Old School

Trying to Make Sense of the Meaningless

July 12, 2008

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Trying to Make Sense of the Meaningless

On July 3 the New York Times published a feature article by Patricia Cohen bearing the provocative title “€œThe”€™60s Begin to Fade as Liberal Professors Retire.”€ It seems, according to this report that professors are beginning to view themselves as “€œmoderates.”€ This underscores their distance from their predecessors of the late 1960s, when my own academic career was launched. Back then academics typically viewed themselves as “€œradicals.”€ Ms. Cohen cites the presumably right-of-center Peter W. Woods, executive director of the National Association of Scholars, who explains that a real sea change had occurred since his group was set up in 1987 to “€œcounter attacks on Western culture and values.”€ Woods tells us with gushing optimism: “€œI hear from quite a few faculty members and graduate students from around the country. They are not really interested in fighting the battles that had been fought over the last twenty years.”€ Moreover, “€œnearly 50 academics interviewed by the New York Times“€ claim that they are “€œless ideologically polarized”€ and “€œmore politically moderate”€ than their predecessors; and no more than 1.3 percent of the interviewees who are 35 or younger consider themselves “€œliberal.”€ On the other hand, 17.2 percent of their colleagues between 50 and 64 continue to attach to themselves the L label.

Cohen cites what is allegedly compelling evidence for her findings. We are told that there is now a “€œseminar on great books at Princeton jointly taught by two philosophers, the left-wing Cornel West and the right-wing Robert P. George.”€  Two professors, one at George Mason and the other at the University of British Columbia, assure us that liberal attitudes are merely a passing quirk of “€œprofessors aged 50-64,”€ and a supposedly non-ideological young female professor of education and sociology, Ms. Goldrick-Rab, will soon be replacing a sixty-some tenured academic, Michael Olneck who had been a civil rights activist in the 1960s and whose father, moreover, had been a socialist. A young colleague of mine, April Kelly-Woessner, who is a self-described “€œmoderate,”€ observes that “€œthe younger generation does look at it [politics] differently.”€ And an expert on academic attitudes (who curiously never interviewed me during the last forty years), Jack H. Schuster, puts forth an apparently similar view in a less grammatical way: “€œThe agenda is different now than what it had been.”€

Ms. Cohen’s article is dazzlingly inconclusive. There is nothing she manages to prove, except the growing worthlessness of political terms of reference. How was a “€œradical”€ academic in 1968 more radical than a “€œmoderate”€ academic right now? The ideological changes that the Left advocated in 1968 have not only been accomplished, but our government, media and educational establishment have pushed us well beyond them. The Communists, whom Mr. Olneck probably backed in Vietnam, were allowed to win their struggle, after we failed to aid our allies once our armies had pulled out. We have also as a country enacted whatever full civil rights and immigration agendas Mr. Olneck would have wanted in the 1960s, and afterwards we turned collectively toward feminist and gay agendas, which are now done deals. In 1968 my radical colleagues backed for president a devoutly Catholic, pro-New Deal opponent of the Vietnam War Gene McCarthy. For those who might recall, by the 1970s McCarthy had become a close friend of Russell Kirk, who later endorsed him for president, and he was also an outspoken critic of Third World immigration.

Today’s “€œmoderates,”€ like Patricia Cohen, who speaks of Obama as a healer of division, avoid the language of confrontation. But this is misleading. The Illinois Senator and his personal associates, including his wife Michelle, have not been particularly centrist, that is not until recently, when the Democratic presidential candidate started to position himself for the general race. In fact it is not clear why being above ideological division applies to leftist politicians, any more than it did to right-of-center Senator Helms, whom Associated Press described as “€œpolarizing”€ at the time of his recent death.

But affiliations on the social left, as opposed to those on some kind of right, may now certify someone as a non-radical. It may also be the case that those of my generation who identify themselves as leftists have been more honest than the younger “€œmoderates”€ who are taking their place. The only likely difference between Goldrick-Rab and the person she is about to replace may be one of self-perception. Olneck never hid his leftist opinions. By contrast Goldrick-Rab may assume that her left-liberal opinions are the only ones that decent people would hold. Only homophobes or closet-Nazis would question them.

As a researcher of academic opinion who is not cited, Daniel Klein of George Mason University, has argued, multicultural, anti-white, anti-Christian and anti-traditional attitudes are now so entrenched in Academia that one has to be cognitively challenged not to notice their pervasiveness. From all evidence, this oppressive, restrictive environment is now far worse than it was when I first entered the academic world. In the late 1960s there were still true moderates and right-of-center types in liberal arts faculties across the country. Moreover, the academic world was fixated on one foreign policy issue, and however insanely it might have reacted to the Vietnam War, academic leftists generally left the rest of us alone when it came to other matters. Nobody where I taught gave a damn about my opinions concerning gender questions or gay marriage. I did lose an assistant professorship at Case Western Reserve in 1969, but that was mostly owing to my insufficient opposition to the War. But if I were still an untenured faculty member in the same history department, I could now be pushed out for at least 10,000 ideological deviations.

Perhaps I”€™d be given the heave because of my opposition to academic organizations boycotting states that refuse to legalize gay marriage. Of course the academics who favor this policy are now called “€œmoderates”€ and not “€œliberals.”€ And the soi-disant non-ideologues have put up a big sign in the hall near my office announcing that we”€™re in a “€œsafe zone for lesbians, homosexuals, bisexuals, and transgendered.”€ It’s great to know that our universities are now in the hands of my moderate colleagues and the equally moderate objects of their special causes. Although there were two senior academics, a distinguished American historian, Jackson Lears, and president of the Modern Language Association Gerald Graff, who expressed skepticism about Ms. Cohen’s findings, both were given exceedingly short shrift. It is more important to get the good news out to the rest of the country than to be sure that one’s narrative makes any sense.

I would also note that the short quotation taken from my young colleague generates a false impression. April in her writings does not argue that universities have ceased to be hotbeds of PC. Nor would she deny for a moment that younger faculty who call themselves “€œmoderates”€ are in fact more leftist on social issues than the anti-Vietnam War generation of American academics. According to her, “€œthese younger professors are moderate in the same the way that all Americans like to call themselves middle-class.”€

What she and her husband try to demonstrate is that self-described Republican students do not generally feel discriminated against in college settings. April also stresses that those who have been interviewed are overwhelmingly in pre-professional programs and have no special interest in the liberal arts or social sciences, both academic citadels of the multicultural Left. Finally, the attempt to present two apparent buddies West and George, who are co-teaching a course at Princeton, as being equally far removed from a hypothetical center, misrepresents what is going on. While West is an avowed Afrocentrist and socialist radical, George is a natural law theorist and believing Catholic who opposes abortion. It is hard to see how Princeton’s putting up with their divergent positions indicates its openness to all points of view. One of the two team teachers is an intellectually incoherent black nationalist who is currently allied to feminists and gay advocates; the other one is a traditional blue-collar Democrat who considers the destruction of unborn children to be morally wrong.  Perhaps at the Times, anyone standing equidistant from both of these figures qualifies as a “€œmoderate.”€ 

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