Maybe American higher education was never all that serious about, you know, the education portion of its name. After more than a decade of teaching in the Ivy League, the philosopher George Santayana dubbed Harvard and Yale the nation’s toy Athens and toy Sparta. He actually meant it as a compliment—as much a compliment, anyway, as he could muster. Santayana resigned his Harvard professorship in 1912 and moved to Europe.
But something especially odd does seem to be happening on American campuses these days. I confess to a little schadenfreude about the widely reported situation of Laura Kipnis, the Northwestern University professor whose feminist essay in praise of faculty-student dating prompted her school to investigate her for violations of the antidiscrimination provisions of Title IX. Kipnis is a widely published controversialist, and over the years she fanned the feminist flames that have now tried to burn her. The revolution, as the old story goes, devours its children.
Still, from symbolic mattresses and op-eds against Ovid at Columbia, to students interrogated about their Jewishness at UCLA and Stanford, to the stories of lawsuits filed by the undergraduates accused by their colleges of rape, to the reports of the Boston University teacher who used her Twitter account for anti-white-male messages, to the creation of “safe spaces” lest a public lecture trigger a bad memory in someone, to . . . On and on it seems to go, each fresh day bringing some fresh account of militant outrage at American colleges. “Only the dead have seen the end of war,” Santayana once warned us. Certainly only the dead have seen the end of campus upset.
It wasn’t always thus. I’m not thinking of some supposedly idyllic moment in the 1840s, or the 1910s, or the 1950s. I mean that 20 years ago, in the mid-1990s, at least a small sense of relief was felt by a number of people. Back in 1987, Allan Bloom had out-Santayana’d Santayana with his bestselling lament, The Closing of the American Mind. In the early 1990s Roger Kimball and Dinesh D’Souza added widely read books on the radicalism of college faculty—even as the collapse of Soviet communism from 1989 to 1991 deflated the hopes of the Marxist professors they wrote about.
It all seemed to add up to a slow but real generational retreat from an academic world still dominated by its proud memories of 1960s student protests. I remember the Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon explaining, around 1996, that she suspected the peak of political correctness had passed—since schools like Harvard and Princeton would feel embarrassed if they didn’t have one person on the faculty they could point to as a conservative. Not more than one, perhaps, but nonetheless, it seemed to mark a change that she imagined would soon filter from the Ivy League out into the rest of America’s schools. The poet Dana Gioia proposed something similar around that time, after he’d been approached by a major foundation for names of conservative authors it might support in order to blunt the charge of its being merely a subsidiary of liberalism.
But by the time of the protests against the invasion of Iraq, any sense of institutional movement toward the middle was entirely gone. I gave a college reading on a poetry panel in those days, only to be asked, as the first question from the audience, how I could pretend to be interested in literature when I worked among people who supported the Iraq war. In street protests and marches on campuses—in the re-revolt of the intelligentsia—those years of 2002 and 2003 saw the left roar back to full recreation of what it imagined the 1960s had been like. The rightness of one’s politics was again the measure of the rightness of one’s mind.
In the 12 years since, the politicizing of education has only grown, increasing its intensity with every victory won. No American faculty is embarrassed by its lack of nonleftist viewpoints; some are outraged by the presence of the few conservatives who remain. And conservative has proved a rolling term, where present dogma discovers oppressive heresy in what were the conventional liberal positions of only a few years before.