Conjuring images of the medieval church or the Kremlin persecuting dissidents is delicious, but it comes from times and places where very few people even had access to the information that the academy was exposed to. Those controlling authorities could actually hope to keep certain opinions from spreading by applying pressure at a very few places. That world has been disappearing for years. Anyone can get ahold of the ideas of Foucault, or Trotsky, or Derrida at the touch of a button now. Where unavailability is still a problem, ironically, are precisely those areas where those ideas are in ascendance.
This is why online learning and other consumer-driven postsecondary education is pushing them out. Prestigious universities are losing prestige, not because Americans are anti-intellectual, but because they are anti-intelligentsia, anti-academy. Even George Bush reads Camus nowadays. The figure of The Professor in comic books and Gilligan’s Island, a person who knows much about all important subjects, does not even work as comedy or stereotype anymore. People chuckled about the comedic exaggeration of Russell Johnson’s character then – now they would fail to find it funny at all, except as some sort of retro thing. People have access to the information themselves and know that humanities professors are often not all that smart. Smarter than average people, perhaps, and trained in particular specialties, but not dealing with subjects far beyond the ken of mortals. That is in fact why these disciplines have developed their own coded vocabularies, to identify outsiders rapidly. They can no longer rely on their superior knowledge to do that for them. It’s too easy for a talented amateur to join the conversation after a little work.
There is no need to censor the academy. They are making themselves increasingly irrelevant. The entrenched, government-funded educators at younger levels is more worrisome.