The irritable conservative college memoir, which argues that tertiary education is ruining the US, is a tired minor genre to which everyone from William F. Buckley Jr. to Dinesh D’Souza and Ben Shapiro has contributed. But the canon was beginning to get a bit stale and in need of a shake-up. Fortunately, Charlie Kirk’s memoir is here to provide that. He is doubly unusual: first, because he waited until his late twenties to write this masterpiece and, secondly, because he took the novel step of not actually finishing college, while still making it the focus of his entire life. That he dropped out of university is a matter of pride to Kirk, who wants you to know that he has managed to employ “160 recent high school and college graduates” and oversees “a $50 million annual budget”—even though he never got a degree. Kirk anticipates that his lack of formal education will be the butt of every reviewer’s snide comments. Not wanting to disappoint him, I have included a few in this opening paragraph. Because trying to find the humour in all this is one of the only ways to get anything out of Kirk’s latest piece of self-promotion. The College Scam is a book so determined to save western civilization from the scourge of higher education that Kirk does not even want to risk learning anything of substance about it.
I agree with its author on some things. Charlie Kirk thinks American higher education is broken. So do I. US universities are among the most prohibitively expensive in the world, and—to add insult to injury—the poshest of them will often create artificial scarcity in order to inflate their prestige. Ivy league schools often tout their high rejection rates as indications of prestige and status—in spite of the fact that many top schools have the resources to admit more students, and doing so would promote the equality and diversity many of them claim to care about. Despite presenting themselves as bastions of merit—itself a mystical concept—many of the best schools overwhelmingly cater to the already rich and privileged. They consistently replicate the same illegitimate status hierarchies that many of their faculty have become famous for criticising. And even outside the gilded Ivy leagues, there are plenty of problems with higher education. Most academic work is precarious and underpaid and many adjuncts are completely unpaid and receive no benefits. This clearly impacts the quality of the education students are getting. To have classes of three hundred, farmed out to adjuncts who don’t even earn enough money to rent an apartment, isn’t a great situation for anyone. But Kirk does not mention this at all.
Instead, in between applauding his own successes, Kirk offers us countless rants on aloof Marxist professors who tell their students depressing stories about exploitation in the sugar industry, tales meant to make them “feel guilty for everything” (Kirk seems unaware that a lot of these stories are inconvenient but true).
I agree with Kirk that the widespread disdain with which many people treat non-college educated folk must stop. Anyone who has spent any time working at a manual job—which, despite his lavish praise of the “muscle” class, Kirk himself has not—knows how much such workers contribute to society. The pandemic made it abundantly clear how crucial Amazon workers, supermarket shelf stockers, plumbers, truck drivers, farm labourers and many others are to our societies. In fact, they are far more essential to societal functioning than billionaires—without whom Kirk says there’d be “no economy, there’s nothing to eat and there’s no quality of life,” adding, “You must have rich people to have an economy. Rich people build businesses that employ people. After all, when was the last time a poor person offered you a job?” These passages contain adulation instead of arguments and aren’t even rhetorically convincing. A billionaire might employ a thousand people, but those thousand employees (and a million customers) also help make that person make and retain his billions.
One potential solution to both the high cost of college education in the US and the general anomie produced by educational inequality might be to forgive student debt or—better yet—transition towards an almost tuition-free model of tertiary education, like the systems in Germany and Norway. This was one of the reforms that Bernie Sanders proposed and, as Kirk resentfully acknowledges, it helped bolster his popularity among young people. Kirk wants nothing to do with Sanders’ proposal that the US institute free university education—though his only argument against it is that it would be very expensive. Given that Americans already spend more taxpayer dollars and pay more for post-secondary education than anyone else in the world, I am unconvinced. Beyond that, Kirk’s only objections are to denounce Sanders as a “kind of secular Moses,” making hollow promises. (An odd choice of analogy, since the Israelites did get to the promised land in the end.) Moreover, although Kirk claims to be empathetic towards those burdened by college debt, he feels that debt forgiveness would be “an injustice toward those (like myself) who didn’t go to college—and an even worse injustice toward those who worked their way through college without accumulating debt.” In other words, Kirk doesn’t want to pay higher taxes in order to offer any actual relief to the former students he claims to care about so much.
