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The Elephant Not in the Room – Republicans, Academia and the Illusion of a Debate

In the midst of many a mild-mannered American city stand imposing castle walls constructed around ivory towers. Patrolling the parapets are legions of liberal professors armored in sweater vests and funky glasses clutching spears to keep conservatives—who only want to get in for a pleasant conversation—at bay. Well…not really, but one could be forgiven for thinking that universities are like that. Such imagery is frequently mixed into debates about the intellectual and educational climate in the United States. A climate that—some claim—is wholly hostile to conservative professors.

Granted those who shout these claims the loudest could frequently be accused of being rather hyperbolic, and thus what could have the potential for a worthwhile debate swiftly devolves into a shouting match. Luckily, none could accuse Chris Beneke (an associate professor of history at Bentley University) or Randall Stephens (a reader in history at Northumbria University [in England]) of shouting mindlessly in their article “Why Republicans and Academics Need Each Other” (which was posted at the Chronicle for Higher Education). They write in a consistently even and well-mannered tone.

From the outset of their article Beneke and Stephens establish themselves as amongst the current group of conservative thinkers urging that Republicans embrace a degree of moderation as is evidenced by their starting their article by referring to the Republican’s “bruising defeat in the 2012 presidential contest” before bemoaning the Republican party’s poor standing amongst many groups after which they deliver the coup-de-grace by referencing the view that the Republican party has become viewed as “the stupid party.”

Beneke and Stephens clearly write their thesis for the reader:

“We’d like to suggest that the problems confronting the Republican Party and higher education are not only alike, they are intimately connected. The Republican Party is short on intellectual firepower in large part because academe is short on conservatives.”

In the course of their article Beneke and Stephens—albeit in a consistently respectful tone (for which they are to be commended)—present a rather standard conservative critique of the state of American academia. Thus the duo notes the high representation of “liberal” leaning professors (primarily in the humanities) and the stifling “insularism” that this leads to on university campuses.

Yet, as is the current vogue amongst certain conservatives, Beneke and Stephens save most of their critiques for fellow conservative thinkers; and thereby further demonstrate their desire to moderate the influence of some of the further right voices in the Republican Party. The duo long for the days of William F. Buckley in this age of Glenn Beck; and as is the talking point of the current “moderate or die” caucus Beneke and Stephens emphasize that Republicans positions are losing out. They write:

“Conservative disaffection with higher education is costing the Republicans both young talent and the opportunity to sharpen their ideas through regular contests with savvy adversaries. Without a strong presence in the college system, we’re unlikely to see many conservatives producing mainstream news programs, writing reputable works on policy, or engaging the broader world of ideas.”

Beneke and Stephens seek to conclude their argument on a rather conciliatory note, highlighting that a great conservative presence at universities is a win for everybody. Though, this “better for everybody” mentality carries a slight threat within it: as it seems partially couched in the view that conservative politicians will be more likely to restore funding cut from universities if those universities are not viewed as enemies (translation: hire conservatives or your funding will keep getting cut [a highly specious claim]).

They conclude in grand “we’re all in this together” fashion:

“The tensions between conservatives and higher education are decades old. But they have rarely been so frigid, nor so damaging. Perhaps now, as the Republicans begin rethinking their positions on issues like immigration and gay marriage, and colleges contemplate the prospect of dwindling state support, the time may be right for a thaw in relations.”

As noted earlier, Beneke and Stephens deserve ample credit for approaching this topic in an open and (mostly) non-accusatory manner, they both seem to genuinely believe that this is a discussion that needs to be had and they both seem to genuinely believe that the benefits will go to everybody.

Furthermore, they are correct in many areas. The notion that greater conservative presences on campus may allow people greater opportunities to ”sharpen their ideas through regular contests with savvy adversaries” is certainly something that should gain broad agreement, and I would imagine that many a “liberal” professor would enjoy (and could benefit from) having sparring partners more of the ilk of Buckley than Beck. And it would be wonderful if something could be done to make state legislatures and governors’ restore funding to universities.

There is a lot to be said for a more intellectually savvy and complex debate about the difficult issues that society faces today. And it is possible (unlikely [but still possible]) that the voices of the “moderate or die” camp could help usher this period in. After all, the arguments put forth by Beneke and Stephens seem quite sensible in their writing, which can seldom be said for the same arguments when shouted at top volume from a fixture on Fox News.

And yet, Beneke and Stephens piece is ultimately just a better-written version of the same old argument, and it suffers from many of the same flaws of the standard attacks on the “liberal academy.” And these flaws turn an honest attempt at calling for a debate into a new coat of varnish on a wooden table infested with termites. The larger flaws are threefold (and shall be explained in turn): failure to define “liberal,” disregard for students, and disregard for the complex reality of current academia.

