What acid rain is to our irreplaceable forests, lakes and streams, leftist dogma is to American higher education. In every corner of the land, it has turned once-flourishing departments of English and history into barren wastelands where only the academic equivalent of cockroaches can thrive. Its corrosive poison – infantile anti-Americanism, hatred of capitalism, scorn for ideological pluralism – spreads far beyond the narrow confines of its source, polluting popular culture, public education, the very laws under which we live. Absorbed in sufficiently high doses, it is morally and intellectually fatal.
While the mind-boggling damage done to higher education by multicultural activists, diversity-mongers, and all-around leftist jerks is a subject very much on the minds of conservatives, liberals seem truly not to care. More precisely, they actually regard it as progress. Shakespeare elbowed aside by Maya Angelou? Hey, education’s got to change with the times, just like the Constitution. Mandatory sensitivity training for incoming freshmen to instill appreciation of transgendered persons? What kind of monster has a problem with sensitivity? Conservative students getting charged with hate speech for daring to take on affirmative action or women’s studies zealots? Exactly – that kind of monster. Even the occasional report in the mainstream press of epidemic ideological conformity on the nation’s campuses fails to elicit a reaction. So what if, as the Washington Post reports, 80 percent of faculty in America’s English literature, philosophy, and political science departments describe themselves as liberal and a mere 5 percent as conservative – with ratios of eighteen to one at Brown, twenty-six to one at Cornell, and sixteen to one at UCLA – or that a study after the 2004 election showed that the Harvard faculty gave John Kerry thirty-one dollars for every dollar donated to George Bush, with the ratios rising to forty-three to one at MIT and three hundred to one at Princeton? (And you think when someone gets around to a comprehensive analysis of the 2008 campaign donations, that will be any less lopsided?) For liberals, the only important question remains what it’s always been: How can I get my kid into one of those places?
Frankly, it beats me why anyone would opt for this world of punishment. But they seem to have their reasons. Take my friend Garry Apgar. I met him in the late Seventies, while working on an English-language newspaper in Paris. Garry was a Vietnam vet studying art history at the Sorbonne under the G.I. Bill. His goal in life was to teach art history at the college level, and in 1980 he returned to the States to pursue it. He went to Yale, got his Ph.D. Things seemed to be going splendidly. Yet somehow his academic career never panned out. He never landed a full-time academic post. Eventually, the financial stress threatened his marriage, and he ended up teaching high school French.
What happened? A few things – but very high on the list is the fact that, though the opposite of combative, Garry is a conservative, and makes no attempt to hide the fact. “I was always a conservative – ab ovo, from the egg,” Garry says, “and at first I really didn’t think it would be a problem.” Indeed, his dissertation, on a little-known eighteenth-century Swiss artist
named Jean Hubert – he’d been drawn to the subject by his interest in Hubert’s neighbor and most frequent subject, Voltaire – won him a coveted Kress Fellowship; it was subsequently published, in French, in a handsome and amply illustrated edition. Garry received particular notice for his original research on the project, unearthing long-forgotten letters and other archival material, drawing hitherto unknown connections between people, “all the stuff that’s now pooh poohed by cutting-edge scholars concerned with deconstructionism and all that.”
In brief, he appeared well launched. Out of Yale, he got a job teaching at a small northeastern college. (He asks I not use the name because he’s “still got friends there, and it’s not a great school; if you had a pulse and money to pay, you got in.”) After a year, he was up for an open tenure-track position. But then… the job was offered to someone else, a woman less credentialed and clearly less qualified. It turned out that he’d had the misfortune of breaking into the field just as things were turning dramatically worse for people of the wrong gender (male), hue (white), and sexual orientation (what, until a few years earlier, would have almost everywhere have been categorized as “normal”).
For his part, all Garry knew was that what had happened was not remotely fair. So, after thinking it over, he did the unthinkable: He complained. All these years later, he can only shake his head at his naivete. “The corruption argument never gets you anywhere. Either they’re so ideological they genuinely don’t see it, or they’re so cynical they don’t care. It’s like thinking you’re going to embarrass Claude Rains in Casablanca. Not that he hadn’t been warned.
His old advisor from Yale, herself a committed feminist, “yelled at me on the phone. ‘Don’t contest this,’ she said. ‘If you know what’s good for you, you’ll just withdraw and walk away.’ I mean, there was this implied Mafioso threat. But she was right. I got a reputation as a troublemaker.” He pauses. “The fact is, if I’d been a woman and lodged such an accusation, it would’ve scared them to death. Even if I’d been totally wrong, they’d have either given me the job or a fat settlement. But as a white male, and a known conservative, I was dead.” Nor, obviously, was he helped by his choice of specialty, eighteenth-century European art. “It’s not exactly trendy. There’s not much room there to get in gay theory.” He laughs. “Though I suppose there are those who would try.”
After that, there were a string of one-year visiting professorships – at the University of Delaware, Brown, and Princeton, plus a year in Lyon, teaching in French – but never another tenure track job. “I kept applying,” he says, “but I kept getting aced out by a woman or a minority. The system is medieval, a culture of powerful, interwoven alliances – gays and lesbians and straight Marxists and feminists – and they do the recruiting and hiring. They’ll find a zillion excuses to obscure the real reasons: ‘the scholarship’s a little flimsy,’ ‘it’s not a good fit,’ or whatever they want. There’s no alliance of straight conservatives, or even old-fashioned, open-minded liberals.”
Along the way, he saw fools and incompetents getting ahead by the boatload, and cronyism that would have embarrassed Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall, as well as more fear than he saw as a Marine back in Vietnam. “In my field, in particular, there was open contempt for straight people – they’d be off handedly referred to as ‘breeders.’ This is the milieu you’re in as a conservative – or just as a reasonable person. It was like being in the old Soviet Union. You had to be constantly vigilant about what you said and to whom you said it. The only way to express yourself honestly was by samizdat.”
