“College professors are overwhelmingly liberal. You know it. I know it. Everyone knows it.” This statement was not made by a conservative academic, columnist, or businessman. It was made by sometime professor and left-wing commentator Damon Linker. There is some good news in the fact of Mr. Linker’s acknowledgement of the obvious—but not much. American universities’ open hostility toward conservatives has become so obvious as to be undeniable, even by liberals. Now liberals must explain it away. Sadly, while Mr. Linker has made occasional statements showing some appreciation for persons and institutions with conservative, or at any rate religious, leanings, the seeming motive and clear result of such explanations is to justify the stranglehold of Progressive ideology on campuses, the privileges of liberal professors, and especially the comfortable left-wing echo/indoctrination chamber that is the faculty lounge and classroom. The methods are the familiar ones of vilification and self-serving pseudo-intellectualism.
Mr. Linker recently decided to answer the question, “Where are all the conservative university professors?” His answer, of course, is that they do not exist. And why not? Because conservatives by nature are not capable of being university professors—or at least not decent, reasonably successful ones.
The real question concerns the source of this natural incapacity. As many of us have been told in hallways and faculty meetings on campus, the more-or-less politely stated answer from “successful” academics is that conservatives are by our very nature knuckle-dragging morons devoid of imagination, intellectual courage, and the drive to make the world a better place.
This prejudice is rooted in what may be called the Linker History of the University. After mentioning the medieval university, Mr. Linker dismisses it with a wave and the odd claim that it was not really conservative. No matter, this old university existed only to be “expanded into the rudiments of the modern university.” The expansion, according to Mr. Linker, is a product of the German Enlightenment and purely individualistic. With no hint of irony he looks to the Prussian philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, who championed academic freedom for scholars to conduct specialized research in a wide range of discrete fields. The aim of this research was both to expand the boundaries of knowledge and to disseminate it among the citizenry to create well-rounded, autonomous individuals.
Then, the university “also absorbed more radical streams of the French Enlightenment, which defined the pursuit of knowledge in terms of a sharp break from the prejudices of the present and past.” Thus, for Mr. Linker, the very purpose of the university, by its very nature, is to “push knowledge into new areas.” And many (no doubt the most successful) “view this effort as a project that involves and requires liberating individuals from the dead weight of received prejudices.”
Ah, received prejudices, the favorite bugbear of the prejudiced left. The kernel of truth in this calumny against the actual, historical tradition of the university is the Burkean understanding of prejudice as merely a received opinion—and the fact that most received opinions are, besides being inescapable, true. We do not “know” in any final sense that the sun will come up or even that our breakfast cereal will not poison us. But, unless we are given reason to rethink such things, we accept and act on them, lest we never get out of bed in the morning. In the same way, most of us do not “rethink” every aspect of our lives and culture on a regular basis, instead being productive members of society who retain the capacity to questions policies and assumptions when abuses make it necessary to do so. Today, after decades of intentional obfuscation, prejudice is (usefully for the left) identified closely with racial animus and especially pseudo-scientific racial theories such as those undergirding the eugenics policies of early Progressivism.
The point, however, is not the false history. That history serves only to give a patina of legitimacy to the current power structure and its radical norms:
The result is that academics usually end up pursuing scholarly agendas that are the furthest thing from anything that could be described as “conservative.” The imperative to advance knowledge demands that research contributes something new. Meanwhile, the tendency to relegate all received truth claims to the category of prejudice leads to suspicion even of the established findings of the previous generation of scholars.
In this telling, the existence of ideological bias in the university is simply beside the point. It may be there, but it is in effect justified by the operative fact of established standards of excellence that rule academia. These standards support a “relentless drive to break from the past and push further in the pursuit of knowledge.” And this drive in turn fuels a kind of “radicalism” that is, for Mr. Linker, one in being with liberal arts education. Each generation moves us further from staid, boring discussions such as, “Yet another dissertation on death and existential anguish in King Lear?”
This is not to say that Mr. Linker, who counts the neoconservative philosopher Leo Strauss among his influences, is unaware of the conservative response to such disdain for the bank and capital of the ages of our culture. For conservatives, he notes, “innovation and novelty are precisely the problem—and continuity with the past, not a radical break from it, is the solution.” Note, however, his choice of the word “innovation”—a code word for the Holy Grail of “progress” on the left. Conservatives are anti-progress. Some of us see the university “as a kind of civilizational finishing school.” Others see in a strictly-limited canon of literature “timeless human wisdom,” potentially serving “as a gateway to reaching extra-historical truth about such perennial human concerns as love, friendship, justice, death, and God.” This (Straussian) take on education may seem attractive, even as presented by Mr. Linker, until one considers the intransigent hostility toward (one might say “prejudice against”) truth claims, particularly of the theological variety among the academic left.
So, conservatives are backward-looking ideologues who cannot handle, let alone produce, the radical pursuit of the new and innovative that now (somehow legitimately) constitutes the mainstream of academia. In addition, conservatives are unproductive losers. We spend too much time in the classroom, placing “conservative-minded would-be academics at a competitive disadvantage in the contemporary university, where hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions are based far more on scholarly publication than pedagogy.” Just the way it is, folks. Those conservatives just cannot cut it. Oh, and even those (few) conservatives who actually publish merely put forward dreck that is old-fashioned and boring (“death and existential anguish in King Lear”), and hence not valued.