Most of Kirk’s arguments about the value and cost of college employ very little analytical or empirical rigour. One gets the sense that this isn’t really what he’s most interested in discussing. Most of The College Scam is instead taken up with stories about radical professors indoctrinating their students with leftist ideas. This is a problem, according to Kirk, because education should be politically neutral, and professors should refrain from partisan pedagogy. But Kirk repeatedly undercuts the integrity of his own argument. For example, he suggests students attend Hillsdale College, where they can learn about the “Greek, Roman, Judeo-Christian foundations of Western Civilization … the great ideas on which our culture is based.” In reality, Hillsdale College is a transparently partisan institute that prides itself on educating students in conservative principles. So, Kirk’s solution to unfair indoctrination by radical professors is to encourage students to receive explicit indoctrination by academics whose politics he shares.
The remainder of his arguments operate at a similarly sloppy level. Take the following gem:
Where did Anthony Fauci acquire the medical authority and credibility to impose a lockdown on America and arguably mislead the public? College … Where did Somali-born Ilhan Omar learn to seemingly hate the country that saved her from the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya? College. Where did Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez learn that America must be bankrupted and evidently obliterated from within? College. Where did Nikole Hannah-Jones, the author of The 1619 Project, spread her revisionist history prior to joining the New York Times? College. Where was Barack Obama first inspired with a goal of fundamentally transforming America? College. Where was Hillary Clinton converted from a Goldwater Girl to a Saul Alinsky radical? College. Where was Critical Race Theory spawned? College.
I don’t think Kirk has thought this through. You know who else never completed his degree? Friedrich Engels. Karl Marx was booted out of academia for expressing politically incorrect views. Know who never went to college? Stalin, Trotsky and Kim Il-Sung. The Khmer Rouge were so anti-college they launched a genocide against the educated.
Kirk expresses concern about how universities are undermining the great ideas of western civilization. This would be more convincing if he had more than the most cartoonish notion of what those ideas are—a fact that is evident every time he tries to provide specifics. For example, at one point Kirk calls Karl Marx the “President of a German youth movement, the Young Hegelians.” The Young Hegelians never had a president nor were they an organized movement. The term is usually applied to an unaffiliated collection of intellectuals who wanted to foreground the liberal elements of Hegel’s thought to counter his more aristocratic and monarchical followers. Ironically, the Young Hegelians fought for the very things that Kirk claims to care about most: free speech, academic and intellectual diversity and an end to state repression of classical liberalism. Moreover, Kirk characterizes Hegel as one of the founding figures of “progressivism” without acknowledging that right-wing Hegelianism is one of the most important schools of conservative thought, influencing such influential conservative and even far-right thinkers as Francis Fukuyama, Michael Oakeshott, Paul Gottfried and Giovanni Gentile. In his book How to Be a Conservative, Roger Scruton claims:
Conservatism is not in the business of correcting human nature or shaping it according to some conception of the ideal rational chooser. It attempts to understand how societies work, and to make the space required for them to work successfully. Its starting point is the deep psychology of the human person. Its fundamental philosophy has never been better captured than by Hegel.
In Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, Scruton describes Hegel’s work as an “original and metaphysically intriguing version of the conservative response to liberalism” and praises him for showing how “liberal aspirations” give way to “conservative realities.”
Finally, Kirk provides perhaps the worst critique of Derrick Bell I’ve ever read. By his own admission, Kirk is not familiar with any of Bell’s own work. Instead, he discusses only Thomas Sowell’s analysis of Bell. He approvingly cites Sowell’s catty account of Bell as “not an academic legal scholar of the sort who gets appointed as a full professor at one of the leading law schools.” But, in fact, Bell was a widely cited scholar, who was known for treating conservative students who disagreed with him with respect. Elements of Bell’s work are worth criticizing—such as his pessimistic conviction that racism will always be with us, which seems less of a catalyst for activism than an invitation to give up trying. But Kirk dives into none of these nuances. He just parrots language about the need for intellectual diversity—while refusing to read someone from the other side of the political divide.
The College Scam is the worst book I have read this year and, although the year is still young, I am doubtful that I will encounter an even worse one. Somehow, Kirk has managed to limbo-dance below the low bar set by his previous book, The MAGA Doctrine (which I review for Areo here). This is a shame since there are deep inequities and other fundamental problems within the American tertiary education system. Figuring out what to do about them will take a considerable amount of good faith analysis and reflection. Sadly, Kirk’s latest book is more likely to hamper than to contribute to these efforts.