The Adversarial Campus

Against repeated accusations of leftwing bias on campus, professors have mounted many rejoinders disputing one or another item in the indictment. They claim that the disproportion isn’t as high as reports say. Or that reports focus on small pockets (women’s studies, etc.). Or that party registration is a crude indicator. Or that conservatives are too greedy and obtuse to undergo academic training.

The denials go on, and sometimes it’s hard to tell whether professors really believe in their own neutrality or whether they just hope to brazen out the attacks. One response, however, stands apart, precisely because it doesn’t deny a darn thing in the bias charge. Indeed, it concedes every empirical point – “Yes, left-wing people, left-wing ideas, and left-wing texts dominate,” but it adds, “And that’s exactly as it should be.”

It’s a refreshingly straightforward assertion. I heard it at an MLA Convention session awhile back when a young man in the audience talked about getting shot down by his professor when he voiced in class a conservative opinion. One of the panelists replied by telling him to quit complaining, then enlarged the rebuke to all conservative critics. “Look,” he grumbled, “conservatives have taken over every where else [this was before the 2006 election], and now they want the campus, too, the one place where liberal values can still prevail.”


I’m paraphrasing from memory, but the implication was unmistakable. We need the campus to remain solidly liberal to keep conservatism from swamping the entire present. We might call this the Adversarial Campus Argument. It says that the campus must contest the mainstream, that higher education must critique U.S. culture and society because they have drifted rightward. For the intellectual and moral health of the nation, the professoriate must drift leftward. Kids come into college awash in the three idols that, in the eyes of the teaching liberal, make up the American trinity: God, country, and family. Instruction meets its mind-opening duty by dislodging their acculturation, dismantling the dangerous corollaries of each one, namely, fundamentalism, patriotism, and patriarchy/homophobia.

Several points against the Adversarial Campus Argument spring to mind, but a single question explodes it. If Democrats won the White House in 08 and enlarged their majorities in Congress, and if a liberal replaced Scalia on the Supreme Court, would adversarial professors adjust their turf accordingly? Would Hillary in the White House bring Bill Kristol a professorship or Larry Summers a presidency again?

Hardly, and it goes to show that the Adversarial Campus Argument isn’t really an argument. It’s an attitude. And attitudes aren’t overcome by evidence, especially when they do so much for people who bear them. For, think of what the Adversarial Campus does for professors. It flatters the ego, ennobling teachers into dissidents and gadflies. They feel underpaid and overworked, mentally superior but underappreciated, and any notion that compensates is attractive. It gives their isolation from zones of power, money, and fame a functional value. Yes, they’re marginal, but that’s because they impart threatening ideas. The powerlessness they feel rises into a meaningful political condition.

This is why professors get so upset over the bias issue. It touches a delicate formation. And so, when conservatives enter bias debates with professors, they should realize that not only do they argue over political opinions and campus turf. The academic personality is at stake, and the figures who threaten it can only appear downright offensive.

17 thoughts on “The Adversarial Campus”

  1. I find it slightly amusing that the Manhattan Institute is so concerned about bias is certain parts of academia but not in others. For example do they demand that conservative areas of academia such as the many conservative think tanks and business schools maintain a balance in
    political viewpoints? Hardly. Likewise, do they demand a political
    balance in corporate boardrooms? No. Academia in general tends to be more liberal than some other segments of society. That’s just a fact of life.
    That, however, does not mean that there are no conservatives in academia.
    In more than 40 years in the business I’ve met plenty. Nor does it mean
    that conservatives, while a minority, are marginalized. Again, many conservative academics including most I know personally hold prestigious posts.

  2. “but it still is strikingly strange that the smartest people on earth aren’t a good bit more reflective and self-critical than they are”
    Since when are academics “the smartest people on earth”? My observation has been that the field has about the same distribution as any other field in which a college education is a gatekeeper.
    An extremely high level of knowledge about some specific topic doesn’t make one “smart” any more than it makes one more qualified than the general public to pontificate on any subject outside that topic.

