The Magazine

Forbidden City

The left-wing stranglehold on academia.

Mar 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 27 • By MARK BAUERLEIN
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Defenders of academia claim that while professors are liberal, few of them bring their politics into the classroom in a heavy-handed way. Gross challenges that assertion by examining courses offered during the fall 2011 semester at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin department of sociology. While some appeared neutral—“Marriage and the Family,” “Criminology”—-others had an obviously leftist perspective: “Feminism and Sociological Theory,” “Intercultural Dialogues,” “Environmental Stewardship and Social Justice,” “Class, State, and Ideology: An Introduction to Marxist Sociology.” The same themes and angles prevail in anthropology, history, literature, communications, education, geography, and “in nearly all programs in ethnic studies, women’s and gender studies, cultural studies, and social work.” 

Another liberal theory holds that conservatives attack academia out of “status anxiety,” that is, the feeling on the part of a heretofore-dominant group that its power is fading. Here, we have white male Protestants upset that women and minorities and secular visions have taken over. But in his work, Gross found that, for example, “more than two-thirds of evangelicals think that colleges do welcome the faithful,” and so “there would appear to be no widespread perception among them that higher education per se represents a threat to Christian values or their way of life.” Gross also had an assistant comb through the interviews to check whether “any interviewees expressed—even in a veiled fashion—frustration with their life situation or a sense that contemporary society was leaving them in the dust. None did.”

Yet another account of the campaign against academia asserts that its spokesmen serve as tools for the power elite, getting paid to issue broadsides against professors who expose the underhanded dealings of capitalists and corporations. But when Gross investigates those leading figures, he uncovers a different account. Buckley didn’t begin his academic critique as a mouthpiece hired by wealthy conservatives, but as an undergraduate at Yale appalled at the stigmatization taking place in his courses. Stephen Balch started the NAS not at the behest of a benefactor, but because he realized that his colleagues at John Jay College were fostering radical proletarianism in students. These tales, Gross says, gainsay the idea that conservative critics are “ideological mercenaries in the employ of the power elite.” 

Why is academia liberal, then? Gross’s data indicate that it isn’t because liberals and conservatives have different values or mental habits, or that liberals discriminate against right-leaning graduate students and job candidates. Rather, it is because academia has a reputation for liberalism, and conservative undergraduates decide on their own not to continue in the field. 

The key moment, Gross maintains, is the decision whether or not to go to graduate school. Young conservatives may not know all that much about academia at the faculty level, but popular stereotypes and a few off-putting experiences in class can sufficiently discourage them from pursuing academia as a site for success. A freshman orientation session that divides white males from everyone else, incessant talk about diversity, multiculturalist reading assignments, and so on may not bother them that much (and they can always find safe spaces such as College Republicans), but such things do convince young conservatives that staying on campus as a career move is foolish. An English major who reveres Great Books needs only one occasion of a teaching assistant ridiculing him for a dead-white-male fixation to decide, “I don’t need this.”

Gross’s thesis sounds plausible, and the data support it. It leaves conservative critics with a disarming irony, though: The more critics expose liberal indoctrination and intolerance, the more they reinforce the image of academia that makes young conservatives shun it. As Gross puts it, “Decades of antiprofessorial rhetoric have made academia seem an even less desirable home for young conservatives than it would otherwise be.” When Bill O’Reilly and John Stossel discussed affirmative action for conservative professors, as they did this past December, did they believe that it would inspire more 22-year-olds on the right to apply for graduate study in Princeton’s English department, which tells prospective students that “we offer a wide range of theoretical specializations in fields such as feminist theory, gender studies, psychoanalysis, Marxism, New Historicism, environmental studies, political and social theory, and cultural studies”?

Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University, is the author, most recently, of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.