1. Please define “liberal.”

“Liberal,” “liberalism,” “left-leaning,” these are the terms that conservative thinkers deploy in these debates to tar professors. Yet it is always rather curious exactly what they really mean. Is a “liberal” professor a lifelong devotee to Karl Marx, or just one who votes for a Democrat? Is there a clear correlation between a professor voting a particular way and the way they teach?

Or what about the term “left-leaning,” or even better, “leftist.” Who do these terms refer to? Professors like Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler (to use obvious examples) or professors who may have once donated some money to the ACLU?

Or do all of these terms refer to a fictional construction that commands no university chair but rather lurks in the recesses of the conservative imagination?

At this point it would be completely fair to turn this matter around and ask me, “well, define conservative.” Fair enough. I would define a conservative as a person who supports, defends, and/or advocates for the political and social positions commonly articulated by the Republican Party and/or its Tea Party offshoot and/or the mainstream conservative opinion outlets (Fox News, Limbaugh, Drudge). They may be critical, but they still support the aforementioned parties. It is a bit simplistic, true, but it is broad enough to include the spectrum from David Brooks to Glenn Beck.

Now, it may be the case that the way that many conservatives in this debate would define “liberal” is to simply switch out the terms in the above definition of conservatives (switch out Republican for Democrat and Fox News for MSNBC), and yet that definition would not seem to work in line with the frenzy level of panic that some conjure up around the dreaded “liberal professor.”

In other words, if many professors are really just mainline Democrats than why is it that they are so frequently characterized as all sharing the political convictions of Chomsky? And while there may be a smattering of professors of the genuinely left-wing variety, one must ask to what extent these individuals are actually representative of their fellow professors. Or is the occasional Chomsky used as the stand in for every professor to the left of Rick Perry?

While conservatives of many stripes may enjoy conflating “liberal” with “leftist” most individuals actually on the “left” recognize that “liberal” in the US usually only means being closer to the center than contemporary conservatives. Despite the current conservative criticism, Democrats are not socialists; they’re barely left of center.  Indeed watching the actions of President Obama’s administration with a level head reveals that the vast majority of his actions have really been fairly centrist domestically and right of center internationally. As a reader at a university in England one would think that Stephens would recognize that The Democrats bear precious little similarity to the left of center parties (or center left parties) in Europe (or England). The Democrats, alas, are not Syriza even if many conservatives think they are.

Thus if most professors described as “liberal” would be mainline backers of the Democratic Party than it falls to conservatives to explain how such professors really represent a horrific stranglehold on the academy. After all—as Beneke and Stephens note at the start of their article—the Democrats won the last presidential election, a majority in the Senate and in terms of pure popular vote would have won the House (if not for gerrymandering). Professors who vote for Democrats, and hold mainline Democratic views, are thus hardly the “left” boogey man in whose mold they are cast.

And those few legitimate left wing professors? Do they really exercise a larger influence on their university campuses, and in society, than the more rightward leaning faculty who populate the university economics department?

In fairness an argument could be made that many “liberal” professors are more in line with the policies of the House Progressive Caucus than, say, the Obama administration. But, here again, one must ponder the comparative influence (one hears much less about the House Progressive Caucus and its ideas than the Tea Party Caucus).  Granted, the House Progressive Caucus has been denounced with such epithets as “socialist” by many conservatives, but calling somebody a bicyclist does not make them a bicyclist, particularly when the one doing the calling has little actual knowledge of bicycling.

But, again, does holding fairly mainstream political views make one guilty of exercising an extremist stranglehold on the academy?

Equally problematic in these “liberal” accusations is a failure by many conservatives to articulate what positions professors hold that are so abhorrent. What might these positions be? Support for gay marriage? Being pro-choice? Believing in climate change and evolution? Believing that Native Americans may have a different view on US History than Andrew Jackson? And how do these necessarily hamper teaching: does being “liberal” mean that a person cannot teach Shakespeare without singing the International?

To sum up: yes, many university professors are more “liberal” than many a Republican. But, as the last election shows, many Americans are more “liberal” than many a Republican. Furthermore the presence of a few actual left-wing thinkers in academia does not a conspiracy make. Despite what some conservative commentators may envision “liberal” university professors are not receiving written coded instructions from Noam Chomsky (who is surely channeling the spirit of Karl Marx); these “liberals” are mostly just Democrats.

