American liberal arts colleges are embracing collaborations with authoritarian regimes worldwide, with implications for US foreign policy. Following up his op-ed in the New York Times on Sunday, Jim Sleeper reports on the issue in greater depth in this openDemocracy essay.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert O. Blake performed the diplomatic equivalent of gold-medal figure skating last April in a meeting at the authoritarian central Asian nation of Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University when a student asked him about warnings by American critics and human-rights monitors that “a democracy cannot have its universities making partnerships with authoritarian governments,” as the questioner put it.
How could Blake justify his enthusiasm for American universities’ extensive contracts in Kazakhstan, when his own department had reported that country’s “rampant and diverse” human-rights violations and “pervasive corruption.”? Similar assessments have been offered Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, and Freedom House, and also by The Economist magazine’s yearly Democracy Index for 2012, which ranked Kazakhstan 143rd among 167 nations (behind Iraq, Belarus, and Angola) in protecting civil liberties, press freedoms and other elements of liberal democracy.
Blake acknowledged “a trend, not just in Kazakhstan,” toward what he delicately called a “more constrained space for civil society.” But he insisted “we have high expectations of Kazakhstan” and “a very positive and open dialogue” with its government and “we strongly support efforts by various American universities to establish more partnerships with… universities like [Nazarbayev University].”
“[W]e’re really supporting… our own universities who… want to have a diverse student body in the United States, wonderful students like all of you,” he added, finessing the student’s question about why American universities haven’t only welcomed students from authoritarian lands to the U.S. but have also been scrambling to offer their services and prestige to such regimes.
U.S. diplomats do have raisons d’etat to encourage American colleges to collaborate with authoritarian regimes in nations strategically pivotal to American interests. But liberal-arts colleges have even stronger reasons to resist establishing campuses constructed, funded, and ultimately guided by regimes like those in Kazakhstan, Abu Dhabi, Singapore, and China, which are eager to buy liberal education’s “skill sets” and imprimatur, but not its commitment to interrogate the latest flows of power and wealth, not just ride and facilitate them.
It’s one thing, and probably a good thing, for Western research universities to set up research projects and programs in law, business, medicine, and technical training in a wide variety of societies. Nearly 250 are doing so, eight in Kazakhstan alone (including Duke, Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pennsylvania, and Pittsburgh, as well as Wisconsin), dozens in the United Arab Emirates and China, a dozen in Singapore.
Some have been shrewd enough to put down only light footprints: Columbia University’s undergraduate “learning centers” in Europe and Asia can be pulled back fairly quickly if it decides its academic mission and freedoms are being compromised. Carnegie Mellon’s undergraduate college in Qatar’s huge, $33-billion “Education City” gives degrees mostly in sciences, in a building it shares with Northwestern University, whose undergraduate curriculum emphasizes journalism and communications. Georgetown offers a bachelor's degree in Foreign Service in “Education City.”
But it’s another thing entirely for liberal-arts colleges to stake their prestige and strained pedagogical resources on collaborations with repressive authoritarians to introduce their own hand-picked young and transient international students to what the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott called the “the Great Conversation” of the humanities about lasting challenges to politics and the spirit -- all under contract to regimes that have become quite deft at suppressing such conversations with surveillance and seductions, as well as truncheons and prison cells.
We Americans have an infamously bad habit of exporting contradictions and hypocrisies we ought to face and resolve at home. If the British Empire grew “in a fit of absence of mind,” as the historian John Robert Seeley suggested, the single-minded stampede of American liberal educators to share liberal education with the world on the tabs and under the thumbs of illiberal rulers is as delusional as the more Christian collegiate mission early in the last century “to evangelize the world in a generation,” as the slogan of the campus based Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions put it.
Yet if any academic mission is now proclaimed with equal ardor by the proudly public University of Wisconsin at Madison, the venerably private Yale University, and the hard-driving New York University (“a private university in the public service,” it styled itself, before becoming “A Global Network University”), it’s to bring the blessings of liberal education to illiberal societies in a world connected and flattened by commerce.
NYU President John Sexton enthuses that his “Global Network University” will “mirror the flow of talent and creativity that increasingly defines the world.”
