WINESETT: Conservatives’ concern with higher education

In many disciplines, Marxists are more common than Republicans

Cavalier Daily columnist Brandon Brooks penned a column earlier this week dismissing conservative critiques that academia is overwhelmingly leftist, instead alleging it is conservatives who threaten to turn “educational curricula” into political propaganda. He has some compelling evidence, namely the Texas Board of Education’s historical revisionism. I have no intention of defending Texas here, but I would note that citing one deeply conservative state’s ideologically biased education policy hardly invalidates conservative critiques of higher education. While I agree conservatives shouldn’t object to the mere presence of far-left and anti-American class books and professors, the problem isn’t simply their inclusion. More worrisome are the potential trickle-down effects of overwhelmingly lopsided academic institutions.

Discussing leftist critics of the United States such as Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, Brooks asserts “Colleges have always been known to harbor individuals who challenge conventional wisdom and espouse strong critiques of U.S. foreign and domestic policy.” He ultimately deems these academics unproblematic, because conservatives who complain about their presence “contradict the right’s own emphasis on protecting free speech and exposing students to alternative political and cultural perspectives.” Certainly Brooks has a point; it would be hypocritical for conservatives to demand their own safe space from leftists. But before moving on to the Texas’s propagandizing, Brooks doesn’t address a more difficult conservative criticism: It’s not that Chomsky or so many leftist professors have tenure, it’s that with few exceptions (such as George Mason University’s economics department) there is nothing close to a right-wing counterbalance in higher education.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has some interesting thoughts on this matter. In an April column, Douthat chronicles the latest research on academia: First, a study detailing the “overwhelming left-wing tilt” in the field of social psychology; second, “research showing that the entire American academy has become more left-wing since the 1990s.” What’s most interesting to Douthat, and myself, however, isn’t the evidence confirming conservatives’ belief that universities are ideologically tilted against them; it’s that while radical leftist professors abound, there are few if any radically right-wing professors. As Douthat put it: “mostly the academy has Marxists but not Falangists, Jacobins but not Jacobites, sexual and economic and ecological utopians but hardly ever a throne-and-altar Joseph de Maistre acolyte.”

I hardly pine for a class extolling the virtues of Francisco Franco. However, since reading Douthat’s piece, I have realized that in my experience while conservative perspectives are never shunned, the perspectives offered tend to be conservative only in a narrow American sense. That is, they’re liberal in its classical form: free-market focused, not rooted in tradition or prescription. Robert Nozick, Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Adam Smith, John Locke — modern American conservatives revere these guys, but they’re not fully representative of conservative thought. They comprise the intellectual base of the free market pillar of American conservative thought, but they’re more accurately classified as classical liberals or libertarians than conservatives; Hayek even wrote a famous essay belaboring that point. Meanwhile Edmund Burke, arguably the father of conservatism, as well as other tradition-oriented conservatives receive substantially less attention.

To be clear, I don’t want to imply there is any conscious conspiracy to stifle students’ understanding of conservative thought (and nor does Douthat); only to note that Brooks’ assertion — “Colleges have always been known to harbor individuals who challenge conventional wisdom” — seems to cut decidedly in one direction. As The Times’ Nicholas Kristof stated in his “Confession of Liberal Intolerance”: “it’s easier to find a Marxist in some disciplines than a Republican.”

The bad news for conservatives doesn’t stop there. A recent story in The Wall Street Journal reported: “just 23 of the institutions among the 76 deemed to be the ‘best’ by U.S. News & World Report’s 2016 rankings require history majors to take at least one U.S. history course.” And that is still sugarcoating it. Even at the University, history majors can fulfill their history requirement by taking any HIUS class no matter how esoteric. History majors, let alone other students, can thus graduate without ever studying the most seminal moments of our nation’s past — avoiding completely the founding, the Civil War, the New Deal, the World and Cold Wars or the Civil Rights movement. Another Times op-ed laments even offering political history classes has fallen out of favor altogether.

I mention this disparate collection of articles because they each highlight some reservations conservatives harbor toward institutions of higher education. While Brooks rightly worries about the consequences of an overly nationalist and unreflective high school curriculum, conservatives are equally concerned with the trickle-down effects of increasingly left-wing universities. What is to become of our and the next generation of voters when students are inundated with left-liberal and socialist perspectives, and view libertarianism as the only acceptable right-wing alternative? How pernicious of an effect on the civic health and patriotism of the nation will we endure because Marxist professors are ubiquitous while the American founding principles go unstudied? These answers are probably unknowable, and it is certainly possible conservatives have an overly apocalyptic view of higher education. But when students are more likely to be taught by a Marxist than a Republican, you can forgive conservatives for their concerns.

Matt Winesett is a Senior Associate Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at m.winesett@cavalierdaily.com.

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