The Power of Independent Thinking

←  NEWSROOM



Stay Connected
Get the latest updates straight to your inbox.









Commentary

College Sticker Price: $100,000, Education Optional



Recent revelations in U.S. News and World Report’s annual college guide that the cost of a top undergraduate degree now exceeds $100,000 may represent a watershed. At more than $25,000 a year, many students and their families will have to think hard about whether an Ivy-League education is worth the expense. For some parents, the answer will be to send their capable child to a less prestigious university or college for about $50,000 less. Most parents, however, will decide to scrimp, save, and sacrifice—and perhaps take out a second mortgage on their home—rather than turn down that rare admission offer from a Harvard, Yale, Brown, or Duke.

By no means unrepresentative of what is meant by a “prestige” school is Stanford University, consistently ranked in the top five in U.S. News’s survey and privileged by an ideal climate, sumptuous facilities, and a $2-billion endowment. The yearly competition for admission reflects this status: More than 15,000 applicants vie for 1,600 places in the freshman class. A year there does not come cheaply: $25,749 for tuition, room, and board—about the cost of a new BM\V 325i.

For almost every year in the last two decades, Stanford’s tuition increases have outpaced inflation and, more importantly, the rate of personal income growth in the United States. The increases primarily fund what Gerhard Casper, Stanford’s president, has called a “mini-welfare state”—an ever-expanding range of student services and new programs centered around the university’s multicultural “experiment.” In the 1980s, then-president Donald Kennedy declared that Stanford’s multicultural venture was “a bold experiment that must succeed,” and the university began spending with a vengeance to make sure it did.

To administer its great experiment, Stanford employs nearly 7,000 staff—more than one bureaucrat for every undergraduate—including a $50,000-a-year “Multicultural Educator.” (By contrast, there are only 1,400 faculty members.) And there is a large assortment of new multicultural departments (feminist studies, African American studies, Chicano studies, Asian-American studies, Native-American studies), ethnic centers, “residential education” (which receives more than $3 million a year), and new classes and conferences. In 1991, the university established an Office for Multicultural Development as a cabinet-level department and invested it with sweeping powers to ensure the university’s “transformation.”

You can’t achieve transformation on the cheap. Stanford raised tuition by 5 percent this year, 7.5 percent a year ago, and a whopping 9.S percent for the 1992–93 school year. A record two-thirds of undergraduates (and an even higher percentage of graduate students) now receive some form of financial aid. However generous this aid the squeeze invariably falls on parents or the students themselves. And much of it is unnecessary: Last year, the Stanford Review examined the 1993–94 university budget for ways to cut costs and reduce tuition. The Review identified $10 million in savings by merging scaled-back gender- and race-studies departments with other programs. The paper saved an additional $1 million by eliminating “multicultural dorm programming.” All told, the Review produced a plan to reduce Stanford’s tuition by about 14 percent by trimming multicultural programs.

It would be welcome. Explains Patrick Callahan, executive director of the California Higher Education Policy Center, “There is close to a middle-class panic in this country from increases in tuition by private and public institutions.”

Such fear is hardly overblown. In the trendy world of academia, which covets the latest politically correct program like a shiny new hood ornament, there is competition to keep up with the Stanfords. Yet Stanford’s tuition ranks only 41st of 106 private colleges and universities surveyed by Cambridge Associates.

Many parents may be shocked to learn that the extra expense has not increased the quality of a undergraduate degree at Stanford, but rather has undermined it. Students can still receive first-rate training in engineering, the sciences, and economics, where results are more testable. But many humanities and social science students will find themselves awash in courses that trivialize logical thinking and seem incapable of taking history, ideas, or truth seriously.

The curriculum boasts of literature courses that filter Shakespeare through the lens of lesbianism, American history courses that find no time to teach about the Constitution, English classes that require students to write grant proposals for environmental groups, and psychology courses that give high marks for finding “gender discrepancies” in pizza parlors. In short, much of the undergraduate humanities curricula has been transformed into a vehicle for shameless politicization and indoctrination. Parents of these youngsters may begin to wonder why they didn’t just keep the money and open up their very own McDonald’s franchise.

