The New Know-Nothings
There’s an underappreciated side to the now-infamous New York Times Magazine story about Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security advisor for strategic communications. As shallow and self-important as Rhodes comes across in the article, he clearly knows his audience. “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns,” Rhodes said. “That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.” Rhodes, like much of the media he spins, is a well-educated member of the upper middle class. He is a product of the same progressive cultural and ideological milieu, and he thus has keen instincts for what he can get away with—and no shame about revealing it.
Rhodes has good reason for such confidence. Surveying America’s elite liberal arts institutions, with a focus on Oberlin College, The New Yorker’s Nathan Heller illustrates just how unhinged most institutions of higher education have become. Schools like Oberlin have for decades rejected the tenets on which they were founded—namely, that exposing young minds to the Western canon would teach them to think critically and yield productive, well-rounded members of society. Instead, Oberlin and many other once-prestigious schools have become cauldrons of radical leftism. Heller describes students who simply refuse to talk with classmates of other races; scholarship students who view the same college that provides them with free world-class educational opportunities as a “tool of capitalist oppression”; and students who feel they are being oppressed because their classwork distracts them from social activism.
Heller’s account confirms what critics of campus environments have been chronicling for years: that “trigger” warnings must be slapped even on the greatest books to protect students from ideas that might upset them, and that “identity” is treated as a kind of knowledge in itself—classic literature, not so much. Students at many of today’s leading institutions no longer study the classics. What do dead white males know about microaggression or cultural appropriation, anyway? At Stanford University, students recently voted down an initiative to institute a two-quarter Western Civilization requirement for undergraduates. Today’s academy replaces the knowledge and wisdom gleaned from Plato, Aristotle, and Herodotus with political correctness, multiculturalism, and infantilization—to devastating effect.
Supposedly liberal and tolerant campuses create “safe spaces” limited to certain identity groups and those of a certain ideological inclination. In reality, safe spaces are safe only from the diversity their inhabitants claim to cherish. Activist students decry institutions based in “imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, ableism, and a cissexist heteropatriarchy,” as one group of aggrieved black students at Oberlin described it. One can’t escape the impression that liberal arts schools are more focused on coddling the next generation of community-organizing social-justice warriors than on educating them.
The end product is a cultural and political elite made up of entitled leftists ill-equipped to deal with the realities of a competitive world. As Ronald Reagan would say, the problem with America’s elites is that they know so much that isn’t so. They see things as they wish them to be rather than as they actually are. They can be easily manipulated because they’ve never examined their own assumptions. And this makes them ripe for the plucking by Ben Rhodes and his ilk.
The progressive academy impairs the minds of America’s elite, leaving them lacking in both knowledge and judgment. This miseducation permeates the culture, which feeds back into our political system in a vicious cycle. Conservatives thus face a deep challenge. Our ideas are losing, and increasingly are not even being considered. We need our own long march through the institutions. Without one, we will continue to lose the country. For ideas truly do have consequences far beyond any one election cycle.
Benjamin Weingarten (@bhweingarten) has written for The Federalist, PJ Media, and Conservative Review. He is founder and CEO of ChangeUp Media LLC, a media consulting and publication advisory firm. You can find his work at benweingarten.com.