Do colleges and universities educate or indoctrinate? That question has been a sure-fire way to start an argument for many years as the cost of higher education escalates even as data shows elite institutions becoming increasingly ideologically monolithic and intolerant of dissent. Whether or not traditional higher education equips graduates for the working world, it doesn't seem to be preparing them for life in an open and diverse society.
"Our results indicate that higher education liberalizes moral concerns for most students, but it also departs from the standard liberal profile by promoting moral absolutism rather than relativism," write the University of Toronto's Milos Brocic and Andrew Miles in a recent paper published in American Sociological Review.
The authors compare the intolerant moral absolutism found among university students to that of "religious and political conservatives" and note:
"Rather than supporting traditional norms, these students emerge from university with a moral profile characterized by high concern for others and weak commitment to traditional social order. One interpretation of these results is that some university students—particularly those majoring in HASS [humanities, arts, and social sciences] or who continue on to graduate education—come to believe that the morals of society must change to remedy historical (and current) injustices (i.e., moral progressivism), but that the moral principles they have learned through their studies represent the real moral truth (moral absolutism)."
In case nobody picked up on the overtones of religious fanaticism, the authors add, "This lends prima facie support to recent claims that the moral relativism of years past is transforming into a form of liberal moral puritanism."
The perception that too many universities have become de facto ideological monasteries isn't unique to Brocic and Miles.
"There is an extremely intense, fundamental social justice religion that's taking over, not all students, but a very strong [space] of it, at all our colleges and universities," social psychologist Jonathan Haidt observed in 2016.
That absolutism and intolerance isn't unique to higher education or one political faction; liberals have long accused conservatives of leavening their politics with too much theology. Now the phenomenon has spread across the political spectrum.
"American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it's just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief," Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution argued earlier this year in The Atlantic. "Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations. This is what religion without religion looks like."
But universities are supposed to be centers for exploring ideas and expanding knowledge, not for establishing the one, true faith. When their denizens become convinced they've found "the real moral truth," as Brocic and Miles put it, that leaves little room for their original missions, or for dissenters.
"66% of students report some level of acceptance for speaker shout-downs (up 4 percentage points from FIRE's 2020 report) and 23% consider it acceptable for people to use violence to stop certain speech (up 5 percentage points)," The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reported last week of poll results from its 2021 College Free Speech rankings.
"The research is clear, and our experience working with these schools confirms it: Much of the campus climate for expression is determined by the administration," commented Sean Stevens, FIRE's senior research fellow for polling and analytics.
Brocic and Miles agree in part, that "Increasing political homogeneity among faculty and/or administrators could create a sense of moral consensus that leaves shared liberal beliefs unchallenged or might even make them seem naturally true." But they add that "growth in moral certainty might also be explained by socialization into the official culture of dominant institutions. According to scholarship in this area, universities are the primary institution for mobility into the professional classes. Consequently, their latent function is to socialize students into dominant status culture by teaching proper etiquette, aesthetic tastes, and moral evaluations that serve to legitimize their advantaged class position." That is, students may mouth "acceptable" opinions and scorn "unacceptable" ideas because they think that's the way to gain access to good jobs and high social status. That access doesn't come cheap, either.
"Over the 30 years between 1990-91 and 2020-21, average published tuition and fees increased from $1,810 to $3,770 at public two-year, from 3,800 to $10,560 at public four-year, and from $18,560 to $37,650 at private nonprofit four-year institutions after adjusting for inflation," according to the College Board.
That paying high prices to learn left-wing liturgy (and when to shame unbelievers) may be less necessary than advertised is demonstrated by the growing ranks of employers dropping requirements for college degrees for new hires. "Penguin Random House human resources director Neil Morrison said that growing evidence shows there is no simple correlation between having a degree and future professional success," The Guardian reported when the publishing giant changed its criteria for employment in 2016.
Tech companies, in particular, note a mismatch between what colleges offer and what skills they require of their employees. Google even launched a Career Certificates program intended as a substitute for traditional higher education.
"College degrees are out of reach for many Americans, and you shouldn't need a college diploma to have economic security," the company noted when it announced the program last year. The certificates are recognized by over 150 employers, including such high-profile companies as T-Mobile and Bayer.
These certificate programs aren't for everybody, but they're a viable alternative path to gainful employment and success in life. We'll need more such alternatives at a time when universities are charging high prices for an "education" in intolerance.