THE NEW CLASSICS

With the now-notorious chant “hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go,” Stanford’s activists demanded in 1987 that the core reading list be dumped in order to make room for a new curriculum. Ever since the university capitulated to these demands, the humanities have been undergoing a quiet revolution. As a start, consider the multiple-track “Cultures, Ideas, and Values” (CIV) program, the relativist 15-unit requirement (about $8,000 per student) that replaced the Western Culture core:

  • Required reading in the Philosophy CIY track includes works by Chief Seattle—the 19th-century Indian leader whose alleged writings were later judged to be just of a pale face. Although the instructors have retained Plato and Aristotle, they primarily use them to contrast the “logocentrism” of Western philosophers with the more holistic approach of Australian Aborigines (whose unwritten “philosophy” is explained by Western anthropologists). One of the class’s feminist instructors, Carol Delaney, teaches that the American role in World War II is “phallocentric” because men invented the atomic bomb without women. She compares the Manhattan Project to Frankenstein, both evil attempts to thwart women’s role in the reproductive process.

  • The Bible is still read in all the CIY tracks, but many classes teach that Genesis is rife with sexism, and some sections even make the Apostle Paul politically correct by saying he may have been homosexual. Shakespeare is also still studied in all the tracks, but The Tempest is now viewed from a “slave perspective” and is made to serve as a case study in Western imperialism.

Although CIY is perhaps the single biggest waste of student tuition, it represents just the tip of the scandal. Multiculturalism has overrun most of the major humanities and social-sciences departments. The cumulative effect has been a kind of institutionalized silliness. Consider just some of the more blatant examples:

  • “Black Hair as Culture and History,” one of the new multicultural history seminars, addressed how black hair “has interacted with the black presence in this country, and how it has played a role in the evolution of black society.” Lectures included “The Rise of the Afro” and “Fade-O-Rama, Braiding and Dreadlocks,” and local hair stylists were brought in for a week of discussions. Enrolled students viewed the 1960s musical Hair and read the lyrics to Michael Jackson’s hit single “Man in the Mirror.” “I couldn’t have taught this class 10 years ago,” Kennell Jackson explains. “But people don’t look at me like I’m crazy anymore. What history does has broadened considerably.”

  • History 267, “The History of Rights in the United States,” was so busy extolling 1960s protest (“rights”) movements that the class never even studied the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.

  • “19th-Century American History,” taught by Estelle Freedman, devoted half of class time to a study of women, because they had constituted half the U.S. population during that time. As a result of these priorities, the class did not have enough time to learn about the War of 1812.

  • “Religions in America,” a religious-studies class that can satisfy three different graduation requirements, devoted whole lectures to Shamanism, the peyote cult, and the Kodiak sect, but not one to the Catholic Church. When discussed at all, Christianity was viewed from a feminist or gay “perspective” through such works as Jesus Acted Up.“ A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto, A Second Coming Out, and Beyond the Father: Towards a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation.

  • Anthropology 1 (which can also fulfill three different graduation requirements) devoted lectures to “language imperialism” and criticized CNN for the phenomenon because the network broadcasts in English to non-English speaking countries.

  • In Psychology 167D, students received academic credit for becoming “contraceptive peer counselors” and for demonstrating these skills by placing condoms on a plastic penis at dorm meetings.

  • In Stanford’s mandatory freshman English classes, students are required to write grant proposals for their professors’ favorite community-service agencies, including homeless advocacy projects, AIDS support groups, and environmental action leagues. Instead of focusing on reading and writing skills, these classes revolve around the “Community Service Writing Project,” which assigns freshmen to such activities as answering telephones at Stanford’s Center for Public Service and visiting East Palo Alto elementary schools.

  • Enrolling more than 100 students each quarter, Linguistics 73 is one of the most heavily subscribed courses fulfilling Stanford’s new race-studies requirement. Entitled “African-American Vernacular English,” the premise of the class is that inner-city slang (of the type heard in rap songs) is a legitimate dialect of the English language deserving scholarly attention.

  • “Interdisciplinary” courses provide the opportunity for politicization along several vectors. One example is “Peace Studies,“ taught by faculty from the departments of sociology, political science, psychology, history, and education. The class begins by defining “peace” as “collaborative well-being,” a euphemism for a smorgasbord of the lecturers’ pet policy choices -nationalized health care, government-guaranteed employment, transfer payments to inner cities, radical feminism, and so forth-all taught under the rubric of “peace.” Meanwhile, the curriculum completely omitted the study of the origins of World War I, World War II, the War for Independence, or any other significant historical conflagrations. The Vietnam War and Gulf War were reviewed briefly, but only as they related to the “peace movement” and its (often unpacific) protests. The class’s final lecture was entitled “Peace and You,” in which the course’s lecturers fondly recounted their own 1960s activism and exhorted students to join the “peace movement” and “to act responsibly and effectively on behalf of peace.”

