A couple of days ago the New Criterion published a piece on the dearth of conservatives in higher education. Now, most academics that I know would read the previous sentence and say that dearth is a good thing, because conservatives are terrible people and they’re wrecking the country.
But I am going to put forward the unpopular opinion that the New Criterion is right—the lack of conservative viewpoints in higher ed is one of the many reasons that American students, and thus the American public, has grown less and less able to parse the complicated problems we face as a nation.
I don’t say this as an avowed conservative or avowed liberal, but as a recovering college teacher who tried (and in many cases failed) to show his students how to have informed opinions and not just to parrot the beliefs of their favorite professor and/or media outlet.
(Full disclosure, if anyone cares: I interned at the New Criterion in 2000 and its editor, Roger Kimball, had a profound influence on my view of American education and politics.)
The piece isn’t particularly well-written or well-argued—in fact it’s about 4000 words of preaching to the choir—but the author, Steven Hayward, does make some valid points. So whatever your political persuasion, you should take a look at it, so at the very least you can have some context to my brilliant comments below, which will leave you breathless and trembling with awe. (Hyperbole?)
Conservatives Face Discrimination (But I’m Not Losing Any Sleep Over It)
Hayward complains about “ideological discrimination” against conservatives. And he’s absolutely right. I’m sure there are exceptions, but in my 15 or so years as a college teacher I’ve rarely seen (or heard about) real discourse in the classroom, as opposed to indoctrination. And while I often (but not always) agree with liberals, Americans students don’t have much context for their views.
“Better still would be to have universities that had true intellectual diversity, rather than the identity politics we do now,” says Hayward, and I agree.
Nevertheless I find it amusing that conservative types are all for “intellectual diversity,” but strenuously argue that any other kind of diversity—which tends to put them at a disadvantage—is of course a terrible idea.
Poor People Are Poor
Hayward argues that liberalism has had an “adverse result” on college attendance: “Today, only about 7 percent of recent college graduates come from the bottom-income quartile, compared with 12 percent in 1970, when federal aid was scarce. From a liberal egalitarian point of view, we’re going in the wrong direction.”
Well, we certainly are going in the wrong direction, but I don’t see how federal aid comes into it. Especially when the poverty rates for young people (below 18) and for Americans of working age (between 18 and 64) have increased dramatically since 1970. In other words, prospective students and their parents are poorer, so it’s not surprising that fewer young people are in college.
When I taught at an inner-city community college, for example, my students got state aid for tuition, but often not for books. And so many couldn’t afford their books, even when I purposely chose the least expensive alternatives, because they were really poor.
Maybe They Don’t Want to Be There
And while yes indeed conservatives face discrimination in higher ed, perhaps it’s possible that conservatives don’t become scholars because they prefer to be in business, where they can earn more money? Because they believe that the acquisition of wealth without government interference is really awesome? Which is what makes them conservative?
Take, for example, Newt Gingrich, who left academia after his higher-ups were less than impressed with his plan to profit from his position at a state school. Gingrich then turned to politics, where he made shitloads of money as a public servant while simultaneously decrying Big Government.
Um, Maybe You Didn’t Think This This Through
The one big point that Hayward missed: Pick almost any college in America, and you’ll find that the faculty is a bunch of Marxist godless tax-and-spenders hell-bent on reinforcing a culture of dependence. But the administration is almost always comprised of free-market libertarians. How else would they in good conscience rely on underpaid, uninsured adjunct labor? Why else would they consider their students “customers?”
In other words, folks, when it comes to higher education, the conservatives have won.