Since the violent uprising at the American Capitol a week ago, the nation has been dealing with and trying to figure out what it all means and where to go from here. A question that has arisen: How can schools and colleges promote a stronger sense of civic education and commitment?
This week on the EdSurge Podcast, we talk to a history professor who believes that not only can colleges do more to prevent future crises like this, but that higher education is also partly to blame for last week’s events.
Jeremi Suri, Professor of Public Affairs and History at the University of Texas at Austin, outlined this argument in an article published this week in the impartial publication The Constitutionalist. We talked to him to learn more about his perspective.
EdSurge: What was your first reaction when you saw pictures of the mob of Trump supporters violating the U.S. Capitol building last week?
Jeremi Suri: I watched the election count live in the House and Senate. Ass, we watched, we got reports both on social media and on TV about these growing crowds. And it was like a slow, slow avalanche. And it just seemed more and more insecure.
The first thought that came to mind was terrorism on September 11 … They used acts of violence to undermine our basic democratic function. It felt exactly like that. Seeing these individuals, carrying weapons … wearing shirts that mention Auschwitz, run into the Capitol. They did not try to express a point of view. They tried to stop the counting of the ballot [certifying Joe Biden’s victory as president]. It felt like a terrorist attack.
In The Constitutionalist, you argue that universities are partly to blame for this unprecedented moment. What do you mean by that?
I think we are. And I will say that I have spent my whole career in universities and I hope to spend another 50 years on teaching and writing.
I love universities. I do not want to be anywhere else. But I think we owe it to ourselves and our students and our society to look long and hard at ourselves. We are not the primary source of the problem in our society, but we are a contributing source.
Our universities right in my own lifetime, since I was a student in the 1990s, have become more professional, more corporate and more driven by money than ever before. This is not to say that these were not factors in the past. But public and private universities have to fall over themselves every day to find new donors for money. And it’s more competitive every single day. They are more competitive in terms of rankings.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, but what has happened is that it has supplanted discussions of civic responsibility to serve the public. It used to be more common and more central in our universities. It is not that these discussions do not happen. It is simply a matter of priorities. Most people who run universities today spend very little time thinking about social responsibility. They spend a lot more time thinking about budgets, thinking about their university policies and honestly thinking about athletics. And my point is that it has infused our culture. It created a hyperindividualist materialistic culture at our universities, more than I saw when I was a student just 20 or 30 years ago.
The title of your piece is “Elite Universities Have Promoted Destructive Republican Leaders,” but it sounds like you are essentially arguing that they are promoting a class of leaders across all parties who are not as bourgeois as you think they are. Should be. Is that right?
Correct. I think the message that comes through at our universities – especially at our leading universities – is that you as a student are very talented. You should use these talents to achieve as much as possible for yourself. Not as much as you can for society.
But I see colleges talking about how they help create new leaders and people who want to change the world for the better – it’s even in advertising on billboards and radio ads. Do they not care about these things?
Of course. One of the points I make in the article is that it is in all the university mission statements. It’s ethos. But it’s like talking about student athletes – When we all know that most Division I athletes do not have time to be students.
This ambition is still there. I say that our institutions added a certain culture and they encourage certain types of behavior. And the way you come forward today and the message you get when you first go to university is to acquire as many skills as you can for yourself, make yourself this super attractive person for different employers and go to work, go make a lot of money and then give the money back to the university. And that makes you a great citizen.
And you say some of these citizens turn out to be Ted Cruz and others, as you say, encouraged the events of last week.
So many of the key individuals who spread the lie – and this is a lie – that the election was fake were people who knew better than to use their platform as elite graduates from universities to give credibility to this lie. SW [other] people began to believe this, not because a bunch of uneducated people said it, but because a bunch of educated people with credibility said this. And Republicans are not necessarily worse than Democrats, but they have made better use of universities.
Senators like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz come through these elite universities. They use this privilege to develop networks, to raise money, to differentiate themselves from others. And so when they get to the top, instead of respecting the values that these institutions are supposed to be about, they will burn them down because it promotes them with the people who could not get into these institutions.
It’s like I want all the candy. And so once I’ve got all the candy, I’ll have to gather all the kids who did not get any candy, to destroy the people who gave me candy once I got it. They play both sides of this. They enjoy the privilege. And then they try to appeal to those who had no privilege. And I think that’s awful, terribly treacherous.
These days, you hear a lot about universities being too liberal and encouraging too much liberalism and progressiveism, which you say is not encouraged enough. How do you square it?
These arguments about left-wing indoctrination are without empirical basis and they are overrated. It is true that in many parts of universities there are individuals who tend to have a political leaning to the left. People studying climate are likely to stay back from the center. But there are other areas that are not talked about that are very far to the right of the center. Go to a business school and [try to find] someone at a business school who is not a capitalist.
The real point here is what really matters is who runs the universities. And universities are run by people who are business leaders. Now, they could have been scholars at some point, but they become business leaders. If you are the president of a university, you spend most of your time managing alumni relationships and managing your sports teams, which is basically an entertainment business.