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.

11 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”


    • 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.


  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


  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?


  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


  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.


  6. I agree that it’s virtually impossible to determine whether conservatives truly are marginalized on US college campuses. But I do think the evidence is quite suggestive. It is not disputable that humanities and (most) social science departments lean far to the left (https://heterodoxacademy.org/problems/). Obviously, this does not reflect the distribution of political opinion in the general population. How to explain that discrepancy? When it comes to matters of race and sex, most academics would be quick to explain any representational discrepancy as a product of systemic discrimination. There may be a case for this here: To the extend that conservative political ideology is a product of biologically determined personality traits (which Jonathan Haidt convincingly argues), conservative students are less well-suited for college and a career in academia. They are less open to new ideas and experiences, as well as more trusting of and loyal to authority–not good qualities for a budding scholar. To the extent that this argument is right, then perhaps universities should find ways of accommodating these students.

    I suspect, though, that the favoured opinion among academics would be that many or most of the central conservatives’ arguments have been disproved, discredited, etc. But it’s certainly worth distinguishing between empirical and normative claims. Obviously, academics should not waste their time talking about creationism. Widespread agreement on empirical claims (e.g. evolutionary theory) should (and indeed does) normally preclude most, if not all, discussion of alternate views. But even complete unanimity on normative claims should not preclude consideration of alternate views. So to say that the Bible is not a reliable source of evidence about biology, fair enough. But to say that the ideas of Burke and Nietzsche have been discredited and are thus not worth reading, well that’s just nonsense. We do probably read them less than their ideas and writing merit. But there are good reasons for this: Who we (students) study is determined largely by their influence on history and subsequent thinkers–not by surveying the political landscape of the day and constructing a curriculum that carefully matches the distribution of political opinion in society at large. And this is as it should be.

    But this argument has been widely rejected by many feminist and minority students beginning in the 60s. That the curricula were dominated by straight white men was beside the point. Nonetheless, student activists succeeded in upending the curricula in many departments (English, sociology) and building their ideal curricula in new departments (women’s studies, gender studies). It seems to me that conservative students are making the exact same argument today: In every aspect of university life, they never hear anything that matches up with their perception and experience of the world. The difference now, of course, is that no one on a college campus feels bad for them. Bending to their pressure would be a mistake, just as it is (and was) a mistake to bend to the far-left activists. But I would at least hope for some consistency. Either college is a place for everyone to feel at home and read things that validate their identities and beliefs, or it is a place to learn about why the world is the way it is.

    To sum up: The kind of ideological marginalization that conservatives are describing is likely impossible to measure, not least of all because of selection bias. Nonetheless, there is independent evidence that strongly suggests that conservatives are less likely to succeed and feel comfortable on college campuses. But even if we grant that they do face ideological marginalization, then the only good answer, for them and for everyone else, is “Tough!” University education is not about comfort.

    Extra-curricular activities, however, should be fair game. In fact, I am tempted to suggest that any group that even believes itself to be subject to ideological marginalization should be entitled (and with a stronger claim than other groups) to hold events, invite speakers, etc. that conform to their worldview. I can think of at least one very good reason: This could (in the case of conservatives) and could have (in the case of female and minority students) mitigate(d) the pressure these students put on faculty and administrators to make curricular or policy-based changes (the sorts of changes, I suggested above, that are inimical to a university’s foundational purposes). A second reason is that these ideologically marginalized students face a higher degree of cognitive dissonance and subjective discomfort, which arguably entitles them to some compensatory benefits.

    To prevent student groups from holding these sorts of events is contrary to the very purpose of these groups–to socialize and participate in a community–and could then subject them to unfair discrimination by college administrators. There shouldn’t be any standards, whether intellectual or ideological, for guests. (How many Hollywood celebrities have given convocation addresses at Ivy League schools?) And to clarify one important point, universities don’t cancel these events because they deem them inappropriate as student activities; they cancel them because of their fear of violence and property damage at the hands of left-wing student activists. To say that universities are right to cancel these events is, at best, to be on the side of arbitrary rule, and at worst, to be on the side of mob rule.

    Which brings me to Milo. I appreciate the link, but I’ve watched roughly 10 hours of his speeches, debates, interviews, etc., so I’m already pretty familiar with his views. (If anything, the article was almost too charitable, as it only impugned him for his associations, and had almost nothing to say about anything he’s said or written.) Despite my not agreeing with him on virtually anything, I would not characterize him as hateful, or a hate monger, or as any kind of -phobe. But I can’t convince you when every single mainstream news piece disagrees. And I’m not going to suggest that you too waste 10 hours listening to him talk. So I would only suggest that you apply a lesson from the history of philosophy: very smart people have a hell of a time trying to accurately interpret someone else’s arguments. Should we have even more confidence in our journalists? I think not, and I think I can convince you pretty quickly. Read this memo (linked below) by former Google engineer James Damore. It was an internal memo, which he wrote and circulated as part of the company’s policy of sharing ideas to improve the workplace. It should only take a few minutes. Then, see if you can find any news source that accurately/impartially describes/characterizes what you just read.

    View story at Medium.com


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