In sum, for Mr. Linker, conservatives fail to become academics because they have failed at being good academics. We failed to move with the times, to accept the essential norms of the university, hence to survive in the competitive meritocracy that is academic life.
I have taken so much time and space to lay out Mr. Linker’s views, not because they are insightful, but because they are common. Indeed, this caricature of conservative professors is the standard operating view on most university campuses. That it shows stunning ignorance, dishonesty, or both is only part of my point. The rest is that it serves as a supposedly unanswerable justification for rank intolerance. As to the intolerance itself, it has produced the coddling stupidity transforming America’s supposedly best and brightest (read “best at taking standardized tests and writing application essays that appeal to left-wing professors”) into weeping, screaming morons. For one example, witness the recent histrionics at Yale, where defense of Halloween costumes has become a firing offense.
Mr. Linker’s false history rests on academics’ all-too-common disdain for the university’s explicitly religious past—not surprising, given the leftist prejudice that religion means superstition. But the medieval university was not just explicitly religious (founded in large measure by and for churchmen), it also was dedicated to pursuit of the truth. Yes, truth sometimes was obscured, even punished by ignorant people with power. Whether Galileo or anyone today who denies the faith-tenets of victim studies, power always has been a problem with which those who pursue truth must deal. But only the most prejudiced observers can deny the great scientific and philosophical achievements of the medieval university. Moreover, within the Anglo-American tradition at least, the university most certainly was not transformed by the German, let alone French, Enlightenment ideology until the tail end of the nineteenth century. The model of American universities was the English university, which kept much closer to the medieval model than did the continental, including in the maintenance of close religious affiliations. Not until the Progressive wave of reforms did the conceit of academics as an advance guard producing for the masses a revolutionary break with the past through trendy obscurantism gain a significant foothold in the American university. Even then, the result was a tepid establishment liberalism until the radicals of the 1960s began their march through the institutions.
In short, the supposedly natural development Mr. Linker so blithely mouths was in fact an illegitimate hostile takeover initiated, not centuries in the past, but a mere few decades ago. The abnormal standards produced by this takeover only achieved the status of orthodoxy after the onslaught of diversity programs during the 1980s and 1990s, when, in the name of affirmative action, an entire generation of more traditionally-grounded young scholars was flushed from the system, never securing permanent academic employment. Many on the left were caught in this conflagration against merit, but the clear result was the loss of any substantial remnant of professors opposed to the abnormal norms that Mr. Linker takes as, well, normal.
In short, Mr. Linker’s university is not the natural product of intellectual development, but rather the stunted rump of a proud tradition. Then there are Mr. Linker’s more insulting comments regarding conservative academics—in essence that all they want to do is waste their time in the classroom, either polishing students into old-fashioned (presumably racist, sexist, and homophobic) toys capable of parroting phrases from musty old tomes or bloviating over unattainable, false truths.
I am tempted to respond to this self-justifying commentary by simply pointing out the obvious and serious failings of the new model. It has produced almost nothing in the way of useful information or technology—it can make no claim to the scientific method, after all, which long predates the German model university. It has produced nothing so much as infantile tirades from students and professors both, as well as the victim’s mindset eating away at the foundations of our civilization. I also might point out that the current university model is part of an education industry that steals money from parents and taxpayers in order to produce ignoramuses. Here it should suffice to mention the new standards from the SAT exams, which soon will eschew serious vocabulary testing, smugly assured that no one needs to know all those big words in any event (after all, the next generation will simply make up new ones in any event, no?).
The problem with such responses is that the current Brahmin class could not care less about its failings. Indeed, academic elites refuse to recognize their failings as such, silencing with claims of racism wherever possible any who would question their progressive prejudices and the indifference toward genuine learning at their root. The key point is one of cultural truth. For the academic left, culture is merely another realm of politics, to be dissected, trashed, or eliminated at will in the name of the cause of the moment. The university is merely a comfortable perch from which to conduct the dissections. As even Mr. Linker might admit the real difference of opinion concerns not academic standards, but whether our civilization is worth preserving. Conservatives believe that it is, and that to preserve it the people must know something about it. The academic establishment is split between those who openly wish to destroy it in the name of some form of politicized multiculturalism and those who seem honestly to believe that it can withstand massive intellectual ignorance and pseudo-revolutionary demands for personal affirmations.
I am quite willing to simply claim, as true, that our civilization is good, and that it is fragile. That if we do not teach many more of our young people about such things as King Lear, and Aristotle, and Christ, we soon will no longer have any working civilization, but rather a chaotic swarm of broken cultures fighting over scraps available from an overwhelmed, failed state. Anyone who requires “proof” of these points has such an ignorant or warped understanding of our history as to be beyond simple argument; they need the kind of education only a very few universities any longer provide. Sadly, today’s academic elites are too comfortable within their faculty lounges and self-conceptions as warriors for truth and toleration to notice the chaos around them, let alone work to recover the traditions they have shredded. Mr. Linker certainly is correct that those in charge of the universities will not alter their deeply held ideological convictions so as to allow a genuine conservative voice on campus. The question is whether as a culture Americans will continue to allow their children to be warped by the institutions these people run.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.