All posts by Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury. His What’s Happened To The University: A Sociological Exploration Of Its Infantilisation is published by Routledge.

The Long Plight of the Right on Campus

On both sides of the Atlantic, complaints are frequently raised about the relative absence of intellectual and political diversity in the Academy. The main emphasis of these criticisms is that teachers holding conservative and right-wing views are seriously underrepresented in university departments, particularly in the social sciences and the humanities. Responsibility for the feeble state of political diversity is often attributed to unconscious and sometimes conscious discrimination.

Related: Pollyannas on the Right–Conservatives OK on Campus

Earlier this year, a report by Ben Southwood, published by the Adam Smith Institute titled Lackademia: Why Do Academics Lean Left? argued that teachers with left-wing and liberal attitudes were overrepresented in relation to the views held by the population at large. The report stated that in the UK, while around 50 percent of the public supports parties of the right only 12 percent of academics endorse conservative views. Moreover, Lackademia claimed that it is likely that the overrepresentation of liberal views in universities has grown since the 1960s. It suggests that the proportion of academics who identify as Conservatives may have declined by as much as 25 percent since 1964.

The claim that conservative academics are an embattled minority is even more frequently asserted in the United States. For example, a study published last year ‘Faculty Voter Registration in Economics, History, Journalism, Law, and Psychology’ found that liberal professors outnumbered conservatives by a ratio of 12 to 1. Recently one conservative professor from the University of South Florida wrote that he doubts that he would have been hired ‘if my conservative views were known.’  A recent study of 153 conservative professors indicated that about a third of them adopted the strategy of concealing their political ideals prior to gaining tenure.

Related: Times Says Conservatives Unwelcome in Academia

Some American politicians have taken up this issue and demand that universities adopt a more ideologically diverse hiring policy. Iowa State Senator Mark Chelgren has filed a bill designed to equalize political representation on the faculties of state universities. The Bill aims to introduce a freeze on hiring academics until the number of registered Republicans ‘comes within 10 percent of the number of registered Democrats. It is likely that supporters of the Trump Administration will use this issue in order to change the political culture that prevails on American campuses.

During the past seven decades, concern with the ideological imbalance between left and right on campuses has been a recurrent theme in the conservative critique of higher education in the United States. Throughout the Cold War the domination of higher education by “liberal professors” was a concern that was constantly raised by conservative critics of the Academy.  As two conservative professors, Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn recently noted the crusade against the allegedly liberal-dominated university was launched in 1951 with the publication of William F. Buckley’s book, God and Man at Yale. Buckley claimed that the university had become a haven for anti-Christian, atheist and liberal professors.

Alarmist accounts of the threat posed by college radicals dominated the headlines in the 1960s and 1970s. In recent times, protests against allowing conservative speakers on campuses – Charles Murray, Condoleezza Rice, Suzanne Venker, John Derbyshire – has re-raised interest in the precarious status of conservatives within academic culture.

On the Defensive

There is little doubt that in many academic disciplines conservatives face difficulty in gaining employment. The leftist historian Robin Marie has criticized liberal academics who refuse to acknowledge that they have a double standard towards the practice of academic freedom. Drawing attention to the double standard that prevails in higher education regarding the employment of conservative academics – a double standard which she approves- Marie wrote;

“Academic institutions, moreover, are spaces that are morally policed – it is not a coincidence, nor due solely to the weak evidential basis of their positions, that only a minority of professors in the liberal arts are conservative. Declining to hire someone, publish their paper, or chat them up at a conference are exercises in exclusion and shame which those in academia, nearly as much as any other community, participate in.”

Marie’s allusion to the practice of marginalizing conservative academics in the social sciences and the arts serves her purpose of reinforcing her claim that academic freedom is a liberal shibboleth. Most of her colleagues would be reluctant to go on record and acknowledge their anti-conservative bias.