Yale University’ claims that the new college it has co-founded with Singapore’s National University will be “a place of revelatory stimulation” that will reinvent liberal education “from the ground up,” in “A community of learning, founded by two great universities, in Asia, for the world.”
Liberal education with an American republican inflection struggles to realize Thomas Jefferson’s vision, in founding for the University of Virginia in 1819, of a crucible for citizen leaders who “are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” its emphasis is on nurturing “citizens who can think critically, understand their own history, and give voice to their beliefs while respecting the views of others,” as the American Academy of Arts & Sciences put it recently in a call to renew the humanities.
Some of us who try hard to teach this way believe that when efforts to sustain the liberal arts as a civic art have worked well, they’ve made democracy more resilient. As Assistant Secretary Blake suggested, they’ve attracted international students who want to escape rote learning in repressive homelands.
But the American Academy worries rightly about the humanities’ prospects in the United States itself, more than in societies where they’ve never taken root. Buffeted by market, political and social pressures, liberal educators whose own public funding is dwindling and whose students’ resources and aspirations are narrowing have set sail for lavish subsidies and burgeoning new student markets. But they’ve forgotten that whoever pays the piper ultimately calls the tune.
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When Kazakhstan approached the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 2009 for help in establishing a biotechnology program, the Wisconsonites, flush with liberal idealism, proposed instead a School for the Humanities and Social Sciences “to extend ‘the Wisconsin Idea’ to Kazakhstan and the world,” as their letter of intent put it.
The new school would educate “leaders who will have an impact… like the thousands of UW-Madison graduates who have joined the Peace Corps over the decades,” said Gilles Bousquet, a UW dean and vice-provost, after visiting the country. Kazakhstan approved the proposal, giving Wisconsin nearly $1 million in initial design contracts and the inside track to $55 million in faculty salaries paid by the regime.
But “The Wisconsin Idea” was developed more than a century ago by Progressives (including UW faculty) to strengthen labor rights and democratic procedures and to loosen the grip of robber barons. To say the least, that isn’t Kazakhstan’s idea. Its new, $2 billion Nazarbayev University is named for its President Nursultan Nazarbayev, 72, who ran the country in its final years as a Soviet republic and whose rubber-stamp parliament has anointed him "Leader of the People," elevating him and his family and state apparatus above the law.
Not surprisingly, Nazarbayev has a representative on his university’s governing board, clouding its promises of academic freedom, which, as in all such regimes, declines to “follow truth wherever it may lead” if it leads to pointed questions about freedom and the rule of law.
Shortly after Wisconsin’s school opened in 2011-- a year before Assistant Secretary Blake’s talk -- the Peace Corps removed its 117 volunteers from the country “following several sexual assaults and reported instances of harassment by the state intelligence service,” according to the historian Allen Ruff and investigative journalist Steve Horn in an exhaustive account of Wisconsin’s venture there. At about the same time, Kazakhstan state security forces opened fire on striking oil workers in the Caspian Sea oil company town of Zhanaozen, killing many, detaining and beating many more and blacking out communications from the region. The regime held show trials and even arrested some of the workers’ attorneys.
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Blake did have “reasons of state” for skating around these developments’ implications for liberal education. Although Kazakhstan’s population is only 17 million, its 4,000-mile border with Russia, its 1,400-mile frontier with China, and its billions of dollars in contracts with American firms like Exxon Mobil give the U.S. a foothold and buffer in central Asia.
And Blake was really only emulating his boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had made a similar pitch at a 2011 celebration of “people to people” exchanges between the U.S. and China, whose restraints on freedoms of scholarship, journalism, and public expression are well known. Praising New York University’s plan to open a full “NYU Shanghai” campus as a joint venture with the East China Normal University – it has just opened -- Clinton invited NYU President John Sexton to stand for a round of applause, praising his “vision” and saying, “we’re very excited about this endeavor.”
NYU’s endeavor in Shanghai follows its opening of a stand-alone “portal” campus in Abu Dhabi, whose Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, presented the university with a no-strings gift of $50 million even before paying for the entire campus’ construction, faculty salaries, and substantial tuition subsidies.
