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If Universities are a Culture War Battleground, it's Time for University Workers to Fight Together

In 2023, education—higher education included—is a political dartboard. Educators are being struck by some darts—mostly thrown by conservatives, but some from progressives as well. How those of us in higher education respond will be crucial for the future of our institutions.

Those throwing darts at education are, each in their own way, combatants in culture wars sparked by the success of diverse liberation movements in the second half of the twentieth century, when women, people of color, LGBTQ communities, various religious minorities, and the disabled, demanded and ultimately won concessions that ended many informal and legal restrictions on their ability to fully participate in American life.

The culture wars now embroiling the nation are about whether to continue on the path of liberation or return to a world where Christian, White men rule, and LGBTQ folk and the disabled are closeted. Often caught up in this battle, higher education needs to assert its own culture, and share its many achievements.

What is higher education’s culture? At its best, it understands every reasonable idea as open to examination, study, and revision. Our only sacred cows are a commitment to reason, critical thinking, and adhering to established practices in our different disciplines. In our capacity as researchers, we pick a topic to study, read the extant scholarly literature on that topic, discover and gather evidence, subject that evidence to scrutiny, prepare our work to be shared, and then share it for others to review. And then we revise our work in light of criticism. Importantly, this work of scholarship informs our work as teachers, particularly in the growth of required undergraduate research projects.

Higher education’s culture delivers the goods. In the sciences our contributions include breathtaking breakthroughs in medicine, engineering, agriculture, and many more fields of study. In the humanities, social sciences, and arts, there have been equally impressive contributions in areas as diverse as business, economics, politics, literature, music, theatre, and history.

The U.S. model of higher education, one in which a liberal arts foundation is coupled with specialized instruction in a specific field of study, is being adopted all over the world. This model—and its culture--explains why the United States has been an innovative and inventive leader for the better part of the last one hundred years.

Regardless of the discipline, the essence of higher education’s relentless pursuit of new knowledge though critically examining established knowledge, consistently leads to breakthroughs in sciences as well as in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.  Exposing students to a decolonized, non-Western perspective prepares them for a diverse and complex world and deepens their understanding of themselves as Americans.

It is time for those of us who work in higher education to assert ourselves in the culture wars. We must aggressively affirm who we are, what we do, the value of our work, and our ways of working. To accomplish this, those of us who work in higher education must overcome our many differences by organizing around those things we share: a commitment to fact based reason; to the creation of new knowledge; to open mindedness; to sharing our work as teachers and scholars.

From the left, critiques of our culture take the form of opposition to studying some ideas that are, frankly, openly offensive, bigoted, and objectionable, particularly to those who are facing long standing forms of discrimination. Most often this opposition manifests itself in one of two ways. Most visible are relatively rare, but widely publicized, protests against invited speakers who are visiting elite campuses. These protests are about what ideas are welcomed in the university community generally. More frequent, less visible, and present on elite and non-elite campuses are student complaints about the ways that difficult subjects have been handled in a class. Here the challenge is not to the institution, but to the professor who is assumed to be the expert.

Recently, St. Paul, Minnesota has taken center stage in this arena with dustups over showing an image of the Prophet Mohamed during an online art history class at Hamline University and an art exhibit at Macalester College that displayed contemporary depictions of Muslim women. The final outcomes of these complex and troubling events are not yet known; indeed the incident at Hamline University is now in the courts. But among the many moving parts are the precariousness of contingent academic workers, best practices for addressing potentially divisive subjects in class, and the many challenges associated with teaching the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences in a multicultural setting. 

From the right, critiques of higher education’s culture are fueled by a fundamentalism that objects to the very idea of open mindedness. We often see a bad faith defense of free speech from conservatives (like when protests arise over right-wing invited speakers whose primary point is to stir the pot rather than contribute to the growth of new knowledge). Yet for the most part, what bothers the right about higher education’s culture is that there is room for the critical examination of ideas they find objectionable and those they find sacred. And what does the right find objectionable?

