now, the spirit of this totalitarian enterprise is what Noonan says has returned. I’ll quote again:

“The spirit of the struggle session is all over Twitter. On literary Twitter social-justice warriors get advance copies of new books and denounce them for deviationism—as insensitive, racist, appropriative, anti-LGBTQ. Books on the eve of publication have been pulled, sometimes withdrawn by authors who apologize profusely. Everyone’s scared. And the tormentors are not satisfied by an apology. They’re excited by it and prowl for more prey.” End of that quote.

John, “the spirit of the struggle session”: Do you see any way out of this mess?

STONESTREET: Well, it’s a remarkable analogy and she’s right, other than she’s probably not quite said enough, which is it’s not only if someone puts out a book today and it doesn’t quite meet up to our standards, but there’s I think a real industry now of going back 10, 15, 20, 25 years and digging up things that were said in the past. Now, in some cases some of these things needed to be dug up and they need to be revealed and what was said was horrible or insensitive, but the point is as bad as it is or as not as bad as it is, an apology never satisfies those who accuse. It’s never enough of an apology. There’s never room for growth, at least for those on the cultural right.

I think it’s amazing how quickly the story has faded on the Virginia governor, for example, and what he did back in college. And yet just this week on NPR I heard that we still have serious questions about Judge Kavanaugh and even Clarence Thomas because — I mean, it’s just really an amazing thing that there’s — once you’re accused, you’re guilty and you’re guilty for life and that’s really the new, I think the new way things are. So I think it’s an apt description by Peggy Noonan and I think it has created an awful lot of fear on university campuses. This started back with Mark Regnerus at the University of Texas when an anonymous gay blogger almost got him fired from his tenured faculty position just by criticizing research data as being bigoted and hated even though it was just following where the data led. I mean, it’s kind of a stunning situation.

Of course it’s going to make us dumber. It’s going to dumb down the university. We’ve already seen that where some points of view are not allowed, where there’s not a robust debate of an idea, where you actually can’t say certain things out loud and if you do, you’re accused of being hateful and harmful and so on. There’s stories about this that would just blow your mind, about even leftist, progressive professors who didn’t exactly tow the line on certain issues. So it’s a brand-new totalitarianism.

Is there a way out of this mess? I think what you see is — at least if we go to Peggy Noonan’s comparative story here — what you see is it gets to a certain point where so many false accusations, so much harm is done that there’s no way to go forward. There’s only a way to kind of rebuild. And I think that’s probably where we’re going to get to. This is going to decimate robust intellectual curiosity. I think it’s going to decimate the academic project. I think it’s going to decimate some of our important cultural institutions. I mean, we are rearranging reality.

There was a ridiculous piece this past week in the Washington Post as well, Nick, where a United Methodist church who accepted everyone was held up as — and it said something like “Here’s a United Methodist church not obsessed with sex.” And if you’ve been around the United Methodist world at all, you know they’re not obsessed with sex at all except for the progressives that have made it the central issue. And so I don’t think we’re going to get out of this any time soon, but I think it’s going to cause a lot of damage along the way.  

EICHER: No doubt you saw the charges this week from federal prosecutors against dozens of wealthy parents. They’re accused of using various forms of cheating to get their children admitted to elite colleges. Those charged include prominent figures in law and business, as well as two Hollywood actresses. Allegedly they used bribes, bogus entrance-exam scores, and faked athletic achievements. The details are pretty incredible.

Obviously, they deserve their day in court. Innocent until proven guilty.

But if true, I’ll quote Tim Carney:

It seems that if —

(A) They had to hire someone to take their kids’ SATs, and (B) They thought the kids would do fine in college despite not meeting admissions standards.

That suggests —

(A) SATs may actually test intelligence, and (B) Passing college classes doesn’t require ability.

Interesting point.

STONESTREET: Well, I think I’d agree largely with B. I don’t know that I’d agree with A that SATs actually test intelligence. I think it tests certain types of intelligence, but I think that really underscores one of the big problems that we have in kind of our western vision of academia, which is it’s only one type of intelligence that gets tested by the SATs.

Now, I fully agree with the second suggestion which is that passing college classes doesn’t require ability. Look, college has become a business and this is something that both Christian colleges and secular colleges are, I think, fundamentally guilty of, of having to keep the doors open in ways that allow students to come on board. I’ve taught on the university campus and then I spent a few years to gain extra money moderating classes for a university that had this enormous online school and, basically, online degree programs. And, look, I taught freshman kind of an intro, and this was at a Christian college. I’m telling you right now, some of these kids couldn’t write. I would get entire emails from students that did not include a single capital letter or a single mark of punctuation and would be multiple lines long. And that wasn’t a rare occurrence. That was consistent every class that I had every semester.

And part of this is there’s a fundamental flaw in the basic approach to education that you go to college to get a job to make money. And there’s no sense of you go to college, that academia’s part of kind of life discipleship. And that’s long been a Western value that higher education or education itself is something that everyone should have in order to be part of the community, should be part of living life well together, that this is the pursuit of citizenship. And that’s just not part of the vision.

And so what happens is is when you have a different calculation — namely either a financial calculation or a completely utilitarian calculation — that’s a philosophy of education that’s eventually going to poison the whole well. That’s what T.S. Elliott said. However you try to do education reveals what you think education is for. And we’ve got a fundamental flaw.

And that’s why, you know, these stories come out and they shock us. But, basically, it kind of shocks me that they didn’t get caught earlier. But it doesn’t shock me that this stuff happens. I mean, look, we’ve got — there’s so many scandals in higher education right now that get covered up — and, again, I’m talking about the Christian and non-Christian world.

There’s a whole lot of holes in that dike and when that thing breaks, it’s going to be unbelievable what we’ve seen. And what we’ve seen so far is going to seem like child’s play. Of course there’s a scandal. And it’s infected from the top to the bottom with a bad philosophy of education.

EICHER: John Stonestreet is president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. It’s Culture Friday. John, thanks so much.

STONESTREET: Thanks, Nick.

(AP Photo/Ben Margot) People walk on the Stanford University campus beneath Hoover Tower Thursday, March 14, 2019, in Santa Clara, Calif. 

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