September 28, 2005
Reclaiming higher education from the leftBy Steven M. Warshawsky
The Left's domination of American higher education, from humble community colleges to Ivy League universities, has been repeatedly and convincingly demonstrated for nearly two decades. The irrefutable evidence of this domination includes the overwhelming imbalance of Democrats versus Republicans on college faculties and administrations; the corresponding rise of major universities (e.g., Harvard and Berkeley) as the leading donors for Democratic Party candidates; the pervasiveness of 'critical' pedagogical approaches that emphasize 'inequality' and 'oppression' based on race, sex, class, and sexuality; the denial of objective, universal standards of meaning and logic under the guise of 'deconstructionism'; harassment of conservative students and organizations; and rampant political correctness. The result, as Allan Bloom, David Horowitz, and others have argued, is the ongoing transformation of the college experience into the main front of the radical political assault on American society itself.
The start of a new school year provides a fresh opportunity to consider this problem, which strikes at the very heart of this country's democratic, capitalist tradition. The question is, what can conservatives do about it? David Horowitz has famously embarked on a campaign to have an 'academic bill of rights' adopted by state legislatures to ensure that students are exposed to a broad range of scholarly research and opinion in their courses of study. Mr. Horowitz's efforts have been indispensable in focusing attention on the problem. However, while I support the academic bill of rights as a matter of principle, I seriously doubt that the solution Mr. Horowitz proposes will be effective in combating left—wing bias in college classrooms. After all, the very persons responsible for the problem — college professors and administrators — will be charged with implementing the reforms mandated by the academic bill of rights.
It is easily foreseeable that they will implement these reforms in bad faith, if at all. For example, will a Marxist political science professor provide students with a fair discussion of Friedrich Hayek's critique of socialism? Or a women studies professor explain the 'wage gap' between men and women on the basis of market forces and lifestyle choices? Not likely. Thus, while the academic bill of rights articulates an important ideal, we should not expect that adopting such legislation will produce more than marginal improvement in the standing of conservative ideas on college campuses.
Recently, Heather Mac Donald in City Journal suggested another approach for 'bringing traditional scholarship and intellectual diversity back to campus.' She highlighted new initiatives at Princeton, Brown, and Duke aimed at exposing students to conservative—oriented texts and thinking. At Princeton, politics professor Robert George founded the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, which brings conservative scholars and speakers to campus to address issues of constitutional law and politics. At Brown, political theory professor John Tomasi started the Political Theory Project, which sponsors courses and discussion groups in liberty and democratic values. And at Duke, political philosophy professor Michael Gillespie created a first—year seminar called Visions of Freedom, which 'introduces students to the seminal works in the Western philosophical and literary tradition, in order to explore concepts of freedom and moral authority.' Significantly, each of these programs was started by a tenured professor who was backed by non—university sources of funding. Ms. Mac Donald argues that these programs should serve as models for others to follow in establishing similar conservative beachheads at other universities. The National Review's Stanley Kurtz has made the same argument.
Ms. Mac Donald and Mr. Kurtz are quite optimistic about the ability of these programs, in Ms. Mac Donald's words, to 'break the Left's illiberal stranglehold on their institutions' intellectual life and restore true academic freedom to campus.' This optimism strikes me as misplaced. Certainly, these programs perform an invaluable service for their respective universities and enhance the learning experiences available to all students. But the notion that they have succeeded in 'break[ing] the Left's illiberal stranglehold on their institutions' intellectual life' is pure fantasy. Princeton, Brown, and Duke are among the most left—wing universities in the country. The fact that there is now some space on these campuses for conservative ideas hardly constitutes 'true academic freedom.' Indeed, rather than bringing conservative perspectives to courses generally (where Marxist paradigms and identity group politics reign supreme), these initiatives tend to treat 'conservatives' as just another academic interest group to be afforded their own separate recognition, along the lines of black studies, women studies, and gay studies programs. This may be progress of a sort, but the belief that from such beginnings will come meaningful reform of American higher education strikes me as na�ve.
If conservatives are serious about challenging the Left's domination of higher education in this country, they must first stop pretending that existing colleges and universities — especially elite schools where the Left is most firmly entrenched — can be reformed, either through internal initiatives, like the ones described by Ms. Mac Donald, or through external pressure applied by wealthy alumni. For example, billionaire publisher Steve Forbes for many years contributed most generously to his alma mater Princeton, and also served on Princeton's Board of Trustees, but he could not dissuade Princeton from hiring the despicable Peter Singer, despite vowing he would no longer donate any money to the university so long as Singer is a professor. Then there was the $20 million grant from oil magnate Lee Bass for a Western civilization program that Yale infamously turned down. The fact of the matter is that schools like Princeton, Yale, Brown, Duke, Harvard, Berkeley, et al., do not need conservatives' money. Between their existing endowments (or guaranteed public funding in the case of state universities) and donations from wealthy liberal alumni (as well as from alumni who simply do not think in political terms), these schools are effectively insulated from any meaningful reform efforts by conservatives. Denying this reality will not make it go away.
Why, then, do leading conservative intellectuals so heartily endorse a 'solution' to the problem of left—wing bias in higher education that promises, at best, to relegate conservatives to permanent minority status on America's college campuses? Frankly, I suspect it is because many of them attended elite institutions themselves, and they are reluctant, for personal and professional reasons, to sever their ties to their 'prestigious' alma maters. Hence, the existence of conservative—oriented educational programs, like the ones at Princeton, Brown, and Duke, enable these intellectuals, and conservative alumni generally, to believe that these schools remain worthy of their allegiance and support. This is folly. The road to 'true academic freedom' will never pass through America's elite universities. As the National Review's former editor John O'Sullivan has sagely warned, in contemporary liberal culture, any institution that is not self—consciously and deliberately conservative inevitably will become liberal. The history of American higher education over the past four decades amply proves his point.
