Note: An earlier version of this essay appeared on the American Thinker website.
Recently sixteen faculty members from three of our most distinguished universities—Harvard, Princeton, and Yale—wrote an open letter to the Class of 2021. The letter, short and to the point, advises freshmen to eschew “fashionable opinions” and to think for themselves. Scrupulously devoid of falling on either side of the political divide that cleaves our country, the letter admonishes students:
The love of truth and the desire to attain it should motivate you to think for yourself. The central point of a college education is to seek truth and to learn the skills and acquire the virtues necessary to be a lifelong truth-seeker. Open-mindedness, critical thinking, and debate are essential to discovering the truth. Moreover, they are our best antidotes to bigotry.
Thoughtfully, the writers include a definition of “bigotry”:
Merriam-Webster’s first definition of the word ‘bigot’ is a person ‘who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices.’ The only people who need fear open-minded inquiry and robust debate are the actual bigots, including those on campuses or in the broader society who seek to protect the hegemony of their opinions by claiming that to question those opinions is itself bigotry.
Can’t you just feel the self-satisfied simpering of the professors who gaily conclude their missive with a cheery, “Good luck to you in college!”?
Too Little Too Late
Were I not cynical and battle-scarred from a lifetime spent as a conservative in academia, I might find it within myself to send-up a rousing, “Hip!” in support of the letter, concluding that at least it is a first step in the long process of recovering some semblance of campus sanity. But I don’t believe that. I believe that what this letter is is nothing more than another example of the kind of posturing that is second nature to academic types. They make the right noises, but there is no sincerity behind the words. Unless and until academics are willing to point a finger at themselves, call out the ultra-liberal and Marxist bullies among their brethren, and own up to the decades spent stifling and belittling conservative views, I am not interested in their mealy-mouthed squeaks about “thinking for oneself.”
Think about it: if the very people calling for a pause in the intellectual genocide of conservatism on campus can’t themselves name the perpetrators, how can they expect freshmen to heed their insipid advice?
When I wrote the piece above for American Thinker, I had no idea that it would create a tempest in a teapot, courtesy of Tucker Carlson. Not the man so much as his acolytes, who insist that I am “wrong” and “should take a walk” because Carlson gave the letter his seal of approval. Given the topic, that these views were expressed without a smidgen of irony gave me a few good belly laughs.
In fairness, perhaps my American Thinker submission favored brevity over detail. It’s true I did not cite the chapter-and-verse of forty years of experience spent within colleges and universities as an undergraduate, graduate student, staff member, faculty member, administrator, executive, and officer of the corporation. I taught or otherwise worked at a community college, a state college, a state university, an independent (private) college, and an independent university; my own education combines schooling at public and independent institutions. I’ve been an adjunct, but I have never been tenured. In sum I’d put the breadth and depth of my career up against that of anybody purporting to have more experience in higher education than I do. Ain’t gonna happen.
So let me spell it out for Tucker’s fans, and explain why I find the letter from sixteen “courageous” faculty members, distinguished though they may be, so lacking.
It Changes Exactly Nothing
The letter is addressed to incoming freshman, higher education’s virgins. These pristine individuals—at least until they attend orientation/ indoctrination—have no dog in the fights that take place on campus. They did not create the sorry situation into which they have walked, and they lack the agency to change it. Never mind they also lack the authority, experience, or most of all the responsibility to change it. But—intoning to these children feels so darn good, and apparently will get you a ticket to be on TV, so why not? It’s not as if you are actually exerting yourself to change the situation you supposedly deplore.
It Does Not Call for Curricular Reform
Any tenured faculty member has it within his power to stop the intellectual genocide of conservativism on campus. Where were these sixteen courageous faculty members when their programs, departments, divisions, and colleges were engaged in curricular “reform”? The proliferation of “studies” departments and programs, at the expense of traditional disciplines, has taken its inevitable—purposeful—toll on not only what students learn but also on the role models who in turn shape how they think. Trading in Summa Theologica for Critical Race Theory: An Introduction will yield exactly the kind of emotional thinkers swayed by “narrative” instead of evidence that you think it will.
Faculty members through curriculum committees and other conventions control what gets taught—and the takeaway lessons students derive from their classes. The towel was thrown in, stomped to threads, set afire a long ago on using the curriculum to demonstrate how to think critically and to equip students with the broad history and philosophical principles they need in order to maintain an “open mind.” Where were the sixteen professors then? I have no idea—but I’m willing to bet they are down with any screwball course that comes along. Courses such as “London & Paris Fashion Since 1750,” “Sex, Life, and Generation,” or “Extraterrestrials in History,” all offered by the history department at Yale this semester.
The truth is, a determined student can find courses, maybe even lots of courses, that will help hone her ability to think and will give her access to things she did not know before to think about. Yale’s history department is offering a bundle of great-sounding courses this term, not just the fluff I cherry-picked above to make what nonetheless I believe is a sad and valid point. Many baccalaureate curricula today put most of their eggs in trendy, du jour topics that by design fail to give students broad or even alternative perspectives on foundational fields of knowledge.
Faculty Are All Alike
The most important reason, though, why I believe this by-now-forgotten letter amounts to no more than a hiccup in a hurricane is that there is not a scintilla of self-awareness within its sentences and paragraphs. Take a good long look in the mirror, professors, if you want to see on whom to place the blame.
Faculty treasure, as they well should, their “primary responsibility” to find, recruit, and recommend appointment, tenure, and promotion of their colleagues. That fellow experts in a field should have the major voice in identifying other experts makes perfect sense. Except when it doesn’t work.
And it hasn’t worked for years. This is why and how the intellectual genocide of conservatives on campus has become institutionalized. Faculty hire only the candidate who shares their belief system. Even a thinker as squishy as Nicholas Kristof, when confronted with facts, admits,
Universities are the bedrock of progressive values, but the one kind of diversity that universities disregard is ideological and religious. We’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.
Study after study after personal narrative (see the above-cited Kristof essay for links to the studies and narrative) confirm that just like the Irish in Boston, “conservatives need not apply.” An excellent round-up article by Inside Higher Ed editor Scott Jaschik cites additional research that confirms the blindingly obvious: you have a better chance of winning Powerball than you do of randomly running into a conservative English professor. It just isn’t going to happen. When a tiny group of guilt-stricken (at least they should be guilt-stricken) professors at the end of their careers look back on what their go-along-get-along hiring practices have wrought and try to make their culpability for the sorry state of higher education go away by pushing off the solution on babes-in-the-wood freshmen, it enrages me.
You really want to encourage students to think for themselves? Then start by hiring the next conservative or libertarian who walks through the door. Start advertising for faculty positions in The National Review, the American Spectator, and the Washington Examiner. Require sensitivity training for all Marxists. In other words—do all the things you have done for years to “diversify the faculty.”
Please stop blaming the victims—your students—and clean up your own act.