  • Comparative Literature 189, “Representing Sappho: the Literature of Lesbianism,” sought, in the words of Terry Castle, “to resexualize lesbian history.” Shakespeare’s As You Like It was identified as a “locus classicus of lesbianism,” and the remainder of the course readings-books both new and old-were probed for “male and female representations of lesbian desire” and for “lesbianism as ‘symbolist,’ ‘decadent,’ ‘modernist,’ and ‘utopian’ literary motif.”

Other courses addressing human sexuality:

  • Feminist Studies 295, “How Tasty Were My French Sisters”; Comparative Literature 110, “The Politics of Desire: Representations of Gay and Lesbian Sexuality”; and Law 587, “The History and Politics of Sexual Orientation: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives.”

  • “Representing Sexualities: Whitman to AIDS” (English 187D) is another of Stanford’s X-rated English classes. The course syllabus warns that “sexually explicit materials, both hetero- and homoerotic, may be viewed and discussed in this class.” Readings included articles entitled “A Posttranssexual Manifesto,” “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” “From Thoreau to Queer Politics,” and “How to Bring Your Kids up Gay,” in addition to two videos, ’’Voices from the Front,” by the militant homosexual group ACT-UP, and “Tongues Untied,” a pornographic gay film. Jay Grossman spent his first class session presenting an episode of the television comedy Cheers and then deconstructing the show as “homophobic.” His first reading assignment was several weeks of a cartoon strip in which a teenage character reveals that he is gay. In Stanford’s English department, if the material is trendy enough, it does not even have to be literature.

  • Psychology 116, “The Psychology of Gender,” is based on the premise that gender discrimination is everywhere, and so, not surprisingly, the class tends to find it everywhere. In her Spring 1994 class, Laura Carstenson required students to complete a group research project.

Her favorite project was entitled “Gender Discrepancies in Pizza Consumption.” The student authors first conducted their laborious research by “observing couples eating at a local pizza restaurant and recording the number of slices each individual consumed,” and concluded that “gender discrepancies exist not only in quantity, but also in rate of consumption.” Because this class meets the new feminist studies requirement, it is heavily enrolled each quarter; hundreds of students are enlisted in this kind of inane multicultural research.

Such anecdotes do not simply exist on the fringes of an otherwise terrific Stanford education. Many involve core classes that fulfill graduation requirements, subjects at the heart of a liberal-arts education. All students must take CIVand Freshman English. In addition, the university has imposed a number of “distribution requirements” (DRs), which can only be fulfilled by classes in certain areas. While there is no requirement in American History, for instance, all students—including science majors—are now required to take at least one course in feminist studies, one course on race theory, and one course on Third World cultures. There are three additional social-studies requirements, usually satisfied by classes from such departments as anthropology, English, and sociology where the multicultural revolution has been pushed furthest. “Psychology of Gender,” “African-American Vernacular English,” Anthropology 1, and “Religions in America” are all classes that fulfill DRs.

The DR system limits the flexibility of conscientious students who wish to avoid swallowing large quantities of academic junk food. Of the 180 units necessary for graduation, distribution requirements in new or revamped subjects like CIV, Freshman English, race studies, feminist studies, and multicultural social studies now constitute almost 60 units. As a result, even those students who pursue majors in economics, physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, or engineering will spend close to one-third of their four years at Stanford–at a cost of about $25,000 per year-studying thoroughly politicized multicultural requirements.

Just in case these requirements do not suffice, however, Stanford’s multiculturalists provide powerful incentives to take their electives. The average grade in Stanford’s humanities departments is above an A-. Many of the most radical multiculturalists are also radical egalitarians who give everyone As, so from a student’s point of view their classes are not necessarily the ones to avoid. What student wouldn’t be attracted to a class like Peace Studies, where a “take-home” midterm and an “open-book” final exam guarantee an easy A? Science majors are particularly prone to building “trophy transcripts” by taking multicultural courses whenever possible, because they face the stiffest competition in admission to graduate programs and medical schools.