Abu Dhabi’s “significant human rights problems” in 2012, according to the U.S. State Department, included “arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions, and lengthy pretrial detentions;” limitations on freedoms of speech, press, and association; “reports of police and prison guard brutality’” interference “with citizens’ privacy rights,” and a lack of government “transparency” and “judicial independence.”
In April 2011, five Abu Dhabi dissidents -- including Nasser bin Ghaith, who was teaching at the country’s branch of the University of Paris, Sorbonne -- were arrested, detained for several months, and given prison sentences for urging direct elections of the Federal National Council. They were pardoned following an international outcry, but no thanks to NYU or the Sorbonne, which were silent.
The State Department was silent, too, and small wonder: The petrol-rich, geographically pivotal emirate is as important to the U.S. as is Kazakhstan. The 70-plus percent of Abu Dhabi residents are migrants with few rights and no nationalist fervor, and they pose little threat to American strategic or economic interests, let alone to Abu Dhabi’s authoritarianism. And the regime and its partners in the United Arab Emirates risk nothing by hosting international students seeking American degrees. The risks are to the essence and spirit of liberal education itself.
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In Singapore, Yale has co-founded “Yale-NUS College” with the National University of Singapore to offer a new, residential liberal education under the strict scrutiny and ultimately the control of that wealthy, tightly-run city-state. Like Abu Dhabi, Singapore is paying virtually all the costs of constructing and operating Yale-NUS’ brand-new panopticon of a campus.
Also like Abu Dhabi and Kazakhstan, the tiny, corporate city-state of Singapore is pivotal in its own way to American interests. It’s a critical base and listening post for foreign policy makers and the American military, an entrepot for global finance competitive with Hong Kong, and now, it hopes, an education hub, “the Boston of Southeast Asia.” The country’s ruling Han Chinese elite knows the Chinese colossus to its north very well, and it speaks English well, owing to its British colonial past: English is Singapore’s official language.
Here, too, the American academic rhetoric has been missionary. Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis, a former Yale professor, announced that deliberations in the summer of 2012 by the new faculty, on a hilltop in New Haven and then in their campus in Singapore, were nothing less than “the liberal arts experience made manifest” in a place where “the forces resisting change do not exist,” as the Yale-NUS faculty’s preliminary Curriculum Report put it.
The college, which opened in August, will “rethink liberal education” in a Common Curriculum fostering “shared belonging… in a community” that will “instill habits of critical judgment and forbearing tolerance that arise from seeing peers struggle with problems one knows well oneself.” Students will keep portfolios of their progress and hone their speaking and writing skills.
But the college’s slick brochure for applicants promises them entry to a global managerial elite that answers not to any republican polity or code but to investors riding the casino-finance, corporate-welfare, consumer marketing. Although their degrees will be granted only by NUS, graduates will be “fully integrated” into “the Yale Alumni community” and so can host clients at the elegant Yale Club of New York on visits to the United States. The first such visit, for many of the new students, was a month-long stay in “one of Yale’s beloved residential colleges” on the New Haven campus, with tours of Boston and New York, before they settled into their Singapore campus.
Although the Yale-NUS admissions office claims that it culled its inaugural class of 157 from among 11,400 eager applicants, making the new college one of the most highly selective of its kind, 9,000 of those applications were made thanks solely to the Yale College admissions office in New Haven’s decision to put a small box on all application forms to Yale that, if checked, would forward the same application, automatically and without elaboration, to the Yale NUS admissions office in Singapore.
“Despite the Admissions Office’s assurances, applicants may have felt that their decision of whether or not to check the NUS box might affect their chances of admission at Yale in New Haven,” wrote Diana Rosen in the Yale Daily News. “Or, the Yale-NUS option on the application may have simply served as way of convincing applicants that they were improving their chances of receiving a diploma with the name ‘Yale’ on it. It’s deceiving and it’s wrong.”
Singapore itself is too infamously Orwellian in its repressions of freedoms of expression to be trusted to honor more than a boutique humanities curriculum. Reporters Without Borders ranks the island 149th out of 179 this year – down from 135th in 2012, owing partly to its recent crackdown on political websites. It has a truly flabbergasting array of legalistic restraints on freedoms of the press, political activity, and labor rights.
Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew, now in his ‘80s, has even tutored Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev in the arts of authoritarian governance, including the control of their universities’ governing boards. (Lee has even persuaded Nazarbayev to make English Kazakhstan’s official language.) The National University of Singapore is one of the institutions partnering with Nazarbeyev University.
Liberal education can’t take root in a bubble. “In a host environment where free speech is constrained, if not proscribed, faculty will censor themselves, and the cause of authentic liberal education… will suffer," warned the American Association of University Professors last year in a letter criticizing Yale’s venture and posing 16 questions that Yale has declined to answer.
Jothie Rajah documents exhaustively in Authoritarian Rule of Law that Singapore’s meticulous, sanctimonious, politicized judiciary enforces broad laws on “public order,” the press, and religious and racial expression. These have been rammed through parliament by the ruling party in unvarying sequences of declared “emergencies”; orchestrated denigrations of critics in parliamentary “hearings” that are show trials; the infantilization of citizens in the name of looking after their best interests; and deliberately vague wording of statutes to leave room for the state manipulate the laws at it wishes.
Critics who still protest are charged with “defamation” or “scandalizing the judiciary;” they are invariably convicted; bankrupted by large fines, and imprisoned and/or barred from leaving the country. Chee Soon Juan, who holds a PhD from the American University of Georgia and is now secretary general of the tiny opposition Singapore Democratic Party, was fired by NUS from his position as a lecturer in neuropsychology in 1993 after he joined an opposition party; when he attempted to contest his dismissal, he was charged with defaming public officials, imprisoned, bankrupted, and barred from leaving the country.
After Singapore incurred international embarrassment by preventing Chee from accepting a human-rights award in Oslo, I and some others were able to bring him and another opposition leader, Kenneth Jeyaretnam of Singapore’s Reform Party, to speak at Yale. Apparently Singapore thought the better of embarrassing its latest American university partner.
The Singaporean Professor Cherian George, an internationally distinguished scholar of press freedom, was denied tenure at his country’s Nanyang Technological University in a process so heavy handed it was condemned by his own colleagues – who showed unusual bravery -- and by distinguished scholars abroad.
Five American universities have pulled out of Singapore, most recently a branch of the University of Chicago’s Business School and two programs established by NYU in arts and in law. Some withdrawals have been prompted by financing and marketing projections that didn’t pan out, but others have been spurred by Singapore’s meddling to thwart the prospects of professors with dissenting opinions and to rein in students’ criticisms of government.
The faculty of Britain’s Warwick University forced its administration to withdraw from Singapore on such grounds before a college it was planning there had opened; California’s Claremont Colleges rebuffed Singapore’s offer to establish a similar college after an animated faculty opposed the president’s inclination to go.
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Yale-NUS students won’t be free to form political associations, much less to protest government policies, even on campus. In this, Singapore isn’t unusual. There’s little precedent for student freedom anywhere in the region.
China’s Johns Hopkins-Nanjing Center, which offers graduate programs in international relations, has experienced draconian restrictions on political discussion and expression such as an attempted on-campus showing of a documentary about the Tienanmen Square uprising and a decorous but short-lived student journal whose distribution off-campus was banned. Chinese authorities are insistent that no such projects touch anyone who isn’t formally enrolled at the center and therefore carefully watched.
Officials at Duke University’s campus in Kunshan, “after pretty good conversations with people at Hopkins,” decided they “would be comfortable drawing similar distinctions between “intra-campus discussion and what you do at large,” Duke President Richard Brodhead told Bloomberg News. “If you want to engage in China, you have to acknowledge that fact.”
"What we [Americans] think of as freedom, they [Singaporeans] think of as an affront to public order,” said Yale-NUS’ inaugural dean Charles Bailyn, explaining Singapore’s curbs on public assembly.
The ease with which Americans accept such restrictions in the name of multicultural engagement is instructive as well as frightening. Liberal educators abroad have begun to sound like business-corporate managers who adjust their labor and other practices downward to their host countries’ standards in order to facilitate their investments there. The Texas-based Houston Community College, under contract to the Qatar government as a vendor of educational services through "Qatar Community College," segregates its classes by sex.
