College Professors: The Enemy Within

Want to understand the campus free-speech wars? Chronicle of Higher Education has published a fantastic description of the way one scuffle in Nebraska escalated into a national cause. As with other reporting, however, this article misrepresents the history of conservative ire over liberal colleges.

CHE conservative students

Conservative students under attack in Nebraska…

It’s really a spellbinding story for nerds interested in these sorts of things. Journalist Steve Kolowich tells the tale of one conservative Nebraska student confronted by a progressive student and a faculty member. Kolowich explains how Nebraska politicians and national activists seized upon the conflict as a symbol of their dislike for academic trends.

When it comes to historical context, though, Kolowich misses some important elements. As he writes, after the “culture-war” battles of the 1980s and 1990s, “Conservatives began seeing themselves as minorities in need of protection.” For conservatives, Kolowich explains, in recent years “the public university was transforming into an enemy within[.]”

True enough, as far as it goes. But as I argue in my book about the history of educational conservatism, conservative anger and dismay at the goings-on in higher education have a much longer history.

In the early 1920s, for example, anti-evolution celebrity William Jennings Bryan railed against trends in American higher education. In one public dispute with University of Wisconsin President Edward Birge, for example, Bryan offered the following memorable proposal. If universities continued to promote amoral ideas such as human evolution, Bryan suggested, they needed to post the following notice:

Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to witness the spectacle.

Elite schools, Bryan warned, had begun actively to teach “moral laxity and corrosiveness.” Universities needed to warn parents that they no longer taught students right from wrong. This sense of conservative outrage at higher-educational trends was a driving force behind the culture wars of the 1920s.

It wasn’t only Bryan and it wasn’t only evolution. Since the 1920s, conservative intellectuals have voiced “with particular intensity” their sense that elite universities had gone off the moral rails. Consider the case made by some patriotic conservatives in the 1930s and 1940s against the anti-American direction of the elite higher-educational establishment.

In 1938, for instance, Daniel Doherty of the American Legion denounced elite institutions as mere “propagandists.” Universities such as Columbia had taken to “attacking the existing order and [to] disparagement of old and substantial values.”

These intense antagonistic feelings toward elite universities were widely shared among conservative thinkers in the 1930s. Bertie Forbes, for example, syndicated columnist and founder of Forbes magazine, warned that elite schools were “generally regarded as infested” with subversive and anti-moral professors.

When it comes to conservative skepticism about the goings-on in higher education, we need to remember the longer context. Recent polls have led some pundits to make a variety of short-term claims about why conservatives don’t like higher education.

If we really want to understand the relationship between conservatism and higher education in America, IMHO, we need to take a different approach. First of all, as I’ve argued before, conservative activists and intellectuals don’t really dislike higher education as an institution. They love it. What they dislike, in general, is the perceived takeover of higher education by progressives.

Second, we need to keep the long view. If we want to understand the Nebraska stand off that Kolowich describes so movingly, we need to keep in mind the full historical context. Conservatives have been griping about the progressive takeover of higher education for a long time. When Nebraska’s pundits and state senators get on board, they are able to dip into a much longer, much more robust political tradition.

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  1. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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