However, it would be wrong to attribute the marginal position of conservative academics in the humanities and social sciences simply to self-conscious acts of discrimination. Since the end of the Second World War, conservative ideas have become marginalized within the key cultural and intellectual institutions of western society. In a frequently cited statement, the American literary critic Lionel Trilling declared in his 1949 Preface to his collection of essays that right-wing ideas no longer possessed cultural significance:

“In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know. But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”

Though Trilling’s boast about the dominant status of liberalism contained an element of exaggeration there is little doubt it corresponded to developments in the 1940s.

It was the experience of the inter-war years and of Second World War that served to discredit the influence of right-wing and conservative intellectual tradition in Western Culture.  The 1930s depression, followed by the rise of fascism significantly diminished the appeal of right-wing ideas. It also solidified the association of intellectuals with left-wing philosophies. From this point onward, conservative thought became increasingly marginalized within the humanities and the social sciences. Which is why today it is difficult to recollect that until the second half of the last century right-wing thinkers constituted a significant section of the western intelligentsia.

Its Cold War rhetoric aside, McCarthyism can be interpreted as a belated attempt to discredit the moral authority of the liberal intellectual by equating its nonconformist ethos with disloyalty. However, despite the significant political influence enjoyed by McCarthy within American society, he could not defeat the liberal political culture that prevailed in higher education.

In her essay on ‘The New Class’(1979), the Conservative thinker Jeanne Kirkpatrick observed that the inability of McCarthy to make serious headway against liberal intellectuals meant that this group was able to strengthen its authority over cultural life in America. Kirkpatrick concluded that McCarthy’s demise and the growing authority of his intellectual critics was a “precondition of the rise of the counterculture in the 1960s.” Since the 1960s conservatives within the Academy have been more or less constantly on the defensive. One often unremarked symptom of this trend has been the growing trend towards the pathologization of the conservative mind.

The Presumption of Intellectual Inferiority

The marginalization of the conservative academic has been paralleled by the pathologization of the conservative mindset. Claims that conservatives are intellectually inferior to their opponents originated in the 19th century when the British Tories were frequently derided as the “stupid party.” Arguments about the supposed intellectual inferiority of conservatives claimed that those who remained wedded to outdated traditions lacked imagination and an openness to new experience. Since the defense of the status-quo did not require mental agility or flexibility, it was suggested that conservatives were likely to be left behind in the intellectual stakes. Only those who were prepared to criticise and question the existing state of society could be expected to develop a capacity for abstract and sophisticated thought.

From the 1940s onwards the insult of being labeled as stupid was often justified on intellectual and scientific grounds. Intelligence became a cultural weapon used to invalidate the moral status of conservative minded people. Inevitably this was a weapon that was most effectively used by those claiming the status of an intellectual. As Mark Proudman stated:

“The imputation of intelligence and of its associated characteristics of enlightenment, broad-mindedness, knowledge and sophistication to some ideologies and not to others is itself, therefore, a powerful tool of ideological advocacy.”

Ridicule as Moral Superiority

Making fun of the “outdated” views of conservative people and exposing their traditional ways to ridicule was one way of assuming the status of moral superiority. In this way, those with a monopoly over the possession of intellectual capital can present themselves as possessors of moral authority.

Often assertions about the intellectual inferiority of conservatives ran in parallel with claims about their psychological deficits. In the 1950s, Theodor Adorno’s classic Authoritarian Personality served to validate the dogma that the internalization of prejudice and the disposition for intolerance is a psychological issue. From this point onwards the conservative mind was increasing portrayed as authoritarian, inflexible, prejudiced and disposed towards simplistic solutions to the problems facing society.

Usually, the weaponization of intelligence to discredit groups of people tends to be challenged by the academic community. For example, Charles Murray’s, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life(1994) has provoked outrage on campuses. Riots broke out at Middlebury College earlier this year, leading to the cancellation of a speech by Murray. But though Murray has been criticised for linking people’s IQ to their predicament, such concerns are rarely raised when conservatives are the target of the weaponization of intelligence.

