Back in the days of Jim Crow, many whites defended racial discrimination by trotting out stereotypes about “Our Black Folks,” who they maintained were satisfied with the status quo. Oh, they are quite happy with being maids, bootblacks, and sharecroppers, said the apologists. They like living on their “side of the fence,” as a character in a Flannery O’Connor story said.
African-Americans were said to be in the childhood of civilization and not suited intellectually to work in the professions, arts, business, or education—unless it was within their own segregated communities. The stereotype described by James Weldon Johnson in his essay, “The Dilemma of the Negro Author,” was of the African-American as a banjo-playing “simple, indolent, docile, improvident peasant . . .” or the “impulsive, irrational, passionate savage.”
Of course, the apologists for discrimination did not note that opportunities in education and employment were denied to African-Americans.
Similar arguments are being made by Leftists about conservatives on college campuses. The diminishing numbers of conservatives are attributed to conservatives’ own temperaments and abilities. The studies promoting these stereotypes are cited each time an attack on conservatives is too hard to ignore or someone makes a legitimate complaint about their treatment.
This happened last month when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, during a speech at CPAC, accused liberal faculty members of trying to force their views on students. Inside Higher Ed responded with a lengthy article which briefly reported on her comments but then used most of the space to argue with the help of “studies” that conservatives really are not discriminated against.
The headline was predictable: “Professors and Politics: What the Research Says,” as was the sub-headline, “DeVos accusation that faculty members seek to tell students what to think renews debate, on which research is plentiful. Studies say professors lean left but challenge idea that this results in indoctrination or harms conservatives.” The article reported on a 2016 study of 40 leading American universities that found a ratio of 11.5 liberals to one conservative in the social sciences and history. In history departments, it was 33.5 to one!
The disparity is attributed not to discrimination, but “self-selection.” One of the most cited “experts” is sociology professor Neil Gross, who was once again sought out to provide comment. “The [Republican] party has long been losing support among the highly educated,” he said, adding, “My impression is that the election of [Trump] has greatly exacerbated those losses.” In refuting DeVos’s contention, Inside Higher Ed referred to a study Gross had conducted in 2010, which became the basis of his 2013 book, Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? His conclusions about the attributes of conservatives were presented in the article: 1) Liberals have higher levels of education (read: conservatives don’t value education); 2) Liberals experience a disparity between their educational levels and income (read: conservatives are greedy) 3) Liberals are not members of a conservative Protestant faith (read: conservatives are unsophisticated fundamentalists) 4) Liberals have “a high tolerance for controversial ideas” (read: conservatives are close-minded).
All these confuse cause with effect; point one is most obviously circular. The overall picture that Gross and others want to present is that conservatives are not suited to the academic life. Another study, Left Pipeline: Why Conservatives Don’t Get Doctorates, is cited to confirm the self-selection theory. (I analyzed Gross’s flawed methodology in more detail in my own book, Exiled.)
This false picture is buttressed by other books, such as Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University, based on interviews of 153 conservative professors. Inside Higher Ed concluded: “The book’s bottom line is that conservative professors are succeeding and happy in academe—and that there is not a wall of liberal academics blocking their way.” No irony is noted by this Leftist site that “passing”—denying one’s identity—was done out of necessity by light-skinned African Americans or that these “happy” conservatives had to remain anonymous. (Also noted in the book is the fact that a number of these conservatives became so after they attained tenure.)
The point about “happy” but closeted conservatives implies that those of us drummed out of academe have only ourselves to blame. We should just keep quiet, and be happy with our place.
Right-Shaming is Spreading
But what about those of us who have been denied scholarships, fellowships, or letters of recommendation, or who have scoured ads for teaching positions outside the categories of race, class, and gender? I was quite happy to keep my political views to myself in English departments where I taught, but found myself being stared at suspiciously when I did not join in hearty condemnations of Republicans or enthuse over the latest missive from MoveOn.org. When I dared to express my views in an op-ed in the local newspaper, I was greeted with an insulting email from a former professor and another time was insulted in a dissertation committee member’s university-connected blog.
Academics are getting bolder in publicly shaming conservative colleagues and students. Recently, Trinity Washington University President Patricia McGuire on the university website attacked one of Trinity’s alums, Trump campaign manager, and now counselor to the president, Kellyanne Conway. She accused Conway of playing, as she put it, “a large role in facilitating the manipulation of facts and encouraging the grave injustice being perpetrated by the Trump Administration’s war on immigrants.” (McGuire’s disapproving comments about DeVos were also quoted in the Inside Higher Ed article.)
The public shaming is extending farther down the academic chain, to undergraduates.
During my 20-year-tenure of teaching college (until 2013) I would hear students complain about politically inflected class discussions. But more recently I have been hearing about undergraduates being personally attacked and ridiculed in class by their professors.
In 2011 during my research fellowship at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI) near Hamilton College I heard stories from undergraduate fellows about professors targeting conservatives. I described the case of a brilliant young man, a math and classics major, who was dissuaded from an academic career by a professor who required that students attack President George W. Bush in their translations, and refused to return papers and explain his low grade. That student has gone on to graduate school, but in a field that will prepare him for a career in the corporate world. Thousands of students in future decades will miss his talents in the classroom. But Gross and others, no doubt, will put him into the category of a conservative who chose business over academe for greed and lack of intellectual suitability.
Today, as a resident fellow at the AHI, I continue to hear stories about professors who ridicule students who do not toe their party line. These professors and administrators also give implicit consent to other students to bully conservative students.
The Middlebury Meltdown Revisited
This happened also at Middlebury College recently when college president Laurie Patton introduced speaker Charles Murray with a virtual wink and a nod to protesters who forced Murray off the stage and into an undisclosed location to conduct the discussion and live stream it. As Peter Wood pointed out, the reminders about campus free speech policies were little more than pro forma; they were undercut by other, contradictory remarks.
Patton signaled the OK to disruptive protesters by saying, “Allow me to state the obvious. We are a left-leaning campus” and by expressing her opinion about the “repugnance” of Murray’s views. This gave tacit permission to protesters to jeer student Alexander Khan, co-president of the AEI campus organization which had sponsored Murray, during his introduction. Ironically, the moderator, professor Allison Stanger, also signaled her out-of-hand disapproval of Murray. Afterwards, as she was leaving with Murray, she was attacked by protestors so badly that she had to go to the emergency room and get a neck brace. Her mere proximity to Murray made her a target.
Things are getting worse for conservatives. In the 1990s, as someone returning to school in my 30s, I was able to withstand the snide comments in graduate seminars and learned to navigate away from leftist professors (unfortunately, these professors were old already then). The student I met in 2011 was dissuaded even before applying to graduate school. Today, undergraduates find themselves bullied by fellow students and professors. I know an accomplished young woman, with an outstanding intellect and poise, who has been pilloried by her professors as well as her peers simply because she is an outspoken campus conservative. Even if she were so inclined, she would have little reason to enter into a field as hostile and discriminatory as academe.
The left-wing apologists in future studies, though, will no doubt say that the diminishing number of conservatives teaching classics is evidence of their lack of suitability to the life of the mind.