After all, one would think that if university professors were full of the “left-leaning” professors that conservatives envision that much of what has befallen the academy would have been met with more of a response. Where are the armies of “liberal professors” rallying their students against budget cuts? The raving hordes of “liberal professors” fighting against tuition hikes? The solidarity minded “liberal professors” standing against the exploitation of adjuncts? Surely the “liberals” envisioned by the conservatives would be the first on the picket lines…but there are no picket lines.

Unless those arguing about the “liberal” takeover of higher education can form a concrete definition of what they mean by “liberal” than their arguments are weak tea, despite the volume of the Tea Party.

Beneke and Stephens decry the over representation of “liberals” in university humanities departments but they fail to explain why this represents a real problem. I think that it may be that Beneke and Stephens are intelligent enough to realize that this is really just smoke and mirrors, they wrote:

“We’d like to suggest that the problems confronting the Republican Party and higher education are not only alike, they are intimately connected.“

Fine, but is this “intimately connected problem” really that Democrats are teaching “Introduction to Literature?”

2. The Lack of Confidence in Students.

While professors may work at a university, it is the students who actually go to university. In Beneke and Stephens article students receive barely any mention, apart from being referenced as part of the pool of “young talent” that Republicans are missing out on. While Beneke and Stephens do not (I repeat they do not do this) claim that liberal university professors are indoctrinating impressionable students, running through their article is still a notion that students would be won over by conservative ideas if they could hear more conservative voices on campus. If Republicans are missing out on those “young minds” it must be because the dreaded “liberals” are getting them first.

The “liberal indoctrination” paranoia (which Beneke and Stephens are not openly guilty of) always functions in a sort of funny way. In this scenario students are portrayed as so clueless that a liberal professor can easily brainwash them; however, these same students are then portrayed as being capable of recognizing the inherent truth and value of conservative claims if only they would be allowed to hear them!

It is important for students to be exposed to a variety of viewpoints, as it is only by encountering different concepts that one can come to terms with what one genuinely believes. And yet, most students growing up in the contemporary US receive more than 10 years of pro-America pro-capitalism pro-two-party-system centric indoctrination courtesy of popular culture and the popular news media (to say nothing of their schooling before reaching college). Indeed for many young people being in a college classroom may be the first time they’ve ever encountered a real human being who has actually read Marx (note – reading Marx does not make one a Marxist [I’ve read Milton Friedman and it didn’t make me a conservative]).

Furthermore, the vast majority of professors (including many of the serious leftist variety) do not bring their politics into the classroom in an “indoctrinating” capacity. Indeed the professor who is teaching freshman about the Odyssey may be a lifelong Democrat (or an actual leftist) but this does not mean that they are going to turn a course on the Odyssey into a platform for denouncing the excesses of capitalism.

Are college students influenced by their university professors? Certainly. But influence can go both ways. In my experience as an undergraduate I can distinctly recall that students tended to treat the opinions of the “well known liberal professors” much more skeptically than the views of less political professors. When the “well known liberal professors” made political statements most students rolled their eyes and assumed a “there he/she goes again” pose, and resumed not paying attention in class.

What frequently goes unsaid in considerations of the shaping of students’ political views is the extent to which they may not be shaped by professors but by the actual experiences of being a student. Perhaps it is in getting to know gay peers that a student will come to develop more “liberal” ideas about gay rights? Perhaps it is in getting to know students from different faiths that a student will come to question the monopoly on truth of their own religion? Perhaps it is in meeting students of different ethnicities that ones views will broaden? Perhaps it is in experiencing the culture of fraternity mad campuses that a student will come to look on feminist critiques with new interest?

And this can be further expanded.

Perhaps it is in realizing the tyrannical debt that they are forced to accumulate to earn a degree that students will come to question some of the precepts of capitalism? Perhaps it is in graduating and then finding oneself working for minimum wage that one will find ones politics pushing leftward?

Students—and young people in general [hey, I’m not that old]—are a dynamic bunch, fully able and capable to come to their own conclusions. Professors—liberal, conservative, a-political, robot—may all have some influence on a student’s politics, but if colleges are turning out progressive students it is farcical to credit this solely to the influence of “liberal professors.”

Students do not appreciate being brow beaten. A professor who tries to bludgeon students with Foucault will be met with resistance, as will a professor who tries to bludgeon students with Reagan.

Perhaps the problem that conservatives encounter with “young people” is their willingness to view students as being so easily duped.

3. Present a fuller picture.

While it may be true that the professors found in university humanities departments may be more “liberal” than “conservative,” the vast majority of universities have more than just a humanities department.

