Why it is hard to be a campus conservative

When the right claims that US universities have been taken over by ‘liberals’, and that faculty and students of ‘conservative’ opinions are afraid to speak up, they do not mean that its campuses are now swamped by people who think we should restrict liberty only to prevent harm to others, or who demand that social inequalities benefit the worst-off. They mean American universities are full of people who believe things like this:

  • Species arose through natural selection.
  • No author of any gospel ever met Jesus.
  • Homosexuality is a normal variant in human behaviour.
  • The United States lost a war against Vietnam.
  • Human activity is a significant cause of climate change.
  • The United States has worse public health than do countries with nationalized health care.

Even more threatening to conservatives, however, is not these individual claims which are endorsed by all but a minority in serious universities. It the dominance of  habits of thought, modes of inquiry, and sensibilities of outlook that lead people to these conclusions. But none of this is because US universities are bastions of liberalism. It is because they are universities.

Of course, as Mill explained, every society should tolerate some truth-deniers. (He went further. He said that if a society lacks truth-deniers it might invent them, to keep us all on our toes.) But Mill never said their place is in universities, or that it falls to universities to provide ‘safe spaces’ for those whose political identity is bound up with  ignorance and superstition.  A university must tolerate, and even welcome, those who follow evidence and argument to conclusions that are false or unpalatable; but it may reject those who seek a platform for hatred or deception.  That is why it counts counts against Middlebury College when it shouts down Charles Murray but it counts in favour of Berkeley when it excludes Milos Yannopoulos.

That means universities can never be comfortable for a certain kind of conservative.  Those who need the lecture hall to flatter their personal convictions are bound to feel lonely and misunderstood.  Those who think views in the college should mirror votes in the electoral college are bound to feel cheated.  Maybe they can take comfort in the welcoming company they can find in America’s churches, legislatures, and even its courts.  But they should expect only argument from its universities—not speaking with a single voice, but speaking in that irritating way that universities do: insisting on belief that is proportionate to evidence, and on standards of reasoning that are neither liberal nor conservative, but merely human.

9 thoughts on “Why it is hard to be a campus conservative

  1. A much better question, Les, is: “Why is it so hard to be a campus sceptic?”

    Your post uses the unanalytic and crudely rhetorical phrase “truth-deniers” (is that a phrase that Mill – who I have never read – ever used?). That seems to me to be an essentially Orwellellian phrase whose rhetorical function is to completely shut down not stimulate academic debate. It is, to my mind, the rhetorical claim, “I am right; you are wrong”.

    There is plenty for a sceptic to discuss in the the most complex of the “truths” you give: “Human activity is a significant cause of climate change.

    True it is – given the empirically confirmed numeric precision of quantum mechanics – that the absorption spectrum of carbon dioxide guarantees that atmospheric carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas which traps solar energy. But I am personally sceptical of your intention in using the word “significant” as a qualifier (rigorously analytically unobjectionable though that qualifier is) because the consequences of that empiric truth do not rule out the potential for “climate surprises”, in the words of the most interesting and rigorous writer I have read on the climate: Valerio Lucarini.

    Lucarini is using very general rigorous analysis from thermodynamics and the theory of equations to conceptualise climate change. And, unsurprisingly to anyone who has even a very modest knowledge of the solution of complex partial differential equations he finds the potential for mathematical chaos and not just simple “truth”.

    For example: “Edge States in the Climate System: Exploring Global Instabilities and Critical Transition”
    https://arxiv.org/pdf/1605.03855.pdf

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    • Is it hard to be a sceptic in US universities? I’ve worked in half a dozen and hadn’t noticed that.

      You are correct to notice that I framed the point about which you seem to have doubts in a very broad way. I don’t know anyone who thinks we can precisely quantify the contribution of human activity to the disaster we have collectively caused.

