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Dr. Lyell Asher: Why Colleges Are Becoming Cults
A 15-part video series
What caused colleges and universities to descend into madness? This 15-part series by Dr. Lyell Asher, an Associate Professor of English at Lewis and Clark, provides the answer.
Dr. Asher has done his homework—and then some. He’s been studying, reading, and writing (here and here) about the educational landscape for decades. He begins his series by looking at the crucial period from 1965-1975, brings us up to the present, and concludes with specific recommendations for what parents, students, educators, and the public can do to restore sanity in the system and in an individual student’s education.
As you watch this series, I suggest you pay specific attention to what Dr. Asher says about education schools (“ed schools”). Ed schools are a key vector in transmitting and sustaining the ideology that’s come to dominate not just higher ed, but the K-12 educational system. The increasing lack of trust in our colleges and universities and venerable public institutions becomes clear once one understands the role ed schools and their administrator and teacher training programs have played and continue to play.
Finally, here’s a way to think about the ideological capture of our educational institutions and why it’s so difficult to solve: Suppose you have a magic wand. You wave the wand and woke ideology and all of its vestiges immediately disappear from every K-12 school.
You breathe a sigh of relief that we’re finally rid of the derangement syndrome that’s overtaken our schools, brainwashed our children, and seeped into every aspect of the culture. Your relief would not last long. K-12 schools would just repopulate with teachers who’ve been trained by ed schools and indoctrinated into hyper-specific value sets and pedagogies. And this is just one of the things that Dr. Asher’s series does so well—he explains what’s being taught in ed schools and reveals evidence-based literature exposing these practices as harmful and fraudulent.
Without further ado, here’s Lyell’s guest post and the intro video to the series.
By: Dr. Lyell Asher
At a debate sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1978, the biologist and writer E.O. Wilson was physically assaulted by a group of attendees from a radical political organization calling itself the “International Committee Against Racism.” With his broken leg in a cast and crutches at his side (he’d injured himself jogging), the hobbled Wilson had just started his talk when the courageous InCAR fanatics rushed the stage, roughed him up, and dumped pitchers of water on his head. Damp but undaunted, Wilson soldiered on and finished the talk as planned.
This incident has become more familiar recently owing to its mention in the many obituaries of Wilson, who died this past December at the age of 92. But it’s also become more resonant owing to the now-commonplace practice of disinviting, deplatforming and even assaulting speakers on college campuses. In 1978, the physical attack on Wilson was as exceptional as it was outrageous, and it would remain so for decades. Through all of my years in college and graduate school, from the late 70s through the 80s, it was simply unthinkable that mobs would be allowed to shout down speakers, much less physically assault them. If you had to win that way, you were admitting defeat. You were an intellectual coward and a fraud. (You still are, by the way.)
This meant that as an undergraduate I was able to see someone as controversial—even hated—as retired General William Westmoreland being dismantled, rather than deplatformed, by Viet Nam vets during the Q & A period following a talk he gave at Vanderbilt in the late 70s. Those veterans had lost friends in the war, and—no doubt—part of themselves. They had every reason to be enraged. But they let Westmoreland deliver his talk without interruption—less out of respect for him, probably, than for themselves. When their questions did come, they were pointed, often emotional, and devastating. Westmoreland was speaking about the map, but those vets knew the territory, and it was among the most memorable confrontations I’ve ever witnessed.
That’s what college was and what it should be—what it must be to deserve the name. But in the last twenty years, and in the last decade especially, higher education has gone from listing to the political left, to a full-on capsize into something that, at many institutions, more closely resembles a cult. Different institutions hit this tipping point at different times. But it was back in 2010, when I began hearing adults in positions of authority say “intentions don’t matter,” that I realized that something very different—and very stupid—was afoot. This mantra wasn’t shorthand for intellectually respectable arguments about the limits of authorial intention in literature, or about “intentionality” in philosophy. Rather, it was a dismissal of the “I-didn’t-mean-to-break-the-lamp” kind of intention—that basic component of moral evaluation understood by people everywhere, usually by the time they’re potty-trained.
This wasn’t coming from faculty either, at least not back then. It was coming from student-facing administrators whose increasing numbers and expanding roles on college campuses had been accompanied by—and accomplished by means of—subtle shifts in language. Students were no longer in a college; they were in a “community.” One began to hear in official pronouncements that “we’re all educators.” The word “collegial” began to mean little more than “compliant.” Something was “inclusive” if it coincided with that week’s political positions of the (mostly white) urban elite sporting advanced degrees. In a little over a decade this administrative class helped turbocharge a process that had been underway for several decades: transforming four-year colleges and universities from being among the best places to critically evaluate ideas, into being among the worst.
This video series tries to help those outside the academy understand how this happened, and why. Where did these administrators come from, and why do most promote an ideology that’s even more blinkered and dogmatic than that of many “activist” faculty? What’s the connection between this politicized bureaucratic juggernaut in higher education, and the racist “anti-racist” curriculum that’s found such a footing in our primary and secondary schools?
The series doesn’t of course tell the whole story of higher education’s descent into Woke orthodoxy—it couldn’t. But it does connect a few of the most important phases in that descent to a 100-year history of so-called “progressive”—but in effect, regressive—pedagogical theory in the nation’s k-12 teacher training schools. Despite the great work of writers and researchers like James Koerner, Diane Ravitch, Rita Kramer, John
Taylor Gatto, and E.D. Hirsch, to name just a few, that history is largely unknown—not only to the public at large, but to college faculty as well.
At least where faculty are concerned, it’s unlikely that knowing that history and its disastrous consequences for minority and low-income students especially, would dampen their willingness to allow, and often encourage, the abandonment of the fundamental academic values on which their own disciplines have been built. However much the professoriate may identify with the principled freedom of Galileo and Darwin, it does so only in retrospect, after the dust has settled and the victors have been announced. In the moment, it always follows the example of the Church.
But that’s an old story. As I believe Christopher Hitchens once said (I’ve been unable to verify my memory), “There is no more cowardly creature on god’s green earth than a professor with tenure.” Whatever its source, the indictment itself is verified by an addendum to the incident involving E. O. Wilson with which I began. In his book Noble Savages, the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who was at the AAAS-sponsored debate, describes what the audience—consisting mostly of the species homo academicus— did in response to the attack on Wilson: “I was in the back of the room, trying frantically to get to the stage to help Wilson, but the crowd was heading in the opposite direction, anxiously attempting to get out of the auditorium as quickly as possible.”
Why Colleges Are Becoming Cults. One of the first courses I took as a college freshman was a course in ethics from Aristotle to the present. Near the end of the term, we were asked to write a paper on one of three controversial topics of the day: abortion, capital punishment, or affirmative action. We were required to read essays on both sides of the issue. We'd chosen and we were encouraged to argue against our own beliefs. If the building were still standing, I could take you to the room where over the course of three or four nights, I changed my position on capital punishment. Class discussions were lively, even heated at times, but all viewpoints were allowed and none of us had a clue about what the professor believed.
This past spring, I was describing this class to some of my undergraduate students, and they were shocked.
"Colleges used to do that?" One student in the back shouted.
"I wish I could go to a school like that." Well, I do too. But good luck finding one.
The truth is, if you want to have an open, honest debate about the most pressing issues we're faced with as a nation, a college campus is the very last place you're likely to find it. I know because I've been teaching on college campuses for 30 years. I've seen the change with my own eyes.
So how did we get here? How did colleges replace education with indoctrination? In this video series, I'll explain as briefly as I can how colleges got us into this mess we're in and I'll offer solutions to get us out.