Some years back, conservative columnist George F. Will argued that colleges are too liberal. But if liberalism means the freedom to consider new ideas, what else would we expect?
Over a decade ago, conservative writer George F. Will objected that colleges are too liberal. I generally like to read Will; I don’t typically agree with him, but usually I find his comments to be logical and collegial, and they often give me something to think about.
But this essay about liberal colleges was very concerning. First of all, notice that he only looks at large, highly regarded universities, and except for an example where engineering is grouped with science, he only considers the humanities and sciences.
Why doesn’t he include a survey of business colleges? Where are the engineering schools? Is his complaint also true for the highly selective, elite military academies? What about religiously-affiliated universities? Are small public universities in rural and small town settings equally liberal as big, rich, urban universities?
I’m not splitting hairs here. By focusing on rather selective data, Will seems to be teeing up the answer to fit his expectations, and only considering information that makes his argument.
Which brings up my next concern: Why does he ask this question at all? I would guess that most American corporations are overwhelmingly guided by conservatives, as are most Chambers of Commerce. I can’t imagine there are many liberals in the Pentagon, the largest recipient of an enormous US federal budget. I would also guess that the clergy and the management/advisory boards of most houses of worship are strongly conservative.
Then there’s government itself. Currently 31 governors are Republican and only 18 are Democrat, and Republicans control both houses of Congress. When Will wrote this piece, conservative power was even stronger.
Of course we must also consider the ‘mainstream liberal media’ with these considerations: US newspapers are overwhelmingly owned by five profit-driven corporations; the largest television news channel is Fox; and talk radio is dominated by conservatives.
Partisanship vs ‘Not My Brand’ of Partisanship
So if we look at the real juice in everyday US life, it would appear that conservatives dominate the most influential areas. But Will doesn’t discuss any of that, he only looks at a few high-profile universities, and only at certain disciplines within them. Considering the cherry-picked data he uses to start his little jeremiad, and his focus on a tiny slice of American life, we have to wonder about his objectivity here, and his fairness on this topic. Is Will’s complaint that one ideology might be dominating our universities?
Or is the real objection that it isn’t his ideology?
It calls into question George F. Will’s sincerity on this issue. Does he care about fairness and parity, or just winning the game? Does he care about the American dialogue, or does he simply desire partisan dominance? He seems to be concerned that liberal colleges may be muzzling opponents, when this piece ironically suggests the this is exactly what he wants to do… but from his side. If Will fails to place dialogue and debate above political interests, then the assumption becomes that he values conservatism over democracy, and partisan ideology above American ideals.
My objections here are not polemic rhetoric; they are central to this blog, and to our way of life. I have argued repeatedly that liberal and conservative have different, critical functions in a changing world, and that the dialogue they create is essential for modern life, and for progress.
The function of liberalism is to attempt new ideas, to be the R&D arm of the democracy. That being so, if we do not foster liberal ideas in the research university…
…where should we foster them?
The modern university has several functions, but the ‘best’ universities are research universities. Some conservatives might argue that we should limit university research to technology, and avoid social issues. Remember however, that at their inception, abolition, women’s suffrage, child protections, public education, and the Pure Food and Drug Act were all ‘liberal’ efforts. And critical to supporting all of them were the liberal faculty, in the more liberal departments, at the most liberal universities.
Oh, and lest we forget: much of the American Revolution was fueled by radical college students in colonial taverns. The point is, technological advances are insufficient for general human progress, and for national competitiveness. Addressing social issues, and implementing those practices that protect and improve the citizen and the worker, are also essential to progress.
And without liberals – or at least without the liberal, collegial, inclusive approach that Will’s focus seems to exclude – how are universities supposed to teach our young adults? Should they never study Marx and Sartre and Tennessee Williams and Darwin and the Big Bang? If we do not employ teachers who are truly open to new and different ideas, those ideas will never get a fair hearing, and our students will leave college with exactly the same received knowledge, that they started with. They will never learn to deal with ideas objectively, to think for themselves, and to decide for themselves.
As noted above, until students reach the university, the institutional factors in their lives are overwhelmingly conservative. College is the young adult’s first taste of freedom, and it is a time for trying all sorts of new things, even dangerous things. College students take risks with money, alcohol, drugs, romance, sex, even their own lives. Every good parent accepts these risks with white-knuckled fear, understanding they are essential to normal learning and development. Learning to fly requires the risk of falling. Will’s objections suggest that we should send our young adults off to college with the freedom to experiment with their own lives and their own bodies, but not with their own minds.
Much of the power of society is held by conservatives, and Will seems to suggest that conservatives should increase that power within our universities. How would a society so partisan ever produce intelligent, analytical thinkers for the democracy?
Should we not be teaching our newest citizens to be fully informed, critical, and independent thinkers? And how are we to do that if they never hear new ideas?
It is the responsibility, even the purpose, of the modern university to teach and attempt risky, liberal, and even radical ideas. That Will, a man who is so broadly educated and well-read, questions this fundamental university mission is concerning.
Conservatives vs Liberals vs Authoritarians
There are many important, and even critical concepts in conservatism. Both liberals and conservatives, however, are prone to ugly, intolerant, and authoritarian streaks. At times, partisans on both sides have worked to deny people their own thoughts, their own opinions, and their own ideas, in favor of conformity to dogma and inflexible doctrine. Demagogues on all sides repeatedly attempt to deny us our freedom, and our individuality.
Will, willy-nilly, seems to be attempting that here. When he suggests that our universities are too liberal, he is also quietly expressing the desire that the rest of us conform to his ideology. He seems to want to deny us our God-given, and Constitutionally-guaranteed, right to hear new ideas, and to decide for ourselves.
I will argue in the next few weeks that this intolerant approach to authoritarian partisanship is not simply a polite difference of opinion. This sort of dogmatism is hewing away at progress, at freedom, and at our way of life.
And although I cannot prove it, I have come to suspect that much of the current, growing problem of attacks on our universities began with Will’s essay.
ADDENDUM: In finishing up my last book, I came across Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains. She documents exactly what I have suspected here: there is, indeed, a national conspiracy to undermine higher education. In fact, the former governor of Louisiana is mentioned in the book. That is interesting, because after finishing this post, a friend who spent many years in state government told me that the governor informed a small group that he intended to defund higher education, because it produces too many liberals. The previous governor had left higher education fully funded for the first time in two decades, but the new governor intentionally engineered a budget shortfall, which allow him to slash higher education, and forced tuitions to rise to levels that excluded many students.
Students Protesting at Tufts University courtesy of Wikimedia. Disclaimer: I performed my medical internship in a Tufts-affiliated program.