Higher Ed Is Reaping What Has Been Sown

Student protests and trusting the “cult of youth.”

By John Stonestreet & G.S. Morris Published on May 4, 2024

Many college and university campuses across the nation descended into petulant anarchy last week as students protested Israel’s war in Gaza. Demonstrations broke out at Columbia University in New York, Harvard, MIT, Emerson College in Boston, the University of Southern California, and the University of Texas, Austin, to name only a few. “Gaza solidarity encampments were built, Jewish students were threatened and assaulted, and protestors demanded that their campuses “divest from companies linked to Israel” and sever academic ties with Israeli universities. Some Jewish students were told to “go back to Poland,” an apparent reference to death camps. “Stop funding genocide,” the signs demanded, as if Israel carried out the atrocities of October 7. Others said “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” without knowing which river and which sea.

Those sympathetic to student protesters claimed that the uprisings are about ending Israel’s war in Gaza, which was waged in response to the October 7 attacks. Clearly, however, many are calling for something far more radical, such as so-called “decolonization,” or an end to Israel as a nation altogether.

Left-wing students do have a long history of jumping on protest bandwagons, including those not-so-subtly associated with Islamic terrorism. Part of this reality is the “cult of youth” that has long pervaded American society, at least since the 1960s. This idea that young people are the conscience of our nation and that youth-led movements are always morally right was plainly articulated by a Democratic Socialists of America activist who wrote:

A good law of history is that if you ever find yourself opposing a student movement while siding with the ruling class, you are wrong. Every single time. In every era. No matter the issue.

This revisionist view of history forgets, among other things, that the Nazi movement in Germany and Mao’s Cultural Revolution were popular with students who mobilized against the ruling classes.

Who’s Really Oppressed Here?

In the case of the campus protests last week, however, it’s not even clear who the ruling class is. While there has been some pushback by school administrators against protestors, Noah Rothman correctly pointed out in a National Review piece that encampments of privileged, trust-fund kids at elite universities don’t exactly pass for an uprising of the oppressed.

A more adequate explanation is that young people are often naïve and easily manipulated. They are not always aware of the ironies in their activism, nor do they always understand what they demand. In fact, the idea that the young are a repository of pure moral instinct and always on the right side of history belongs more to Jean-Jacques Rousseau than anything else.

Any philosophy of education … assumes a definition of what it means to be human. Much of higher education has lost the central purpose of education because it has lost sight of who we are as human beings.

Today, youthful naïvete and this thirst for attention is supercharged by social media. After all, until now, no generation has ever been able to virtue-signal to the whole world before. The powerful desire, not only to speak truth to power, but to be seen doing it while claiming the mantle of Civil Rights, is intoxicating. Joy Pullman once called this “Selma envy.”

Wisdom or Activism?

Ultimately, these students, who are often unsure why they’re protesting their schools and flirting with support for terrorism, are a product of universities in which the goal of education is activism rather than wisdom. According to Al Mohler, it became clear decades ago that

higher education was turning into a laboratory for social engineering and intellectual revolution. Specialties such as “post-colonial studies” percolated with promises of liberation, often translated into nationalist movements and identity politics.

In other words, the universities created these monsters. Now, they are forced to deal with them.

The idea that education is to train activists to change the world is a direct application of a progressive vision of life and the world. This is why activism always seems to lean left. This educational philosophy has dominated western higher education for a long time, but it is fundamentally flawed.

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Recently, the president of a private, Christian college with quite a reputation for being too conservative explained to parents why their students would not be talking that much about contemporary politics. Young people, he said, simply don’t know enough to have opinions that are worth listening to. To know anything about politics, he continued, students need to know first what the soul is, what it means to be human, where truth comes from, and the best ideas of history about the role, purpose, and function of the polis. So, that’s what they would be studying instead. I have it on good authority that his description of campus life is mostly accurate. Ironically, this same college is often accused, even by presuming Christian academics, of being “too political.”

Any philosophy of education, T.S. Eliot wrote, assumes a definition of what it means to be human. Much of higher education has lost the central purpose of education because it has lost sight of who we are as human beings. Education should be about training the intellect and cultivating a virtuous life, as understood and received from the great minds who have gone before us. Ultimately, that vision of education is grounded in the one who is Truth, and whose commands and character never change.

What we see on campuses is an inevitable result when activism replaces education. It is fitting that these schools are now reaping the chaotic harvest of what they’ve sown. It will likely get worse. This means, there is a real opportunity for Christians, who understand the truth about who we are, to reclaim what education truly is.

This Breakpoint was coauthored by Shane Morris.


John Stonestreet serves as president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He’s a sought-after author and speaker on topics related to faith and culture, theology, worldview, education, and apologetics.

Shane Morris is a senior writer at the Colson Center and host of the Upstream podcast as well as cohost of the BreakPoint podcast.

Originally published on Breakpoint.org: BreakPoint Commentaries. Republished with permission of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

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