Schools of Social(ist) Work

America’s colleges and universities have become left-wing indoctrination factories. At least, that has long been a favorite conservative complaint. Today in the pages of the Weekly Standard we see another example of the “closing of the campus mind.” Why do so many conservatives seem to take such intense pleasure in the supposed leftist domination of American higher education?

Bearded weirdos...

Bearded weirdos…

In today’s Weekly Standard, Devorah Goldman shares her horror story from Hunter College’s School of Social Work. As a conservative, Ms. Goldman was asked politely not to participate in class discussions. She had to hold her tongue as she read anti-conservative textbooks. She had to hold her tongue as professors imposed racist, ideologically slanted ideas on her classes.

Goldman’s story of abysmally closed-minded universities seems to resonate among conservative intellectuals. As we’ve seen recently, some conservative academics have interpreted recent events as the death knell for conservative thinkers at mainstream universities. Elsewhere, critics have wondered if higher education as a whole has been irredeemably lost to true open-mindedness.

As a non-conservative who writes a lot about conservatism and education, these complaints raise two difficult questions for me.

  1. First, why do so many conservative thinkers seem to emphasize the leftism of colleges? That is, why do conservatives seem to take such bitter joy from an exaggerated assumption that they are no longer welcome in higher ed?
  2. Second, why don’t these conservative intellectuals recognize the long tradition of conservative laments about higher ed? In every case, it seems as if conservatives think higher ed has just recently switched over to the dark side.

Let’s take the second of these questions first. As Ms. Goldman’s story shows, every conservative complaint implies that the closing of the college mind is a recent phenomenon. But conservatives (and liberals, for that matter) have been protesting against the goings-on at mainstream colleges for almost a century.

In 1987, for example, Chicago’s Allan Bloom scored a surprise best-seller with his Closing of the American Mind. Bloom worried back then that universities had become nothing but indoctrination factories.

Even earlier, conservative godfather William F. Buckley Jr. began his long career with an indictment of the culture at his alma mater. In God and Man at Yale (1951), Buckley blasted the sneering secularism and lax morality of his school.

Some people think Buckley invented modern conservatism, but the same themes go way back. In the 1930s, for instance, Congressman Hamilton Fish excoriated leading schools as subversive breeding grounds for communists. Fish named names. Columbia, New York University, City College of New York, the University of Chicago, Wisconsin, Penn, and North Carolina, Fish charged in 1935, had become “honeycombed with Socialists, near Communists and Communists.” As I note in my new book, Fish and other anti-communist conservatives in the 1930s assumed that leading colleges had recently been hopelessly lost to left-wing collegiate cabals.

Back in the 1920s, too, religious conservatives warned each other that recent events had caused the loss of mainstream colleges. As I’m digging into in my current research, fundamentalists such as Bob Jones Sr. convinced themselves and anyone who would listen that 1920s trends had moved college into the enemy camp. Too many schools, Jones charged, attacked the faith of conservative students. As Jones put it,

I had just about as lief send a child to school in hell as to put him in one of those institutions. We are spending millions of dollars on education in this country, but if that is the kind of education we are going to have we would be better off without our universities and colleges.

In every case, each generation of conservative activist has implied that these lamentable changes were recent occurrences. In every case, conservatives suggest that higher ed “these days” has been taken over by left-wingers. If this is such a long and strong tradition among conservatives, why do they keep insisting it is a recent phenomenon?

And why do conservatives seem so eager to emphasize their own victimhood? I don’t doubt Goldman’s story. I can imagine that some teachers and some schools really do insist on an ideological conformity. But there are plenty of other schools that do not. Why don’t conservatives spend more mental energy trumpeting their own dominance of some forms of higher education?

Recently, for example, conservative academic extraordinaire Robert George praised his school’s new academic-freedom rule. Why don’t more conservative intellectuals join Professor George in proclaiming the continuing academic clout of conservative or conservative-friendly ideas?

Some might think that conservatism only dominates less-prestigious schools. Ms. Goldman, for example, would likely have had a very different experience at a less prominent school of social work. But as the case of Professor George makes clear, leading schools such as Chicago and Princeton have long served as congenial homes for conservative intellectuals.

Instead of tearing their hair and gnashing their teeth due to the supposed loss of higher education, why don’t conservative intellectuals celebrate their continuing influence at many leading colleges?

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4 Comments

  1. Agellius

     /  April 9, 2015

    “If this is such a long and strong tradition among conservatives, why do they keep insisting it is a recent phenomenon?”

    It’s a matter of the goal posts constantly moving leftward. People complained back in the ’20s that conservatism was losing because according to where the goal posts were at that time, they were losing – even though today’s conservatives would be tickled pink to have the goal posts moved back to where they were in the ‘20s, and would consider it a great victory.

    Reply
  2. I have never heard of an attack on liberals in science, a school of business, or an economic department. The attacks are always on the humanities and maybe social science faculty — fields that are derided and devalued in popular conservatism but also the broader culture. It seems strange then that there are not celebrations of conservative dominance in the fields most Americans seem to care about most. Maybe political conservatives only care about winning in contested fields that have entered the culture wars, whereas most academics eschew labels and try to minimize conflict with their colleagues, finding value and celebrating good scholarship wherever they find it.

    If you do have to get all identity-politics about it, I’d say there’s just not that much for conservative intellectuals of Robert George’s mold to celebrate nor very many conservative intellectuals to invite to the celebration. I think there are plenty of top scholars who could fit some definition of “conservative,” and certainly “centrists” or “moderates,” but conservative movement politics has a polemical anti-liberal identity that even conservative academics are loathe to embrace.

    Even George might admit that if he is “America’s most influential conservative academic” he is possibly one of the last of the breed to appear off reservations like Ave Maria University, especially in relation to natural law theory. It’s not as if Princeton is being converted to natural law and liable to become a hotbed of legal and political theorists who think contraception and homosexuality are immoral choices that ought to be suppressed by positive law. Were that the case — if George was seen as *dangerously* influential — he would be less widely celebrated.

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  3. Patrick

     /  April 19, 2015

    You ask, “why do conservatives seem so eager to emphasize their own victimhood?” Who doesn’t emphasize their own victimhood these days? Perhaps the question should be why doing so has become an American tradition. One way of looking at it is to point out that we are an optimistic bunch, perpetually hopeful that if we consistently expose unfairness and hypocrisy, we will help solve the problem by raising awareness of it. Why else would the news always be so depressing?

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  1. Bizarre Attacks on Conservatives | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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