By Kenneth Burke

The criticisms of higher education have become more vocal and visible, particularly in relation to issues such as political correctness, diversity, and inclusion. Political conservatives have recently voiced these criticisms loudly, viewing higher education as a hotbed of liberal indoctrination. However, it’s worth noting that critical views of higher education are not new. For example, in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a wave of criticism directed at postmodernism and cultural studies, which some saw as eroding classical traditions of learning and promoting relativism and subjectivity. Likewise, in the 1960s and 1970s, there was often frustration with the ivory tower.

The critiques of higher education from the 1960s to the 1990s were not specifically targeted at the institutions of higher education. However, they did raise concerns about the role of academia in society and questioned whether universities were fulfilling their responsibilities to the public.  For example, tense opinions about the ivory tower in the 1960s and 1970s were discontent with the perceived elitism of academia and the disconnect between universities and the broader society. The social and political upheavals of the time partly drove this criticism, which highlighted the need for academia to engage with social and political issues.  The disapproval of postmodernism and cultural studies in the 1980s and 1990s was concerned with the perceived lack of rigor and objectivity in these fields, which commentators viewed as undermining the traditional academic disciplines.

Moreover, while recent politicking over higher education often comes from the political right, there are also voices from the left that have questioned the current state of higher education. For example, some progressive scholars argue that higher education has become too focused on neoliberal marketization and has lost sight of its social and civic responsibilities. Critics of this neoliberal approach to education fault it for promoting competition over collaboration, reducing education to a commodity that can be bought and sold, and neglecting the social and civic responsibilities of higher education. Progressive scholars and politicians on the left, including Angela Davis, Bernie Sanders, Bell Hooks, and Noam Chomsky, have expressed concern that higher education has not done enough to address systemic inequalities and injustices both within and outside of the university. These issues include promoting diversity and inclusion, protecting labor rights, supporting environmental sustainability, and advancing social justice initiatives throughout institutions.

Related issues concerning the commercialization of education are certainly valid when it comes to initiatives like Education 3.0. Market trends and ideological agendas influence technological innovations in education, including right-wingism and technocracy.  The use of digital platforms, online learning tools, and personalized learning algorithms raises questions about the role of private companies in the education sector, and the potential for profit-driven interests to override educational goals and values. Critics have argued that certain technologies like personalized learning platforms, may reinforce ideologies of individualism, competition, and market-based solutions instead of promoting collaborative and socially engaged forms of learning.

The involvement of tech industry leaders also raises concerns about the motivations behind educational reforms. While some tech industry leaders may have genuine concerns about the state of higher education and the need for innovation and change, their own political and ideological biases can influence their interest in education policy and reform toward misguided outcomes.  To address these concerns, it’s important to ensure that a commitment to the public good drives the use of technology and aligns with the goals and values of higher educational institutions. This includes ensuring that new learning technologies are transparent, open-source, and accessible to all, as well as promoting critical thinking, diversity, and inclusivity in educational content and delivery.

The unfavorable judgment of higher education has continued to focus on the perceived lack of intellectual diversity and the role of academia in promoting certain political and social ideologies. Today, they have begun to target institutions directly.  These trends reflect upon the divisions between Ronald Reagan and UC Berkeley during the 1960s. While governor of California, Reagan’s administration was known for its conservative and law-and-order policies.  Frequently at odds with the progressive and liberal ideals of many Californians at the time, he opposed efforts to expand ethnic and gender studies programs at the university while arguing that such programs were divisive and undermined the university’s academic standards.  Nevertheless and despite his conservative policies, even Reagan never targeted administrative structures or curricula. While he did oppose the free speech movement at Berkeley and was critical of some academic programs, his policies never attempted an overtly stratified, power political restructuring of programs or the university system.

What did happen when Reagan was governor of California involves several protests between students and law enforcement at Berkeley. Numerous issues and dissatisfaction with Reagan’s conservative policies sparked the protests. The most significant of them occurred in 1964, when students staged a sit-in at President Clark Kerr’s office building to protest a university ban on political activity on campus. Events quickly turned violent, with police using tear gas and batons to disperse the protesters. Over 700 students were arrested, and dozens were injured. Similar clashes continued throughout the 1960s and 1970s, with students and activists often clashing with police over issues related to civil rights, the Vietnam War, and social and political justice. As the governor of the state, Reagan played a role in the broader political and cultural climate that led to the protests. Be that as it may, he was not directly involved in the ban on political activity on the Berkeley campus.

While it’s true that there may be valid concerns about the state of higher education and the need for reform, imposing changes from the outside can be counterproductive and may even undermine quality and integrity. Efforts to reform higher education should be based on careful analysis and understanding of the issues and challenges facing institutions, rather than political or ideological agendas. This requires engagement and collaboration between institutions and a broad range of stakeholders, as well as a commitment to evidence-based approaches. Ultimately, the goal of educational reform should be to enhance accessibility while promoting the values that are essential to a thriving democracy and a just society.


About the Author

Kenneth Burke is an experienced educator and administrator. He has a passion for teaching and a talent for managing complex projects. He recently returned to the St. Louis, MO area after over a decade working abroad in Kurdistan and then South Korea. He is skilled in curriculum development, accreditation management, and quality control advising, with a proven track record of success in fostering student engagement and achievement.