  3. Wonker and all,
    Your essay and comments restore my faith that all is not lost and there are still some who haven’t been blinded by the light of new thought & new speak.
    RE: “Like a ratchet that only turns in one direction, they can only turn left.”
    This is marvelous and I wonder if someone can’t use this as an ultimate jab at academia by point out that, in addition to ratchets, NASCAR is another thing “leftists” share a common bond with. Oh my, won’t that cut them to the quick!
    Mike

  4. Robert Smith–How are you defining conservative? It might be circular. It was striking, during the Duke Lacrosse nonsense, how the rush to judgement came from the humanities professors, whereas the most rational responses came from the natural science departments, with a chemistry professor named Baldwin being one of the most outspoken cool heads. I think you’re quite wrong to assert that the entire campus is liberal. The natural sciences and engineering draw the entire range of politics.

  5. I’m not an academic. I’m a recently retired small businessman. I’ve been taking some language courses at CUNY. The teachers are all liberal, but their politics do not matter all that much in the presentation of course material. I’ve encountered one exception, but the others presented the lessons in a non-tendentious way and accepted my observations in a non-hostile way. (Observation: the Shining Path guerrillas killed more than 60,000 people. The Pinochet government killed about 3,000 of his enemies. Why is there so much thought and written about the Pinochet atrocities, and so little about the excesses of the Marxists?) People who make a career out of the military tend to be conservative in their outlook. People who go into teaching tend to be somewhat liberal. Society uses police, say, as blunt instruments, and teachers as cushions.

  6. What’s pathetic is that academia should be a pleasant place, given that it is dominated by leftists, and given that leftists think of themselves as nice people, but it is not. It’s quite a nasty place, and leftists are just as much to blame for this as conservatives, maybe more so. Many of the squabbles among academics these days are leftists battling other leftists. I recently heard about a screaming match between two radical feminists. Another leftist professor I know complains about nearly everyone else at his college. I can always tell when he’s complaining about a leftist because he doesn’t include being conservative in his list of complaints.
    If leftists cannot create a pleasant workplace for themselves in an arena that they dominate, why should they get any more power?

  7. I am a succesful academic (just invited to become chair of my biggish humanities department!) and well to the right of practically all my colleagues. The original post has it about right, I’m afraid, if my personal experienes of four universities of different sorts are anything to go by.
    I don’t think the prevalence of liberal/left thought in the academy, however, should be used as ammunition in the culture wars in the way it often is (on both sides). Universities are too important for that (read your Allen Bloom!) I disagree strongly with what some have said above about the irrelevence of what goes on at universities, or the assertion that academia is not the “real” world (but investment banking or trial lawyering, or sitting in your garage inventing stuff, or whatever, somehow is). Conservatives should get their ideas into the academy (the fastest way would be to pay professors like other highly trained professionals and let the market work its magic). Universities DO exist in the real world, and offer a valubale product every day that is incredibly difficult to do well. Professors have historically been too anti-capitalist and disorganized to make sure their instituions give them their fair share of rapidly spiking tuition. (Instead the cash parents and students are very willing to pay for a university degree gets spent on extra deans and turn-down service in the dorms, but that’s another post!)
    Training people to think is, as Plato suggested, the hardest work there is. I don’t argue all of my lefty colleagues do it well (or that having more conservatives would make it all better), only that most of them in the classroom are pretty thoughtful and very far from the caricatures I read about from the pens of bitter culture warriors. There are real problems with academic bias of various sorts, and conservatives should find ways to overcome it (Boards of trustees and university presidents would be a good place to start the fight, rather than state legislatures) rather than sneer at the irrelevence of intellectual effort. Universities are worth fighting for, the academic life is worth living, and the battle of ideas is too important to cede to the left.

