I have always rejected the David Horowitz-style argument that our universities are indoctrination camps for left-wing politics. These claims seem to draw extensively on innuendo, rumor, and myth, with very little in the way of concrete evidence. Long, detailed investigations of such claims, such as Michael Berube’s 2006 book What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?, often reveal accusations based on half-truths or out-and-out fabrication. And though my own impressions are of course anecdotal and limited, in my time within the university system as a faculty brat, an undergraduate, a grad student, and a teacher, at institutions both small and huge, public and private, research-oriented and teaching-oriented, I’ve found faculty to be remarkably respectful to conservative students and their points of view. In fact, many professors are so sensitive to the impression that they’re biased against their conservative students that they bend over backwards to accomodate them. I’m just a limited observer, and absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. But the best evidence available to me suggests that the contemporary American college is not inhospitable to conservative students.
But, god, we seem desperate to give the opposite impression.
I am just consistently agog at how little strategic thinking there is among my fellow lefty academics, particularly grad students, when it comes to how we present ourselves publicly on the issue of conservatives within our schools. Recently, there have been controversies concerning conservative student resistance to material assigned on college campuses. Some incoming Duke freshmen objected to having to read Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, on the grounds that it conflicts with their Christian beliefs. Similarly, students at the University of North Carolina have objected to the syllabus for a class on 9/11. Both of these incidents occur in the midst of a national conversation on trigger warnings, safe spaces, and other tactics deployed by progressive students and educators to ameliorate the purported trauma of being exposed to uncomfortable material at college.
Not being a religious person, I’m unmoved by appeals to religious convictions as a reason to do your college reading. Being educated about 9/11, its antecedents, and the broad history of American foreign policy, I’m unmoved by claims about the proposed curriculum in that UNC class. In both cases I would argue that the discomfort that students feel is precisely the goal of a liberal education, that exposure to the controversial and the challenging is why we bother with this enterprise in the first place. But as an academic, and a socialist, in the humanities, I would be very very careful about how I made that case. I would be strategic in my discussion. I would pay attention to how an unsympathetic reader might cast my resistance. I would take great care to insist that this rejection comes from my view on the purpose of a university education, and not from my disagreements with the politics of the students in question. I would make the conversation about procedure and not politics. Because we are threatened, we have been threatened, and the people arrayed against us are relentless in using our politics as fuel for defunding our programs and imposing rules on us from above.
In contrast, many academics I know have reflexively, unthinkingly laughed off these conservative complaints. They’ve bombarded social media with “lols” and “wtfs.” They’ve mocked these students as rubes. They’ve given every outward appearance of not even attempting to evaluate these students’ claims with the same care, sensitivity, and fairness that they evaluate the claims of progressive students invoking the language of trauma and triggers. In other words, they’ve rushed to confirm every complaint conservative critics of the academy has made, and the most damning one in particular: that we treat our progressive students with more kindness and approval than our conservative students, and that we use the formal procedures of the university to do it. All I keep thinking to myself is, Christ, these people must love Scott Walker.
And, again, I don’t think any of them is actually out to hurt Republican students. I think if you actually went into their classrooms, in the vast majority of cases, you’d find that they are sensitive and caring towards their conservative students. It’s when they consider conservative students in the abstract — and publicly, on social media — that they are dismissive and snide. What an utterly unforced error! It makes it so, so hard for us to defend ourselves. Please, you guys: don’t mistake social media for your graduate humanities seminar or your trips to the bar after class.
Unlike many of my peers, I do think that there are direct and relevant connections between efforts by progressive students to regulate content Look: I have already said more about trigger warnings than I want to. I will simply note that every trigger warning necessarily contains ideological presumptions and political baggage. Someone I know said “I don’t want to ban American Sniper on campus, but I do want it to carry a trigger warning as war propaganda and Islamaphobia.” That trigger warning preempts the very critical conversation that we should be having about it! It’s a classic “when did you stop beating your wife?” tactic. It’s tautological; it presumes precisely the issue in question. Clint Eastwood, who made the damn movie, called it an antiwar film. I disagree with him; I quite despised it, actually, and for political reasons most of all. But I don’t pretend that my opinion on this question amounts to proof positive. Every trigger warning ever devised makes presumptions about the nature of trauma, the treatment of PTSD, and which kinds of content are potentially offensive. You would think that a bunch of close-reading academics would recognize that.
That doesn’t mean I’m in blanket opposition to trigger warnings. If you want to use them, as an educator, I find that a perfectly valid use of your freedom as an instructor. But please, think about what presumed values you’re demonstrating in what you choose to call offensive.
Some have said to me “conservatives do have the right to request trigger warnings or alternative material in their classes, just as their progressive peers do. They just have to make a similar argument about trauma, safe spaces, and self-care.” In other words, conservative students do have the same rights as progressive, they just have to become rhetorically and analytically indistinguishable from them in order to invoke those rights. Corey Robin is fond of quoting Anatole France in saying that the law, in its majestic equality, prevents both rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges. Well, this is the lefty academic equivalent: both liberal and conservative students alike have the right to invoke intersectional feminism as they work to enforce norms and regulations on campus.
Both students who don’t want to be exposed to content they find traumatic and students who don’t want to be exposed to content they find unChristian are making an appeal to a value system. If we accept the former and deny the latter, we’re making the kind of preemptive value distinction that we keep telling the Scott Walkers of the world we don’t make. What we should say to both groups is this:
“You’re going to be exposed to stuff you don’t like at college. We will try to give you a heads up about the stuff that might upset you, but what is considered potentially offensive is an inherently political, value-laden question, and we aren’t always going to agree with your prior beliefs about that question. We cannot guarantee that everything you might be offended by will come with a warning, and we are under no obligation to attempt to provide one. We will try to work with you with compassion and respect, but ultimately it’s your responsibility to deal with the curriculum that we impose, and not our responsibility to make sure that it doesn’t bother you. If you can’t handle that, you don’t belong in college.”
People are really, really invested in consistency and fairness. And if academics don’t make a huge improvement in projecting them, they will be the razor with which our throats are slit.