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  2. Dear Leslie, I think your list of beliefs attributed to so-called conservatives in the US is a bit of a caricature. I know a good number of people who are conservative in some real sense (I don’t count most classical liberals or libertarians in this group), and none fit the profile. But more importantly, I wonder if you are aware of the orthodoxy on many American universities. A small example. My college (Arts & Humanities) has an annual lecture series funded by the Dean. In recent years speakers have included Angela Davis, Noam Chomsky (on politics), and this coming year Bobby Seale. Without knowing much about some of the speakers, I’d be hard-pressed to point to one who is to the right of Senator Warren. But the selection is not the most important thing to note: it’s that no one pauses to ask whether, to use a popular term, the choice of speakers might not be very “inclusive”. There is an orthodoxy here, and in addition many fellow travellers have beliefs about the polity or economy every bit as peculiar as the ones you attribute to “conservatives”. Idiots who deny evolution may be mocked, but there is a remarkable ideological consensus favoring liberal-left and left political positions that is annoying and sometimes stifling. The only happy note to the recent presidential election has been to give virtually all profs something to agree on. With all good wishes, C

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  3. Chris, I wasn’t trying to characterise conservatives, or even all American conservatives. But it does seem to me that it is acceptance of banal truths of the sort I mention that most irks the ‘more conservatives on campus’ people. I don’t suggest that university invitations to speak (or to be visiting fellows at Harvard) are neutral or balanced. Should they be?

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  4. I realize your note was focused on, well, not-well-informed “conservatives”, but I did think that the proposition that “US universities have been taken over by ‘liberals’, and that faculty and students of ‘conservative’ opinions are afraid to speak up”, is not that far from the truth, allowances made for hyperbole. I don’t like the American predicates (“liberals” and “conservatives”), so I’d not formulate the claim as above. But there are a lot of students and faculty in the US who are reluctant to speak up. Had I ever voted for a Republican presidential candidate, I’d think thrice about saying so. And on the question of inviting speakers: the selection need not represent everyone, but a similar selection of centrist or right-wing speakers would not even be contemplated. Best, C

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  5. You’ve certainly captured a slice of the (religious) conservative critique of universities. And to the extent that this is an accurate portrayal of their critique, your response is dead on. But it seems to me that most conservatives no longer raise this sort of critique; rather than decry the near universality of certain (mostly) empirical claims made in universities (i.e. those having to do with rejecting the authority of Christian doctrine and the belief in American exceptionalism), most conservatives (both religious and secular) are instead primarily concerned about the philosophical or ideological claims that most universities seem to accept without question.

    In other words, this article mostly mischaracterizes the nature of most conservatives’ critiques. It is, as you suspect, not a critique of liberalism, but rather “progressivism”. (In fact, some who critique progressivism are mischaracterized in the media as being conservatives, despite themselves identifying as classical liberals. A good example of this is the YouTake personality Dave Rubin.) Take a fairly representative example from National Review (http://www.nationalreview.com/article/449872/conservatives-mistrust-american-higher-education-blame-progressive-universities). This sort of critique can be found again and again in National Review, by the folks at the AEI, on Fox News, by certain conservative-leaning journalists (in the NYT, NY Mag, etc.), and by certain outspoken academics (Jonathan Haidt, Jordan Peterson, etc.).

    When a person like Milo speaks on a campus, he is hardly defending the sorts of claims you’ve attributed to conservatives. (He is, after all, gay, foreign, and at least nominally committed to a scientific worldview.) Instead, he attacks a host of ideological claims, such as:

    – affirmative action in admissions and hiring is good/just and an effective means of redressing inequality
    – disproportionate distributions of people along the lines of gender/race/sexuality, etc. in various domains (academia, entertainment media, government, tech, etc.) can be wholly explained by prejudice
    – part of the university’s mission is to promote equality of outcome
    – the identity of a speaker/writer is relevant (or even determinative) in interpreting their claims
    – speech can be a form of violence
    – challenging the beliefs of people who are part of historically or currently oppressed groups is a form of racism/sexism/homophobia, etc.

    Of course, reasonable people can disagree about these claims. There is nothing inherent in intellectual inquiry that would foreclose the rejection of any of these claims. They are mostly philosophical, and to that extent not open to scientific inquiry. Predictably, most conservative students reject these claims. And yet, in most universities, it is extremely difficult (socially, that is) to challenge these claims in classes or seminars. And it is equally difficult to find professors who disagree or are willing to openly challenge these claims (with, perhaps, the exception of some in economics departments, and maybe the odd philosopher). (That is why, I think, campus conservatives go to the lengths they do to invite outside speakers–especially ones that you wouldn’t expect white conservatives to fawn over, like Milo and Ben Shapiro.)

    I don’t mean to suggest that the older, Christian conservative critique is no longer discussed. And if that’s the critique you meant to focus on, then I apologize for this digression. But if you are interested in the newer and more politicized conservative critique of universities, then I think it’s important to characterize it accurately and charitably.

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