Universities can’t withstand mobs, as countless assaults have proven. I’ve lived through two: at Washington University in St. Louis, in 1968, and then about a decade later at the University of Rome. In the summer of ’68 I saw a good deal of the French “Revolution,” which took over most of Paris for a week or so. Its headquarters were at the Sorbonne.
It’s in the nature of campus revolts that the leaders aren’t going to be satisfied with limited reforms to the school; they are inspired by inflated rhetoric, and they see themselves at the center of a great moment in world history. They have, after all, been told that they are the Next Big Thing, the new elite, those destined to govern. Or rule, as the case may be. So they must constantly demonstrate their power versus the hated “Establishment.” That the Establishment gave them these misguided notions is beside the point, it’s part and parcel of the phenomenon, as several professors are being reminded.
So the purge is on, and my guess is that it will get a lot worse before the inevitable reaction sets in. When I was at Rome U, it was routine for “fascist” professors to be beaten, or locked in elevators, or worse. One morning a law professor who sat on Italy’s Supreme Court was gunned down in the middle of the campus. Thereafter, on exam days, the sidewalks were lined with armed police, and rightly so: some of the student “activists” were real terrorists, they were in the Red Brigades or Potere Operaio or some such.
Unlike today’s American protestors, the Italian students had real grievances. The University of Rome, where I taught, had been built for 20,000 students, but by the mid-seventies there were more than a hundred thousand. There was rarely any real interaction with the faculty. At the beginning of the semester we would announce the books on which the students would be tested (all exams were oral, so it was a long process). There were lectures, but they were optional. The entire grade was based on the exam.
My radical students saw it all as a trick. A university degree didn’t guarantee a decent job, and students from the south had an especially tough time. There was no way that someone with a Neapolitan or Sicilian accent was going to become CEO of Fiat or Olivetti, and there were millions of overeducated unemployed. I thought they had good reasons to be angry.
The violent protests only made things worse, as they will here. The professors quickly realized that giving bad grades was threatening to their health, so everyone got terrific marks. It didn’t take long for employers to see what was going on, and that it was impossible to distinguish the good students from the terrorists. Ergo, university grads stopped getting good jobs
The other major result was an exodus of serious professors from the universities. Here and there good private colleges were created or expanded, schools like Bocconi in Milan or LUISS in Rome, but they were, and are, few and far between.
The outcome in the United States was no better. At Washington University, ROTC and the language requirement were eliminated, hardly a revolutionary triumph. The paucity of results convinced a generation of radicals that the universities had to be taken over from within, which they did. You can see the results in the Obama administration, dominated by ideology and very short on real information (among other things, this president has set a record for errors of fact in prepared speeches). Those people, who cannot get their facts straight, are the products of the “revolutionary” university.
There is surely more to come; students everywhere will want to be part of the insurrection, and will try to become the “new Mizzou.” University administrators and directors have no stomach for a fight they already abandoned years ago, and so the violence, both physical and rhetorical, will escalate. Eventually lives will be lost, as in the attack on a laboratory at the University of Wisconsin in the late sixties. At that point, the pendulum will swing away from revolution, and some semblance of order will be imposed.
But that still leaves us with the real problem: generations of ignorant indoctrinated college grads. The new elite. That’s very bad news, and it can’t be fixed easily. I suppose the first sign of progress will come when some university starts to hire ideologically diverse professors, demands proper intellectual standards, and respects the First Amendment. Smart parents will notice and smart students will too.