Bill Drexel & Samuel J. Abrams
When Lee Teng-hui studied as an agriculture PhD student at Cornell University in the late 1960s, American campuses were hotbeds of political controversy, raging with polarized debates spanning the civil rights movement to the Vietnam War. Despite (correctly) suspecting that his home government, then-autocratic Taiwan, was spying on his activities while at school, Lee threw himself headlong into the cantankerous political culture before him. Whatever the student activist excesses of that era at Cornell—and there were many—Lee left the university astonished at how he saw Cornell’s commitment to liberal principles enable it to navigate a politically polarized society with sophistication and openness (admittedly, Lee graduated just before Cornell’s most incendiary waves of campus activism rocked the university, prompting the exodus of prominent professors like Allen Bloom and Walter Berns).
Lee later reflected that Cornell was “the time I first recognized that full democracy could engender ultimately peaceful change…I returned to my homeland determined to make my contribution toward achieving full democracy for our society.” Lee did just that, and is now remembered as the “Father of Taiwan’s Democracy” for spearheading one of the most dramatic transitions to democracy of any nation in the 20th century—dismantling the iron-fisted state apparatus he inherited after his predecessor’s death, and becoming the first democratically-elected leader of the island.
Lee’s story is paradigmatic of the much-touted democratizing influence of American higher education abroad. In the international context, it is hard to imagine a more thorough fulfillment of our universities’ stated aim of educational excellence “in the service of democracy,” in the words of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the nation’s largest higher education organization.
But a groundswell of illiberalism across college campuses today poses uncomfortable questions about the democratizing role of American schools. Can the combination of an ultra-progressive ideology and an epidemic of rampant cancel culture on American campuses give rise to more Lee Teng-hui’s? Or are our universities at risk of stalling, or even corroding the historic gains of American education?
To be sure, the democratic victories of American education have been considerable, well beyond Lee Teng-hui. Before his vision was derailed by internecine fighting among Nationalists and Communists, Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen left the Anglo-American Iolani School of Hawaii with a vision for democracy that electrified early 20th century China. The constitution of the world’s largest democracy, India, was in no small part shaped by its primary author’s studies at Columbia University. Columbia-educated Alexander Yakovlev, among other US-educated Soviets, was pivotal in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Often remembered as Pakistan’s greatest champion of liberal democracy in recent decades, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto credited her time at Harvard as having formed “the very basis of [her] belief in democracy.” The list goes on.
Unsurprisingly, a wide-ranging 2009 study in the American Economic Review demonstrated that the more students a non-democratic country allows to study in free societies, the more likely it is to democratize. Similarly, autocratic countries headed by Western-educated leaders are nearly four times as likely to transition towards democracy as those without a Western-educated leader at the helm. That is why millions are spent every year by the US State Department and by universities across the nation to attract foreign students to prestigious academic exchange programs like the Fulbright Program or the Yale World Fellows program. Such investments, the thought goes, are a small price to pay for the gargantuan positive, soft-power-laden impact that American education can have on foreign societies.
Theoretically, America’s influence from its educational system should be at an all-time high: in a typical year, more than a million international students study in American universities, a number that has doubled in the last two decades and which represents an exponential increase from the 25,000 who studied here in 1950. According to the Higher Education Policy Institute, nearly 1 in 5 of the world’s heads of state or heads of government in 2021 were educated in America.
Regrettably, the increasing numerical dominance of American education has been accompanied by a severe deterioration of the democratic norms that our universities were designed to cultivate. It is undoubtedly one factor among several diminishing America’s democratic sheen in the eyes of foreign students in the US. The extreme polarization of domestic discourse and flagrant contraventions of democratic intuitions, on loud display in Trump’s continued propagation of unsubstantiated election fraud claims and the disturbing events of January 6, loom large in the minds of many visiting students.
But universities, which frame the day-to-day experiences of international students much more than national political events, have developed atmospheres that further damage democracy’s prospects. Brandeis University recently published a list of “oppressive words” to help purge dangerous diction and macroaggressions from its students and faculty. Middlebury had to discipline its social justice warriors for their violent attack on an invited speaker and his interlocutor, who suffered a concussion from the assault. The hysterical shrieking of one Yale student at her professor for his attempt to “create an intellectual space” still rings from 2015—one of the first major rallying cries of the ongoing war on liberalism in American academia. One author of this piece received threats against his family and had his office vandalized for publishing an op-ed in the New York Times questioning overtly racialized student programming.
Alongside such exhibitions of antipathy toward free thought, a steady stream of professor suspensions, resignations, and depositions for failing to comply with progressive orthodoxy has become a regular feature of American higher education, to the consternation of professors. Across the country, universities are institutionalizing much of the ethos behind these incidents by pouring millions into a “diversity industrial complex”—there is almost a 1:1 ratio of administrators to students at Yale University today, for example. Such administrators dictate the terms of both speech and engagement on campus from the classrooms to the dormitories and effectively silence debate, discourse, and dissent from students to faculty. As one recently-resigned professor from Portland State University noted, “Just the threat of being called in by the [university’s] diversity and inclusion office is enough to silence people.”
The factors contributing to rising illiberalism in American higher education are many. For one, the education system feeding into American colleges seems to be eroding young Americans’ faith in American democracy before they even matriculate. AEI’s Survey Center on American Life recently found that a majority of American adults believe that schools—traditionally tasked with teaching American history and imparting civic values and behaviors—are falling short in cultivating patriotism among youth. Civics requirements and curricula have withered across the country, while hyper-critical paradigms of American democracy like the 1619 Project and critical race theory have increasingly colored young scholars’ perceptions of American democracy which they bring on their many campuses. Gen Z, now in their prime undergrad years, have a less positive view of the US than any other generation, and have been taught not of America’s promise, but of its faults and the need to destroy rather than renew institutions.
