Conservatives Have Only Themselves to Blame for Today’s Campus Wars

Conservatives Have Only Themselves to Blame for Today’s Campus Wars

At Yale (Thomas Autumn Photography / Flickr)

This article is part of a forum on “Free Speech on Campus.” To read contributions by David A. Bell, Marcia Chatelain, and Anne-Laure White, click here.

No sooner had American liberal-arts colleges weathered the storm generated in 2014 by William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep, his vaguely leftish jeremiad against “the panic, the exhaustion, the sense of emptiness and aimlessness, the fearfulness and cynicism” in elite-college life—which, he argued, produce “the spectacular failure of leadership” of a new aristocracy—than another hurricane swept in last fall. This time, it was conservatives assailing colleges as too “liberal”—never mind that many campuses have already been transformed by the very corporate, capitalist incentives and pressures that most conservatives champion, with disturbing consequences that they’re trying to blame on liberal political correctness.

Some censorious “liberals” have indeed only helped to turn undergraduate liberal education into a dance of careerism, power-networking, and self-marketing. Many rail at glass ceilings that must be broken by women and people of color, forgetting that breaking the ceiling doesn’t improve the foundations and walls unless wholly different challenges are posed to the structure itself. Federal bureaucratic overreach has compounded the problem by enabling campus sexual-assault regimens to endanger the due process that is essential to liberalism.

Still, the accommodations of some left-liberals to the increasingly business-oriented and bureaucratic drift of higher education and of civil society are mainly symptoms, not causes, of our civic decay. Now that the Republican presidential campaign has elevated a financer of casinos and a vulgar, predatory self-marketer whom most of the Party denounces, even as its members asphyxiate free speech and open inquiry in Congress, the rest of us—some honorable conservatives included—are wondering just what kinds of “free” and “robust” speech right-wingers are willing to accept and what kinds of “political correctness” they themselves have imposed.

The students whom Deresiewicz called “entitled little shits” and whom conservatives characterize as coddled and frightened don’t exist in a vacuum. They are products of an increasingly frightening, atomizing society that turns college students from co-participants in universities’ historic scientific and social missions into isolated, heavily indebted consumers of career training. This model of education serves the casino-like financing and omnivorous, predatory, intrusive marketing that conservatives themselves have championed, even as it incubates a racially “diverse”  global managerial elite that doesn’t consider itself accountable to any democratic polity or moral code. Absent massive public funding like that of the 1950s and ‘60s for higher education as a crucible of citizenship, students must mortgage themselves to future employers by taking courses and programs that private donors and trustees choose to fund.

It makes little sense to preach civic-republican virtues such as the fearless pursuit of truth through reasoned dialogue when conservative trustees and administrators are busy harnessing liberal education only to facilitate market priorities, not interrogate them.

It’s precisely because conservatives consider themselves so decent and principled that they’re in denial about their responsibility for the transformation of elite universities into training centers for wealth-making, power-wielding, and public relations, and that they’re campaigning so energetically to discredit those who want to keep liberal education somewhat independent of both markets and the national-security state.

The first conservative assault on the academy came in 1951 with William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, which summoned the university’s supposedly Christian, capitalist alumni to rescue it from its professors’ godless socialism. McCarthyism intensified that effort. Protests of the 1960s pushed back, but the conservative attack resumed with greater force in 1987 with Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, a book that conservatives misread and appropriated to serve their own ends.

The assaults intensified with a slew of interventions and manifestos by off-campus provocateurs, including David Horowitz of the so-called Center for the Study of Popular Culture and the Orwellian “Academic Bill of Rights”; Daniel Pipes’s creepy-crawly Campus Watch; and the conservative populist tribune Roger Kimball, author of Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, who now chairs the board of the lavishly-funded William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale. (The Buckley Program claims to champion “intellectual diversity,” as distinct from racial and gender diversity.)

The latest iteration of the “blame the liberals” campaign has its manifesto in “The Coddling of the American Mind,” a widely read Atlantic magazine article, co-authored in 2015 by Jonathan Haidt, a New York University social psychologist and professor of business ethics, and Greg Lukianoff, an attorney and political strategist who heads the Koch brothers–funded Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Lukianoff insists he’s really a liberal Democrat trying to identify and stop what’s gone wrong in liberalism. But many neoconservatives were Democrats, too, until long after they’d made their Faustian bargain with conservative religious, ideological, and economic forces whose grip they’re now trying to escape. (Since promoting the Citizens United ruling, those same conservative forces and funders have been delivering a lot more robust “free speech” in politics and, at the same time, a lot less independent-mindedness in legislators than either a “liberal Democrat” or an honest conservative should accept.)