  8. The claim isn’t completely ridiculous. In the 1990s, leftists were slightly less bonkers than more recently, possibly because their adversarial self-image led them to do some self criticism.
    As for the cause of the leftist slant, I’m sure it’s a selection effect. A collectivist will be more eager to manipulate the views of the collective than an individualist would. IIRC, teachers in general lean left, whether or not they’re at a university level.

  9. I haven’t done a comprehensive survey of all the universities, but based on what I’ve seen I’d say that there is bias in all directions.
    I’m not in academia anymore, but what I’ve seen is that LIBERALS are biased towards academia, not the other way around.
    This is going to sound harsh, but conservatives seem to be most interested in making money. If you look at most business and law schools, they’re filled with conservatives. Subjects that don’t make any money (pure research, humanities, etc.) tend not to attract conservatives. And that’s most of the subjects.
    The working environment is also preferable to liberals: high educational requirements, excellent job security, excellent benefits, low pay. Conservatives seem to want more money. I’ve also found that liberals tend to be uncomfortable with the competitive and dishonest corporate world, and prefer the petty internal politics of academia.
    I notice that most of the posters are actually agreeing with me, so I don’t know know what they’re complaining about. Leftists dominate humanities, rightists dominate business. I’m not sure how that translates to the leftists running everything.

  10. I haven’t done a comprehensive survey of all the universities, but based on what I’ve seen I’d say that there is bias in all directions.
    I’m not in academia anymore, but what I’ve seen is that LIBERALS are biased towards academia, not the other way around.
    This is going to sound harsh, but conservatives seem to be most interested in making money. If you look at most business and law schools, they’re filled with conservatives. Subjects that don’t make any money (pure research, humanities, etc.) tend not to attract conservatives. And that’s most of the subjects.
    The working environment is also preferable to liberals: high educational requirements, excellent job security, excellent benefits, low pay. Conservatives seem to want more money. I’ve also found that liberals tend to be uncomfortable with the competitive and dishonest corporate world, and prefer the petty internal politics of academia.
    I notice that most of the posters are actually agreeing with me, so I don’t know know what they’re complaining about. Leftists dominate humanities, rightists dominate business. I’m not sure how that translates to the leftists running everything.

  11. Modern academia is the place where “Reality Takes A Holiday.” You may thing the place to go to escape reality is a desert island. That isn’t true.
    If you want to avoid reality-testing at all cost, become a tenured academic in social sciences, philosophy, modern language, history–wherever leftist post-modernism rules the roost. Once tenured, you can never be proven wrong, you will never have to say you’re sorry (unless you inadvertently offend a member of a “disadvantaged” group).
    Leftist Academics will never let go. Like a ratchet that only turns in one direction, they can only turn left.

  12. As an early, pre-Bakke casualty of the ongoing drive to turn academia into a Marxist propaganda mill, I can personally attest that the initial thrust in this direction was largely the result of rigid hiring quota systems put in place in the late 1970s. Initially, such systems emphasized race and gender. Over time, they came to include political beliefs as well.
    This tendency was particularly odious in the humanities where a lack of respect for each discipline cynically transformed once-respectable departments into hard-left cadres of professional propagandists.
    Anti-social and contemptuous of the taxpayers who supported them, newly Boomer humanities faculties proved far more interested in preaching class struggle than in enlightening students with regard to the rich cultural and historical heritage that should serve to unite us all. Marx, Lenin, and later the deconstructionists convinced these intellectual poseurs that the dream of America was all a patriarchal sham, a dangerously false vision perpetrated, perhaps, by the creators of the Matrix before Keanu Reeves showed up.
    The typical humanities department today resembles nothing more than a self-congratulatory high-school clique of self-appointed elites. The average faculty member in these departments, when outside his or her element, exhibits all the characteristics of arrested adolescence including extreme narcissism, rigid clannishness, condescension, and an absolute inability to recognize the validity of any opinion that is either not one’s own or the received wisdom of Karl Marx. It is impossible to argue with such people, as they recognize no value system but their own, a protean, dialectical mess that ebbs and flows with time and tide, a flavor 1960s “situation ethics” run completely amok.
    While some academic leftists feel guilty about this, few have the courage to risk the outdated protection of tenure to challenge the system. They literally lack the courage of their convictions. Plus, employment for life is too good a deal to toss away simply for the sake of intellectual integrity.
    Most of the rest go with the flow just to get along, mindlessly writing useless tomes that no one will ever read let alone challenge. A small, hardcore faculty subset, however, knows exactly what’s going on and works 24/7 to impose party discipline. Manufacturing transparently ludicrous arguments to justify their intellectual fascism–a paradoxical condition endlessly disputed by those who practice it–they will contrive any excuse, however bogus, to keep conservatives out of their little club, the better to ensure that their gossamer-thin rationale for retaining absolute control can never be challenged.
    It will take outside intervention to break this little game up, a step even the most stalwart conservative has yet to seriously attempt. Until this occurs, unfortunately, the inmates will remain in charge of the academic asylum. And generations of kids, indoctrinated rather than educated, will follow ridiculous Pied Pipers like Al Gore to the ends of the earth in pursuit of failed illusions and false gods.

