Spelling and Vaginas: Have We Lost Higher Education?

Are new culture bullies taking over America’s college campuses? Jonathan Chait argued recently that today’s college campuses are suffering a new, more aggressive bout of political correctness. For those of us interested in higher education and America’s culture wars, Chait’s essay raises different questions: Have colleges and universities become hopelessly monolithic? Can students really learn anymore, or will they only be drilled in leftist platitudes?

Like Chait, I’m not asking this as a conservative, but as a liberal. Like Chait, I want college campuses to include a heady mix of ideas. I want students to see and hear a broad range of philosophies, many of which they will disagree with.

Chait catalogs some of the anti-liberal recent occurrences on elite campuses:

Speakers are cancelled; plays are cancelled; lecturers are shouted down. In many high-profile cases, it seems that leftist students are dedicated to blocking any speech they find distasteful. This kind of neo-Comstockery, Chait argues, is a far greater threat to liberalism than any right-wing speaker or writer could possibly create. It has created, as one professor told Chait, an “environment of fear” on college campuses.

Chait explores the way this sort of destructive cultural politics has ranged far beyond college campuses. Those interested in the strange unspooling of America’s culture wars should certainly read his essay in full. But this morning I’d like to ask a slightly different question: What is the relationship between conservatism and mainstream higher education?

It is not as simple as it might seem. Though many conservative intellectuals continue to insist that Chait’s Red-Guardism has squeezed out thoughtful conservatism at many colleges, the truth is more complex. It’s not true that college students these days can’t be conservative. Ironically, the campus climate Chait deplores seems to strengthen some students’ identification as conservative. It does seem, though, that students less committed to a conservative ideology will feel pressured to avoid provoking the wrath of the campus left.

First, there is ample evidence that conservative students are made MORE conservative in college. Sociologists Amy Binder and Kate Wood recently released their findings of conservative students at two elite universities. In each case, they found that conservative students tended to become more conservative at these purportedly leftist universities.

Beyond that, for students who identify as conservatives, there have long been prestigious schools outside of the mainstream that welcome and nurture conservative cultural values. As I’m finding in the research for my new book, conservative evangelicals have a wide choice of colleges that serve as comfortable intellectual homes for conservatives. Often, these schools also embrace political conservatism.

Finally, we have piles of anecdotal evidence that conservatives are often made more conservative by leftist campus environments. Most famously, William F. Buckley Jr. launched his career with an angry memoir about his student days at Yale. Dinesh D’Souza similarly served first as a conspicuous college conservative at Dartmouth. Less famous conservative students have shared similar experiences.

Given all this evidence, it’s not fair to say that conservative students aren’t allowed to be themselves. In spite of what conservative leaders say, conservatism has not been shouted out of American higher education. There is another problem, though. What about students who are not committed to conservatism? Is the climate on campuses today conducive to a true intellectual experimentation among earnest but undecided young people?

This is a much harder question to answer. In some famous cases, colleges have made efforts to include conservative intellectual role models for young people. The most extraordinary case has been that of the University of Colorado at Boulder, where Steven Hayward and Bradley Birzer have worked as visiting conservatives. At that school, students in the middle are guaranteed to have at least one committed conservative academic voice on campus.

In other cases, it seems as if conservatives really have been given the squeeze. The best example is the recent treatment of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. Intervarsity has been derecognized at leading campuses nationwide. For committed Christian students, it will not be difficult to find a comfortable conservative church near school. But for those who aren’t committed, the exclusion of conservative organizations such as Intervarsity seems to limit students’ opportunities to hear and experience a real range of intellectual and religious ideas.

Chait raises important questions about the goals and limitations of speech-policing on campuses. We need to remember, however, that high-profile cases of neo-PC thuggery do not mean that all universities have been taken over by the leftist thought police. The real situation is more complex. Conservative students and professors seem to thrive. However, those on the fence might be robbed of opportunities to hear more than leftist platitudes.

Do campuses today encourage a real mix of ideas?  What have been your experiences?  Those of your children?  Your students?

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4 Comments

  1. I find it weird that you and many other people characterize the Mount Holyoke issue as “blocking” the performance of a play. According to everything I’ve read, the student theatre group simply decided not to perform it. There was no “blocking” there was no chasing something off campus and no one was being censored… the group got together, talked it over, and decided they didn’t want to perform it anymore. Presumably, if another campus theatre group wanted to get together and perform it, they could. I just think it’s a distinction worth making, although if I’m wrong about that, I’d like to know.

    Reply
    • Anna, I plead guilty. I don’t know anything about the Mount Holyoke case. I just took the story in Chait’s article at face value. I agree that there’s a huge difference between a group deciding not to do a play and a play being “blocked.”

      Reply
      • 🙂 Fair enough. I think there’s still plenty of room to argue on whether the Vagina Monologue play is actually exclusive or offensive in any way (I haven’t seen it, so I can’t pass any judgment).

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