The Worst That’s Been Thought and Said

Bruce S. Thornton

In 1987, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind became an unexpected best-seller, catapulting the politicized university into the wider public conversation. That same year E.D. Hirsch published Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, which was followed by studies such as Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education (1990) and Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (1998), by Charles A. Kors and Harvey Silverglate. Organizations such as the National Association of Scholars were created to document and resist the baleful effects on liberal education wrought by the left-wing and postmodern ideologies that had colonized higher education, while the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education battles the administrative apparatuses that enforce political correctness and restrict speech in every dimension of university life.

Nearly three decades later, despite this heroic resistance, the Left has come to dominate higher education in America. Yet in Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University, Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr. attempt to argue that, while the university is overwhelmingly progressive in its ideology, things aren’t as bad as conservatives claim. Self-professed conservatives themselves, Shields and Dunn warn their political fellows that they “should be careful not to overstate the intolerance” on university campuses, for “the right-wing critique of the university is overdrawn.”1 The university is “far more tolerant than right-wing critics” imagine, according to conservatives the authors interviewed (4). Indeed, many conservative professors had discovered their political beliefs in the “ideational pluralism that does exist in the academy” (33). Moreover, “Complaining about professorial radicalism” should be avoided, for “it certainly does not encourage young conservatives to consider a career in academia,” the implication being that getting more conservatives into academe would correct the progressive bias of the institution (203). Yes, conservatives are unfairly stigmatized, but “conservatives can survive and even thrive in the liberal university” (203).

This is an astonishing claim, one he authors support in the main by focusing on the self-reported experiences of 153 professors from 84 universities, documented in interviews and surveys. Given that there are 1.5 million professors and 2500 four-year institutions in the United States, one could question just how representative of higher education in America these anecdotes are. More worrisome, self-reported information is notoriously subjective, impressionistic, sometimes irrational, frequently uninformed, and often mendacious. In the end, all these mere opinions can tell us about are the experiences of the 0.01 percent of American professors who were interviewed, which may or may not represent the experiences of some unknowable numbers of others.

The representative value of their evidence aside, the authors’ claim that “conservative anxieties about classroom indoctrination” are “misplaced” (165) is particularly dubious given the widely publicized protests that have roiled campuses just this past year over police shootings of black men, or the frequently reported instances of speakers disinvited or shouted down by students and faculty who don’t like their politics, or the numerous tales of even progressive faculty who have run afoul of political correctness. And these are just especially egregious examples of events common on campuses since I began writing about academic intolerance of conservative or traditional ideas in the early 1990s. Last year’s videos of Yale students screaming and shrieking at faculty members; the prevalence of nonsense like “safe spaces,” “white privilege,” and “microagressions”; the star chambers in which the Constitutional rights of the accused are ignored; the extorting of programs, scholarships, curriculum, and faculty positions from cowed college presidents––Yale’s Peter Salovey promised student protestors at least $50 million for these sorts of academic lucre––all are the poisoned fruit of thirty years of leftist and progressive ideology permeating the campus.

If, as Shields and Dunn claim, “widespread indoctrination” is not taking place, or that “ham-fisted efforts to mold the political minds of students tend to fail” (167, 166), what else other than the leftist domination of the universities could explain such behavior? Or the affection for an aging, unaccomplished socialist like Bernie Sanders, who attracted 70 percent of millennial Democratic primary voters? Or that in one survey, 53 percent of eighteen-to twenty-nine-year-olds view socialism favorably, and in another, 69 percent of voters under age thirty said they would vote for a socialist for president? By focusing so heavily on the professors and their experiences, the authors ignore the real problem, which is the main flaw of Passing on the Right: neglecting the effects of ideological bias on students and their intellectual and cultural development.

The authors’ narrow focus on faculty also ignores how deeply progressive ideology has been institutionalized in the university’s administrative infrastructure, which casts doubt on the suggestion that more conservative faculty could bring more balance to higher education. “Diversity,” for example, is not just an issue in the lecture hall or hiring. It permeates institutions of higher learning. Most universities have numerous programs, offices, and funding to encourage or bribe faculty into finding ways to emphasize diversity in their research, curricula, and syllabi. The adminisration also provides numerous services for students from “protected” classes, and has investigative and enforcement mechanisms to punish students and faculty who violate formal and informal speech codes. And remember, many of these services and investigative offices are required by federal sexual harassment and Title IX laws, thus putting the coercive power of the federal government behind progressive ideology.

The problem is that, like multi-culturalism, “diversity” is an ideological tenet of left-wing identity politics, one directly opposed to the principles of a liberal education. It promotes a melodramatic narrative of Western crimes against people “of color,” and a debased view of history in which historical phenomena like “imperialism” and “colonialism” are understood in Leninist terms as evils unique to the West. As the historian of Soviet terror Robert Conquest said, these politicized terms serve “mainly to confuse, and of course to replace, the complex and needed process of understanding with the simple and unneeded process of inflammation.”2 Thus the politics of the classroom are reinforced and supported by the administrative apparatus, which shapes the university from hiring to curriculum development to student life. Rather than teaching independent thinking and critical skills, the faculty and administrators collude to impose a leftist orthodoxy that impressionable young people are woefully unprepared to resist.

