Town Hall columnist Michael Barone has a bee in his bonnet about universities:
I am old enough to remember when America’s colleges and universities seemed to be the most open-minded and intellectually rigorous institutions in our society. Today, something very much like the opposite is true: America’s colleges and universities have become, and have been for some decades, the most closed-minded and intellectually dishonest institutions in our society.
Fox news pundits like Barone really ought to be more careful describing other institutions as closed-minded and intellectually dishonest.
With that opening you might expect the ensuing paragraphs to back up such a serious charge. Instead we get a familiar litany of incoherent right-wing talking points.
He rants about speech codes for a few paragraphs. I’m not a big fan of them myself, and every once in a while, on some college campus or other, you can find a genuine instance of a speech code run amok. But the point of such codes is simply to recognize that at some point speech becomes action. Hurling entirely unprovoked racial slurs at someone in a courtyard (which actually happened during my undergrdauate days at Brown) is not an exercise of free speech. It is a threat against the target of the slurs. Punishing such a person under a speech code is entirely appropriate. The spirit of free inquiry is not threatened by such things.
Speech codes are not the only thing Barone finds objectionable in modern universities:
This is not the only way the colleges and universities fall far short of what were once their standards. Sometime in the 1960s, they abandoned their role as advocates of American values — critical advocates who tried to advance freedom and equality further than Americans had yet succeeded in doing — and took on the role of adversaries of society.
The students who were exempted from serving their country during the Vietnam War condemned not themselves but their country, and many sought tenured positions in academe to undermine what they considered a militaristic, imperialist, racist, exploitative, sexist, homophobic — the list of complaints grew as the years went on — country.
English departments have been packed by deconstructionists who insist that Shakespeare is no better than rap music, and history departments with multiculturalists who insist that all societies are morally equal except our own, which is morally inferior.
A revealing couple of paragraphs. Apparently it is not professorial indoctrination per se that bothers Barone, it is professors suggesting that America has some things to answer for that gets to him.
We can safely ignore Barone’s unsubstantiated slurs against English and History Departments. He has no idea about the day-to-day activites of such departments. He is merely repeating the stereotypes of others. Of course, if you scour the country, you can find a few professors who have some outre views about their subject. But that is hardly a sound basis for describing universities as closed-minded and intellectually dishonest.
More serious is Barone’s mindless hate towards both professors and people who opposed the Vietnam War. His charge here is simply laughable. You can count on one hand the number of people who used their student status to avoid the draft who then went on to become academics, and I would guess it is a small percentage of that small number who did so to promote an anti-American world view. Barone has no basis at all for his charge.
And perhaps Barone needs to be reminded that he was a student at Harvard University and Yale Law School for most of the sixties. I can find no evidence that he took time out to serve in Vietnam.
Contrary to popular perception, conservatives, of both the social and libertarian varieties, are a dime a dozen in academe. What is rare is the sort of mindless right-wingery of people like Barone. People like Barone hate academe not for the patently flimsy reasons put forth in essays like this one. Rather, it is the fact that people who make their living from careful thought and deep study of subtle issues are not likely to support the causes so dear to the lunatic fringe represented by Barone.
Thus, religious scientists can be found in virtually every science department in the country. But you will not find very many creationists because creationism is amply refuted by the available evidence. And you will not find many fundamentalists or evangelicals, because those varieties of religion are especially hostile to the spirit of free and open inquiry. Many economists favor low taxes, small government, and limited regulation. But you will find very few who will endorse the lunacy of supply-side economics, with its fanatical emphasis on tax rates as the sole determinant of the health of the economy. And you will not find many who will endorse the economic policies of Ronald Reagan, because those policies are so blatantly in conflict with the basic principles of sound economics. Just in my own experience I know of political scientists and philosophers from a wide range of political persuasions. But you will be hard-pressed to find any who will discuss Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush with the level of obsequity demanded by the Barone’s of the world. On issue after issue the right-wing holds views that are at odds with the available evidence. College professors tend to point that out. And then hacks like Barone write essays like this one.
This is why the right had to form pseuo-universities (aka think tanks) to disseminate their views. Universities are hostile to open mindedness and intellectual honesty? How about The Heritage Foundation, or any of the other right-wing think tanks? How about cable news, which is almost wall-to-wall conservatives? How about the Bush administration, which is careful to fill its halls solely with people willing to tow the party line?
Universities are virtually the only place left in American culture where getting it right actually counts for something, and that is why the right hates them so much. As with any large and complex institution you can find instances of bad behavior and unfairness. Of course there are people like Ward Churchill out there who give professors a bad name. But those rare extremes have nothing to do with the day to day minutiae of teaching undergraduates the fine points of your discipline, or with producing novel and interesting research to make your own little dent in the ocean of human ignorance. And they definitely have nothing to do with the real reasons right-wingers attack universities with such venom.