“It’s a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”
— Albert Einstein
Back in the late Sixties, as a student at Brandeis University, I remember a talk by Abbie Hoffman, the radical founder of the Yippie movement and one of the “Chicago Seven” who disrupted the Democratic Convention of 1968. He strode about the stage of Spingold Theater, cracking a bull whip and calling for revolution. That same year, William F. Buckley Jr., the acid-tongued conservative and founder of National Review, spoke at our Ford Auditorium. He wore a dark suit and tie, stood behind a lectern, and unapologetically challenged a room full of lefties to look beyond their slogans and protest buttons.
Frankly, neither speaker made a convert of me, but each left a lasting impression. Between them, they helped me frame the breadth of arguments with which I, as a young man, was struggling. Decades later, I feel indebted to them both for forcing me to reexamine my positions. It was precisely what I had hoped for from a liberal education — it made me think, it made me take citizenship seriously, it made me respect differing viewpoints, and it exposed me to discomforting ideas that tested my own. Alas, I fear that many students of this generation will be deprived of that experience, as more and more colleges and universities show themselves to be inhospitable to differing viewpoints. And it pains me that many of the prime offenders are elite institutions that consider themselves liberal. I had expected more of them.
This month, the Chronicle of Higher Education featured an essay by a UCLA professor. It’s title: “Academe is Overrun By Liberals. So What?” So, it’s distressing. For years, the worst thing that could be said about liberals was that their minds were so open they were empty. No one says that anymore.
In recent years, we have seen ever-greater numbers of public and private schools rescind invitations to conservative speakers, cancel honorary degrees to controversial awardees, and cave to student pressures. The result: an increasingly sterile intellectual environment that caters to a homogenous roster of approved speakers and faculty appointments. Williams College president Adam Falk disinvited mathematician John Derbyshire because he was deemed a racist for articles he wrote about immigration and national identity. Zack Wood, a student and a leader of Williams’ “Uncomfortable Learning” group, was one of those behind the invitation. Wood, an African-American, a liberal and a Democrat, does not agree with Derbyshire’s stands, but he recognizes the virtue of hearing from him. (How do we clone you, Mr. Wood?)
There are many examples of students successfully pressuring administrations to disinvite conservative speakers. None may be more egregious than Rutgers, a New Jersey state university. In 2014, student opposition to having former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as a graduation speaker led to her withdrawing from the arrangement. What does it say about a campus and its values that it would not tolerate listening to one of the nation’s most prominent and successful African-American woman, albeit of a conservative persuasion, but was willing (in 2011) to pay Jersey Shore star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi $32,000 to tell students her perfect man was someone whose last name ends in a vowel?
If Bernie Sanders can be invited to speak at ultra-conservative Liberty University, why can’t the first woman head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, speak at Smith? Why must Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a feminist and critic of Islam, have her promised honorary degree revoked by my alma mater, Brandeis?
The list of institutions that hew to a party line is growing by the year and threatens to have a profound impact on the lives of individual students, the integrity of esteemed institutions, and the identity of an already fragmented society. (Do conservative institutions comport themselves any better? I don’t know, having never been affiliated with one, but shouldn’t liberals set the standard for open-mindedness?)
Harvard and its Kennedy School of Government have often been cited for a liberal bias. A recent graduate tells me he sometimes felt uncomfortable expressing himself in class knowing that his conservative positions would not sit well with his professors and classmates. Of course, there are counter examples within Harvard. A few years ago, I audited a course in the American economic scene. It was team-taught by the liberal Jeffrey Liebman, an Obama appointee, the conservative Martin Feldstein, a Reagan advisor, and the often controversial Larry Summers. It was a model of what a liberal education can and should be. But what to make of the seventy Harvard undergrads who in November, 2011 walked out of an econ course taught by the influential conservative economist and George W. Bush advisor Gregory Mankiw. They left class to attend an Occupy Wall Street protest. Where does the blame lie for such closed-mindedness? Surely not with the American Association of University Professors (membership: 47,000 on 500+ campuses) who three weeks earlier had endorsed the Occupy movement.
“Preaching to the choir” has become a kind of unstated standard in too much of academia, where intellectual confirmation, not provocation, is the norm. In academia we fret over trigger-warnings, micro-aggressions, and how to coddle our fragile charges, as if the life of the mind were as delicate as a robin’s egg. Such an excess of risk-aversion poses its own perils. I worry for my students of journalism who, in a matter of days, will go out into a nation where only 24% of their fellow citizens self-identify as liberals, some 38% as conservatives, and the remainder as moderates. (Pew Study) Unless they spend their careers and lives in a Cambridge or an Austin or a Madison or a Berkeley, they will have to deal daily with people who hold very different political and ideological views.
In too many classrooms — including those that are hyper-vigilant not to offend when discussing race, gender and sexual orientation — it is deemed fair game to mock conservatives, to disparage them as regressive, racist, and reactionary. Beyond their journalistic responsibilities, my students will find themselves living next to neighbors who do not share their presumptions. How will they fare among those they have demonized and to whom they have had little or no actual exposure? What chance has America to move beyond its paralyzing polarization if the rising generation of educated youth perceives “The Other” as prejudiced, ignorant, and inferior? Surely the university has a role to play in promoting dialogue across the great divide that now separates us and which now threatens to unravel our very identity as a nation. Otherwise, America will become ever more ungovernable, divisive, and uncivil. Must liberals be reminded that democracy is a contact sport?
I have raised the issue with my colleagues on the faculty. The reaction ranges from a knowing nod of agreement and occasional lip service, to outright censure. If I have allies, they are largely silent — perhaps, intimidated. Suggesting that diversity and inclusion should be about more than race and gender, that it should include political and ideological diversity as well, is sometimes as welcomed as a skunk at a picnic. It is ironic — or is it? — that those who oppose my suggestion see themselves as the most liberal.
Though I am a registered Independent, I still regard myself as a liberal (though the brand is fast losing its sheen) — but “liberal” to me has less to do with the advancement of a specific agenda than a willingness to tolerate and seek out divergent opinions. Yes, I believe in addressing society’s many ills, but also in what George Bernard Shaw said, that “those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” Another Irishman, the poet Patrick Kavanaugh, wrote: “I am not sure if this kink of rectitude is on the whole beneficial to the man possessed by it.”
A few years ago I wrote an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education arguing that the definition of diversity should be expanded to include political diversity, that institutions of a liberal bent should proactively recruit conservative faculty and students to create more of a balance on campus that would reflect the nation and provide a more robust intellectual exchange. In online comments, many faculty members excoriated me for my suggestions, labeled me a dupe or apparatchik of the conservative movement, and questioned my intellectual bona fides for imagining political viewpoints as a legitimate component of diversity. I imagined John Stuart Mill spinning in his grave.
The problem with political correctness is, and always has been, that it is often incorrect, and that the values we embrace today will later be discredited by history. No less a liberal than Bertrand Russell spoke of continually “questioning the wisdom of the herd instinct.” Harvard should know. For three decades, it shunned the eminent writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson after he gave a speech in 1837 that criticized the church. (Today, the philosophy department is housed in Emerson Hall.) It also attempted to bar a prominent suffragette from speaking on campus and promoted anti-Catholic lectures for more than a century.
Abbie Hoffman was right, when he said: “You measure a democracy by the freedom it gives its dissidents, not the freedom it gives its assimilated conformists.” Alas, so was Buckley: “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.” On this they might agree: Nothing is so underestimated as the power of listening.