Great America

Disappearing Liberals

The Left in higher education seeks to destroy intellectual freedom and Western civilization. It is the very opposite of “liberal.”

Anyone who writes about higher education and criticizes the pernicious effects of the Left is likely to receive an anguished letter. Usually, the writer proclaims himself to be a proud member of the Left who agrees with the criticisms of the academy, but he believes that one shouldn’t use words like Left or progressives to describe the enemies of intellectual freedom. Use those off-putting, polemical words and you’ll drive away useful allies from the fight to restore higher education.

I think it is appropriate to use the Left or progressives­ to criticize the enemies of higher education. But these letters require a thoughtful response. Why are those words appropriate?

My answer is a combination of No True Scotsman, Self-Definition, and Times Have Changed.

Let’s start with Times Have Changed.

The generation of academics on the Left that came of age in the 1950s and 1960s largely consisted of old-school liberals, who prized Western civilization and intellectual pluralism, and a small, illiberal minority—the illiberal Left—who hated both.

That generation witnessed the academy’s radicalizing transformation from the 1960s to the 1990s, to become ever more the creature of the illiberal Left. Yet when this generation retired, the illiberal Left was still in the process of achieving dominance within the academy. As late as the year 2000, the illiberal Left had not fully supplanted the old school liberals in higher education.

The changes within the academy were drastic enough from 1960 to 2000, but the changes in the 20 years since have been even more revolutionary.

The basic problem is that no young old school liberals have entered the academy for at least 30 years. The academy now consists of a very large number of illiberal leftists—including virtually every professor and administrator under 30. Many of these are no longer even aware of the principles of tolerance, of old-school liberalism; the rest think of tolerance as an evil to be destroyed.

The old school liberal’s quarrel isn’t with writers who criticize modern academic illiberalism as leftist. His quarrel is with the mass of modern leftists who have redefined leftism to mean illiberalism.

Colleges and universities also contain a large number of leftist professors and administrators who aren’t actively illiberal, but who won’t do anything to resist the illiberal advance. The remaining old-school liberals in the academy who are actively prepared to resist the illiberal Left are a small minority, mostly more than 60 years old, and shrinking in number with each retirement.

Groupthink and informal hiring quotas have already played a large role in preventing anyone who isn’t part of the illiberal Left from getting a job in higher education. The new “Diversity Statements” and “Commitments to Social Justice” will make that formal. Within a few years, we can expect universal adherence to the illiberal Left among new entrants into the professoriate and higher education administration.

To the extent there is any resistance to this trend, it is among professors and institutions of an avowed conservative bent. Self-defined liberals have greater trouble mounting an intellectual resistance to this transformation. Bad as the situation is for conservatives in academia, there are probably more young conservatives and libertarians in academia than there are young liberals of the old school variety.

This gets us to Self-Definition. More or less the entirety of the academic Left calls themselves left, calls themselves progressive, calls themselves committed to social justice—and says their leftism, their progressivism, their commitment to social justice, is why they embrace illiberal policies, the destruction of Western civilization courses, and the end of the liberal arts. They are perfectly happy to use those terms to describe themselves.

Now, certainly I use the terms more polemically, and to rally opposition—but I use identical language to that of the vast majority of the academic Left.

The academic Left has defined leftism to mean progressivism, social justice, and (by a corollary clear to all disinterested observers) illiberalism. I defer to the self-definition of the modern Left when I use these terms—which I think is reasonable.

The counter to that is the old school liberal’s protest, I’m a true liberal, a true leftist, and all the other people aren’t really liberals or leftists. To which the reply must be, That’s a fallacious No True Scotsman argument—“I’m the only real Scotsman, and the others who think they’re Scotsmen are really fakes, no matter what they think.” But we have to go by what all the Scotsmen say is Scottish, not by what the One True Scotsman says.

My own parents and grandparents are and were of the Left—liberals and leftists, socialists, and pacifists. Some resisted Communist infiltration into the public schools; some were Freedom Riders. I honor their tradition as best as I can. But it does not survive among the modern academic Left.

I don’t think the old school liberal’s quarrel is with writers who criticize modern academic illiberalism as leftist. I think his quarrel is with the mass of modern leftists, who have redefined leftism to mean illiberalism and hatred of Western civilization. I regret this transformation deeply. I wish there were still a body of old school liberals to rally to oppose them. But it is not the case.

When I say the Left in higher education seeks to destroy intellectual freedom and Western civilization, my language is indeed polemical. It also speaks the truth about the world in 2020.