Feature 09.30.2020 6 minutes

Ivy League Rioters


America's young people are miserable and angry. Universities are to blame.

The radicalization we see in the streets of American cities and the radicalization of American college students look like two separate things. The first involves protests that often escalate into vandalism, looting, burning, attacks on police, and murder. The second involves protests that focus on shutting down the free expression of ideas, though these sometimes also devolve into vandalism and personal violence.

So, street protest and campus protest outwardly differ. But behind that appearance lie three important connections. The first is the people—the activists—who show up in both places; second, the ideology that is crafted on campus and exported to the streets, particularly hatred of America and contempt for law; and third, the anger—that fiery emotion—that is ignited on campus and intensified by the mob in the streets.

When we put the street-side elements together—activists trained as provocateurs, harboring a radical ideology, worked up to explosive anger, alienated from our cultural norms, and primed for lawlessness—we have the ingredients of a full-blown riot, of the sort that has wreaked a path of destruction from lower Manhattan, to Kenosha, to the federal courthouse in Portland. Many of these riots appear to be planned, organized, staffed, and scheduled, often on a nightly basis for weeks on end. These are not, or at least not generally, spontaneous uprisings, but staged events managed by well-trained experts. They are made to look like impulsive outbursts of passion, but they run according to a well-rehearsed script.

Who writes that script? The answer is fairly evident. It is the campus activists who have spent years immersed in anti-liberal ideology, identitarian indignation, and the study of Maoist tactics. They’ve been taught that gaining power by any means necessary is the legitimate path to what they think of as “social justice.” And they are eager to put what they have learned into practice.

Only a fairly small minority of college students are converted to this whole package of radicalization, but these truly radicalized students are the organized, managerial staff of the riots. Often they travel city to city bringing their battle-tested riot planning with them, and tying in with the local networks of Antifa and BLM.

How complicit are the colleges in this? A handful of professors teach outrageous courses and tweet appalling messages, but colleges work hard to convey the impression that they keep their hands clean. People who believe that image are wrong. My organization, the National Association of Scholars, has spent a decade documenting how higher education has become the incubator of radical alienation: from divisive student orientations, through “service learning” that doubles as progressive indoctrination, to above all the courses promoting doctrines such as critical race theory that depict objective standards as the mask worn by oppressors. The old courses that taught students something meaningful about Western civilization and the American Founding have simply vanished in the fire and smoke of the new hate-America-first curriculum.

Some students shrug all this off and move on to a productive adult life. But for too many others, it becomes a vocation. Even students who are immune to the lure of radicalism pay a price. They are deprived of the education they deserve—an education that teaches a full understanding of how our self-governing, prosperous, and free society came to be and what we must do to sustain it for the generations to come. This is a loss for those students and for our country. Because if there is one thing that history teaches, it is that civilization does not simply endure on its own. Neglected—or attacked outright—our civilization could quickly disappear. Frankly, it is disappearing and will disappear if we do nothing to stop it.

The current wave of protest grew from decades of efforts by the radical Left to turn our colleges and universities into incubators of profound dissatisfaction with the American way of life. Colleges learned to package this disdain for America behind the beguiling rhetoric of diversity, but in all too many cases, they left their graduates a legacy of cynical contempt for their own civilization—and in some cases a proud delight in destruction for its own sake. Higher education shuns this verdict and sees itself as part of a noble enterprise of promoting positive systemic change. Those of us who cherish Western civilization need to hold higher education accountable for the systemic change it has actually accomplished, in the form of the misguided people in the streets, some of whom have an Ivy League diploma in one hand and a Molotov cocktail in the other.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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