By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor
I had been given fair warning by several of my closest friends: Florida State University was a hotbed of liberalism and—in some cases—radicalism. After high school, I had been a daydreamer and extra-curricularist engaged in a variety of projects (youth politics, local and state politics, and an early print incarnation of this very publication) while attending the local community college. My friends had dashed off as quickly as possible to the big college towns. When the time came to transfer to Florida State, these same friends had cautioned me against boisterous expressions of conservatism—after all, they knew I had self-identified as a Republican at age six, campaigned for Nixon in junior high school and supported Ronald Reagan in high school.
But after a few semesters of English and Communications courses, there had been no incidents that struck me as extreme. Sure, there were students, and plenty of them, protesting U.S. involvement in Central America (there were wars and struggles waging in Nicaragua and El Salvador) and advocating for peace with the Soviets through unilateral nuclear disarmament, but not once had there been an instance of a professorial attempt to “correct” the wickedness of my political ways. After a year, I assumed that either the reports of the campus radicalism were greatly exaggerated, or that my easy-going, good-natured center-right adaptability (I fashioned myself after Jack Kemp, the “progressive” conservative well-liked among liberal and minority circles) had imbued me with sufficient likeability to avoid being called-out.
Then, in a shock, it hit me hard…in poetry class, no less. I was taking a poetry workshop with a dozen other students. We met only once per week for about 90 minutes, during which time we would read aloud one or two of our recent works, then, subject ourselves to a round-table critique while the professor moderated. It was a user-friendly, interactive way to learn the art of compression and the joy of finding one’s voice. There were rarely fireworks, even when the themes were provocative, sexual or confessional. But during this workshop session I would meet the face of Karl Marx. I had just read aloud a deliberately humorous poem about the dozens of golf balls which ended up hidden in the little wooded area behind the modest duplex in which my law school roommate and I lived, adjacent to a tricky dogleg along the city-owned golf course. In the poem I described the lost balls in Cold War terms: rogue spies now in from the cold, patient guerillas embedded like the Viet Cong or the Khmer Rouge, escapees seeking asylum from the dictatorships of Fidel Castro, Nicolai Ceacescu or Marshall Tito.
This did not go well. Though the other dozen students around the table laughed and even applauded when I had finished reading it, the instructor—whom I shall refer to as Professor X—grimly shook his head, then, lambasted me with a ten minute tirade, hardly gentle, about the perils of such political incorrectness and the grave consequences to the trajectory of my academic future. Castro, he said, had brought universal health care and nationwide literacy to his people; it was an insult to the oppressed people of Southeast Asia to compare them to golf balls; it was the U.S., not the Russians, who remained at war since the 1950s (he seemed to forget about the Soviet adventures in Afghanistan) and only an elitist or a rich man’s tool would pride themselves on living next to a golf course when only a few blocks away from his classroom there were homeless people living in cardboard boxes thanks to Reaganomics. I shrank in my chair while my classmates watched me with pity in their eyes. It was last time anyone read a poem with any overtone or hint of political material in that workshop.
Nevertheless, I survived the big university with my instincts intact and without any further re-education. Many of my colleagues did not, especially those students who sheared away from my path toward social sciences, law, and political science. Many of those who went on to teach as graduate students migrated from the center to the left, and a few migrated from the right toward the center. I mellowed anyway, but hardly the result of Florida State University. And though I've never played a round of golf in my life, unless you count the ones involving windmills and plastic waterfalls, I still have some of the rescued balls from my backyard in Tallahassee.
A new book by Neil Gross, Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? (Harvard Press, 2013), asks the age old question—older, some might argue, than the tired questions of why conservatives have such a deep mistrust of the media: why is academia an environment which fosters liberal views?
The question dates most famously back to 1951, when a young, intellectually energetic provocateur named William F. Buckley, then a recent graduate of Yale, published a controversial book called God and Man at Yale.
