When Did Conservatives Get so Angry at Higher Ed?

When I saw the headline, my nerd spidey-sense tingled. I was excited to read about the history of conservative anti-college feelings. But when I read the whole article, I was struck once again by the half-baked nature of the claim. Once again, a smart, well-informed pundit who claims to be examining culture-war history stops half-way. When will we start looking beyond the 1960s?


An earlier generation also worried…

Here’s the dilemma: at The Atlantic, Jason Blakely recently promised to explain the history of recent GOP ire against higher education. Looking at the current proposed tax plan, for example, it seems as if some members of Congress are out to punish elite universities.

Blakely argues that this conservative resentment of higher education has historical roots. In his analysis, he makes some vital points. Most powerfully, he notices that conservatives seem to mistake a very small segment of higher education for the higher-educational landscape as a whole. As he wisely puts it,

conservative anxiety is best expressed as being about a small set of marquee positions of honor and prestige in the liberal arts that happen to be largely staffed at present by those whose political commitments lean left.

That’s a vital point that is too often ignored. “College” as a whole is not particularly leftish…or even particularly anything. The crazy-quilt patchwork of colleges, universities, and other post-secondary institutions is wildly disparate. It is an absolutely vital notion that people just don’t seem to want to notice. Kudos to Blakely for emphasizing it. But when he proposes to analyze the history of this conservative anger toward elite universities, he puzzlingly only scratches the historical surface. After a nod to the “deep and complex historical roots” of anti-intellectualism in American culture, he argues that

the trope of portraying American universities as a threat to society emerged with particular intensity in the 1970s and ‘80s.

He looks at the work of neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol and Allan Bloom regarding “what they saw as the moral laxity and corrosiveness of the 1960s counterculture.”

Fair enough. And interesting, as far as it goes. But what Blakely and other writers miss is the longer relevant history of this specific trend in culture-war thinking.

As I argue in my book about educational conservatism, if we hope to make any sense of today’s conservative anger at elite higher ed, we can’t start with the 1970s. We need to begin in the 1920s, when conservative intellectuals had their first experience of exile, when the tropes exploited so powerfully by Kristol and Bloom were first developed.

It was not in the 1970s, but in the 1920s that conservatives developed their deep abiding anxiety about trends in elite higher education. Consider a couple of examples.

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 we talk about our culture-war history, we can’t short out these voices from the 1920s and the 1930s.

Why not? If you are purporting to explain the history of an idea, you can’t only focus on the most recent articulation. It implies that these questions began to rankle only in the past fifty years, instead of slow-cooking for about a century now. The radicalism of the 1960s, and the reaction of the 1970s, were not new. They did not create new terms of culture-war angst, but rather only perpetuated existing themes.

This is not only a nerdy quibble but a fundamental part of culture-war politics. Think of it this way: When Irving Kristol and Allan Bloom made their arguments in the 1970s—the ones Blakely thinks inaugurated conservative anger at elite universities—they did not need to convince their conservative audiences of their central point. Conservatives had a vague but powerful sense that elite intellectual institutions had long since turned against truth, goodness, and beauty. Convincing someone of something they already believe to be true is a much easier task.

I don’t mean to single Blakely out. He’s not the only writer to woefully misrepresent America’s culture-war history. Plus, I’m not saying that historians can’t cut off their arguments at some reasonable point. We don’t all need to always write about everything. I get that. In a case like this, however, ignoring the vital and intensely relevant precursors to the 1970s history is not okay. We end up with a misleading notion of the genealogy of conservative outrage. We end up thinking we understand something we haven’t really even begun to understand.


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?

Deneen on Bloom, Conservatism, and Multiculturalism

What does it mean for schools to embrace “multiculturalism?”

One of the sternest and most popular condemnations of the implications of multicultural ideology was Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987).

Political philosopher Patrick Deneen recently evaluated the book and its legacy.  Deneen concludes that the book could have done much more to condemn the pernicious influence of “multiculturalism.”

As Deneen notes, Bloom explicitly refused the label “conservative.”  Nevertheless, his book became a favorite of those culture-war activists who battled over the cultural content of higher education.  Should colleges teach Plato, Locke, and Shakespeare?  Or should they instead teach Fanon, Derrida, and Gloria Anzaldua?

Bloom plaintively argued that American higher education had abandoned its central mission.   In order for young people to doubt, Bloom argued, they must have some ground from which to question.  They must understand themselves as inheritors of a cultural tradition.  Higher education, Bloom argued, had willfully denied its central role as caretakers of students’ souls.  Instead of teaching young people to explore and question Truth, higher education shamefully evaded its responsibility and taught students instead that Truth was an illusion.

It is easy to see how this argument endeared Bloom to many conservative activists.  Yet Bloom himself did not argue for any specific tradition.  He was not a religious man himself, nor did his book insist that any religion embodied the truth.  Rather, he argued that students must be recognized as yearning souls, rather than transformed into indifferent spiritual husks.

Deneen’s critique raises many intriguing points and is worth reading in its entirety.  Deneen wishes Bloom might have pursued the analysis of multiculturalism to its logical conclusion.  As Deneen writes,

The stronger case would have been to expose the claims of multiculturalism as cynical expressions from members of groups that did not, in fact, share a culture, while showing that such self-righteous claims, more often than not, were merely a thin veneer masking a lust for status, wealth and power. If the past quarter century has revealed anything, it has consistently shown that those who initially participated in calls for multiculturalism have turned out to be among the voices most hostile to actual cultures, particularly ones seeking to maintain coherent religious and moral traditions.

If Bloom could have seen the current state of American higher education, Deneen argues, Bloom would have seen that his 1987 book underestimated the scope of the problem.  In the late 1980s, Deneen believes, advocates of multiculturalism shared Bloom’s sense of the importance of curriculum.  These days, even that awkward defense of multiculturalism has been eclipsed by what Deneen calls “an age of indifference.”  The cultural left no longer insists on a left-leaning set of counter-readings.  Instead, Deneen points out,

not only is academia indifferent to whether our students become virtuous human beings (to use a word seldom to be found on today’s campuses), but it holds itself to be unconnected to their vices—thus there remains no self-examination over higher education’s role in producing the kinds of graduates who helped turn Wall Street into a high-stakes casino and our nation’s budget into a giant credit card. Today, in the name of choice, non-judgmentalism, and toleration, institutions prefer to offer the greatest possible expanse of options, in the implicit belief that every 18- to 22-year-old can responsibly fashion his or her own character unaided.

Whatever Bloom’s personal views, the notion that schools at every level must teach a set of core values has been and remains central to conservative thinking about schooling and education.  The central issue remains the question of the function of schooling.  Conservatives embraced Bloom the skeptic because he made a powerful argument in favor of school as a transmitter of cultural values.  “Multiculturalism,” in contrast, became a label for a very different vision.  For multiculturalists, the purpose of school was to help students overcome their inherited cultural values, clearing the way for a logical, tolerant, reasonable set of beliefs.