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The commonplace campus radical and the cure that’s worse than the disease

There’s a simple question behind the things I’ve written over the past six months or so about the intersection between the Duke lacrosse case and the conservative critique of higher education. How can anyone who’s worried about the academic world’s low intellectual standards, who’s pushing to raise those standards, even, how can they not only tolerate but promote the anti-intellectual nonsense that’s been used to inflated the Duke scandal into a cause celebre and rally the shock troops?

I’m not thinking about the ignorant ranters who are ready with a knee-jerk response on most any political topic. I’m thinking about people who work in or around academia, especially those who are inclined to translate their dissatisfaction into a program for reform, though a lot of the time the difference between these more informed critics and the random ranters is not all that clear. My theory is that what the reform movement stands for is more subtle and a lot less compelling than what it stands against—a litany of outrageous incidents involving scary, muddle-headed tenured radicals and the craven administrators who do their dirty work. Without the radicals to generate fear and loathing, the movement has little claim to public attention. The point man in pressing the lacrosse case into service for the cause is KC Johnson, but his crusade is larger than that one scandal and, as I’ve pointed out in the last two entries, he’s just as nonsensical and unprincipled when he’s pursuing other targets.

About a month ago the web site Minding the Campus ran an essay of his, “Obama And The Campus Left.” It’s a post-election look at the “intriguing possibilities” for “meaningful reform on the nation’s college campuses” under the new administration. It overlaps quite a bit with pieces of his that I’ve already written more than enough about. All I’m interested in this time is what the essay reveals about the reform movement.

Minding the Campus is brought to you by the Manhattan Institute. Where there’s an Institute, there’s an agenda, or better yet, many agendas, each with a Center devoted to it. The Center for the American University, for instance, which seeks to promote “diversity of thought” (aka “intellectual pluralism”) in higher education. One prong of their effort is the Veritas Fund, which is supposed to bolster “Western Civ” in university curricula. Minding the Campus is another prong, intended to “foster a new climate of opinion that favors civil and honest engagement of all sides, offering an engaged debate for readers concerned with the state of the modern university.” Or so they say. My assumption is that high-minded statements of purpose like that one are more or less disingenuous until proven otherwise. In this case the assumption is borne out by the content, which isn’t to say that the whole thing is a sham—on the scale of partisan web sites, it’s got some pretty respectable stuff. But there’s a paragraph of Johnson’s essay that gives a truer picture of the site’s premises and priorities.

I’m a Democrat who donated to Obama’s campaign in both the primary and general election. But only the most closed-minded ideologue would deny that conservatives have dominated the recent battle of ideas in higher education. No politician can publicly defend the current situation of professors operating in a groupthink atmosphere, to the detriment of the students they teach. While liberals have mostly ignored the problem, conservatives have helped expose the alarming decline in intellectual pluralism on today’s college campuses. They’ve also fought to uphold free speech on campus, advocated restoring merit and quality as the basic instruments for academic evaluation, and challenged the idea that diversity should form the preeminent goal in university personnel or admissions processes.

The sentence I highlighted stands out for its parochial bluster and for the battle metaphor, which I can’t help but read ironically. I guess we’re supposed to conclude that conservatives are winning the battle because they have better ideas, or maybe because they’re more persuasive. In a commentary from a few years ago arguing against “intellectual diversity,” Stanley Fish uses the same metaphor, but he identifies the war, as well (his mystification about a conventional horticultural metaphor is odd, though). Deciding “who won (or is winning) the culture wars in the academy… depends on what you mean by winning.” “The left may have won the curricular battle, but the right won the public-relations war.”

[I]f the palm is to be awarded to the party that persuaded the American public to adopt its characterization of the academy, the right wins hands down, for it is now generally believed that our colleges and universities are hotbeds (what is a “hotbed” anyway?) of radicalism and pedagogical irresponsibility where dollars are wasted, nonsense is propagated, students are indoctrinated, religion is disrespected, and patriotism is scorned.

Of the points on Johnson’s list of winning ideas, the one about free speech is the strongest. From what I’ve seen, the conservative challenge to speech codes has been reasonably principled, able to differentiate between the authoritarian manifestations of the Left’s ideology and the ideology itself. It takes an oversimplifying spin to make some of the other ideas sound like winners. Contrary to the implications, “merit and quality” are still “basic instruments for academic evaluation,” and diversity is not “the preeminent goal in university personnel or admissions processes.” To the extent that diversity is factored into those decisions, it complicates the process and arguably compromises the purely academic and intellectual standards that should drive it. It’s not an all-or-nothing tradeoff, and there shouldn’t be any need to short-circuit the argument by pretending it is if the case against diversity initiatives is so strong.

Neither “conservatives” nor “liberals” are of one mind about these issues (and I hope everyone is keeping in mind that an analysis reduced to these two broad categories is pretty crude). The conservative side is of two minds about one of them, in particular. They have generally challenged diversity initiatives, but not the one that’s designed to benefit conservatives—“intellectual diversity”—which some of them are busy promoting (“intellectual diversity” and “intellectual pluralism” are interchangeable terms, as far as I can tell). Maybe Fish is wrong and this is a kind of diversity that’s uniquely appropriate to the academy. But for David Horowitz, the lead promoter, it’s a matter of “[using] the language that the left has deployed so effectively in behalf of its own agendas.” To the extent he’s co-opting the idea as well as the language, then it’s a liberal idea that’s winning. If he’s just lifting the language to sell a fundamentally different idea, then he’s working in public relations.