“I have no trouble distinguishing between rights of academic freedom and rights of political expression,” NYU’s President Sexton declared when some students and faculty in New York protested the virtual indentured servitude of migrant workers constructing the Abu Dhabi campus two years ago. He added that ivory tower moralists should get “out of their comfort zones.” l Faculty “no-confidence” votes against Sexton in five NYU schools and programs didn’t shake him from his own comfort zone.
And when a Yale faculty resolution warned that university’s administration against dealing with Singapore in ways that compromise “ideals that lie at the heart of liberal arts education and of our civic sense as citizens,” President Richard Levin dismissed it as “unbecoming” and carrying “a sense of moral superiority.” Levin resigned his presidency a few months later, but the Singapore venture proceeds, and Yale has refused to disclose the full terms of the contract.
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Why are university presidents so willing to make such compromises and even to celebrate them? Some, hoping sincerely to carry the blessings of liberal education to humanize globalization and even (sotto voce) to liberalize authoritarian regimes, are beguiled by “democratic" window dressing, designed by western-educated consultants.
The regimes’ smooth and/or sharp-tongued, Western-educated apologists easily fool or cow American innocents abroad, sometimes by wagging accusing fingers at the failures and hypocrisies the Americans left behind. The apologists dare not wag their fingers at failures in their own societies, whose repression displaces and intensifies their projections of disdain for their guests.
Many university leaders are vulnerable to such put-downs because, having come to think like corporate CEOs, they’ve forgotten the difference between the democratic rule of law that most Americans still honor and the simulacra of legalism in the cruel regimes that are hosting them. The more that they learn to characterize those regimes not as “authoritarian” but as “authoritative,” the more their own understandings of democracy and liberal education sound corporate, statist, and unfree.
The suppression or distortion of clear thinking abroad bleeds back into its suppression at home. The University of Wisconsin at Madison has asked the state legislature to exempt it from Wisconsin’s vaunted Open Records Law, a proud legacy of the Wisconsin Idea that enabled Allen Ruff and Steven Horn to produce their account of its Kazakhstan project. “The Wisconsin Idea” has already been rolled back in the state’s revocation of collective bargaining for public-sector workers and even more fatefully for UW with cuts in state funding from almost 50% of the university’s budget in the 1960s to less than 19% today. No wonder that it welcomed Kazakhstan’s offer.
Yale is less strapped for funding than Wisconsin, but three current or recent members of its small governing corporation advised and/or invested in Singapore’s sovereign wealth and investment funds for at least a decade before the Yale-NUS deal was arranged with their ardent support. Charles Goodyear IV, Charles Ellis, and G. Leonard Baker seem to think that they’ve glimpsed the Future in rising, wealthy state-capitalist regimes whose civil societies seem more orderly and energetic than America’s faltering, libertarian-capitalist one.
Another former Yale trustee, the journalist and global political commentator Fareed Zakaria, touted Singapore in The Future of Freedom as a model for his claim that societies that liberalize economically will liberalize politically. At Davos Zakaria interviewed Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew and his son, Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister, almost worshipfully. Months later, Yale President Levin interviewed Zakaria before a New Haven audience inaugurating Yale’s new Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, which brought Tony Blair to teach a course on “faith and freedom.”
Presidents such as Levin lose liberal education’s compasses as they move from being scholars and teachers, of whatever caliber, to serving on multiple business-corporate boards, where they learn to think about expanding any institution's brand name and market share. When a university president treats liberal education as a game of money, power, and public relations, he has “played the role cast for him by the large forces shaping research universities today, which are the very forces that led the [Harvard] Corporation to think he was the man for the job," as Lewis, the former Dean of Harvard College, put it.
If university leaders imagine that they’re advancing America’s highest foreign-policy goals and strategic interests, diplomats such as Blake and Clinton have been happy to indulge them. After all, the diplomats are fiscally strapped, their embassies becoming fortresses, their networks of trust fraying amid leaks of their communications. Universities can accomplish “people-to-people” exchanges far more easily and convincingly.