For that, we can turn to Florida. In the Sunshine State, Governor Ron DeSantis casts a shadow over free speech and critical thinking. He has fired the President of New College and stacked its board with political allies, condemned an AP African American Studies class as indoctrination and possibly pressed the College Board to modify the course to remove hot-button concepts, passed the Stop Woke Act, announced an overhaul of higher education to end programs that “impose ideological conformity to try to provoke political activism,” and fundamentally altered longstanding principles of tenure. In total, DeSantis has sought to eliminate discussions of race, class, gender, and sexuality in classes from kindergarten through the undergraduate level, and has expanded this agenda to corporate governance as well.

Whether the attacks come from the left or the right, higher education’s culture is the target. Some self-identified progressives, aided by administrators who want to avoid controversy, advance notions of identity to create safe spaces for learning while conservatives are reviving once dormant racist ideas that condemn attention to difference and inequality as a threat to national survival.

We must respond by defending the culture of higher education and trumpet its successes. In terms of teaching, learning, and knowledge creation, higher education is a success. We are teaching ever-evolving knowledge that addresses new challenges to a student body that is more diverse than ever. Our culture of fact-based inquiry and transparency continues to lead to innovation and knowledge production that is highly desired in every corner of the world.  Whatever our partisan or political affiliations might be, in higher education we have a shared identity and a culture. Let’s engage.

Since much of the challenge from progressives comes from inside our campuses, we can deal with it internally. We can and must do better in the ways we examine controversial and potentially triggering ideas. We need to promise our students that we will address all subjects and ideas professionally, respectfully, and with thoughtful intention. If faculty are not skilled at addressing sensitive topics, they should avoid them until they are. Administrators must help them to become skilled, rather than encourage avoidance.

If faculty act unprofessionally and disrespectfully, then the university, and the faculty, need to be made accountable.

For schools that claim to be part of the liberal arts tradition, we need to make clear that when someone chooses to join us, they will be exposed to challenging subjects and ideas. This needs to be stressed when we are recruiting students and at orientations to the campus. 

We should also make clear that in the classroom, students are not customers. When students choose to join us, they need to know they will almost certainly be made uncomfortable. They will be asked to examine almost any and every idea.  Our task, as the old cliché suggests, is “to make the foreign familiar and the familiar foreign.”

Students will not be required to change what they think about any specific thing, but they will be required to change the way they think about thinking. They will be expected to base their arguments on reason and evidence, and they will be expected to subject the evidence they find to tests of veracity and review.

To be sure, colleges and universities must respect the students from the many cultures that join us. Just as importantly, everyone who joins us needs to respect higher education’s culture of open mindedness, critical thinking, and professional standards of scholarship. If you are not comfortable with or in this culture, choose a college of university that stands outside this tradition, either for ideological or religious reasons. 

The challenge of the right cannot be addressed internally because it is being brought in the political arena and the court of public opinion. It will require that we publicly explain, proclaim, and defend our culture with our local communities, our states, and the nation. We must be clear and accessible, free of jargon and without contempt for those without a college degree.

We must organize and actively and engage with every form of media and at every level of government, for as long as it takes. In defense of higher education’s culture, we need to work as a team and include everyone who works in our sector, from those who serve students in lunchrooms to university presidents. This will require that we take a clear-eyed look at the ways contingent faculty face challenges that tenured faculty do not. Basic solidarity requires that every person involved in educating students, from support staff to faculty on contingent appointments, need to the same protections of academic freedom as set out by the American Association of University Professors.

We need to make clear that colleges and universities have contributed mightily to the development of cancer drugs, the microwave, the internet (sorry, Al Gore), and countless works of fine and popular art, and have enriched public policy debates across the board. And except for the labor movement, no institution has done more to produce the American middle class than colleges and universities.

We also need to stress our culture’s intellectual diversity. American universities, despite their reputation, have turned out generations of graduates into the conservative movement as well as the progressive and, perhaps not as much to our credit, plenty of apathetic graduates as well.

The culture wars are not going away. Because the culture wars are about the question of who will be fully American, and because education shapes the answer to that question, culture war threatens the entire education system. The stakes are high. If higher education loses out in the culture wars, so too will American democracy. Our only hope is to enter the fray with our own culture in mind, and to insist on respect. If we stay on the sideline, we will lose. If all of us who participate in higher education join the fight, we will win.