We must push back against the attacks on higher ed and democracy
When the 2023 Academy Award nominees were announced on January 24, Everything Everywhere All at Once topped the list, garnering eleven nominations. An absurdist comedy-drama, the film’s hero, Evelyn, finds herself fighting bewildering dangers from the multiverse after an interdimensional rupture unravels reality. It turns out that the fate of the world is in her hands, and she must use newfound powers contained in alternate versions of herself to battle Jobu Tupaki, a malevolent being whose power resides in a black hole–like instrument of destruction with the appearance of an everything bagel. While I confess to not being a fan of either sci-fi or absurdism, the film’s themes have frightening parallels to the current existential threat that the increasing politicization of academia poses to colleges and universities. A fractured reality, issuing forth attacks that seem to be targeting everything, everywhere, all at once, risks undermining the strength of American higher education and the democratic principles foundational to it.
During the 2023 annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), held in San Francisco a few days before the Academy Award nominees were unveiled, more than 1,400 college and university leaders at all levels gathered to discuss strategies for making the case for liberal education on our campuses and beyond, share innovations in contemporary liberal education practice, and advance the public mission and purposes of higher education at a time when both are under siege. As the meeting took place, national headlines drew attention to some of the most urgent concerns among attendees. These included the Florida Department of Education’s efforts to ban the teaching of Advanced Placement African American studies on the grounds that it “lacks educational value” and constitutes liberal “indoctrination” that aims to “shoehorn” queer theory into the curriculum. Another issue was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s appointment of six new trustees to the thirteen-person governing board overseeing New College of Florida, the state’s liberal arts honors college, with the explicit goal of transforming the institution into the “Hillsdale of the South,” referring to a conservative college in Michigan. Also of concern were policies in Georgia, West Virginia, and Kansas that make it easier to fire tenured professors and that reflect Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s assertion that “tenured professors must not be able to hide behind the phrase ‘academic freedom’ and then proceed to poison the minds of our next generation.”
Meeting participants repeatedly decried the erosion of academic freedom they saw reflected not only in comments like Patrick’s but in other stories, such as that of an art history adjunct professor whose contract was not renewed after a Muslim student complained about an in-class showing of a fourteenth-century depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. Other examples of attacks on academic freedom that came up included the proliferation of educational gag orders proscribing discussions of race, gender, and other “divisive concepts”; an Idaho law limiting discussions of and training related to abortion and reproductive rights even in medical school classrooms; the growing movement to ban books; and proposed legislation to prohibit diversity, equity, and inclusion offices on public university campuses. Meeting attendees also critiqued the statement issued by the presidents of Florida’s twenty-eight state and community colleges promising to identify and eliminate any academic requirement or program that “compels a belief in critical race theory or related concepts such as intersectionality.” This statement followed DeSantis’s mandate for public colleges and universities to submit comprehensive lists of their spending related to diversity initiatives and critical race theory.
These illiberal efforts to restrict what can be taught on college and university campuses erode academic freedom and shared governance in ways that thwart liberal education’s democratic purposes. A vibrant civil society requires colleges and universities that are free from political interference and that safeguard the unfettered pursuit of the truth through free and open inquiry. Recognizing that it is not enough to simply denounce the attacks on liberal education and encroaching authoritarianism, AAC&U enjoins our members to speak out about what is at stake if the current trends continue. We must reclaim and champion liberal education as a distinctive approach to preparing students for career success, democratic citizenship, global engagement, and personal flourishing. In the process, we need to demonstrate that threats to academic freedom and public discourse on our campuses and in our classrooms imperil democracy itself.
In Everything Everywhere All at Once, Evelyn finds her strength in fighting her nemesis, “an agent of chaos,” by entering worlds in which imagined alternative lives and versions of herself are real. The process enables her to push back against those who have defined her solely in terms of where she has been and who she is now. Liberal education offers students the same type of transformative power against forces that seek to narrow their horizons. And like Evelyn, those of us striving to preserve liberal education for future generations must manifest untapped skills in countering agents of chaos and their tired tropes that present higher education as a bastion of “wokeism,” political brainwashing, and trendy ideology. Even five years ago, many of us would have thought it inconceivable that the principles foundational to American higher education would be challenged by overreach on the part of legislators, government officials, governing boards, and courts for political purposes. Yet, today, that alternative reality is upon us. Without immediate collective action, liberal education and the democracy it serves stand to lose everything, everywhere, all at once.
Illustration by Paul Spella (Collage: Alamy)