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The real danger isn’t that these relationships will produce collisions and open conflict between American educators and their hosts in Kazakhstan, Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, and Singapore, although they may. It’s really that the relationships will facilitate a smooth, clueless co-dependency on what a special issue of The Economist identified as a convergence of Asian and American “state capitalism:” The Asian model “liberalizes” a bit politically and cosmetically, while the American model becomes more statist and corporatist, inducing educators and diplomats to define liberal expectations down. The “new normal” becomes a neoliberal purgatory where neither Socrates nor Jefferson could breathe.
Just after World War II, a more resilient American democracy opened liberal education to millions of Americans themselves through the G.I. Bill and National Defense Education Act loans, as Daniel Duedney and John Ikenberry note in a Council on Foreign Relations paper that calls for a new “liberal internationalist American Grand Strategy” that would begin with democratic renewal at home.
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Authoritarian rulers have weaknesses, too, as they try to ride the global tides that have carried Western universities to their shores. They’re expanding state coercion to try to shore up the social cohesion their societies once drew from Confucian, Islamic, or even Western colonial traditions that are dissolving amid riptides of global finance, communications, labor migration, and consumer marketing that, so far, have generated huge inequalities amid prosperity and loosened restraints on degrading and criminal behavior.
The Economist casts “a sceptical eye” on this variant of state-capitalist control, pioneered by Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, whom it characterized as “a tireless advocate of ‘Asian values,’ by which he meant a mixture of family values and authoritarianism.” The Lees have drawn subliminally from Confucian traditions that present the head of state as a paterfamilias in order to rein in the county’s increasingly soulless and demoralizing materialism. “States hover like crows over the nests that nations make,” warned the historian Robert Wiebe in 2001 against these hollow, often brutal invocations of old cultural wellsprings to shore up new concentrations of power and profits.
Similarly, the sheiks of the Emirates – and even Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan-- have adapted Islamic traditions to offset the civic and social costs of their own simultaneous promotions of go-go investment and marketing that dissolve pre-market cultures of honor.
These rulers want liberal education to help them finesse the brutality and hypocrisy of these bargains. They want American colleges’ imprimaturs and the “critical thinking” and felicity in writing and speaking that a liberal education may provide to regime managers and spokesmen.
The students themselves are often as well-meaning as they are bright, and some hope that the new colleges will give them some intellectual and political wiggle room. But most simply want lucrative careers, just as most American students do: “In an Asian society likes ours,” a Singaporean student in the United States told me, “there is an infatuation with the Ox-bridges, HYP (Harvard Yale Princeton). So much so that joint programmes are the flavour of the day, example Singapore-MIT, Duke-NUS, Yale-NUS, and a now defunct Johns Hopkins-Singapore program.”
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Liberal education does need to make accommodations to wealth and power. At the dawn of the 18th century, Yale’s own Puritan founders, eager to purify a mission they thought was being corrupted by Harvard, found themselves turning for support to Elihu Yale, an officer of one of the world’s first multi-national corporations, the East India Company, which a century would later acquire the island of “Singapura” for the British crown.
But now university leaders are wandering a bit like Alice in Wonderland – or in NYU’s case, like Captain Cook -- into fogs of duplicity cast by regimes whose “features of Western-style democracy are worn relatively lightly and combined with a markedly authoritarian mode of rule,” as a recent analysis by the Washington-based Trans-Atlantic Academy put it. Authoritarian rulers must be laughing up their sleeves at their good fortune in capturing American innocents abroad.
No one expects university leaders to pose Socratic questions to such rulers or to captains of commerce and finance who are riding the golden riptides. American colleges are “like ships caught in the same current, some more obviously helpless than others, … but all drifting toward certain destruction on a lee shore,” the American editor Lewis Lapham warned in 2001.
Still, someone should warn them against supplying riders of the storm with little more than well-disciplined crews and tighter rigging. Colleges have to nourish and hold to the understanding, always fragile to begin with, that wise interrogation strengthens a society’s public life in ways that armies and states can’t.
If American colleges, surfing the golden tides, transform themselves from the crucibles of civic-republican citizen-leadership that they’ve been at their best into career-networking centers and cultural galleria for a global managerial class that answers to no republican polity or moral code, the American republic will lose its own compass and its anchors.