Book Review - The Breakdown of Higher Education

ICSA Today, 13.1, 2022, 22-23

Book Review: The Breakdown of Higher Education

By John M. Ellis

Encounter Books. 2020. ISBN-13: 978-1-64177-088-0 (hardcover) $25.99; 978-1-64177-214-3 $17.99 (paperback); 978-1-64177-089-7 $19.49 (NOOK Book) ( 240 pages (paperback).

Reviewed by Stephen Martin

Professor Ellis points out in his book that, in 1915, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) made the following statement, which I quote in part here:

The university teacher, in giving instruction upon controversial matters … should … be a person of fair and judicial mind; he should … set forth justly … the divergent opinions of other investigators; he should cause his students to become familiar with the best published expressions … upon the questions at issue; … his business is not to provide his students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves… The teacher ought also to be especially on his guard against taking unfair advantage of the student’s immaturity by indoctrinating him with the teacher’s own opinions… It is not the least service which a college or university may render to those under its instruction, to habituate them to looking not only patiently but methodically on both sides, before adopting any conclusion upon controverted issues. (AAUP, 1915, cited in Ellis, pp. 41–42)

These guidelines are quite the opposite of what takes place in a cultic, thought-reform environment.

Can thought reform, indoctrination, and closed-mindedness occur in our American universities as it does in cults? To lay out and help clarify the characteristics and criteria of cults, based on other reputable publications, I begin with the following list:

· Authoritarian in approach (Chambers et al., 1994; Langone, M. D., 2001; Langone, M. D., 2016).

· Communication control because of group leaders’ “conviction that reality is their exclusive possession” (Lifton, R. J., 1961, p. 421, para. 1). The group deprives individuals of external information, subjecting them to the “hostility of suffocation” (Lifton, R. J., 1961, p. 421, para. 2). The individual’s quest toward new information, independent judgment, and self-expression is, therefore, thwarted (Lifton, R. J., 1961, pp. 420, 421).

· Closed-mindedness (a result of the indoctrination process associated with control of communication). “If his [the member’s] intelligence and sensibilities carry him toward realities outside the closed ideological system, he may resist these [realities] as not fully legitimate” (Lifton, R. J., 1961, p. 421, para. 2).

· “Actions aimed at influencing the subjects’ feelings and emotions in order to manipulate them toward greater submission to the group [Item 4.1] ... Intimidation or threats…” [Item 4.3] (Rodriguez, A. et al., 2015, Table 1, p. 35).

· Ascription of guilt, shame, and humiliation for members who do not measure up to their arbitrary rules and standards, and thus requiring apologies/confessions. “There is the demand that one confess to crimes one has not committed, to sinfulness that is artificially induced, in the name of a cure that is arbitrarily imposed” (Lifton, R. J., 1961, p. 425).

· Pressure to conform, intolerance toward disagreement, dissent, and alternative ideas, which result in the fear of members to express such ideas, uncritical passivity, and the denigration of critical thinking (Chambers, et al., 1994, Appendix A: GPA Scale, #25; Langone, M.D., 2001; Lifton, 1961, p. 427, 428, 432; Rodriguez, A. et al., 2015, Table 1: #5.2, p. 35; Singer, M. T., 1979, January. “Coming Out of the Cults,” Psychology Today, 12, 72–82, cited by Langone, M.D., 2001).

· Loaded language. “The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. … Totalist language, then, is repetitiously centered on all-encompassing jargon, prematurely abstract, highly categorical, relentlessly judging, … in Lionel Trilling’s phrase, ‘the language of nonthought’” (Lifton, 1961, p. 429, para. 2). Loaded language also gives new meanings to words (Rodriguez, A. et al., 2015, Table 1: #2.2, p. 34).

· Use of whatever means possible, even if unethical, to gain power and achieve their goals (Chambers, et al., 1994; Lifton, 1961, pp. 422, 423).

· Denial of rights to those who are outside of the movement or ideology (Lifton, 1961, p. 433).

· Implementation of the above tactics to pursue political power, and approval of the use of violence to do so (Chambers, et al., 1994, Appendix A: GPA Scale, #6, #12).

In his book, Professor Ellis tells how the bulk of our American universities have flouted the guidelines of the 1915 statement of the American Association of University Professors, and they have done so at an increasing rate in recent decades. He shows historically how the quest for a political agenda too often replaces the quest for academic excellence. Increasingly, this political quest is taking precedence over all else, and the perpetrators use deceptive means to promote and maintain it. Speakers who have differing views are shouted down and silenced on campuses. College environments have become closed-minded and vicious toward those who disagree.