So why did he put himself through it for so long? “What can I tell you?” he offers rather sheepishly. “I love teaching, even if doing it means climbing into a playpen full of angry, infantile narcissists.”
The Cold War historian Ron Radosh started on the opposite end of the political spectrum from Garry, but he too was done in, and far more publicly, by what, on the modern campus, is that most dangerous of traits: intellectual honesty. Having come of age on the left, he was persuaded by extensive research that iconic victim Julius Rosenberg was in fact guilty of the espionage for which he’d been executed, and said as much in a 1983 book, The Rosenberg File, that he co-authored. He expected a vigorous dialogue on the subject; instead, he found himself almost universally condemned by his colleagues for daring to write such a thing at all. “They’d have nothing to do with me,” he says. “I wasn’t an honest researcher. I was a traitor to the cause. I was at a conference not long afterward and Paul Buell, a leftist historian I’d known for years, walked away when I went to say hello. Later that night, I saw him in the empty lobby, and he said, ‘Now I can say hello to you, because nobody’s watching. But, seriously, you are a running dog of imperialism.'” Radosh laughs. “There was this other woman from Hofstra, Carolyn Eisenberg, who came up to me and said, ‘I just want you to know you used to be one of our heroes and models, but you’ve betrayed us all; what you did was horrible.’ At that, she started crying.”
To these and innumerable others in his field, Radosh has remained a pariah ever since: “It never ends. They don’t forget. As a result of that, I was blackballed, could never get any other really good job.” He cites one episode as especially telling, an interview with the entire history faculty at George Washington University. “They didn’t even bother to pretend. There was no discussion of my credentials as an historian, or my writing, just my politics. It was: ‘Why are you right-wing?’ and ‘Why do you write these books saying these victims of McCarthyism were guilty?’ Around the table they went, one after another condemning me for my politics.I ended up getting two votes from the whole department.” Moreover, says Radosh, surveying the academic scene, he sees no prospect of things getting better any time soon. “I was looking recently at the annual catalogue of the Organization of American Historians, the branch that specializes in U.S. history, and it was like reading the names of the Communist Party annual conference. One hundred percent left-wing and anti-American. Every paper was about class and gender and the oppression of women by the patriarchy.”
Stephen H. Balch, president emeritus of the National Association of Scholars, a group of conservatives in academia who came together in the Eighties to fight the scourge of political correctness on the nation’s campuses, confirms that assessment. “We imagined,” he writes of the group’s founding, “that the grown-ups on campus only needed to be reminded of their responsibilities to put things right. After all, how could serious scholars permit higher education to descend into speech codes, racial quotas, and political indoctrination? Or preside over the trashing of the core curriculum, Western civilization, and the American founding? “Boy, were we naive! Today we have Ward Churchill, Sami Al- Arian, the Duke 88, as well as entirely ‘postmodernized’ academic programs and university requirements, devoted to ensuring that students, who may know little else, know loads about diversity, feminism, global warming, the failures of capitalism, and the hypocrisy of Thomas Jefferson.”
So the horror stories keep on coming, only now the protagonists are a new generation of conservatives. “I really never believed it could be this bad,” admits a young conservative historian named Mark Moyar, on the job market for five years and still looking. A summa cum laude graduate of Harvard, with a doctorate from Cambridge and a highly regarded book to his credit, at this writing he has been turned down for nearly two hundred tenure-track jobs. “I mean, I figured there’d at least be jobs for the token conservative, so that if I worked hard and did a really exceptional job, I’d slip in. At this point, it’s just bizarre – especially seeing the caliber of people who are getting hired. In place after place, the Baby Boomers in senior positions demand total and absolute ideological conformity and, if anything, the younger scholars who came up under their tutelage are even worse.”
It is surely a vast understatement to say that Moyar’s book hasn’t exactly helped. Entitled Triumph Forsaken, it argues that the Vietnam war was not only winnable, but should have been won. Then again, who knows?
How do the tenured radicals who run liberal arts departments justify this state of affairs? “We try to hire the best, smartest people available,” explains Robert Brandon, the chairman of Duke’s philosophy department. “If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire.”
Can this sinking ship be turned around? Probably the most reckless bookie wouldn’t take that bet. Still, if anything’s worth that old college try. . .
Recent years have seen at least one encouraging development: the success of the James Madison Program in American Ideals at Princeton. Created in 2000, under the direction of Robert George, the school’s McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence (and presumably the one in that three hundred to one ratio), the Madison Program focuses on American constitutional law and Western political tradition. As Stanley Kurtz observes, with the University of Chicago having lately dropped the ball, “Princeton is rapidly becoming the key quality alternative for producing a new generation of conservative intellectuals.”
What’s key is that George raises independent funding for the program, insulating it from the pressures that the well-organized campus left would surely otherwise bring to bear to undermine it. In this sense and others, Madison has been a model for conservatives at other institutions seeking to establish similar free-thought zones. To date, no fewer than ten such oases of intellectual pluralism are either going concerns or in the works, at such schools as Brown, Georgetown, NYU, Boston College, and the University of Colorado; the conservative Manhattan Institute, through its Veritas Fund, has given $2,500,000 to help them along. True, it doesn’t sound like much — not in contrast to the hundreds of schools turning out graduates who’ve never met a liberal dogma they didn’t like; or, more to the point, thought to question. But if there is to be a rebirth of academic freedom, look for those programs — and new ones to come — to produce its leaders.
This is a modified chapter from Harry Stein’s book, “I Can’t Believe I’m Sitting Next to a Republican”, due June 22nd from Encounter Books. Stein, an author and journalist, is a contributing editor at City Journal.