Friday, August 25, 2006

Campus radicals and the evil liberal scheme to steal the minds of America's baristas and office temps...

I read a lot about how colleges—particularly their humanities departments—are bastions of leftism where throwback commie professors attempt to brainwash the young and idealistic into accepting all sorts of sinister pinko notions. Is this for real? I think I have some perspective on this, since I’m a former English major who’s taken so many humanities courses I’ve virtually unemployable. My experience, at a medium-sized private university somewhere in the Midwest, was a pretty typical one, based on what I’ve heard from conversations with my fellow ex-liberal arts types. Essentially, it boils down to this: Do college humanities departments skew to the left? Yeah, they do. Is this a problem? Not at all.

Most schools, if they’re anything like mine, have a small minority of professors who could be described as far-leftists. It seems that most of these people are long-tenured and thus able to teach only classes with titles like “The Gender Politics of Soviet Literature” or “The Aesthetics of Oppression” or “Narratives of Resistance”. In my experience, most students steer clear of these, preferring to take classes that might actually get them a job one day or, at the very least, be somewhat fun. You know, like stuff on Shakespeare or crime fiction or the history of pornography. But the “Lets Stick It To The Man In As Many Words As Possible” courses do attract a few to a few dozen kids, and this clique is usually what critics are talking about when they bring up “the campus left”.

They get rhetorically abused so often because they’re such easy targets. With tons of passion and admirable idealism but very little sense, they tend to go from folly to folly with the self-seriousness that only nineteen year olds who have gone straight from their cul-de-sacs to their first solidarity meeting can muster. The handful of professors these sort consider uncorrupt usually have their hearts in their right place but their often-brilliant minds are stuck in another era. Everyone who’s been around them can come up with a few dozen anecdotes illustrating their zany antics. My personal favorite from my college years was the gay religion professor who could always be counted on for a kind word about Castro’s Cuba, always sidestepping the thorny issue of El Commandante’s abuse and imprisonment of his island’s homosexuals. A close second was the tweedy guy who forced all his students to read a long, impenetrable scholarly article that intended to prove that Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” was really about poor people precisely because the poem never once mentions poor people. Or maybe it was the conference they threw on the topic of “whiteness”, which basically boiled down to pointing out, as torturously as possible, that some people have white skin and have been given unearned privileges because of this.

This may well all be incredibly dumb, but so what? All sorts of dumb stuff happens when you’re in college, most of it wholly apolitical. Whether it’s drinking seventeen bottles of Zima in an hour or going back to that crazy Wiccan’s dorm room, college has become a place where our culture allows its middle-class youth to act the fool. So maybe you’ve got a few suburban kids who grow dreadlocks and throw themselves into the Free Mumia thing, what does it hurt? Sixties nostalgia may run deep in campus culture, but it’s not like anyone’s blowing up cop cars or occupying buildings anymore. It’s easy for some jaded, bitter bastard like me to argue that campus radicals are wrong or misguided or whatever, but it’s hard to make a case that they’re dangerous or in any way influential.

Still, conservative pundits often like to take “the left” and collapse it down from a broad spectrum of opinion to it’s narrow, parochial extreme. That way they don’t have to engage with the actual arguments and ideas coming from liberalism, they can just point out that “the left” loves Hugo Chavez and have us all be discredited because of that. It’s one of the Jedi mind tricks the right has been really successful with—reducing liberalism and left-liberalism to a wild-eyed fifth column in the minds of thousands of gullible Americans. I mean, I’m on the “the left” and I don’t think that Mumia Abu Jamal was railroaded. I’m on “the left” and I think our nation needs a large, well-armed military. I’m on “the left” and I’m uncomfortable with identity politics. I’m on “the left” and I believe that most violent, predatory criminals will not and cannot be rehabilitated. There is no contradiction in any of this. The left’s a pretty big place, after all. I don’t feel the need to apologize for the extremists on my half of the political spectrum, especially since so many on the right side of the aisle seem pretty comfortable with theirs. There will always be extremists, fundamentalists and cranks. The trick is recognizing them for what they are and keeping them out of power.

But I’m straying from the point. The point is that the balance of my college classes didn’t offer much opportunity for political indoctrination. The ones that did present such an opportunity seldom turned into anything of the sort. And, on the rare occasions that they did, no one paid much attention anyway. Most of my English professors were probably liberals of some sort, but I’m really only guessing since it never really came up. They were professionals first, and they always seemed eager to discuss any idea that their students put forth, no matter if it was conservative or libertarian or whatever. In fact, given the blank stares and bored yawns that was usually the extent of our participation, most of them probably would have traded their beards for an impassioned Young Republican willing to spar with them. One of the best things about an education in the humanities is that it’s a chance to bat around ideas and worldviews dispassionately and in good faith, to listen to people with different beliefs and then try to challenge these or come to an accommodation with them. There aren’t a lot of opportunities to do this outside the academic sphere, unfortunately, and I honestly believe that most professors—when they’re in the classroom, at least—are far more committed to an open, rigorous exchange of thoughts than they are to their own political party or their pet cause. There will always be axe-grinders and losers who abuse their authority but, again, they shouldn’t be taken to represent the whole.

So what are these charges about rampant campus bias about? I don’t buy that it’s all about free speech, as is sometimes argued. Restrictive speech codes and “P.C.” language policing have largely gone by the wayside, fortunately enough. Conservatives rightly protest these things, but when the “campus radical left” trope comes up in the absence of this concern, as part of their general “bias” complain, I can’t help but wonder what their motives are. Do they want more conservatives teaching, say, semiotics? Do these right-leaning semiotics professors even exist? Or do they want professors to be required to hew to some “equal time” code of ethics, where they must give the conservative point of view an airing every time something liberal gets said? Who decides what the conservative point of view is? Who’s omniscient enough to make an objective chart of political bias and its required counterbalance? Wouldn’t this authority also be susceptible to bias? I don’t know if those who complain about terrible liberal professors brainwashing our nation’s youth have thought about these questions. Maybe they have. I still suspect that their real goal is the enshrinement of a specific set of ideas and policy goals as above debate, as truth to be received rather than a position subject to challenge. They want their ideology to be universally accepted as reality.

And that’s about as illiberal as you can get.