The representation of conservatives as less intelligent than their left-wing foes is frequently communicated by ‘research’ on the so-called conservative syndrome. The hypothesis of this syndrome is that conservatism and low cognitive ability are directly correlated. Such claims are frequently promoted by studies such as “Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes–Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup Contact.” The authors of the study claim that low intelligence in childhood serves as a marker for racism in adulthood. Moreover, poor abstract-reasoning skills are closely correlated with anti-gay prejudice. From studies such as this, it is tempting to draw the conclusion that simple children with low cognitive abilities grow up to be prejudiced conservatives.

The pathologization of the conservative mind inevitably influences attitudes and practices in universities. This sensibility not only calls into question the ideas that conservatives uphold but their moral and intellectual status. Instead of offering an intellectual critique of conservative ideology it simply devalues the integrity and intellectual capacity of the person holding such views. Consequently, many conservative academics experience the critique of their views as not part of an intellectual exchange of views but as a mean-spirited insult.

Not surprisingly many conservatives have become defensive when confronted with the put-downs of their intellectual superiors. In many societies – particularly the United States – some have become wary of intellectuals and hostile to the ethos of university life. Anti-intellectual prejudice often constitutes a defensive reaction to the pathologization of conservatism. In the United States, the unrestrained anti-intellectual culture of sections of the right, which sometimes appears as the affirmation of ignorance serves to reinforce the smug prejudice of their opponents.

There is little doubt that some of the complaints made by conservative academics about the unwillingness of sections of the academic community to tolerate their views are not without foundation. However, it is important to note that many would-be conservative intellectuals were accomplices in the marginalization of their views on campuses. Certainly from the 1960s onwards they did little to stand their ground in the social sciences and the humanities. Many of them opted to join conservative thinks tanks and became critics of the Ivory Tower from the outside. There is also something opportunistic about the way in some conservatives have embraced the status of being victims of the campus culture wars. Shield and Dunn get the balance right when they write

“As two conservative professors, we agree that right-wing faculty members and ideas are not always treated fairly on college campuses. But we also know that right-wing hand-wringing about higher education is overblown.”

They point out that after interviewing 153 “conservative professors in the social sciences and humanities, we believe that conservatives survive and even thrive in one of America’s most progressive professions.”

Of course, conservative academics should not have to adopt a survival strategy any more than left-wing ones. The maintenance of intellectual diversity is one that all sides of the academic community have in interest in upholding. Openness to a diversity of views and genuine academic freedom is the foundation of a liberal academy. As Steven Holmes observed in his important study, The Anatomy of Antiliberalism, “Public disagreement is a creative force may have been the most novel and radical principle of liberal politics.”

Chart: Courtesy of Heterodox Academy. 

How Non-Judgmentalism Undermines Education

Non-judgmentalism has emerged as one of the core values of higher education. Today’s college students have been educated to perceive their sense of personal security with being affirmed and not judged. Many advocates of safe spaces claim that not being judged is one of the main virtues of their institution.

One website advertising “20 Great Value Colleges with Safe Spaces” gives pride of place to Colorado Mesa University’s Safe Space Program. It “emphasizes the importance of creating non-judgmental and non-biased space for students to have an open platform about any prejudicial concerns they may be experiencing.” In other words, one of the major things they want to feel safe from is judgment.

The fact that not being judged is now perceived as a positive virtue that enhances the learning experience of students is a problem for anyone who takes seriously the ethos of a liberal university education. The discrediting and loss of human judgment, which has been historically linked to the making of moral and political choices and intellectual development is now estranging the university from humanist values and critical reflection.