Lukianoff and Haidt have depicted a campus culture more perverse than that of the 1960s, when the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and its sequels ended in a vapid free-for-all, its counterculture absorbed into a profit-driven over-the-counter culture. That perversion of progressive politics marketed Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book as an emblem of ersatz protest. Now, conservatives tell us, Hoffman’s slogan has been replaced by the more insidious, free-floating demand, “Don’t even read this book,” which bars any book that might make victims of sexual or racial insensitivity uncomfortable.

Such depictions of campus life have scored big, not only with the general public (and with journalists who are uneasy about their own misspent college years) but also within the liberal academy itself. Characterizations of last fall’s student protesters as pathologically fragile and as demanding administrative punishment of anyone they consider a carrier of their oppressions rely on the excesses of the relatively few student protesters who really do fit that bill. Their critics obscure the larger truth that student protesters are rightly frightened and angry about the unwinding of American civil society. As I wrote in February, Haidt and Lukianoff misrepresented Yale’s campus culture with the unwitting help of a black woman student whom they videotaped hurling imprecations at a professor. The video went viral with the all-too witting help of the conservative noise machine, generating threats that sent the student into hiding and that shut down others’ free speech.

Still, more than a few left-liberal professors—among them Dissent’s own Todd Gitlin, Bard College Hannah Arendt Center director Roger Berkowitz,  and Skidmore College professor and Salmagundi editor Robert Boyers—have found “cry-bullying” worrisome on their campuses. They’re not entirely off target. Undergraduate colleges are civil societies on training wheels, where students try out political self-definitions, inevitably through some moral posturing, within guardrails and guidance that are supplied by deans and faculty. Some immature students do disrupt civil discourse in troubling ways. Some professors do peddle propaganda. Some deans do try to “guide” social life with rules and regimens that infantilize. The more selective colleges become service corporations catering to student and parental customers who think they deserve the amenities and accreditations they’ve paid for. Sexual and racial correctness under the ministrations of “diversity” deans and theologians of postmodern liberation serve as little more than a dress rehearsal for conformity to strikingly similar restrictions from corporate diversity officers and human resources departments.

But analogous restrictions on thought and conduct gripped the old, conservative colleges, including the almost exclusively white-male Yale that I attended, as I recounted recently in a Salon essay, “The Coddling of the Conservative Mind.” That doesn’t legitimize today’s “liberal” political correctness, but it should caution us against making too much of the conservative campaign to “take back the university” from the left, as Roger Kimball has demanded.

Conservatives insist that a more creditable, more classical liberal education would temper the consolidation of wealth and power with Truth-seeking in the study of ancient classical wisdom, sometimes with Christian grace notes. But the capitalism that most college students are preparing themselves to serve is now global and corporate in ways that no longer sustain or reward this pedagogical mix, let alone nourish the classically liberal and republican virtues (or, for that matter, even the republican sovereignty) that conservatives say they cherish.

Today’s capitalism would have appalled Adam Smith, John Locke, Alexander Hamilton, Clinton Rossiter, Russell Kirk, and other apostles of the social virtues of “free markets.” If “liberal” professors, deans, and students (and parents) make plausible scapegoats for this unfolding disaster, it’s because even their supposedly transgressive challenges to the marketing juggernaut often facilitate it. Deresiewicz notes rightly that most liberals who send their kids to selective colleges have done a bit too well by the current regime to be all that serious about reconfiguring it. But they can’t defend it wholeheartedly, either, so they and their children grasp at compensatory moralistic, gestures such as posting a “Like” for Bernie or celebrating United Colors of Benetton “diversity” that better prepares students, including students of color, for climbing the corporate ladder than for organized resistance and transformation.

If Lukianoff and Haidt really wanted to show where “the coddling of the American mind” comes from, Lukianoff would start a Foundation for Individual Rights in Corporate Employment. And Haidt, instead of over-generalizing in ways he warns others against doing, would report the conservative political correctness, including its rampant self-censorship by seductions of power, that is so evident in well-funded programs at Yale.

Haidt would also visit not only “liberal” high schools that he claims incubate “The Yale Problem”—as he describes a few Yale students’ politically correct squeamishness, emphasizing negatives and indulging in a sweeping generalization of the kind he urges independent, un-coddled thinkers never to make—but also the high schools where Republican senators first learned how not to think or speak freely. As I argued here in Dissent in 2012, one needn’t be a liberal or a leftist to regret the corporatization and consumerization of liberal education or to resist it rather than facilitate it, as both conservative tacticians and their liberal scapegoats too often do.

I’m still waiting for both the conservative crusaders and their targets to join me in resisting the corporatization of liberal education and the torrentially marketed civic mindlessness and malevolence that has been groping them, goosing them, intimidating them, degrading them, indebting them, tracking them, and, in so doing, imprisoning them since long before they entered college and encountered a few of the wrong deans and professors.


Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale.

Return to the forum to read contributions by David A. Bell, Marcia Chatelain, and Anne-Laure White.

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