Above: Patrick Henry College
The constellation of right-wing websites dedicated to skewering, attacking, and stoking outrage about higher education in America is remarkable. With names like College Fix and Minding the Campus, these pixel-built rags employ a largely twenty-something workforce to dredge up every absurdity they find to feed the rage of conservatives decades their senior. In North Carolina, there’s an entire “think tank” whose purpose seems to be to take shots at one campus, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As easy as it is to scoff at their obsessions, conservatives have a very real vision in mind for what higher education should be.
Consider the ongoing outpouring of grievance from UNC’s chief tormentor, state Senator Phil Berger. The Boss from Eden has long complained that conservatives are discriminated against in hiring at UNC and students are fed a diet of ideological garbage from Marxist academics. And Berger is the restrained one. The right-wing blog Daily Haymaker (which at long last ridiculed me, thank you Brant Clifton!) thinks that NCGOP operatives are pantywaists who refuse to reinvent UNC root and branch. Clifton often vents his frustration that GOP rule has not entailed enough transformation at UNC system campuses, even though progressive research centers have been closed down, the Civil Rights division eliminated, degree programs junked, and a prominent Black journalist driven away from Chapel Hill.
In fact, Clifton is a good barometer of what the American (and North Carolinian) right wing wants in a higher education system. One of his pastimes is to fulminate in incredulity at the curriculum at UNC. Queer theory. Women’s Studies. Intersectionality. Social Justice. In place of this exotica, he wants classes that narrowly ready students for successful careers at the corporations he so often lionizes. And he wants an intellectual climate in which decades of left-leaning scholarship gives way to patriotic homilies and what 19th-century liberals once called the International Law of God, which we now know as free-market capitalism.
In other words, conservatives want a university system that turns young people in useful workers for the corporate class and good nationalistic Americans. Viewed naively, this may seem unremarkable. After all, the primacy of capital and unthinking obedience to the American national myth lie close to the heart of conservatives’ social vision. But this is a problem with conservatism, not higher education. Going back to the Renaissance, a liberal education–at first reserved, undeniably, to the sons of the elite–has been to cultivate a searching mind and infuse citizens with the mixture of ideas that can produce a body politic worthy of freedom. To beat the liberal arts into the ether in the name of 1950s-style submission to the Greatness of Homogeneous America is to do away with a tradition worth saving.
It tells you a lot that conservatives treat UNC like a blacksmith’s anvil, sustaining one blow after another from the hammer of reaction, while doing little to the community college system except starve it of resources. Community colleges are absolutely a treasure of this state. But they are also geared toward job preparation, and have a mission different from what JFK said in a speech to Chapel Hill undergraduates was the responsibility of UNC to repay the sacrifices North Carolina’s people have made to build this university system. Vocational education does not threaten the powerful. In fact, as long as workers are docile enough to accept low wages, it even reduces their costs by doing the training that they really ought to be paying for themselves.
A university education is different. Studying at UNC is an experience meant to expand a student’s sense of her or himself and give them the tools to conceive of a future worthy of 225 years of sacrifice. UNC’s past and present are hardly a lullaby. It was Carolina graduates who organized and led the greatest crime against humanity in the history of North Carolina, the 1898 Wilmington Coup. But it was also UNC students, graduates, and yes, one basketball coach, who lit the lamp of true liberty when Civil Rights came knocking at the door. UNC was once a center of intellectual innovation and social progress–and that was true even in spite of the flaws that critics on all sides have made their focus.
Conservatives want Carolina to look more like Patrick Henry College, a right-wing Christian school from which Madison Cawthorn dropped out. For all their faults, Chapel Hill and the rest of the 17 campuses now under scrutiny from a right wing that hates them, deserve better than that. PoliticsNC is not an advocacy group, so I’ll leave the calls to arms to someone else. But consider it the opinion of this longtime Carolina partisan that the conservative vision for higher ed simply isn’t good enough.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.