Since When is "Liberal" a Code Word for the Right Wing?

Ashley Thorne

NAS has written twice about the ongoing turmoil at Shimer College, the small, intimate “Great Books school of Chicago.” Our January article, “Four Rented Rooms and a Big Idea: Shimer College at the Crossroads,” described the clash of ideas coming to a head between the College’s president, Tom Lindsay, and the students and faculty members. We noted that even an exceptional “Great Books” college is not immune to academia’s tendency to drift leftward. 

And last month in “Shimer College Adopts Liberty-Centered Mission Rejected by Faculty,” we covered the controversy when President Lindsay insisted on a return to the ideals of Western civilization. Faculty members unanimously rejected his new mission statement, which emphasizes, “Liberal education at Shimer is an education for and through liberty.” 

This week, Emily Esfahani Smith took up the Shimer story in an article in the Wall Street Journal. Her piece is favorable toward Lindsay, who is now being called a “conservative menace” by some Shimer-ites. Here’s a great paragraph: 

When Mr. Lindsay shared the statement with students and faculty as part of an intended consultation process, the words "liberty" and "liberal" exploded like a bomb. "Code words for the right wing," said one professor. "Words that tea-baggers throw around," a student complained. The mention of founding documents in the mission statement also caused an uproar. In the words of one student, "It's chauvinistic." And why, critics wondered darkly, did Mr. Lindsay refer to Aristotle, Shakespeare and even Marx in the statement, while ignoring such "greats" as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Mary Wollstonecraft? 

Yes, what was Lindsay thinking, leaving out the founder of deconstruction, the father of cynicism-about-everything, and the radical 18th century feminist from a college mission statement that declares, “Liberty at its peak is thus identical with the pursuit of truth”? How could he have missed these great shapers of liberal thought? 

The reason, apparently, is that the new statement is “chauvinistic” and contains “tea-bagger” terms, and “code words for the right wing.” Since when are “liberty” and “liberal” code words for the right wing? The left wing calls itself liberal. And if Shimer faculty and students have no interest in liberty, why are they asserting their opinions in the first place? 

We hope things at Shimer get straightened out in such a way that liberty and liberal education truly are at the forefront of the College's Great Books curriculum. And we are heartened to see some positive attention to Lindsay's reforms in the Wall Street Journal.

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