Freshmen and sophomores are especially vulnerable, which makes general education distribution requirements much more important for discussing the politicizing of the university than are the subjective impressions of self-identified conservative faculty. At my campus of the California State University system—which comprises twenty-three campuses enrolling half a million students—the general education program is riddled with ideologically loaded courses into which students are funneled. For example, “Area D3: Social, Political and Economic Institutions and Behavior; Historical Background [sic]” offers often multiple courses in Africana studies, American Indian studies, Asian American studies, Chicano and Latin American studies, and Middle East studies that promote and teach leftist identity politics and ideology. That’s not counting the traditional courses from political science and anthropology that are notorious for political biases. And on an overflowing campus with packed classrooms, students often cannot simply choose a different course.

Even more egregious are the courses included in “Area A3: Critical Thinking.” Along with legitimate philosophy courses such as “Methods of Reasoning” and “Introduction to Logic,” there are courses from Africana studies, women’s studies, and Chicano and Latin American studies. The presence of courses that are ideological by nature and design might seem a mystery, given that logic and argument are supposed to be objective tools of critical thinking. But the “critical thinking” these departments have in mind owes more to the Frankfurt School than to Aristotle. Their goal is to apply the “hermeneutics of suspicion” to a student’s beliefs acquired from parents, church, or tradition, since these are all tainted with hidden oppressive ideologies. As such, these courses are the opposite of critical thinking, for they impose an unexamined politics of victimization and guilt on students who are implicated in “institutional” sexism and racism.

Composition programs are another venue of indoctrination through required courses, since students who can’t test out have to take a basic writing course. But the teaching of writing has long left behind the basics of grammar, punctuation, and fashioning a persuasive argument that supports a thesis. Instead, students are encouraged to set aside mechanical and grammatical correctness and express their life experiences in terms of victim narratives that reinforce left-wing shibboleths like sexism, racism, and “social justice.” Indoctrination is disguised as “critical thinking” or “consciousness raising,” which in practice means questioning everything except the instructor’s progressive prejudices and preferences. Moreover, these courses are taught by graduate students and adjuncts who are monitored by faculty directors, and compelled to use a standardized syllabus, text, and pedagogy. The pressure to conform is obvious, given that these are paying positions many instructors depend on for support.

Finally, we should remember that the failure of higher education does not just affect those matriculating at progressive universities. The socially important profession of elementary and high school teaching is dominated by the education schools, which have monopolized the credentialing of K–12 teachers. Ed schools are notorious purveyors of faddish ideas and politicized curriculum, as the perusal of any high school textbook in the humanities or social sciences will reveal. Just as a fish rots from the head down, the political biases and ideology of the university often influence those who go on to teach the teachers of our children. I saw in my own sons’ classrooms leftist and postmodern bad ideas, usually mangled into even greater incoherence than that of the originals, influencing the teacher’s course content. For an example, the teacher in my son’s fifth-grade class had the girls walk behind the boys to illustrate how the ancient Athenians oppressed women.

When they are not recounting the peevish complaints of their interlocutors, Shields and Dunn do make some useful contributions to the topic. Their analysis of academic histories of eugenics, the civil rights movement, and communism show how the Left “leaves no room for conservative contributions to human progress” (175). A more intellectually and politically diverse professoriate––or even one with more professional integrity––would recognize the role of the Catholic Church in resisting eugenics, or the important part played by black churches in the civil rights movement, or the “devastating” impact of the new archival materials from Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which exploded long-established received wisdom about the nature of communism and its infiltration of American institutions. So, too, with the marginalizing of research on the destructive role of illegitimacy and the breakdown of the nuclear family on disadvantaged black communities, and the costs of affirmative action programs inflicted on minority students mismatched with institutions. And their examples of biased research on the history of abortion, sex identity, and same-sex parenting that has led to Supreme Court decisions and government policy remind us that the professional malfeasance of cloistered academics affects more than just their students.

No doubt the authors will protest that I am reviewing a book Shields and Dunn didn’t write. But if one is going to claim that the intolerance and indoctrination of the left-wing university––amply documented and analyzed for thirty years now––is exaggerated, then one needs much more compelling and much less reductive evidence than the impressionistic experiences of a tiny handful of professors that make up the bulk of their book. For the fact is, we have lost the ideal of the university as a protected space for, in Matthew Arnold’s words, “getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically.”3 Given that the modern university is the opposite of this ideal, it’s disturbing to hear the authors write that “most conservative professors feel too indebted and connected to the university to wage a guerilla war on it” (22).

Sadly, today the university teaches the “stock notions and habits” of progressivism, which students are encouraged to “follow staunchly but mechanically.” As for Arnold’s “free play of the mind on all subjects,” that too has been anathematized by the progressive university and its rigid orthodoxies. It is no consolation for the loss of liberal education that a few conservative professors manage to “survive and even thrive.”

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