God and Man at Yale was a scathing exposition of what Buckley saw as the mindless hypocrisies, relentless relativism and strident secularism of the eastern academic establishment. Using in many cases little more than direct quotes—from tenured professors in classrooms, from the Yale administrators of the day, from Yale publications, from required readings and textbooks, and from prominent alumni—Buckley’s book exposed the hallowed halls of the Ivy League, and its complex outreach and entrenchment into the world of business and government, as a once venerable institution now co-opted by what Buckley saw as the fraud of equalitarianism, economic leveling, moral relativism and an institutionally-sanctioned toppling of classical pillars.
Many in the press immediately denounced the book as the work of a troubled and ignorant reactionary, and outrage seemed to come from all directions: mainstream and elite academics, rarified literary circles, political analysts and newspaper editorialists, and a variety of Yale alumni. But the young Buckley also discovered he had an instant following: those scant few members of the conservative press applauded the book for its fresh insights and its firsthand accounts of an East Coast and Ivy League academic establishment—as they had suspected all along—deeply entrenched in pro-collectivist beliefs and anti-religious thought. Rightist thinkers and philosophers praised the book for its audacity and poise, and for the fact that it raised valid questions about the quality and caliber—and moral center—of some of the most revered classrooms in the nation.
A source of intellectual contention in the 1950s, Buckley’s book would remain a provocative and highly charged indictment of American academic conditions for many decades, and in many ways God and Man at Yale would—for some conservatives—prove to be strikingly prescient in its assessment of higher education. In the years after its publication, the perception of an academic milieu disconnected from Main Street America has grown larger, and using his own studies—as well as the data provided by others—Gross shows us how even polls within the nation’s colleges and universities show a predisposition toward liberal thought by the time students consider graduate work.
Gross takes us directly and quickly into the realm of how this happens, how it has developed as the standard template for many colleges, and how the process self-replicates over time. Much of the cycle is incestuous and remarkably easy to understand: students become protégés of more senior instructors, who shape them and mentor them into academic colleagues fully socialized into the university’s community. Academia has long been a strikingly closed shop—once ensconced in those ivy covered buildings and poorly lit halls, a graduate student rarely ventures off the reservation.
But Gross sees more complex forces at work than mere replication of progressive Mini-Me’s. In the first few chapters, he debunks the most popular theories long recycled by those on the right and the left: liberals are smarter than conservatives and therefore prone to advanced degrees; social factors pre-screen potential graduate students, selecting for advancement liberals from elitist backgrounds and culling out the working class—or working-class ethics-driven—students; that conservatives are more motivated by income after college and that liberals are less inclined toward career decisions based on earnings. Though these explanations seem simple enough, Gross concludes they are distractions from what is really happening.
Gross proposes an alternative template, and in chapter three he says “the professoriate has developed such a strong reputation for liberalism that smart young liberals today are apt to think of academic work as something that might be appropriate and suitable for them to pursue, whereas smart young conservatives see academe as foreign territory and embark on other career paths.”
Gross also explores the social life of campus, with its complex tapestry of young people from nearly every part of the larger societal fabric—all jammed into one larger community of daily and hourly activity. College Republican groups and other conservative extra-curricular organizations, for example, often feel that they alone provide the essential foil to the overriding liberal atmosphere, though Gross points out that students active in such campus activities are the least likely to consider teaching as a career. Alternately, students deeply involved in liberal social causes and campus demonstrations in favor of left-leaning political movements will likely be supported—directly or indirectly—by their instructors and older grad student peers: the process of self-screening and self-replication at work.
Gross’s book is comprehensive and advanced in its formulations and data, and it covers a lot of ground in only a little more than 300 pages. It is not, however, light reading. Unlike several books I consumed quickly earlier this month, this book requires patience and fortitude, though it was rewarding each time I moved to the end of a chapter and synthesized his well-crafted points. Gross is also strategically neutral; his Canadian academic credentials allow him to look with a detached and unemotional eye at conditions on the American campus, and perhaps give him a slight advantage in the sometimes shrill Red State Blue State divide.
This book is well-written and I recommend it to anyone who wants a full understanding of how our institutions of higher learning affect the political identity of college graduates.