The Fear of True Tolerance

Although non-judgmentalism is represented as an enlightened and liberal attitude towards the world, it is nothing of the sort. The unreflected judgments arrived at through stereotyping are merely manifestations of conformism and prejudice. But the valuation of non-judgmentalism possesses no inherent positive ethical qualities. The reluctance to judge may be a symptom of disinterest or even moral cowardice. Nowadays it is often brought about by a reluctance to offend or to confront difficult and embarrassing questions. Consequently, once a student signals that she is “uncomfortable” with a particular line of discussion, a sensitive teacher is expected to change the subject.

Campus advocates of non-judgmentalism have developed an entire vocabulary of euphemisms to avoid being unambiguous, clear and blunt in its statements. Terms like “inappropriate,” problematic,” “unwelcome” or “uncomfortable” self-consciously avoid making a moral judgment.

From a liberal humanist perspective, judgment is not simply an acceptable response to other people’s beliefs and behavior: it is a public duty. It is the act of judgment that a dialogue is established between an individual and others. Drawing on Kant’s Critique of Judgment, the philosopher Hannah Arendt writes, in Between Past and Future, of an “enlarged way of thinking, which as judgment knows how to transcend its own individual limitations.” According to current conventional prejudice, the act of judging confines the imagination and encourages narrow-mindedness. In fact, as Arendt contends, judging plays a central role in disclosing to individuals the nature of their public world: “judging is one, if not the most,

According to current conventional prejudice, the act of judging confines the imagination and encourages narrow-mindedness. In fact, as Arendt contends, judging plays a central role in disclosing to individuals the nature of their public world: “judging is one, if not the most, important activity in which this sharing-the-world-with-others comes to pass.” Judgment does not simply mean the dismissal of another person’s belief: ‘the power of judgment rests on a potential agreement with others.” This is one compelling reason why a democratic public sphere depends on judgment.

Non-Judgmentalism Undermines Education

The capacity and the willingness to judge is central to the vocation of an academic Indeed academic judgment lies at the heart of the university. The testing of ideas, the questioning of colleagues’ views and the pursuit of intellectual clarity require the freedom to judge. The very idea of academic freedom is underpinned by the recognition that the exercise of judgment can have no limits without compromising scholarship and its vocation. Within the context of an academic relationship students and faculty must be prepared to have their ideas and views judged by others. Attempts to evade judgment or to limit its exercise in an academic environment can only compromise the quality of higher education.

Why has the creative public act of judgment become culturally devalued? To some extent the devaluation of the act of judgment is influenced by intellectual currents that are both skeptical of knowledge claims and argue that everyone’s views ought to be respected. Such relativist currents often denounce people with strong views as “essentialists” and “fundamentalists.” A more important source for the devaluation of judgment is the influence of the belief that people lack the resilience to deal with criticism. This belief is widely advocated by so-called parenting experts and teachers of children in their early years of schooling. School teachers are trained to avoid explicit criticism of their pupils and to practice techniques that validate members of the classroom.

Such sentiments are based on the premise that perceives people as lacking the capacity to engage with disappointment and criticism. The sentiment that “criticism is violence’” has gained significant influence on campuses and amongst the cultural elites. Judgment is often portrayed as a form of psychic violence, especially if applied to children: the sociologist Richard Sennett echoes this sentiment when he writes of the “devastating implications of rendering judgment on someone’s future.”

Far too many educators confuse an act of judgment with an assault on an individual’s well-being. Yet the exercise of judgment is not directed towards demeaning an individual’s identity but towards assessing an individual’s ideas. Its aims to transcend the personal. In contrast, the ethos of non-judgmentalism perceives the act of judgment as directed at an individual’s identity and assumes that everything is personal. Its self-centered failure to distinguish the personal from non-personal concerns bears all the hallmarks of cultural narcissism.

Paradoxically, the association of judgmentalism with intolerant narrow-mindedness is the very opposite of reality. It is the advocates of non-judgmentalism who regard those who question their views as violators of their safe space and who are wary of engaging with views other than their own. Since respecting and validating each other’s views is a foundational principle governing interaction in a safe space it becomes difficult to seriously question and criticize. And institutions that seek to protect their members from the offense caused by the exercise of judgment have lost sight of the meaning of higher education.

