I have a complex reaction to Donald Lazere’s article, “The Contradictions of Cultural Conservatism in the Assault on American Colleges,” in the July 2 edition of Chronicle of Higher Education [via La Di Da]. I believe that it is in the free section of the Chronicle’s website, so please go read it in full before you dive into my critique. I’ll wait.
For starters, let me say that I disagree with Lazere’s claim that the “liberal faculty” in the humanities are partially offset by “conservative faculty” in other areas. (I take him to definitely be including engineering and business in those other areas, but I’m not sure what else he might include.) In my experience, while engineering faculty may be less liberal than their humanities counterparts, they still tend to be slightly left of center. And I certainly haven’t been “[indoctrinated] in pro-management, anti-labor, anti-government (but pro-military) ideology” in my engineering studies nor am I indoctrinating my students, as Lazere suggests, despite the fact that (full disclosure) I am working on one DoD funded grant. So, I take strong issue with those parts of his article.
And I generally agree with Lazere that universities are institutionally very conservative, but I think it is a serious blunder to equate this sort of conservatism – reluctance to change and steadfastness in tradition – with modern policital conservativism which is, frankly, a totally different animal. (One might argue that modern political conservatives – especially those aligned with the Bush administration – are actually extremely radical in their views.)
So, those are some fairly enormous problems with the article, from my point of view. Beyond that, though, I agree with some other things which Lazere says, and there is much that I could comment on. I will focus, though, on one of his points, which I believe leads to a key insight into why universities might be left leaning. (Though, as he rightly points out, it isn’t the extreme liberalism which conservatives would imply.)
In the second half of the article, Lazere points out some typical features of his interactions with conservative college students. He says, “for most students, sad to say, their conservatism is in direct proportion to their self-admitted, near-total ignorance of politics, history, geography, economics, and academic modes of reasoning.” He also points to “oversimplified appeals to nationalism, religion, family values, and ‘free enterprise.’” And observes that even intellectual conservatives are caught in “complicity with both corporate philistinism, which dumbs down culture to maximize profits, and the Republican Party’s time-tested policy of reducing political rhetoric to Manichean sound bites.”
This tendency, I believe, holds the key to whatever left leaning there may be in the academy. As a group, academicians tend to loathe dumbed down culture, sound bites, and oversimplification. These tactics are used by the left as well, for sure, but I postulate that if you were to look at the entire volume of political rhetoric spewing forth in our culture, then you would find that conservative appeals to these tactics (and other equally deplorable means of argumentation) are much more common than liberal appeals to them. I believe that it is this tendancy towards oversimplification which drives many intellectuals away from conservative thought.
I can certainly say for myself that when I encounter intellectual conservatism, which is far too rarely, I often find it stimulating, if not convincing. For instance, I heard William Kristol on NPR several weeks ago, and I was extremely intrigued. He is certainly a very thoughtful, intelligent man. On other occasions, though, he seems to be advocating (and occasionally spewing) the very kind of empty partisan rhetoric that makes me want to retch.
So, if conservatives want to counter any “left leaning” tendancies they claim exist in the academy, then I have a strategy for them. Try empasizing intellectual conservatism and tone down the empty sound bites. It’s a simple strategy based on the premise that intellectuals prefer intellectualism. “But wait,” they will protest, “emphasizing intellectual conservatism doesn’t poll as well in the heartland.” Fine. But stop complaining about the so-called “liberal academy” if you aren’t willing to do what it takes to fix it.