So what can be done? In thinking about how to defeat the Left's domination of higher education, a useful analogy is how conservatives have approached the problem of liberal bias in the mainstream media, which similarly serves as a vehicle for left—wing politics and propaganda. Most importantly, when discussing the mainstream media, conservatives are honest with themselves about the nature of the problem. They do not pretend that the presence of a few right—leaning writers on the editorial pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times means that these newspapers are not fundamentally, and irremediably, leftist in orientation. Nor do conservatives believe, for example, that broadcasting occasional stories by John Stossel means that ABC embraces free market libertarianism. Or that hiring Monica Crowley to co—host a political talk show means that MSNBC is equally supportive of liberal and conservative opinions.
Despite numerous examples of conservative 'voices' within the mainstream media, conservatives do not delude themselves into believing that the mainstream media will ever provide 'fair and balanced' news coverage. Quite the contrary. There is a cottage industry among conservatives devoted to exposing the left—wing bias of the mainstream media — not with the aim of reforming or rehabilitating these news sources, but discrediting and (hopefully) destroying them. At the same time, conservatives have established competing news sources, including the Washington Times (est. 1982), talk radio (Rush Limbaugh was nationally syndicated in 1988), Fox News (est. 1996), and many popular internet sites (including blogs). These join such long—established conservative outlets as the National Review (est. 1955) and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. These alternative media sources have greatly amplified the conservative message, and are steadily taking away audience share from the liberal giants that once strode the media landscape. This revolutionary development — the result of deregulation, technological innovation, and conservative activism — in no small measure is responsible for the continuing electoral success of the Republican Party.
The lesson of the new conservative media is clear: to be successful, conservatives must challenge and compete with the Left head—on. We cannot be satisfied with tokenist accommodations within an environment otherwise filled with left—wing propaganda. Which is precisely my criticism of the right's single—minded embrace of the types of educational programs described by Ms. Mac Donald. For Ms. Mac Donald and Mr. Kurtz (as well as Roger Kimball and James Piereson), the presence of a handful of conservative professors and courses on America's most liberal campuses is cause for celebration. This makes no sense. We do not applaud the Washington Post for running columns by George Will, for example. It also is self—defeating. As Mr. Kurtz acknowledges, the most conservatives can hope for under this strategy is 'setting up small enclaves of professors with more conservative views' — and that assumes such professors even exist, which Ms. Mac Donald notes is not always true. It also assumes that a few committed conservatives can exercise a meaningful influence over the continuing slide of American higher education into the left—wing abyss. The Lawrence Summers controversy at Harvard — which has more 'conservatives' on its faculty than most elite universities — puts the lie to this bit of wishful thinking.
If conservatives are truly concerned about the anti—American, anti—capitalist propaganda that is corrupting the minds of today's college students — and tomorrow's voters — they cannot allow themselves to be satisfied with 'small enclaves' of conservatives in a sea of radicals. While this formula might be sufficient, in Mr. Kurtz's words, 'for producing a new generation of conservative intellectuals,' it is woefully inadequate for preparing the majority of college students — numbering in the millions — for responsible citizenship in a free society. And that, of course, must be our goal. Having a cadre of conservative intellectuals will not do us much good if the rest of the country rejects the principles and traditions upon which this country was built. This has been the Left's educational project for four decades, and it has had an increasingly corrosive effect on American politics and culture. To reverse this terrible trend, conservatives must think, and act, boldly and ambitiously. Again, the rise of the new conservative media provides the model and inspiration for what needs to be done.
Just as conservatives smashed the Left's 'illiberal stranglehold' on the mainstream media by establishing competing sources of news and opinion, they can defeat the Left's domination of higher education by establishing competing colleges and universities dedicated as institutions to conservative values, ideas, and texts. Indeed, I submit that this is the only viable long—term solution to the problem of left—wing bias in higher education. Some of these conservative—oriented institutions already exist (most notably, Hillsdale College and several religious colleges), but many more need to be established at all levels of higher education. Describing the details of such a strategy is beyond the scope of this essay, but I envision, for example, a string of conservative two— and four—year colleges set up in every major urban area, whose target 'clientele' are the older, working, commuting students who now make up the majority of college students in the United States. Internet—based education, along the lines of the University of Phoenix, provides another fertile avenue for reaching large numbers of students. While traditional, ivy—covered 'brick' institutions might provide a more picturesque learning environment, they are expensive and only reach a small minority of college students.
The bottom line is that there are tremendous opportunities for conservatives to apply their intellectual, organizational, and financial resources to building a real conservative presence in higher education. Education is a competitive, entrepreneurial industry. Consider, for example, the explosion of the test preparation industry over the past two decades.
I have no doubt that thousands of ordinary college students would flock to institutions that offered a sound education in a 'red' learning environment that emphasized patriotism, the Western philosophical and literary tradition, free market capitalism, and responsible citizenship. Imagine what could be accomplished with the amounts of money that wealthy conservative philanthropists now donate to the Harvards, Princetons, and Yales of the country. For the $20 million that Yale rejected, for example, Lee Bass could have founded his own college. Not a 'prestigious' college, of course, but an actual institution serving hundreds or thousands of students and dedicated to the educational vision that Yale so disdainfully dismissed.
But for this vision to be realized, conservatives must first throw off the elitist blinders that prevent them from accepting the fact that today's 'prestigious' universities are no more susceptible of reform than the New York Times or CBS News.
Steven M. Warshawsky frequently comments on politics and current affairs from a conservative perspective. He can be reached at email@example.com