Why Millennials Are So Fragile

I have stopped counting the number of times that an academic colleague reminds me that “undergraduates are not what they used to be.” In private conversations, a significant minority of academic teachers have raised the concern that the age-old distinction between school children and university students was fast losing its meaning.

Back in 2003, Neil Howe and William Strauss, the authors of the study Millennials Go to College, advanced the thesis that this generation is far less mature and resilient than previous ones. They noted that the millennial generation is far more “closely tied to their parents” than the students that preceded them, and they also insist on a “secure and regulated environment.”

Howe and Strauss concluded that as a result, students today find it difficult to flourish in the relatively unstructured environment of higher education. The assessment that the millennials find it more troublesome to make the transition to independent living on campuses than previous generations is widely held by educators on both sides of the Atlantic.

A report last September from Britain’s Higher Education Policy Institute said that the normal experiences of university life now constitute serious challenges to the well-being of the current cohort of students. It noted that “students are vulnerable” because in most cases they are living away from home for the first time. It also pointed to the new challenges they faced such as “a different method of learning” and “living with people they have never met before.”

Related: Should Colleges Coddle the Whiners?

One of the most significant and yet rarely analyzed developments in campus culture has been its infantilization.  Eric Posner, a leading legal scholar at the University of Chicago, declared that “students today are more like children than adults and need protection.” Posner contends that today’s university students are not ready for independence and require the moral guidance of their institutions.

In England, a group educators have criticized universities for treating their new students as if they were young adults. Sir Anthony Seldon, now head of Buckingham University, stated that ‘there is a belief among Vice Chancellors that young people are adults and can fend for themselves, but “18-year-olds today are a lot less robust and worldly wise.”

Most accounts of the unprecedented emotional fragility of university undergraduates claim that this development is the outcome of the expansion of student numbers. They suggest that many of these students come from diverse non-traditional backgrounds and lack the confidence and financial security of their more privileged predecessors. Catherine McAteer, the head of University College London’s student psychological services observed that the reason why a growing number of students require mental health support is because “students are now coming to university” who previously “would not have come.”

Some argue that first-generation students –undergraduates whose parents did not attend university – face unique problems attempting to fit into an alien, high-pressure environment. It is also asserted that since a significant proportion of first-generation students come from minority and socially deprived backgrounds they face a unique problem of adjusting to the traditional white middle- class campus environment.

Related: The New Age of Orthodoxy Overtakes the Campus

The principal problem faced by first-generation students is that their parents had little cultural capital to hand on to them and were, therefore, less prepared for university life than their more comfortably off peers. But unlike today, the problems they faced was not portrayed in psychological terms but in the language of culture and socio-economic deprivation.

Unfortunately, when first-generation students arrive on campus today, they are often treated as if they are likely to possess some emotional deficits. In the U.S. it is common for universities to organize special programs for integrating first-generation students. Diversity officers dealing with the first-generation often operate under the theory that this group faces a unique problem of being torn between family and university. They frequently contend that first-generation students suffer from guilt for leaving their family behind. The upshot of these theories is the belief that first-generation students need special dedicated psychological support.

Regrettably, the focus on psychology distracts attention from more constructive ways of preparing students from disadvantaged backgrounds to deal with the pressures of academic learning. The provision of academic support to help students gain intellectual confidence is probably the most useful way of helping students to make their way in the university.

Perversely the provision of psychological support as the default solution for helping first-generation students is likely to intensify their quest for validation. Instead of developing their power of resilience it may well heighten their sense of vulnerability. What universities need to do is not to cultivate the insecure identity of first-generation students but to provide them with the intellectual resources that will help them to gain confidence in their ability to achieve.

