GOP and the Ivy League, Both Failing


Ted Cruz: cum laude at Princeton, magna cum laude at Harvard Law. Ben Carson: Yale, Michigan, Johns Hopkins. Tom Cotton: Harvard, Harvard Law. Carly Fiorina, Stanford.

Some of the ignorant Ivy Leaguers
among the 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls.

None of these people, including Carson, a renowned neurosurgeon, admits to accepting the foundational theory of modern biological science. Evolution, they say, is a fraud. Most, if not all of them, believe the Constitution does not guarantee a right to privacy, Fourth Amendment notwithstanding. Mountains of historical evidence to the contrary, they claim tax advantages for the rich will somehow benefit everybody. They don’t believe in separation of church and state, and claim ours is a Christian nation borne of Christian founders. Except for Fiorina, they deny anthropogenic climate change. (Fiorina disingenuously says climate change is real, but governments can’t do anything about it. Translation: Fossil-fuels donors, you have nothing to fear from me. I’m just not quite as willing as you are to look stupid in public.)

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Despite this stupendous display of ignorance and cynicism, all of these people use the prestige of their degrees, and the names of the institutions that granted them, to advance themselves politically.

What is going on in those institutions? How do they explain graduating people who either do not understand, refuse to believe, or lie about the most basic principles of science and facts of history? If the politicians don’t understand the simplest matters of undergraduate work, they should have been flunked, not graduated. If they refuse to believe them, they lack intellectual and moral courage, and should have been flunked. If they’re lying, they’re the kind of people who would have cheated to get their degrees.

This is not a question of academic freedom or legitimate debate among honest and honorable people of genuine learning. This is on the level of flat earth and Bigfoot believers. It’s on the level of George W. Bush, a Yale graduate, naming Jesus Christ as his favorite political philosopher. Jesus was not a political philosopher, and if he had been, he wouldn’t have made Bush’s favorites list by telling rich people to give all their money to the poor.

mortarboardProfessors in graduate programs can escape some of the blame for this anti-intellectualism on the part of their charges. They are, for the most part, teaching courses and grading papers that have to do either with professional training or with areas of academic inquiry so narrow they can often overlook the fundaments of a student’s thinking. This is not necessarily healthy, but it is so.

The problem, rather, is at the undergraduate level, where liberal education needs to be not only encouraged, but required. The essential element of a liberal education is what is called critical thinking. Definitions of the term abound. Here is an excerpt from a Maine scholar, Ken Petress:


One definition of critical thinking found in a general psychology text is: “Critical thinking examines assumptions, discerns hidden values, evaluates evidence, and assesses conclusions.” This text also emphasizes recognizing fallacies in our thinking and listening. This definition; however, omits explaining how to examine assumptions, discern hidden values, and to assess conclusions. Considering a conversant’s/listener’s or author’s/reader’s experiences; education; social, political, economic, and/or ideological proclivities; known or suspected biases and prejudices; and known or suspected motives might accomplish assessing assumptions, hidden values, and conclusions.

Boiled down, this and other attempts to define it mean that critical thinking is chiefly the ability to apply knowledge of the informal fallacies of Aristotelian logic to the considered affairs of one’s own life and work. That really shouldn’t be a tall order.

dunceIt becomes a tall order when a mind is governed by a blind faith — faith in a simplistic concept of the divine, faith in an economic system, faith in authority. Blind faith is the kind that says, “God gave me the ability to sense and reason, but says I must not use these faculties to question, for example, the authority of the Bible. The Bible is true because, you know, it’s in the Bible.”

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Faith of that kind is a form of willful ignorance, and education is nothing but an effort to defeat ignorance and open the mind to learning. So when that kind of faith survives a collegiate education unrefined by reason, the college has failed. That, for the benefit of Ted Cruz, is a simple Aristotelian syllogism.

Not everyone, of course, agrees that education is supposed to open, as well as to broaden, the mind. Cruz, significantly, did not announce his bid for the presidency at Harvard. He chose Liberty “University,” where he is more at home. George Wallace would be so proud: his kind have captured the “pointy-headed intellectuals.”

More to the point, the Ivy League and its top competitors seem to have joined Liberty in demanding very little of their students other than a kind of rote learning of fact. That is not, in the liberal-arts tradition, education. It is training.

A good education is rigorous, at least in some significant part. Rigor means that the coursework demands work, but also honesty. It requires examination of evidence and documentation of the examination and some demonstration that sources used in research are academically credible.

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All those Republicans who would fail good ninth-grade science and civics courses, then, are not as crazy as they seem — except maybe Tom Cotton. They’re just the victims of lax and undemanding education.