  13. “Their lack of personal insight is astounding”–I completely agree with that–from the perspective of one who spent ten years in the private sector and now twelve in the academy. Maybe a “lack of personal insight” is actually something shared by all of us, in every walk of life, but it still is strikingly strange that the smartest people on earth aren’t a good bit more reflective and self-critical than they are. Many of my ivory-tower colleagues are lovely people, and there is much we have in common, but their politics (to me) are ridiculous and transparently self-serving. Not that I say so to them–I’m kind of seriously outnumbered hereabouts.

  14. I think that the liberal-arts departments of most universities lean so far to the Left because modern Leftism arises almost entirely from the world view of the academic articulate intellectual. Such academics are Leftist because Leftism evolves out of the fundamental model of reality that those educated in the humanities have of the world. Even a cursory examination of Leftist ideals shows them to be nothing more than a baroque rationalization of why the kind articulate intellectuals that populate liberal-arts departments should run the world.
    People self-select their professions. Who wants to go into an area of endeavor where conformity to a self-aggrandizing consensus determines all success and failure? For people who do not share the Leftist world view, the academic humanities seem silly and boring.
    Non-Lefist ideas have taken over the rest of society by virtue of having to work day-in-day out. Leftist ideas can only survive in artificial environment well protected from the real-world consequences of bad choices. Academia provides just that environment.

  15. Agreed. It is remarkable how many of those “one place, standing against the mainstream” there are: academia, journalism, entertainment, hierarchies of mainstream denominations, advocacy groups, social workers and psychologists, government bureaucrats – why there’s hardly anybody speaking up against the frightening conservative monolith that has squeaked out bare majorities in a few recent elections. How lucky we are to have the courageous few willing to confront The Man!
    They tell themselves these lies because, as you note, it is emotionally and socially, not intellectually, necessary. They resent that their Arts and Humanities Tribe has to share status with the Military, Science & Technology, or Business Tribes. That they are not granted the highest seats is proof to them that American society is evil. The free market rewards others, and so must be unjust. Outsiders don’t recognise how intelligent academics are, and so must be stupid.
    There is an added social frustration as well. In the A & H Tribe, condescension and the rolling of eyes is sufficient to keep the wayward in line. They are furious that it doesn’t work on us.
    I say this as one who grew up in the academic tribe and earn my daily bread as a government social worker. Their lack of personal insight is astounding.

  16. I’ve heard this argument many times from my academic colleagues, and for a very long time. What makes the “Democrats in 08” argument amusing is that even if they were voted in, according to how things are defined by the academic Left, the Democrats too would be considered “Right Wing.” Any examination of criticisms made during Bill Clinton’s tenure shows this. The “gadfly” position is always sweet because the gadfly is never in a position to take real responsibility for his or her opinions on policy. For instance, I try to imagine Noam Chomsky as an advisor to an American president and then realize I can’t; there are many more like him.

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