As I read Neil Gross’s book Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? I was reminded of my stint as an instructor at a low-tier public university in Georgia during the 2004 Democrat primaries.
All part-time faculty held office hours in a room of cast-off desks and broken-down chairs called the “bullpen.” During a quiet time my colleagues had gotten into a discussion of the candidates. I kept my head down, focusing on grading papers. Finally, one of them asked, “Who do you support, Mary?”
“None of them.”
“Are you supporting the Green Party?”
“You’re not a Republican, are you?”
There was shocked silence, some throat clearing, and then “Really?” with raised eyebrows. I was hoping to get employed permanently, but I was not willing to lie.
Other signs of hostility greeted me on a daily basis, as they have on other campuses. In the department office I would be faced with a day-by-day calendar on the secretary’s desk, turned outward for the benefit of visitors, of “Bush-isms,” the purportedly stupid things our president had said that confirmed what all intelligent people (like the secretary) knew: George W. Bush was an idiot. Furthermore, the new department chair had issued directives that all syllabi—even freshman composition—have on them “an understanding of race, class, and gender” as a “learning objective.”
A couple of years later, after a reader had praised my conservative columns to the department chair, I was told that they had no classes for me to teach.
In his book, Neil Gross, Sociology Professor at the University of British Columbia, does not bother to talk to those of us who have had such experiences. He admits that since the late 1960s the social sciences and humanities have become increasingly liberal and politicized, especially because of the influx of women and feminism, but he has no problem with that. Centers of “culture” and new departments of “labor studies” reveal even more politicization than Gross admits.
Gross claims that conservatives, as far back as the early years of National Review, have complained about being outnumbered by liberals, but they have little basis when the hard sciences, engineering, and business, are taken into account. (Those fields, however, have little cultural influence.)
Even as he attempts to look fair-minded, Gross presents caricatured pictures of conservatism. It is easy to “overstate” the “point that conservatism and creativity are antithetical,” says Gross in reviewing one of numerous theories. Conservatives are creative in “developing an ideological perspective, making an emotionally evocative and aesthetically appealing case for it, and innovating new forms of political organization.” To add insult to injury, he asks, “And are not business entrepreneurs also creative types in their way?” With a little bit of research (like Google), Gross would have discovered how Hollywood excludes conservatives. I know from experience that the same is true of the fiction and poetry publishing world.
As I noted in my collection Exiled, Gross, in related articles, treats conservatives as an exotic species, to be studied from afar. An admitted liberal, Gross takes the pose of empiricist, pointing out to the reader the limitations of sample size, method, etc.
Yet, characterizations of conservatives come from the New York Times and New Yorker. Leftist (and activist) history professors are presented as authoritative. Perhaps the most discredited source is Ellen Schrecker, who chooses to ignore the evidence from the Soviet archives that confirmed many of the names cited by Joseph McCarthy, denying the guilt even of Alger Hiss. But Gross presents “McCarthyism” as a symptom of conservatism and as part of the “Cold War hysteria.” He points out that William F. Buckley, an early critic of academia, was a supporter of McCarthy. He also uses terms like “right-wing,” and says that the characterization of the Tea Party as “paranoid and anti-intellectual” is “not without reason.”
Howard Zinn is presented as a legitimate historian. Gross refers to the fact that professors such as Richard Hofstadter, Walter Johnson, and C. Vann Woodward “were among those who marched with Martin Luther King (whose activism was greatly influenced by his academic experiences as a graduate student at Boston University) to Montgomery.” Gross then drops his scientist mask, as he next writes, “While these efforts placed academic activists on the right side of history, to conservatives who opposed the civil rights movement they represented an abomination.”
There are a couple of things wrong with this statement. First, conservatives are presented as anti-civil rights. Earlier, he ignores Barry Goldwater’s extensive civil rights efforts among Republicans and presents Goldwater’s opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act as prima facie evidence of his opposition to civil rights, not bothering to investigate Goldwater’s reasons for opposing the Act, namely the unconstitutionality of Titles II and VII.
Jonah Goldberg writes in his book Liberal Fascism, “In the supposedly reactionary 1950s, Republicans had carried most of the burden of fulfilling the American promise of equality to blacks. Eisenhower had pushed through two civil rights measures over strong opposition from southern Democrats, and in particular Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, who fought hard to dilute the legislation.”
Secondly, Gross ignores the fact that it is not activism per se that conservatives complain of, but the use of the classroom to politicize students, a trend led by communist professor Howard Zinn.
Nor does Gross think it necessary to read anything by conservatives beyond a selective quotation by Ann Coulter or letters by members of National Review that deal specifically with strategies.
Had he bothered to do so, he would have found great minds who offer serious thought far beyond the surface trivialities of race, class, gender, and pop culture that now dominate academia. Liberals have been chipping away at standards from foreign language requirements to math courses. Rap music is now taught as “poetry” partly because it requires no knowledge of history or form. There are college courses on Oprah and Lady Gaga.
Gross pretends to do an objective study by interviewing such critics as David Horowitz, and Stephen Balch and Peter Wood of the National Association of Scholars, but calls Balch and Wood “moral entrepreneurs” looking for “new and exciting careers” as activists. Gross relates the turning experiences: for Wood, being forced, along with fellow white undergraduates, to admit guilt for alleged racist acts that were not even described to them. Gross minimizes this as merely “a personal affront.” (Has Gross not read about the Moscow show trials?) Balch’s concerns about professors “laying the groundwork for radical social change by trying to form their students into a class-conscious proletariat,” are described, but ignored. Horowitz is presented as an extremist, but his conversion experience, of the murder of his bookkeeper, likely by the Black Panthers, is not mentioned.
Similarly, does Gross describe the motivation for John Olin’s philanthropic efforts: the takeover of his alma mater, Cornell University, in 1969, by student protesters occupying the student union building, with the leader holding a shotgun and wearing a bandolier filled with ammunition. The fact that “American conservatives were infuriated when Cornell’s president not only negotiated with the students but also absolved them of individual responsibility for damaged property,” is left to stand as if an illegitimate complaint—a surprising thing considering liberals’ usual fear of guns.
Another conservative complaint is presented as irrational: against the invitation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (oddly noted by Gross as “himself a former professor”) to Columbia University in 2010 by President Lee Bollinger. Ahmadinejad’s visit represents “free speech,” as does University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill who called 9/11victims “little Eichmanns.” Gross wonders why Bill Ayers is “beyond the pale.” NAS attacks “shibboleths” of the left. And on.
This is a wily book intended to demonstrate that blame should be directed at conservatives themselves because 1) their personalities (being limited in creative abilities) are not suited to the humanities and social sciences, and 2) they “self-select” after perceiving, as undergraduates, that most academics are liberal. The conservative critics exacerbate the situation by publicizing and sensationalizing cases of (perceived) bias.
As I discovered in 2004, being quiet doesn’t work. They simply want us to leave.
Mary Grabar, Ph.D., teaches English at Emory University in the Program in American Democracy and Citizenship. She is the founder of the Dissident Prof Education Project, Inc., an education reform initiative that offers information and resources for students, parents, and citizens. The motto, “Resisting the Re-Education of America,” arose in part from her perspective as a very young immigrant from the former Communist Yugoslavia (Slovenia specifically). She writes extensively and is a published poet and fiction writer. Ms. Grabar is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.