Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Are Conservatives on Campus an Endangered Species?

When I entered college in the early 1960s, most campuses were still very conservative; at Northeastern University, boys were expected to wear jackets and ties to class, and girls were expected to wear dresses.  Professors too were expected to wear "businesslike" attire, and most maintained a very formal (and somewhat aloof) manner when talking with students.  I was never taught anything positive about Marxism, nor was I taught anything negative about McCarthyism.  The war in Vietnam was necessary, I was told; and those who protested it were just anti-American (or worse yet, hippie Marxists).  Most of my professors were white men, and they were in charge:  students could discuss the course material, but the professor was always right, since he had much more knowledge than we did.

As for the courses, I was studying liberal arts, but there was nothing "liberal" about it.  We rarely if ever analyzed the work of poets or authors who were non-European-- the curriculum revolved around the so-called DWMs ("dead white males"). History courses utilized the traditional historiography of the "Great Man Theory"-- we mainly studied famous kings, presidents, and generals; and when the story of immigrants was mentioned, it often focused on how quickly they abandoned their "old country" ways and assimilated into the majority culture.   Courses like Western Civilization focused on the important contributions of European Christians (Muslims were warlike and trying to conquer by the sword; and Jews were an afterthought-- or as the historian Arnold Toynbee called us, fossils of history, a people who didn't quite fit anywhere).  I was taught about the "Protestant work ethic," but I was rarely taught about why poverty existed-- it was common knowledge that if you worked hard, you would get ahead, and if you were poor, you must be lazy.  Girls were still being taught that while it was okay to attend college, the real reason for being there was to find a potential husband; and of course, no self-respecting girl wanted to enter a profession other than teaching, nursing, or secretarial work.  

For some of my conservative friends, those traditional attitudes are much needed, and sadly lacking, on college campuses today.  As I am told on a regular basis, colleges have become hotbeds of radicalism, where innocent students are being taught to hate America, where History courses teach that Europeans were nothing but brutal colonizers, and where white kids are taught to be ashamed of being white.  If you get your news and commentary from conservative media, there seems to be genuine nostalgia for the (alleged) good old days, that era when everybody knew their place and nobody complained about it.  There is also a dominant belief in right-wing media that conservative professors are not getting hired at most colleges-- or if they somehow do get a job, they are told to keep their retrograde views to themselves.  As conservative media tells it, college has become a liberal, multicultural paradise, and conservatives are not welcome unless they know when to keep quiet.

So, I was both surprised and disappointed when this popular (but, in my opinion, flawed) right-wing discourse was recently reinforced by an article in the New York Times, in which columnist Nicholas Kristof claimed that yes, liberals on campus do have contempt for conservative points of view:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/opinion/sunday/a-confession-of-liberal-intolerance.html?_r=0

Needless to say, I disagreed with large parts of the article:  for one thing, the comment section of Facebook postings is rarely a reliable measure of the average person's attitude. As I've noted in previous blogs, the internet often brings out the worst in people, so finding some rude posts about conservatives does not prove "liberal contempt," any more than finding rude posts about liberals proves "conservative contempt."  I also disagreed with other points Mr. Kristof made, and I said so in the comment section.  Soon, I ended up in a brief Twitter war with a number of conservatives who came at me with "See? Even the liberal New York Times admits that conservatives aren't welcome on college campuses."

But with all due respect to Mr. Kristof, his "liberal intolerance" theory isn't entirely true.  I've been a professor for the better part of thirty years, and I've taught all over the country.  While some campuses are indeed more liberal, that doesn't mean conservative professors don't exist, nor have I seen them being treated with either contempt or intolerance.  I've had some very interesting discussions with some conservative professors (and students) at my current place of employment, and I can assure you that no rocks were thrown; and as far as I know, we have all remained friendly with each other.  It is also worth noting that just like there are liberal campuses, there are many other universities that are quite conservative.  For example, many schools that are run by religious denominations (such as Liberty University or Brigham Young University) often display a conservative ideology; and while they may occasionally have liberal guest speakers, the dominant belief system is conservative, and the professors and students are expected to uphold those beliefs; publicly deviating from them is generally not encouraged.  Of course, none of my conservative friends ever mention this, since it doesn't fit in with their insistence that ALL universities are run by liberals.  As it turns out, the truth is more nuanced, and it often depends on who owns your school.  

