Barnard professors walk out of class in support of students suspended for protesting for Palestine at Columbia University on April 22, 2024 in New York City.

Barnard professors walk out of class in support of students suspended for protesting for Palestine at Columbia University on April 22, 2024 in New York City.

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Ten Higher Education Lessons Authoritarians Fear

What right-wing reactionaries—many with powerful positions at our colleges and universities—fear most is that students become less controllable and more willing to challenge unjust social arrangements.

Speaking to a reporter in the aftermath of a police raid on a pro-Palestinian solidarity encampment at UNC-Chapel Hill, David Boliek, a current member and former chair of UNC’s board of trustees, said, “I think faculty certainly have their right to show [sic] freedom of speech and have their opinions. But to engage in what I would believe is radicalization of students, I think is out of bounds. And quite frankly, I would say I would be in favor of disciplinary action.”

This is an alarming and revealing statement. Boliek would like to punish faculty for teaching students things that inspire protests against genocide. Though I can’t be sure, Boliek seems to think a substantial number of professors are less concerned with educating students than with causing trouble by “radicalizing” them. Given their track record, I suspect other members of UNC’s right-wing board of trustees feel the same way.

But what is it that these politically appointed overseers imagine professors are teaching that results in radicalization? What lessons, real or imaginary, do they think are being taught and warrant punishment? Again, I can’t be sure, but based on their support for repressive action by university administrators, I can guess. What they are bothered by, what they fear, it seems, are the lessons of higher education that threaten authoritarian control everywhere.

What authoritarians are right to fear are the cumulative lessons of higher education when education goes beyond the vocational to critically examine how the social world works, how we participate in it, and how it can be made more peaceful, just, and equitable.

These aren’t lessons about specific policy issues, such as climate change, gun control, reproductive rights, or military spending. They are lessons about the state of the social world, about how the social world works and how it can be changed—lessons more likely to be taught in social science and humanities courses. Which is why, when authoritarians attack faculty, they don’t usually target faculty in STEM or professional fields. They almost always target faculty in the social sciences and humanities.

What is it, then, that students learn in these fields that scares authoritarians and provokes right-wing attacks on academia? Below is a list of ten such lessons, not all of which are likely to be taught in a single course, nor even taught explicitly. They are perhaps more often learned implicitly as students study anthropology, history, political science, economics, sociology, social psychology, literature, and related fields. The cumulative effect, the effect that authoritarians fear, is that students become less controllable and more willing to challenge unjust social arrangements.

1. Injustice can be built into how a system routinely operates. Examples include tax codes that levy lower rates on capital gains than on wages; public school funding that depends on the wealth of local communities instead of being equalized across a state; the federal law-making apparatus that gives sparsely populated states, such as Wyoming, as much power in the Senate as hugely populated states, such as California; and capitalism itself, which enriches the owners of capital by extracting value from workers’ labor. This lesson is threatening because it implies that justice requires changing not just individual feelings but the laws, policies, and practices from which authoritarians disproportionately benefit.

2. Great suffering is often caused by indifference, fear, and obedience. The paradigm 20th-century example is the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis against Jews, Romani, homosexuals, the disabled, communists, and other political dissidents. The Nazis killed millions because too many Germans were indifferent to the plight of those defined as Others, because they feared speaking up against their government, and because they followed orders and did their jobs efficiently. Many so-called crimes of obedience happen, on smaller scales, for similar reasons. Students who learn this lesson are less likely to mindlessly follow orders, less likely to accept authoritarian claims about who is an enemy, and more willing to oppose state violence.

3. People of different times, places, and cultures are human, too. This might be called the lesson against ethnocentrism (the belief that only people of one’s own group are fully human or represent the human norm). To learn this lesson is to learn that people everywhere have hopes and dreams, experience love, pain, and joy, and think rationally, though perhaps within a different frame of reference. When students learn this lesson, they are likely to be skeptical of the tribalist and nationalist claims that authoritarians typically use to mobilize support for pogroms and wars. Students might even put themselves in peril to stop violence against the fellow humans whom authoritarians try to brand as Others.

4. People in power lie to protect their interests. Examples abound, from lies about the Gulf of Tonkin incident at the start of the Vietnam War, to lies about incubators being toppled by Iraqi soldiers during the first Gulf War, to lies about “weapons of mass destruction” told to justify the US attack on Iraq in 2003. We can also point to tobacco companies lying about the harms of smoking, energy companies lying about climate change, Israeli propagandists lying about beheaded babies and mass rapes on October 7, and university administrators lying about disorder at pro-Palestinian solidarity encampments to justify arresting protesters. Students who learn about this pattern of lying by the powerful wisely become skeptical of official accounts of events, especially when those accounts seek to justify the use of violence to control others.

5. Social change is made through organized collective action. Teaching about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela as courageous agents of change is only mildly threatening to authoritarians. The threat is mild as long as these figures are portrayed as moral heroes able to make change because of their exceptional qualities. The real threat arises when students study labor history or social movements and learn that social change happens when ordinary people organize, refuse to go along with business as usual, perform a lot of unglamorous tasks, and stay in solidarity with each other. When students learn this lesson they can become a threat to the authoritarians who would prefer students to see themselves as too weak or uncharismatic to accomplish much by way of social change.

