The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) describes itself as a “voice and a force for liberal education.” So why is it actively promoting a conference that focuses on, among other things, the “collective power” of educators “to challenge the current discourse and policies that promote individualism?” The idea that individualism is bad must be a truth these conference organizers hold to be self-evident.
A defender of the conference’s focus might point out that the intellectual freedom that liberal education promotes entails questioning “current discourse and policies.” Didn’t that unrivaled theorist of democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, sound an alarm about individualism? Shouldn’t readers of Aristotle come away with some questions about modern individualism? Don’t some conservatives have such questions?
If the overview is any indication, this conference isn’t about raising fundamental questions. We know what changes we want. Down with individualism and “hatred,” as well as “structural racism, sexism, ableism, classism, ageism, and heterosexism.” Let’s get on with the work of answering the really big questions, such as, “How can we fully prepare and partner with students to address social challenges and to be change agents?” And, “In what ways can student activism be a high-impact practice that drives change? How can institutions partner with students in more intentional ways?”
Some defenders of higher education lament that conservative activists are out to get them. If Republicans now have a negative view of higher education, they argue, it’s because conservative outlets magnify every stray dumb utterance from students and faculty to the point that such utterances are all their readers know of higher education. I’m not unsympathetic with this argument. Such utterances don’t characterize the vast higher education sector, which enrolls over 16 million students each year and employs about 1.5 million faculty members. No doubt if one were to subject dentists to the same scrutiny, you’d dig up a certain amount of dirt.
But this is no stray utterance. It is a conference that enjoys the blessing and support of the premier institutional defender of liberal education in the United States. Complain all you want that nefarious outside forces are propagandizing against you.
What, after all, are the charges against liberal educators? At least among Republicans, the charge is that colleges are really teaching students to think what they think, not intellectual independence. And when they claim to teach “critical thinking,” they’re really promoting a certain political agenda. But this conference’s undisguised proposal tasks liberal educators with creating “change agents” and working with existing student activists to fight the evils of individualism. What could they do other than shrug and say, “guilty and proud?”
If you don’t want to be perceived as a cartoon villain, it’s best not to act like one.