And let's take a closer look at the "campuses are hotbeds of radicalism" discourse.  Here's how it unfolds:  it starts with a story on Fox News or in the conservative blogosphere about some crazy thing an ultra-leftie professor said; it doesn't matter if the person was taken out of context, or if the person is some fringe instructor that nobody on campus takes seriously.  The story immediately takes on a life of its own, with the professor being elevated to a status of "typical liberal professor."  His or her quote is sent around in outraged emails, expanded upon by right-wing talk shows, and then used in numerous social media comments to "prove" that ALL leftie professors are disgraceful. It's the ultimate in confirmation bias-- selecting material that agrees with what you already believe-- and sad to say, it happens over and over.  (And truth be told, my liberal friends do it too-- taking a totally bizarre remark from some right-wing scholar and then using that to "prove" that ALL righties are lunatics.)

I hate to disappoint my conservative friends, but the views of the extremists are NOT what's dominant on most of the so-called liberal campuses where I've worked.  What's dominant is critical thinking-- teaching students both sides, exposing them to a wide range of views, and above all, showing them how to do research, evaluate evidence, and make informed decisions.  And yes, it's true that most American History courses today are different from when I was in college. Today, we no longer present Americans as 100% right all the time (a wonderful belief, but not an accurate one); nor is the story only told through the eyes of "Great Men." But that's not necessarily a bad thing:  including the voices of women, the poor, immigrants, or minorities tells a much more factual story, one that does not negate what white Europeans accomplished.  (And teaching a more inclusive version of history is a far cry from the claim that we are teaching students to hate America.)

Where I currently teach, which is known as a "liberal university," I still find that certain departments are more liberal, and some actually lean conservative.  However, across the campus, it's accurate to say that liberal views about social issues (like marriage equality or support for Planned Parenthood) are more common-- even among the students who identify as conservative; and it's also true for our Republican governor, by the way. Thus, a student who agreed with, let's say, Ted Cruz or Sarah Palin might feel it would be unpopular to say so-- although I have no evidence that anyone has been (or would be) silenced by our college's administration.  Rather, sometimes people simply decide that certain "hot button" issues are just not worth arguing about-- it's called "self-censorship," and we all do it at one time or other.  One other thing I've noticed:  most of my students, especially the freshmen, follow whatever political beliefs they learned from their parents. Some of them will change their views as time passes, but not because I, or any other professor, tried to persuade them. Rather, they will develop their own viewpoints, some of which will mirror those of their parents and some of which will not.  As I said, being exposed to a wide range of ideas and beliefs is what college is supposed to be about.

I know that nothing I say will persuade my conservative friends that I don't spend my days indoctrinating my students.  Many conservatives remain certain that "liberal universities" are training the next generation of Marxists (I wonder how I got a job-- I've never been a fan of Marxism...); and they sincerely believe no self-respecting conservative is welcome on the average campus.  Having seen it both ways-- campuses dominated by conservatives, and campuses dominated by liberals-- I'd like to see people from both ideologies in the classroom, and I'd like to believe that there are many campuses where diversity of viewpoints DOES occur.  But then, people who get along with each other are rarely considered newsworthy, so you probably won't hear about them.  It's conflict and division that sells; and so does the myth of the liberal campus, a harsh and cruel place where innocent conservatives are being persecuted every day...


  1. Probably easier to find a white rhino on campus than a conservative these days.

    1. You'd be surprised. On my allegedly very liberal campus, there are quite a few conservative professors, and even some conservative students. Are they the majority? No, but then, liberals are not the majority on campuses in some of the Red States. My hope is we can all respect each other and let each other's views be heard.