The real threat arises when students study labor history or social movements and learn that social change happens when ordinary people organize, refuse to go along with business as usual, perform a lot of unglamorous tasks, and stay in solidarity with each other.

6. Mainstream institutions are not neutral. When there is no challenge to the status quo, which means no challenge to existing distributions of power in society, it is easy to imagine that mainstream institutions—the media, the police, the courts, universities—are politically neutral, treating all sides impartially. This illusion of neutrality is often shattered when dissidents and protesters discover that these institutions almost always side with those who control the purse strings and the means of violence. Again, students can learn this by studying labor history and social movements. Some students are learning it now as they see university administrators bending to control by wealthy donors and right-wing legislators. Either way, to learn this lesson is to acquire a healthy distrust of institutional authorities who claim to be unprejudicially looking out for everyone’s best interests.

7. Power ultimately depends on ideas. Even the coercive power that proverbially comes from the barrel of gun depends on ideas in the heads of those who wield guns and obey orders to use them. In fact, all power—the ability to make happen what one wants to make happen, even in the face of resistance—depends on instilling and propagating ideas that induce people to cooperate. One implication of this lesson is that power is always tenuous; it can be undermined by challenges to old ideas and the force of new ones. When students learn this, they begin to realize the potential power they can exert by putting into doubt the ideas that lead most people to accept the status quo. Authoritarians, of course, would prefer that people do not acquire the idea that the ideas on which their legitimacy rests are often fictions.

8. Inequalities are connected. This is the key insight associated with the concept of intersectionality. The insight is that systems of inequality in U.S. society—racism, sexism, capitalism—are mutually reinforcing. Racism, for example, thrives in a capitalist economy because it makes some categories of workers vulnerable to super-exploitation and helps to divide and weaken the working class, thereby strengthening capitalism. Inequalities in political power also track the inequalities in income and wealth that capitalism inevitably produces. Students who learn this lesson are less likely to allow their justice concerns to be compartmentalized and more likely to question the whole structure of society. Authoritarians may then justly worry that no form of inequality from which they benefit is safe from challenge.

Authoritarians, of course, would prefer that people do not acquire the idea that the ideas on which their legitimacy rests are often fictions.

9. Without justice there is no peace. This lesson underlies the familiar chant, “No justice, no peace!” But this is more than a slogan; it is history in a nutshell. Whenever people have been exploited and oppressed, whenever they have been denied the right to govern themselves, they have resisted, in ways large and small. To learn this historical lesson is to recognize that what authoritarians call “peace” is often merely temporarily suppressed resistance. It is also to recognize that the kind of peace that allows people to flourish depends on ending exploitation and oppression and creating truly equitable political and economic arrangements. Students who learn this lesson may be less inclined to accept minor concessions intended to tamp down dissent while leaving its root causes intact. Authoritarians are again right to worry when people who resist injustice are less easily placated.

10. The social world as it now exists is just one possibility. Authoritarians benefit if people believe the existing social world is the only possible social world, the implication being that striving for change is futile. This stultifying idea underlies the claims that there is no alternative to capitalism, that a winner-take-all electoral system is the best form of democracy one can hope for, and that racial divisions and tribal conflicts are simply etched into human existence. Yet the study of different times, places, and cultures belies these claims and teaches that other forms of life are possible. Students who learn this lesson are more likely to envision a better world and to see such a world as within our collective ability to create. Authoritarians who want to preserve the world that now privileges them are right to fear this lesson.

Authoritarians benefit if people believe the existing social world is the only possible social world, the implication being that striving for change is futile.

Although I have said these are lessons of higher education, universities are not the only places where they can be learned. They can also be learned outside universities through reading, firsthand experience, and activist apprenticeship. It is also possible to spend years in a university and not learn them; it depends on what is studied and absorbed. As noted earlier, these are lessons most clearly derived from the social sciences and humanities, which is why these disciplines are so often slandered and vilified by authoritarians.

It is also possible to learn these lessons in the abstract and fail to put them into practice. This is probably the case with most students, regardless of their fields of study; the reality that sets in after graduation is that it is hard to make a living in a capitalist society through the full-time pursuit of social and economic justice. It is even more discouraging to see some graduates use these lessons to aid their selfish pursuit of wealth, status, and power. On the bright side, there remains the possibility that when these lessons, latent in the minds of a good many others, meet with opportunities to work for justice and a strong moral imperative to do so, great change can follow.

Are authoritarians—those who want to preserve the inequalities that benefit them by maintaining control over others—right to worry about what professors are teaching students? Yes, but not because professors are urging students to go to the barricades and take up arms for the revolution; that’s not what’s happening. Most university faculty, across the board, are more concerned with preparing students to find comfortable places in society than with preparing them to overhaul it.

What authoritarians are right to fear are the cumulative lessons of higher education when education goes beyond the vocational to critically examine how the social world works, how we participate in it, and how it can be made more peaceful, just, and equitable. These are not lessons, as the fevered imaginings of right-wing politicians would have it, that impel students toward radicalization for radicalization’s sake, or even to liberal positions on every policy issue. They are liberating lessons, anathema to authoritarians everywhere, about how to be more fully human.

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