What of the administration and wealthy board of directors? One rarely hears them tarred as liberals. Or, more importantly, what of the professors in the gleaming new economics and business schools? One very rarely (if ever) hears them tarred as liberals. Indeed, as Adbusters magazine has consistently critiqued, university economics departments are hardly places from which a critique of capitalism is being voiced. Would conservatives be willing to demand balance across the board? More conservative professors in the humanities and more “liberal” professors in the business and economics departments? A conservative to teach Aristotle for every “liberal” who gets to teach Keynes (to say nothing of the actual leftist who might get to teach Polanyi).

And what of the slew of avowedly conservative universities? What portion of professors at Liberty University are “liberal” (and what would constitute a “liberal” at Liberty University)? Do campuses committed to conservatism not count when discussing the quantity of liberal professors? And why aren’t Beneke and Stephens boasting of the wonderful academic research coming out of conservative universities? Why aren’t Beneke and Stephens (and other conservatives) arguing that conservatives need to stop fleeing to safe havens like Liberty University? When Beneke and Stephens write “the Republican Party is short on intellectual firepower in large part because academe is short on conservatives,” are they just unaware of conservative schools? After all, this isn’t just one or two small schools.

And what of the simple (if slightly reductive question) of whether or not there are many conservatives interested in pursuing a career in the humanities. The slog—and poverty—of grad school, the joy of low adjunct pay, the battle for promotion, all for the privilege to teach the Brontës, or Hegel, or the history of jazz to a room full of undergrads who are more interested in Facebook than the lecture. While this may be anecdotal, it has been my experience and impression that many conservatives aren’t terribly interested in becoming literature professors. Granted, fields such as history and political science may attract far more conservative thinkers and those departments could benefit from those voices if, at the very least, to encourage debate.

So, an elephant walks into a lecture hall…or, as Beneke and Stephens write:

“With relations so frayed, important political conversations are conducted as if across separate universes of meaning.“

They are correct, but they may not realize in which way they are correct. For the status of higher education in the US is a an “important” and increasingly “political” conversation, and it is taking place “across separate universes of meaning.” Beneke and Stephens are eager to suggest that more conservative professors will lead to right wing funders donating more money to universities, and they are eager to suggest that more conservatives at the lectern will help moderate the Republican party’s rightward shift, just as they are chomping at the bit for conservatives to gain access to those “young minds,” but what they have little to say about is the real future of education.

Budget cuts, rising tuition, the emergence of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), exploding student debt: these are all real issues, and they are not the result of a lack of conservative professors nor will they be solved by more classes on Hayek. Despite the claim that “the problems confronting the Republican Party and higher education are not only alike, they are intimately connected,” it is hard to see how these are necessarily alike, and the intimate connection seems to be that Republicans are often at the roots of these cuts, rising costs, and questionable private sector solutions.

But I digress. The real question that we face is about the role of education in a society, and this is a question that most people in the US—“liberal” and conservative—have been avoiding for a long time. There’s always a goal to leave no child behind, or to race to the top, testing, analytics, STEM, and the list goes on.

The question should not be whether students are learning. It is: why should students be learning.

Is the point of education so that a person can get a job as a middle manager? Should students earn degrees so that they can make fancy gadgets for Apple? Do students need to study STEM fields to learn to make new weapons systems to be exported to the rest of the world? Does one need a BA in comparative literature in order to get a job at Whole Foods? Is the point of education to present a package and profile to an employer? Is the point of education so that a person will be able to act as an informed citizen in a democracy? Or is the point of education to enable human beings to wrestle with what it means to be human beings?

The same question—what is the role of education?—is being asked by people of many different political persuasions, but the answers that they give occur “across separate universes of meaning.” Perhaps this is why Beneke and Stephens can decry the state of conservatives in academia without even mentioning conservative universities (which are filled with conservative academics).

The title of Beneke and Stephens’ article is “Why Republicans and Academics Need Each Other,” but the real reason why is that academics serve as a convenient target for Republican fury and Republicans serve as a convenient target for—some—academics ridicule. These debates about “intellectual diversity” are only meant to act as faux-intellectual diversions that keep us from any serious considerations about the goals of education in 21st century society.

Notes:

Though the above (very lengthy) piece does not quote from any books I would like to recommend the three following texts that relate to this matter:

Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges – a withering denouncement of the failures of “liberal” academia to stay true to progressive goals.

The End of Education by Neil Postman – a book that actually dares to think about the purpose of education in the world today.

The Education of Free Men by Herbert Read – a very interesting treatment of the purpose of education (note – this is not a book but a long essay, it is included in the collection A One-Man Manifesto).

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

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