Since the violent uprising in the U.S. Capitol a week ago, the nation has been processing and trying to figure out what it all means and where to go from here. One question has arisen: How can schools and colleges promote a stronger sense of civic education and engagement?
This week on the EdSurge Podcast, we speak to a history professor who believes that not only can universities do more to prevent future crises like this one, but that higher education is partly responsible for what happened last week.
Jeremi Suri, professor of public affairs and history at the University of Texas at Austin, outlined this argument in an article published this week in the bipartisan publication The Constitutionalist. We spoke to him to find out more about his perspective.
Hear the interview on this week’s EdSurge Podcast. Find it in Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or anywhere you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page.
EdSurge: What was your first reaction when you saw pictures of Trump supporters breaking through the US Capitol building last week?
Jeremi Suri: I watched the election count live in the House and Senate. As we watched, we got reports on both social media and television of these growing crowds. And it was like a slow, slow avalanche. And it seemed more and more unsafe.
The first thought that crossed my mind was the 9/11 terrorism. They used acts of violence to undermine the basic functioning of our democracy. It felt just like that. See these people, carry weapons … wear shirts that mention Auschwitz and run to the Capitol. They didn’t try to express a point of view. They tried to stop the election count [certifying Joe Biden’s victory as president]. It felt like a terrorist attack.
In The Constitutionalist, you argue that the universities are partly responsible for this unprecedented moment. What do you mean by that?
I think we are. And I want to say that I have spent my entire career in universities and I hope to be able to teach and write for another 50 years.
I love universities. I don’t want to be anywhere else. But I think we owe it to ourselves, our students, and our society to look at ourselves long and hard. We are not the main source of the problem in our society, but we are a contributing source.
Our universities in my own life since I was an undergrad in the 1990s are more professional, corporate, and money-driven than ever. It cannot be said that these were not factors in the past. But public and private universities have to fall over themselves every day to find new donors. And that’s more competitive every day. They are more competitive than leaderboards.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but what happened is that the discussions about civic responsibility, about serving the public, have been pushed aside. This used to be more common and more central to our universities. It’s not that these discussions don’t take place. It’s just a matter of priorities. Most of the people who run universities today spend very little time thinking about civic responsibility. They spend a lot more time thinking about budgets, thinking about the politics of their university, and thinking openly about athletics. And my point is that that has permeated our culture. It has created a hyper-individualistic materialistic culture in our universities, more than I saw as a student 20 or 30 years ago.
The title of your play is “Elite Universities Promoted Destructive Republican Leaders,” but it seems like you are essentially arguing that they are promoting a class of leaders across all parties who are not as civic as you think they are they should be. Is that correct?
Correct. I think the message getting through in our universities – especially our leading universities – is that as a student you are very talented. You should use these talents to accomplish as much for yourself as possible. Not as much as possible for society.
But I see colleges talking about how they are helping create new leaders and people who will change the world for the better – even billboard advertising and radio advertising. Aren’t they still interested in these things?
Sure. One of the points that I address in this article is the mission statement of all universities. That is the ethos. But it’s like talking about student athletes – when we all know that most Division I athletes don’t have time to be students.
That pursuit is still there. I say our institutions have shaped a certain culture and they encourage certain behaviors. And the way you move forward today and the message you get when you are in college is to acquire as many skills for yourself as possible, make yourself that super attractive person to various employers and get a job, make lots of money, and then give money back to university. And that makes you a great citizen.
And you say some of those citizens are Ted Cruz, others that you say promoted last week’s events.
So many of the key people who spread the lie – and it’s a lie – that the election was fraudulent were people who knew better than to use their platform as elite university graduates to give credibility to that lie. In order to [other] People started to believe this, not because a bunch of uneducated people said it, but because a bunch of educated people with credibility said so. And Republicans aren’t necessarily worse than Democrats, but they’ve taken better advantage of universities.
Senators like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz get through these elite universities. They use this privilege to build networks, raise money and differentiate themselves from others. And then when they get to the top, they want to burn it down, instead of appreciating the values that these institutions are supposed to be about because that nurtures them with the people who couldn’t get into those institutions.
It’s like I want all the candy. And then when I have all the candy I will piss off all the kids who didn’t get the candy to destroy the people who gave me the candy once I got the candy. You play both sides of it. You benefit from privileges. And then they try to address those who did not have a privilege. And I think that’s terrible, terribly tell-tale.
We hear a lot these days about universities being too liberal and promoting too much liberalism and progressivism, which you think is not being promoted enough. How does that fit together?
These arguments about left indoctrination are empirical and overrated. It is true that in many parts of the universities there are people who tend to lean politically to the left. People studying the climate are likely to stay out of the center. But there are other areas that are not talked about that are very far to the right of the center. Go to a business school and [try to find] Someone in a business school who is not a capitalist.
The real point here is who really matters, who runs the universities. And the universities are run by people who are business leaders. Now they may have been scientists, but they are going to be business leaders. When you’re president of a university, most of your time is spent managing alumni relationships and managing your sports teams, which is basically an entertainment company.