Thank you. After discussions here and in real life, I’ve changed my mind. I thought we needed affirmative action for conservative college professors, but now I agree on a different solution.
The other day, I wrote that our campuses needed more ideological diversity. Not, as some commentators have argued, mainly to provide a richer intellectual climate. Nor to be fair to conservative intellectuals. Rather, for me the compelling issue was that many students—conservative students—felt like fair game for both fellow students and professors.
Too many students, I thought (and think!) feel as if their conservative beliefs—especially religious beliefs—are the butt of jokes. They do not feel included; they do not feel like valued members of the campus community. That is not acceptable.
But following Jonathan Haidt’s advice for colleges to “actively seek out non-leftist faculty” won’t help.
Rather, we need to use existing mechanisms on campus to ease the problem.
Let me start by laying out some of the things I am not talking about:
I am not saying that students from some conservative religious backgrounds shouldn’t have their worlds shaken up by what they learn in college. For example, if students come from a young-earth creationist background, as David Long has argued, learning mainstream science will come as a profoundly disorienting experience. Colleges don’t need to protect them from that experience.
I am not saying that students should be allowed to perpetuate anti-minority attacks under the name of fairness. As some schools have experienced, “white student union” groups have argued that they, too, should have the right to be exclusive campus communities. Colleges don’t need to protect this sort of faux equality.
But colleges should protect students—even conservative students—from the sorts of ignorant, ridiculous, hateful talk that they are commonly exposed to. Let me give some examples of the kinds of thing I am talking about.
Example #1: Here in the Great State of New York, we’re divided over a recent gun-control law, the SAFE Act. It limited gun ownership in significant ways. One student told me that the subject came up in one of his classes. It wasn’t the main subject of a lecture or anything, just some side-talk that went on as part of a class discussion, the kind of talk that is a common part of every class. The instructor, according to my student, said something along the lines of, “Only total hillbilly idiots oppose the SAFE Act.” My student was a gun owner, from a family of gun owners and opponents of the SAFE Act. He didn’t say so, but I can’t help but think that the instructor’s comments made the student feel shut out.
Example #2: I was giving a talk a while back about Protestant fundamentalists and their educational campaigns. I’ll leave the host university anonymous. After my talk, one audience member shouted out a question, “What’s WRONG with these people!!??!” Many heads nodded and people giggled a little. I was flummoxed. I couldn’t believe that such an intelligent person could simply lump together all conservative religious people as “these people.” I couldn’t believe that other audience members found such a question unremarkable. I wondered what someone in the audience would feel like if he or she was a fundamentalist. I don’t think he or she would feel welcomed. I don’t think he or she would feel like part of the campus community.
In situations like that, I think the main culprit is faculty ignorance. Too many of us have no idea about the numbers of conservative students we teach. Too many of us assume that the intelligent people in our classes agree with us on questions of religion and politics. Too many of us assume that any anti-conservatism or anti-religious jokes will be enjoyed by all our students.
I plead guilty myself. As I learn more and more about conservatism and religion, I realize how woefully ignorant I have always been. I worry that some of my off-hand comments in the past made some students feel unwelcome or insulted.
That’s why I think we need to do a better job of spreading the word. Many of our campuses already have sensitivity-training classes. Why don’t we include conservative ideas? Why don’t we help faculty members recognize that they will be teaching students of all sorts of political and religious backgrounds? Why don’t we educate them about the beliefs of people who are very different from them, people who will likely be in their classes?
Of course, it won’t change the minds of people who really don’t want to change. I know there are some professors out there who consider it their job to belittle conservative ideas. Some academics take a positive glee in subjecting religious conservatives to hostile intellectual attack, hoping to educate them out of their unfortunate backwardness.
To some, that might be enlightenment. If it means subjecting vulnerable students to browbeating at the hands of their fellow students or even of their professors, it’s not the right sort of enlightenment.
Affirmative action for conservative professors isn’t the answer. It won’t work and it doesn’t even address the central problem. Colorado has struggled to fit in its token conservative intellectual. More important, as Neil Gross has argued, hiring on campuses is not really squeezed in a leftist death-grip. Rather, left-leaning types tend to be overrepresented among those who go into academic work in the first place.
We should prepare ourselves to welcome religious and ideological diversity just as we do other forms of diversity. We should ask instructors to attend sensitivity workshops that include a variety of ideas. Why do some creationist students believe in a young earth? Why do some religious traditions emphasize a continuing difference between proper roles for men and women?
The goal is not to avoid teaching ideas that might be startling or uncomfortable for students. In a geology class, young-earth creationists will hear that the earth is very old. A class on feminist theory will certainly shake up some students steeped in patriarchal thinking. But we can convey that information in a way that insults and belittles our students, or in a way that does not.
To me, the choice seems obvious.