For those students pursuing a degree in the humanities or social sciences, there are even fewer options. The numerous examples already mentioned—all fairly indicative—represent just the beginning of an indoctrination into New Age thinking. For these hapless students, being principled or conscientious about course selection simply does not make much difference: Instead of “Black Hair” or Feminist Studies 101, such a student might find himself in “19th-Century American History” or “History of Rights,” where the course title falsely advertises the subject matter. While there are, of course, still many solid courses (and good teachers) at Stanford, especially in engineering and the hard sciences, Stanford’s activists have largely succeeded in killing the core undergraduate humanities curriculum.

THE MULTICULTURAL WASTE LAND

The death of the humanities at Stanford does not imply that institutions like it will serve no function whatsoever. In the hard sciences, economics, and engineering, our top colleges and universities will graduate people who have amassed an impressive array of scientific knowledge and technical skills. At the same time, business, law, and medical schools will continue to churn out trained professionals. From the outside perspective of companies seeking to hire new computer engineers, biochemists, or investment bankers, everything will continue as before.

But in the process, Stanford risks becoming a technical school, along the lines of MIT or Caltech—highly esteemed in narrow areas of expertise and not much more. Behind the facade of normalcy, much may be lost. The university may be transformed into a multiversity, no longer capable of providing a universal framework for students to integrate a wide assortment of knowledge into a coherent whole. That kind of framework, so essential for thinking about the larger problems facing individuals and societies, simply cannot be provided by science; it must be gleaned from the humanities, and can be reached only after rigorous study-in philosophy, literature, and history.

Most students have only the vaguest notion of what some of the alternatives might be—what Socrates, Jesus, or Jefferson said that might be relevant to the contemporary situation. They have only a minimal understanding even of the ideas that built the American regime. Most have not read John Locke or Adam Smith, much less The Federalist Papers, Alexis de Tocqueville, or Abraham Lincoln. Though the loss of this framework cannot readily be translated into dollars and cents, it will be felt keenly nonetheless, by a generation of students increasingly alienated from an incoherent and senseless world, unable even to diagnose the source of their troubles.

The scope of this loss has been hinted at, indirectly, by one of Casper’s most sweeping proposals. He has suggested replacing the four-year undergraduate degree with a three-year degree. His proposal is particularly heretical, because it suggests that students are not getting much added value out of a fourth year at Stanford and that the university’s distribution requirements might need to be scrapped. “If resources were available, I’d say four years are wonderful, the more the better,” he says. “On a cost-benefit analysis, there will be more questions as to whether these four years are sustainable in the long run.”

In a narrow sense, Casper was clearly right: If there was no real humanities program left, then a three-year professional education would represent a sensible change. At the same time, however, the call for such a drastic remedy indicated how much had been lost and how little else could be done about this loss.

If higher education in America is not altogether finished, then perhaps it is in the midst of a massive and unprecedented displacement. An intellectual renaissance in our traditional centers of higher learning may be a long time coming, but this does not necessarily imply that people simply will stop thinking in the intervening years. To the extent that it continues, intellectual life will likely shift from elite universities to historically less significant colleges that have survived the multicultural transformation, or move altogether outside the academic context.

New educational venues may arise and meet demands no longer being satisfied by existing institutions. One promising area involves new computer networks in which people connect with one another from all parts of the country to discuss matters of common interest. Not surprisingly, a number of these networks focus on areas that no longer have much of a place in the multicultural academy, such as free-market economics or Thomistic theology. Because learning need not take place in the classroom, this sort of technological breakthrough may in time undermine the near-monopoly on higher education currently enjoyed by America’s elite universities.

Admittedly, that distant prospect offers small solace to students who are eager to attend prestigious schools like Stanford, but are hard pressed to find there academic mentors to guide them toward answers to ancient and modern questions: What constitutes justice, rather than political propaganda about the size of welfare payments; what the Bible teaches about man’s political nature, rather than radical speculation about the Apostle Paul’s sexual orientation; or the Founders’ view of slavery and race relations, instead of courses on hairstyles. At $100,000 for a degree, is that really asking too much?


David O. Sacks is a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute and co-author of The Diversity Myth. He is Chief Operating Officer for Zenefits Insurance Services, former Chief Operating Officer at PayPal, Inc., and Founder and former Chief Executive Officer at Yammer, Inc.

Peter A. Thiel is a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute; Founder and Managing Member of Clarium Capital Management, LLC; Co-Founder of Paypal, Palantir Technologies, Mithril Capital Management, and Valar Ventures; Managing Partner of Founders Fund; and co-author of The Diversity Myth.






  • MyGovCost.org
  • FDAReview.org
  • OnPower.org
  • elindependent.org