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Yes, Conservatives Should Go to College

The conservative “don’t go to college” meme is a mistake, driven by a sense of fatalism and self-defeat.


There's been a meme that I've seen a lot lately, and the idea is that conservatives shouldn't go to college. I think that the basis of this argument is essentially that colleges have become factories of left-wing indoctrination. Parents shouldn't trust them, and they certainly shouldn't spend the money and send their kids through the ideological meat grinder of the modern American university.

As an alternative, conservatives say there's that famous meme of, Todd went to school to be an electrician. He's making $120,000 a year, and his counterpart that has a useless degree is in debt, $300,000, can't get a job, and is working at Starbucks. And obviously in a sense that there's some truth to this, right? Some of the friends that I have that went into the trades have been very successful. They've started businesses, and they've worked their way up. They have a comfortable living.

And of course, there are many people with low-quality degrees in gender studies or grievance ideology that are underemployed. This is a famous statistic that you see everywhere. The number of college graduates, for example, that are still living with their parents. Although this idea has a grain of truth, I think it actually is fundamentally wrong. It's fundamentally misguided. I tweeted this out earlier this week and sparked some debate. Charlie Kirk, who I consider a friend, an ally, took me to task and he said, "Rufo is totally wrong. The universities are beyond repair. We need to raze them and start over with other opportunities for kids that are getting older." I appreciate the sentiment, but I mean it's totally unrealistic in a practical sense, and then in a theoretical sense, in a more abstract sense, it's also actually wrong and I think bad for the conservative movement.

So let me explain why on both accounts. First off, from a practical matter, we've had universities in the west for a thousand years, since they were first started in France and Spain and then Italy, some of those great original medieval universities to the founding of our country. You have universities that date back four or five hundred years in America that have always been the training ground for the elites in business, law, government, administration, et cetera. And so the idea that somehow we're going to be able to get rid of universities, taking aside whether or not it's desirable, I don't think it's desirable, but even if you said it's totally desirable, it's actually completely impractical. Universities are a part of our heritage. They're actually one of the most incredible parts of our heritage. And when universities are organized in principles along the pursuit of knowledge, to transmit the seven liberal arts, and they're oriented towards the highest goods, the pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful, for example, they are one of the best institutions that we can have as a society.

I mean, they're truly a miracle that we have created these institutions of higher learning. Yes, I'm one of the critics of how universities are practicing this today. I think that has drifted substantially, but we simply can't just get rid of universities. I think that that position is impractical, it's imprudent, and I think it in a sense, betrays a kind of anti-intellectualism, to actually mistake the idea that intellectualism is the problem when the problem in reality and truth is the corruption of real intellectualism in pursuit of pseudo-intellectual activist ideologies that have dominated many academic departments in recent decades. But the second consideration, and I think more deeply important, is that since the beginning of time, societies, including democracies, including constitutional republics, operate with an elite.

Look at the resumes for everyone in Congress. Look at the resumes for most of the people in the Fortune 100 companies at the C level management. Look at the resumes for obviously the professional class of doctors, lawyers, accountants, administrators, et cetera. They go through a credentialing process. Whether or not you agree with it, it is a reality and it will continue to be a reality into the future. And all societies are governed at the actual tangible, practical measure by an elite structure at the top. This is a group of people, the social scientist, Charles Murray has talked about, the 10,000 people who command the heights of our industry, our politics, our entertainment, et cetera. You can debate on whether the number is accurate or not, but there's some truth to it, right? Ultimately, there are people who make decisions in our society. There are legislators that make the laws, and there are business people who chart the course of enterprise. And so by saying that conservatives should not go to college, you're saying that we should deprive our own political side of entry into elite positions of influence, elite positions of power, and elite positions of lawmaking capacity.

You are just shutting down your own political movement's ability to operate and to govern and to administer and to direct society through the institutions. And the question is, well, what drives this attitude? And I think that unfortunately, while I love all of my colleagues in the conservative movement, this idea, this meme is driven by a sense of fatalism. The institutions are against us. The institutions are corrupted, and therefore we need to retreat. We need to opt out, we need to back away. We need to kind of protect ourselves. There's nothing we can do to improve the bigger structures of society and therefore we have to withdraw. But it's also driven, unfortunately, by, I think a internal sense of inferiority. People see all of these people of elite influence. They may have a sense of inferiority, and as a compensation for that, they say, "Oh, well, the intellectuals are bad, the elites are bad. The people of influence in this manner are bad, and I am therefore superior in some way."

You can maintain a sense of ego, a sense of your own self-image, but this is ultimately not a solution to the broader social problem. I think conservatives need to spend more time creating what for the time being would be a counter elite that has the intellectual capacity, that has the organizational structure, and has the potential for leadership that eventually when we start taking back institutions, when we start winning elections and making sure that those things actually translate into policy and institutional reforms, that we can have the leadership class available to start administering that vision. Look, one of the big problems with the Trump administration, for example, was they had something like 4,000 appointed positions, many of which did not get filled even after four years. We should have a kind of vanguard, we should have a counter elite.

We should have a cadre of people, to borrow some language from my friends on the left, that is ready to go, that is ready to govern, that is ready to implement these ideas into actual administrative policies. And so while I am a hundred percent in support of creating alternatives like Hillsdale College, hopefully we'll do with New College of Florida, like other more conservative academic institutions, we also have to play to change the public university systems and then to put pressure on even those elite private universities to make sure that conservatives have a pathway to leadership. Because if we have a political movement that retreats to this position that somehow trade schools are a substitution for all higher education, we'll have no capacity to lead, we'll have no capacity to actually make sure our values are meaningful in a sense of governing. And I think that ultimately this meme of don't go to college is just fundamentally wrong-headed. It's counterproductive to the movement and it's to boot, totally impractical.

Christopher F. Rufo
Christopher F. Rufo
Christopher F. Rufo