Related: Millennials Not Ready for the Job Market

In any case, it is far from evident if the link between emotional fragility and a student’s non-traditional background explains very much. Students from well-to-do backgrounds are no less likely than their poorer peers to talk the language of trauma and psychological distress. Indeed some of the most privileged campuses– Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Berkeley, Oberlin – have been in the forefront of campaigns that focus attention to the emotional harms suffered by students from a variety of alleged causes.

The reason why the current generation appears to behave differently from their predecessor has little to do with their socio-economic background. Rather the sense of emotional fragility expressed by some undergraduates is the outcome of the prevailing ethos of socialization that treats young people as children.

The socialization of young people has become increasingly reliant on therapeutic techniques that have the perverse effect of encouraging children and youth to interpret existential problems as psychological ones. The concern with children’s emotions has fostered a climate where many young people are continually educated to understand the challenges they face through the language of mental health. Not surprisingly, they often feel find it difficult to acquire the habit of independence and make the transition to forms of behavior associated with the exercise of autonomy.

The complex emotional tensions that are integral to the process of growing up are now discussed as stressful events with which children and young people cannot be expected to cope. Yet is through dealing with such emotional upheavals that young people learn to manage risks and gain an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. Instead of being encouraged to acquire an aspiration for independence, many youngsters are subject to influences that promote childish behavior. The infantilization of young people is the unintended outcome of parenting practices that rely on levels of support and supervision that are more suitable for much younger children.

The relations of dependence that are nurtured through these practices serve to prolong adolescence to the point that many young people in their 20s do not perceive themselves as adults. Whereas in the past infantilization was classically associated with the phenomenon of maternal overprotection, today the prolongation of adolescence is culturally sanctioned. In the case of universities, it is institutionally enforced.

Socialization through validation

The erosion of the line that divides secondary from higher education is a trend that contradicts the ethos of academic teaching and the vocation associated with it. In theory, the ideals associated with the university remain widely affirmed, but in practice, they are often tested by the introduction of conventions that were formerly confined to secondary education. The adoption of paternalistic practices and the wider tendency towards the infantilization of campus life can in part be understood as an outcome of the difficulties that society has encountered in the socialization of young people.

For some time now it has been evident that parents and schools have been struggling with the transmission of values and rules of behavior to young people. In part, this problem was caused by the lack confidence of older generations in the values into which it was socialized. More broadly, Western society has become estranged from the values that used to inspire it in the past and found it difficult to provide its adult members with a compelling narrative for socialization.

The hesitant and defensive manner with which the task of socialization is pursued has created a demand for new ways of influencing children. The growing remission of child protection and the widening of the territory for parenting activities can be interpreted as an attempt to develop new methods for guiding children.

Lack of clarity about the transmission of values has led to a search for alternatives. The adoption of the practices of behavior management serves as one influential approach towards solving the problem of socialization.  These psychological techniques of expert-directed behavior management have had an important influence on childrearing. From this standpoint, the role of parents is not so much to transmit values but to validate the feelings, attitudes and accomplishment of their children.

Though parents still do their best to transmit their beliefs and ideals to their children, there is a perceptible shift from instilling values to the provision of validation. Affirming children and raising their self-esteem is a project that is actively promoted by parents as well as schools. This emphasis on validation has run in tandem with the custom of a risk-averse regime of child-rearing. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has described this form of childrearing as that of “fearful parenting.” He claims that since the 1980s, children have been “protected as fragile,” which has the perverse consequence of undermining their capacity for resilience.

As I noted in my study, Paranoid Parenting, the (unintended) consequence of this regime of parenting has been to limit opportunities for the cultivation of independence and to extend the phase of dependence of young people on adult society. The extension of the phase of dependence is reinforced by the considerable difficulties that society has in providing young people with a persuasive account of what it means to be an adult. Instead of encouraging new undergraduates to embark on a life of independent study, universities have adopted a paternalistic ethos that treats them as biologically mature children. In this way, they have helped create a campus culture that discourages young people from embarking on the path to adulthood.