The modern American university is undeniably liberal. It’s a trend noted since at least Allan Bloom’s 1987 seminal critique of higher education in “The Closing of the American Mind.”
But why is it liberal?
The liberal university structure can be traced to 1962 – a year of upheaval at universities across the country as they grappled with the free speech movement, desegregation and racial tension, the rise of communism and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the budding Vietnam War, and many other pressing issues.
But it was also the year of the Port Huron Statement. The Statement – borne within the confines of an AFL-CIO retreat in Detroit – was a manifesto for many Leftist causes, and also spoke clearly about influencing universities to provide a base for the “New Left.” The Statement served as the foundation manifesto of Students for a Democratic Society.
The document bemoaned so-called White Privilege far before it was a well-known term, and accused America of corruption, war-mongering and economic injustices, calling for the equal distribution of wealth across the globe, among other causes.
“To turn these possibilities into realities will involve national efforts at university reform by an alliance of students and faculty,” the statement’s original wording declared. “They must wrest control of the educational process from the administrative bureaucracy. They must legitimize the right to speak and act in public, partisan ways. … They must import major public issues into the curriculum—research and teaching on problems of war and peace is an outstanding example. They must make debate and controversy, not dull pedantic cant, the common style of the educational life.”
And thus radicals targeted campuses.
“The Port Huron statement… was a call for a new form of political activism that centered on the college campuses rather than on the factory floors,” said Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, in a telephone interview with The College Fix.
Realizing that a Leftist and Marxist revolution had been defeated by unions, and Americans in general had “firmly rejected communism, the Left had been looking for a new power base,” Wood contends.
With that, they targeted and entrenched themselves in the halls of higher education, and brought their disdain for traditional American values with them.
“The 1960s began as a sort of alienation from the engines of American progress and that … fit nicely with the Port Huron statement’s view of using higher education to foster a … soft alienation towards traditional American values,” Wood explained.
Leftist activists didn’t hide their intentions – the Port Huron Statement is clear about their thoughts on universities. In a more recent version of the statement under a section titled “The University and Social Change,” the manifesto explains how important universities are to furthering New Left ideology:
“From where else can power and vision be summoned? We believe that the universities are an overlooked seat of influence … From its schools and colleges across the nation, a militant left might awaken its allies, and by beginning the process towards peace, civil rights, and labor struggles, reinsert theory and idealism where too often reign confusion and political barter… To turn these possibilities into realities will involve national efforts at university reform by an alliance of students and faculty.”
Wood said the Port Huron Statement continues to have rippling implications 54 years after its release.
“An interesting idea [from the] Port Huron statement that gets hugely built out over the course of the 1960s is that we can’t expect to transform American society as a whole right now, but we can transform that little microcosm of American society – the college campuses,” he said.
Never has that been more demonstrated than on contemporary – and liberal – American college campuses. When asked what’s the biggest issue facing higher education today, Wood didn’t cite the cost, as many commentators do. Instead, he turned to the quality of the education itself.
“The quality of higher education, to me, is the larger issue [facing higher education]. That quality reflects a dissolution of academic standards and the driver behind [that dissolution] is the politicization of higher education,” he said. “We have as a society tended to substitute, more and more, a willingness to allow our colleges and universities to be places where students are inculcated with a worldview that is at odds with traditional American values and with broader Western concepts of freedom and responsibility.”
College Fix reporter Dominic Lynch is a student at Loyola University Chicago.