This book includes accounts from many universities of the blunt tactics of faculty members carried out against fellow faculty members who express their views and, to their surprise, are met with verbal and/or written attacks, being intimidated into withdrawing their published articles, apologizing, and being pressured to comply with the new agenda or to resign. These one-sided views also may be so heavily put forth in the classrooms that the effect on most of the students is fear—those who have differing views are afraid to express them (Ellis, 2020a, p. 120). In contrast, student mobs who are fully indoctrinated have prevented invited guests from speaking on several campuses, and their means for doing so have become more disruptive with threats of violence. Even university administrators, regents, and trustees are capitulating to intimidations from faculty members (e.g., Kurtz, 2017). For other examples of such instances, see also Bernstein, 2021; Ellis, 2020b; Ellis, Geshekter, Wood, & Balch, 2012; Fatzic, 2017; Jackson, 2016; John Moores resigns…, 2007; Kahn, 2018; Safe from “safe spaces,” 2016; Soave, 2021; Speyer, 2016; Soave, 2021; ThinkCivics, 2021; U. of California…, 2007.

Ellis points out that traditional academic analysis is marginalized in favor of the new campus orthodoxy. Reasoned discussions that consider alternative explanations about certain matters are denounced as racism, bigotry, hate speech, and the like. Words such as these, says Ellis, “are all designed to stop analytical thought before it can even begin” (Ellis, 2020a, p. 19).

The academic fields mostly affected by this trend are the humanities, social sciences, and the newer “Studies” departments that focus on race and gender (Ellis, 2020a, pp. 13, 14). Less affected by this trend are the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and the like; but even these content areas are eroding and becoming untrustworthy under the influence of identity politics.

Ellis concludes his book by recommending disciplined, lawful, and constructive approaches to reversing this destructive erosion.

Although Dr. Ellis doesn’t use the word cult in his book, nor does he mention any of the cult experts that I have cited in the 10 criteria, he has made many significant observations. I, as one who recognizes cultic dynamics, am grateful for his observations. And as one who knows the destructive nature of cults, I am very concerned about cultic dynamics infiltrating these large institutions that affect our entire nation.

It would be useful if researchers familiar with cultic dynamics systematically explored the phenomena that Ellis describes. Both quantitative research, and steps to restore our colleges and universities to academic excellence, would be welcome.


Bernstein, B. (2021, Sept. 22). Support for shouting down speakers on campus spikes after political chaos of 2020, Yahoo!news.

Chambers, W., Langone, M. D., Dole, A., & Grice, J. (1994). Group Psychological Abuse Scale. Cultic Studies Journal, 11(1), 88–117.

Ellis, J. M. (2020a). Chapter 2: Who are the people destroying our universities? (pp. 25–46), The Breakdown of Higher Education: How It Happened, the Damage It Does, and What Can be Done. New York/London: Encounter Books.

Ellis, J. M. (2020b). California Association of Scholars, A crisis of competence: The corrupting effect of political activism in the University of California. A report prepared for the Regents of the University of California, April 2012, [source as cited on p. 160 of Ellis].

Ellis, J. M., Geshekter, C. L., Wood, P. W., & Balch, S. H. (2012). A crisis of competence: The Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California. A report prepared by the National Association of Scholars (NAS).

Fatzick, J. (2017, Apr. 26). American college campuses increasingly hostile to free speech. VOA.

Jackson, A. (2016, July 28). ‘Disinvitations’ for college speakers..., Business Insider (

John Moores resigns from UC Board of Regents. (2007, Nov. 13). San Francisco Examiner/Bay City News.

Kahn, T. (2018, Jan. 31). Red meat for the right-wing…, Academe Blog.

Kurtz, S. (2017, Nov. 7). Campus shout-down rate nearly quadruples, National Review.

Langone, M.D. (2001). An investigation of a reputedly psychologically abusive group.

Langone, M.D. (2016). Origins and prevention of abuse in religious groups. ICSA Today, 7(3), 11–13.

Lifton, R. J. (1961). Thought reform and the psychology of totalism. New York: W.W. Norton. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press (1989).

Rodriguez, A., Saladana, O., Almendros, C., Martin-Pena, J., Escartin, J., & Porrua-Garcia, C. (2015). Group psychological abuse: Taxonomy and severity of its components. The European Journal of Psychology Applied to Legal Context, 7, 31–39.

Safe from safe spaces (2016, May). The New Criterion.

Soave, R. (2021, Aug. 30). Perspective: Welcome to ‘woke’ university, DeseretNews.

Speyer, L. (2016, Sept. 1). UCLA student president leaves law school over BDS harassment… the algemeiner.

ThinkCivics. (2021, Sept. 24). Overwhelming majority of college students say shouting down a speaker is acceptable: survey.

U. of California Regent Resigns Abruptly. (2007, Nov. 13). The Chronicle of Higher Education.

About the Reviewer

Stephen Martin, MDiv, is a cofounder of Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, established in 1986, and is the younger brother of the late Dr. Paul Martin, founder and director of Wellspring. Stephen served as a workshop leader there to help restore the lives of victims of cults and spiritual abuse. An outgrowth of this work has been spiritual-abuse education in the public arena, especially churches, in which Stephen conducted more than 45 programs. He is author of the book The Heresy of Mind Control, which integrates the psychology of cults with biblical insight as an educational and therapeutic tool. He also has coauthored two articles in ICSA publications.