jimsleeper.com » What ‘liberal academy’?

What ‘liberal academy’?

By Jim Sleeper – October 21, 2009, 6:53PM

A couple of years ago The Nation’s Eric Alterman published What Liberal Media?, shredding the familiar conservative charges. It may be too soon to ask, What liberal academy? — although I’ve had fun exposing what I called “Wiley E. Coyote conservatives” who were rushing off cliffs a couple of years ago blaming liberals for ousting Lawrence Summers from the presidency of Harvard (the high-capitalist Harvard Corporation did that, and not for politically correct reasons) or for enrolling a former Taliban rep as a special student at Yale (an older, more conservative Yale foreign-policy network blessed that one).

In 2009 a Chronicle of Higher Education debate on whether and why liberal academia still spurns conservative scholars. Never mind that the fiscal crises gripping public and private universities show them to have been far more captive to market riptides than to leftist doctrines; in the Chronicle, Columbia intellectual historian Mark Lilla writes that on many campuses a pervasive ideology still normalizes “liberal” views that are actually rather narrow and arbitrary. Boston College’s Alan Wolfe agrees that colleges promote little true intellectual diversity, although he says conservatives are part of the problem.

Others add brief observations; mine notes that what’s actually normalized by the typical campus mix of political correctness and corporatist discipline isn’t very “liberal” as most Americans use the term. Baiters of “tenured radicals” – the conservative humorist P.J. O’Rourke, the propagandist Roger Kimball, the provocateur David Horowitz – can’t as easily claim now, as David Brooks did in 2002, that America “houses its radical lunatics … in [academic] departments that operate as nunneries for the perpetually alienated.” Not only do market forces rule; lavishly funded nunneries for failed, aging neo-cons are sprouting or entrenching themselves at Yale, Duke, George Mason, Claremont- McKenna-Pomona, Chicago, and elsewhere.

At some of these places, conservative activists and national-security functionaries teach undergraduates to read Thucydides as a prophet of the war on terror and to pursue national-security state networking through habits of discretion and public dissimulation that hobble the humanist truth-seeking conservatives claim to defend.

I support the conservative argument that colleges have to balance humanist truth-seeking with civic-republican leadership-training and that serious conservative thinkers are invaluable to it. A liberal arts college’s mission, after all, (as distinct from that of a research university in which it may be housed) isn’t to produce many scholars, much less the dray horses of the financial and legal establishments that many leafy campuses actually do produce in large herds; it’s to turn 18-year-olds into citizens who are intellectually and morally strong enough to carry on public life through deliberation and choice, not force and fraud.

Why aren’t colleges doing enough of that? Read the Chronicle discussion and my 450- word contribution to it [below here on screen] for a hint at why “liberals” really aren’t the problem.


The Chronicle of Higher Education

October 18, 2009

Intellectual Diversity and Conservatism on Campus


To the Editor:

Mark Lilla says rightly that at many liberal-arts colleges, a pervasive ideology insensibly normalizes views that are narrow and arbitrary, and Alan Wolfe says rightly that colleges promote too little intellectual diversity. But nothing very “liberal” is being normalized by today’s campus mix of political correctness and corporatist discipline.

Visit any Ivy League Economics 101 course or classes in microeconomics, statistics, computer science, and most social sciences. The homunculae economicae and the number-crunching “methodologues” at the podium may not be flag-waving conservatives, but neither are most of them liberals or leftists, except in the “color equals culture” sense that big corporations embrace for management and marketing purposes.

“Diversity” itself is an industry, and universities themselves are run like corporations whose students and faculty members are “customers,” as one unfortunate Yale memo actually put it. But, then, increasingly, students are customers: Thousands of visits per capita to vapid Internet sites and shopping malls before matriculation have annealed them against whatever campus Marxists or postmodernists could hope to impart. Before 2008, most seniors at most Ivies flocked yearly to recruiters from investment banks, consulting firms, and their ilk.

So, yes, liberal-arts colleges promote too little intellectual diversity, and, yes, a pervasive ideology (of free-marketing, self-marketing, predatory marketing) normalizes orientations that are narrow and arbitrary, indeed. Even the supposed campus leftists are pitchmen, like the Harvard Shakespearean scholar Marjorie Garber, who, in Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety and Sex and Real Estate, swings like a semioticist with marketing that’s reshuffling our libidinal and racial decks.

Other leftists administer revival meetings for penitent racists and sexists who want to feel better about making money by backing reforms that now divide blacks from blacks as well as blacks from whites and whites from whites and women from women as well as women from men and men from men. Progress, perhaps; but “progressive” it’s not.

Could conservative scholarship discipline this campus capitalist circus? America warehouses its “radical lunatics … in [academic] departments that operate as nunneries for the perpetually alienated,” David Brooks has claimed, but lavishly funded nunneries for conservative lunatics are sprouting at Yale, Duke, George Mason, Claremont McKenna, Chicago, and elsewhere, and some hire conservative activists and national-security functionaries as teachers who cast Thucydides as a prophet of the war on terror. That’s not how to balance humanist truth seeking and civic-republican leadership training.

Yet Lilla is right to want serious study of conservative ideas. I’d trade lunatic semioticists in a heartbeat for more on Adam Smith’s abhorrence of capitalist corporations, John Gray’s doubts about capitalism tout court, and Edmund Burke’s indifference to anything more religious than a state religion that’s the Tory Party at prayer.

Serious conservative scholarship would highlight American conservatism’s failure to reconcile its yearnings for ordered, sacred liberty with its obeisance to every global capitalist riptide that’s subverting liberal education more than tenured radicals ever did.

Jim Sleeper
Lecturer in Political Science
Yale University
New Haven