Moreover, within colleges, an overwhelmingly left-wing corps of university administrators—outnumbering conservative peers 12-to-1—maintain perspectives largely shaped by advanced degrees in education that further stress ubiquitous structures of oppression permeating American society. A similarly disproportionate cadre of progressive professors further champion hyper-critical narratives of America’s democracy and society. Between the two, our halls of higher learning become echo chambers that amplify democracy-critical sentiments and fail to distinguish between dissent and heresy on contentious topics.
But American college students’ concomitant zeal to fight perceived injustices is the primary cause of the democratic decay, and their illiberal impulses are becoming a staple of campus culture. In a recent survey of more than 37,000 students across American colleges and universities, two-thirds of students found shouting down a speaker to prevent them from speaking acceptable; almost a quarter accepted the use of violence in protest to some degree; and more than 40% agreed that blocking other students from attending a speech was acceptable in some circumstances. Speech, expression, and healthy disagreement are under real threat, and today’s campuses are a far cry from the centers of free democratic discourse that so inspired Lee Teng-hui in the 1960s. Though many of the seeds of contemporary academic dysfunction were planted in that decade, it was not until the Obama years that academic illiberalism really took root among professors, administrators, and students.
Under such conditions, foreign students can absorb the best of American education in internationally-competitive STEM fields, without gaining an appreciation for democratic virtues.
It is too early to tell the full effects of these trends on the more than 300,000 foreign elites that matriculate in America each year. But early indications look bleak.
For those coming from authoritarian countries like China, which accounted for 35% of America’s international students in the 2019-2020 academic year, American academia’s hyper-critical narratives play directly into autocrats’ hands. Many Chinese students we speak with leave the United States with the distorted impression that the faults of America’s political system are similar to—or worse than—the brutal party state that rules their people. The little data that exists on Chinese students in America bears out the point: in 2018, more than 40% of Chinese students surveyed on American campuses indicated that their perception of America had become “worse” or “much worse” since arrival, compared with just 16 % whose perceptions of the US had improved. Nearly half had a more positive view of China since coming to American campuses.
It doesn’t help that Chinese students often recognize the intellectual thuggery that characterizes woke American campuses as resembling their own state’s demands for ideological conformity and political doublespeak. Five out of six students in American colleges report self-censoring their opinion because of how other students, a professor, or the administration would respond. For more than 20% of students, such self-censorship is a frequent experience on campus. Under such conditions, foreign students can absorb the best of American education in internationally-competitive STEM fields, without gaining an appreciation for democratic virtues.
As North Korean defector Yeonmi Park recently observed of her time at Columbia University, instead of teaching critical thinking, American universities today are often “forcing you to think the way they want you to think”—a feature shared by repressive governments’ education. Under such conditions, it can be very difficult indeed for foreign students to recognize the unique merits of an open society, leaving many students feeling their home autocracy isn’t so different after all. Meanwhile, the hyper-critical narratives of American democracy popular among university faculty are preached to foreign students—and gleefully propagated by Chinese state propaganda outlets.
But many foreign students also fall into the opposite trap: rather than equivocating between open societies and repressive regimes, they imbibe the fashionable attitudes peddled in American colleges as the best solution to their home countries’ very different challenges.
This fallacy is particularly relevant for a country like India, which sends more students to the US than any other country besides China. Many Indian elites leave their time at American institutions considerably more invested in hot-button progressive issues in America’s culture wars than in the more immediate needs of their developing society.
In recent years, India’s English-language media outlets popular among its foreign-educated elite have rapidly absorbed woke jargon. Their articles are now littered with references to safe spaces, heteronormativity, and intersectionality. In one telling op-ed, a US-educated Indian thanked his fellow Indian social justice warriors for supplying him with a constant social media “feed of wokeness” to inspire him in fighting the “omnipresent reach of corporate authoritarianism” in America.
Within India, one wonders if the considerable energy of India’s elites spent on issues like transgender surgical certification or inadvertent manifestations of patriarchy in LGBTQ-friendly advertisements would be better spent elsewhere in a country that still struggles with low literacy rates and high infant malnutrition. Such distorted attention to society’s needs renders India’s infamously disconnected elite even more alienated and irrelevant—leaving ample room for radical Hindu nationalists to further dismantle India’s ailing civil society. Ironically, even Hindu nationalists are now cashing in on the identity politics discourse emanating from American universities by invoking “Hinduphobia” against those who disagree with their aggressive brand of ethno-nationalism.
Discouraging as these indicators are—applicable far beyond these case studies of China and India—the seeds that American universities are sowing abroad will only really sprout in the decades to come. With any luck, the less savory ideas peddled by contemporary American campuses will prove less powerful in shaping societies than the emphasis on individual rights, free speech, and rule of law that our colleges so successfully exported in the 20th century. But in today’s campus climate, it is fair to question how many pupils leave our institutions inspired to fight for democratic freedoms, compared to those leaving disenchanted with democracy or on a quixotic woke crusade.
One thing remains clear: the ideals instilled by American higher education today are poised to have profound influence on countries around the world tomorrow. As in previous decades, American diplomas continue to fast-track individuals to the highest echelons of societies around the globe. If the rising illiberalism of American academia seems like a threat to our own robust democracy, just imagine its implications for those societies that look to it as a rare source of hope for their democratic aspirations.