I’ve collected plenty of reservations and gripes as a teacher, about all the priorities of institutions of higher education that have little to do with education, for instance, and about the lightweight and diffuse feeling of a lot of the curriculum. I can only imagine one of the four courses I’ve taught at Duke being offered at Reed College, back in my day (I like to think things there haven’t changed that much). The rest of my courses have been a little too fluffy. It’d be nice to have the opportunity to teach a more rigorous class now and then, but the fluffy classes have had their own charms, so I can’t complain. Naturally I’ve been aware for a long time of the conservative rhetoric about liberal bias in academia. Mostly I’ve dismissed it as a lot of noise. Not that I doubted that I was surrounded by liberals and those to their left—that’s obvious—but it wasn’t until the lacrosse case came along that I saw any reason to worry about it. The conservative reformists got my attention as a group that could potentially hold the campus orthodoxy that I’d been complacent about to a higher standard, and at the same time as a group with a completely uncritical attitude towards an intellectually disgraceful analysis that flattered their worldview.

My trail into and around this battle of ideas is recorded here in my blog. The lacrosse case led me to Durham-in-Wonderland (DIW), which led me to FIRE and then to Alan Kors and the “sadness of higher education.” Where Kors was sad, Edward Glick was just whiny. A month or so ago I wrote about the Veritas fund’s foothold at Cornell and also summed up my impressions of “intellectual diversity.” I’ve read lots of other stuff here and there, but it still adds up to an idiosyncratic sample that doesn’t come close to covering all the angles. I think I’ve gotten a pretty good sense of how the battle is typically being fought, though.

Once upon a comment thread, Michael Bérubé suggested a shorthand for the routine critique of liberal bias—“Larry Summers and Duke lacrosse team Ward Churchill.” For conservatives, those three scandals are the sickness at the heart of academia made concrete. Concentrating on the extremists who are assumed to be commonplace in this Wonderland makes for easy and formulaic criticism. It’s fine for everyday grumbling but it seems like professors trying to make a serious point would aim higher. It was an odd experience when my post on Alan Kors was cast as the “contemptuous dismissal” of the “academic establishment,” if not the ranting of a “hard core, uninformed crank[]”—whatever its flaws, what I wrote is careful, detailed, and deeply ambivalent. The extremist fixation is death to perspective, which suits the anti-intellectual set just fine—perspective tends to drain outrage, which is a great source of energy and invective for them. It’s also how you tell the difference between mountains and molehills and all the things in between, and it’s a hallmark of meaningful, intelligent criticism.

If “Duke Lacrosse hoax” and “Ward Churchill” and “Bill Ayers” stand for pretense, prejudice, and witless groupthink, a critic disgusted with the situation ought to stand for something else. Writing broad-minded, well-reasoned, and undogmatic criticism would be a great way to do that, but conservatives assume, with some justification, that they’re in the minority and embattled, and apparently it’s a situation that calls for something more forceful. At times it seems like there’s a balancing reaction at work that’s almost Newtonian—bias answered by an equal and opposite counter-bias. Other times the assumption at work seems to be that careful consideration of the ideas of a commonplace campus radical would inevitably give them too much credit and insult the intelligence of decent, sensible readers. Staking a rhetorical claim to the intellectual high ground, to open-minded, rational examination of hard facts, for example, is a lot more motivating than an actual rational examination of hard facts, especially one that attempts to put the outrageous evidence in perspective. Alan Kors is generally more careful and thoughtful than other conservative critics I’ve read, but when he gets down to partisan business he treats the other side as an intellectual non-entity, and the result is melodramatic and uninsightful criticism. The less thoughtful writers come across as lightweights and demagogues. This is a problem for a community dedicated to the proposition that a healthy academy needs more people like themselves—the cure looks a lot like the disease, if not worse.

Intellectual diversity is overtly a matter of balance—one excess balancing out another, according to the Manhattan Institute’s David DeRosiers: “[t]he idea behind what we’re doing is to bring back triumphalism to moderate the excesses of gender and [diversity courses].” He was quoted in the context of the Institute’s debut at Cornell, but I think the comment applies more generally. It’s much more representative of the thinking behind Minding the Campus than the inspiring epigraph from Allan Bloom on their “About Us” page.

The liberally educated person is one who is able to resist the easy and preferred answers, not because he is obstinate but because he knows others worthy of consideration.

That would look great chiseled in marble, wouldn’t it? It’s pure PR, though—I don’t see any signs on the site of special resistance to easy and preferred answers, or, for that matter, much evidence of minds deeply touched by “intellectual pluralism and the best traditions of liberal education.” The project, really, is to promulgate the r/Right set of easy and preferred answers, perhaps in order to strike a balance with the other side’s easy and preferred answers. If that’s what they have in mind, though, relativism must be another liberal idea that’s winning.

It’s a matter of faith in most of these conservative critiques that once upon a time, things were better, so reform is really a matter of revival. More on that in the next post.