The New Spongiform University

For centuries, universities flourished throughout the civilized world, their work grounded in a view of learning as a disciplined habit of mind brought to perfection through the reading of great, enduring texts.

A classical, realistic, and hierarchically ordered model of learning prevailed, rooted in philosophy, especially metaphysics, and illumined by faith. So it was that higher learning based on the liberal arts was handed down to the Middle Ages and then on to modern times, from St. Augustine, through thinkers like Boethius, Cassiodorus, and Isidore of Seville. This tree of knowledge stood as the foundation of common thought and communication across the Earth.

American universities have fecklessly abandoned this ancient model of learning. Deformed teachings, especially in the humanities, are springing up in its place, like a spongiform blight, feeding on once-healthy branches. The great works of Western civilization, long held up to students as paradigms of human achievement, are rapidly being replaced by trivia, and by multicultural and poststructural studies. Stemming from political radicalism, this “postmodern” curriculum is often hostile to Western civilization and, especially, to American democratic capitalism.

The new model of the university took hold in the 1960s, when craven faculty, administrators, and trustees at trendsetting campuses capitulated to the demands of radical students, the latter sometimes armed with guns. A besieged Cornell, for instance, adopted a black studies program, to be taught only by black professors to black students. Every major university now has similar “identitarian” programs, programs fixated on group identity, grievance, and advocacy—forming what erstwhile anti-traditionalist Harold Bloom has called the “School of Resentment.”

During this same period, deconstruction and other chic poststructural theories came to dominate the intellectual life of humanities departments in almost all American universities. Like their relativist forerunners, the Sophists of ancient Greece, poststructuralists maintain that nothing can be known or even understood objectively. In their view, our minds cannot grasp truth, including moral truth, because we are hopelessly mired in prejudices determined by race, class, and gender. Language and thought exist to be “decoded” in such a way as to reveal their contradiction, paradox, and bigotry. Steeped in the new orthodoxy of disbelief, what are students to conclude? That knowledge is nothing but a bramble of power-driven “perspectives” competing among themselves, and that no behavior is better or worse than any other.

What really drives post- structuralism and multiculturalism is not serious concern about what the mind can or cannot know—but rather politics. Both fads grew out of Marxist egalitarianism, notwithstanding the disastrous results of Marxism wherever it has been tried: multiculturalists teach that all cultures—their art, inventions, rituals, etc.—are equally valuable; poststructuralists teach that all ways of thinking are equally valid—but at the same time they press left-wing causes and they denigrate the beliefs and ways of thinking of mainstream America.

Multicultural and poststructural studies—Marxist, Afrocentrist, Women, Womanist (“feminist-of-color”), Latino, Cross-Cultural, Gender, Gay-Lesbian, Environmental, and even “White” Men’s studies—continue to proliferate in ever new hybrid forms. Typical course titles and titles of conference papers and other writings on major campuses include: Black Marxism, The Illness of Global Capitalism: A Study of Female Employees on ‘Sick Leave’ and the Social Meaning of Pain, Eco-Feminism, Cultural Imperialism or Hyper-Americanization—the Swedish Raggare and Chicano Lowriders, How to have Promiscuity in an Epidemic, Fetishisms, Queer Acts (a course that “encourages drag”), Chicana Lesbian Literature, White Guys: Studies in Post-modern Domination and Difference, Postmodern Pulp and the Desire/Need for Skin, Our Common Future: Environmentalism as a New Meta-Narrative, and Techno-Imperiums: Utopian and Dystopian Relationships between Hi-Tech, the Public Sphere, and Corporate Colonization. And so it multiplies, a luxuriant crop of arrant nonsense.

With the growth of postmodern studies has come a decline in broad-based core requirements. A 1996 report by the National Association of Scholars (NAS) documents a near “purging . . . of . . . courses that used to familiarize students with the . . . foundations of their society.” For example, a mere 4 percent of the elite colleges and universities surveyed require a philosophy course, and only 2 percent require a history course. While most of our institutions of higher learning have abandoned these academic staples, increasingly they encourage courses and scholarship obsessed with low culture and, the latest rage, alternative sexual “lifestyles.” They have also willingly lowered their entrance and grading standards, and accommodated themselves to the failure of K-12 schools by offering remedial catch-up courses. Fully 70 percent of the top institutions reviewed by the NAS offer remedial courses in English, and all but two of these institutions grant academic credit for them.

The spread of postmodern studies no doubt in part accounts for the strife and intolerance on many campuses in recent years. Divisiveness has been reinforced by the adoption of discriminatory admissions practices, often in zealous conformity to government-mandated affirmative action. Many of the race- and gender-based “disciplines” derive from attempts by administrators to fulfill “diversity” hiring requirements. Many institutions have begun to toy with coercive, nascent totalitarian practices, such as racism awareness training (“RAT”) and behavioral training workshops on sexual harassment and on attitudes toward homosexuality. A Catholic student reported being obliged to attend one such session, which entailed watching “triple X” gay sex films.

There are rays of hope. A few brave and sensible faculty members are resisting postmodern radicalism. In response, campus ideologues, aided by pliant administrators, have most recently begun to advance their agenda by bypassing traditional academic disciplines and the rigors of departmental oversight—for instance, by substituting politically correct, pseudo-interdisciplinary “themes” for core subjects like English and mathematics. At Brooklyn College, an initiative called Brooklyn Connections would have guided almost all students into environmental and community theme majors. Distinguished faculty and alumni defeated the initiative, warning that it would kill the much-respected Brooklyn core by “passive euthanasia.”

A second recent radical tactic involves installing new “institutes” and “centers” which are used as cover for the implementation of transdisciplinary, ideological agendas. One “humanistic” institute promotes topics—so necessary for a well-rounded education—as: Hip-Hop and New Forms of Female Address: A Video Analysis of MTV and ‘If I had a Dick’: Queers, Punks, and Alternative Acts.

The yield of an education based on trivia and ideology has, predictably, been meager. A recent study at Stanford revealed that two-thirds of upperclassmen polled could not identify the name of the author of The Wealth of Nations and that one-third believed the Enlightenment preceded the Renaissance. A 1993 survey of college seniors and recent graduates, conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics, found that only 8 percent of those questioned could identify Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, while fully one-half could not understand a bus schedule. A 1992 study conducted by the Educational Testing Service concluded that as many as 15 percent of college graduates have only marginal language skills. Moreover, two recent articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education indicate that some students cannot bring themselves to condemn even horrific moral evil, such as genocidal ethnic cleansing or slavery.

The postmodernist university is surely helping to erode the intellectual and cultural cohesion of the nation and, ultimately, its powers to defend itself. This erosion must be reversed. The university must reestablish its metaphysical and moral foundations. Such is the fecundity of the tree of knowledge that, when the defenders of truth and reason rise up in its behalf, it will flower anew. Already organizations dedicated to the revival of the university are gaining in strength, and experiments in how to revive it are under way. One reformer, Professor Peter Redpath of St. John’s University, has shown how the close reading of classical texts can strengthen the minds of students and sustain them in their lives also outside the university.

Redpath and other reformers deserve our support. Let us root out postmodernism in the university. The time for tolerating its absurd spongiform outgrowths is at an end.


  • Candace de Russy

    Candace de Russy is a nationally recognized scholar on education and cultural issues and an Adjunct Fellow at Hudson Institute.

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