On Conservative Student Writers

(Thanks to Free Exchange on Campus for pointing out the Campus Magazine piece.)

In an article entitled “Liberal Faculty: A Debate,” two Vanderbilt University students, Douglas Kurdziel and Luke Bidikov, offer slightly divergent views on liberal/conservative “balance” within university faculties. As these are student voices and opinions, I am going to treat them with all the respect I provide my own students. After all, as a good “liberal,” I try to encourage my students to learn to think and explore for themselves—just as I would like these two to learn to do. That doesn’t mean, though, that I will go easy on them.

Both students admit, at least tacitly, that liberal professors do not indoctrinate—at least, not successfully. And they are right to this extent: we don’t even try. We don’t want to convert our students to our own viewpoints but to provide the tools they need for examining and defending (or even changing) their own. These two are certainly on the road to mastery of the tools of thought but, as a look at their essays shows, they are not quite there yet.

Recognition of the general faculty desire to instruct, not convert is crucial to any understanding of American colleges and universities, but it is one that neither writer really considers in the arguments presented. At the heart of the mindset behind real adherence to the principles of a “liberal” education is the idea that students are to be provided with the tools for learning, for learning really comes through the students’ own efforts and not through wholesale acceptance of the views of others. Teach, don’t convince: this could be our faculty credo. Our success in adhering to this is supported by the fact that faculties are not bothered by the idea (asserted by these two writers) that our students graduate with a more conservative mindset than when they entered. But both young writers base their arguments on the assumption that all professors, both conservative and liberal, are trying to convince, not teach.

Many conservatives seem to assume, as these two do and as David Horowitz does, that college professors see their job as indoctrination and not education. So, they argue for that “balance” between liberals and conservatives on the faculty, believing that the contradictory attempts at indoctrination will even each other out. Thing is, political viewpoints really have little to do with what goes on in the classroom. By insisting on “balance,” these people are arguing to change that, to make politics a prime classroom focus—something we liberals don’t want. Even a class on something as politically charged as gay issues is not an attempt at bringing politics into the classroom but to open students’ eyes, to get them to see the world more fully and clearly than they have before. The students needn’t exit the class as adherents to some gay “agenda,” simply as citizens with a greater understanding of the forces behind that “agenda.”

There’s much self-congratulation in the two pieces, a feeling that the writers, as conservatives, are able to get more out of the college experience today than are liberal students. I’m glad they both feel that their experiences at Vanderbilt are worthwhile, but I wish they would open their eyes a little bit more (that’s my teacher personality coming through) and see that there is much more going on.

In what follows, I’ll point out a few problems with the essays, but simply as aids for improvement.

In one of the most famous play reviews of the twentieth century, Dorothy Parker wrote of Katherine Hepburn’s performance in The Lake as running “the gamut of emotions from A to B.” Kurdziel seems to be a bit of a Hepburn in his view of American history:

College campuses have been the birthplace for progressive moments throughout American history, ranging from the Vietnam War protests of the 1960s to the living wage debates of today.

Before the 1960s (a period covering the bulk of American history) few campuses (with the notable exception of the City College of New York) were the birthplaces of progressive movements of any sort. One should be careful of phrases like “throughout American history.” They signal to the reader than a gross generalization is coming. Here, the problem is worse, for Kurdziel then makes it look like he thinks American history starts in the 1960s, something he surely does not believe.

He goes on:

While students may encounter these ideas, their core beliefs, instilled in them by their upbringing, will allow them to stand firm. Even so, conservatives should not stop their efforts to get more conservative professors in academia and to establish a larger conservative presence on campuses.

This is a foundationalist argument, where belief trumps evidence. That beliefs were “instilled” makes them more worthy? Is “standing firm” in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary something to be lauded? Perhaps the “core beliefs” do have validity, but they should not be protected without examination. If bringing more conservative professors to campus makes it easier for conservative students to avoid examining their beliefs, then doing so is wrong. A better argument would be that conservative professors can better challenge the beliefs of liberal students—but we liberal professors do that already (witness that number of liberals we “turn into” conservatives).

Almost always, if I sense a gathering consensus within a class, I will defend the opposing view, challenging my students to defend their belief, no matter what it is. This is a core liberal methodology; it is close to the heart of what makes the liberal arts “liberal.” Willingness to do this is much more important in university teaching than is the particular professor’s political leaning.

A little later, Kurdziel writes:

As professors preach to their students, they will bicker about minutiae, rather than clarifying and strengthening their arguments.

But that’s just what we don’t do. Sure, not all professors do their jobs or do them well, but few of us are ever willing to preach. We are teachers, not preachers, and we do understand the difference.

Soon, there follows an interesting comment, one that may be at the heart of the recent right-wing attacks on academia, but one that reflects little of the reality of American culture:

If liberal professors have a monopoly on academic discourse, then mainstream culture follow suit.

If this were the case, then American culture would have moved far to the left over the last thirty years. Clearly, it hasn’t. As both Kurdziel and Bidikov admit, not even college students “follow suit.” How can Kurdziel argue that any academic “discourse” will cause “mainstream culture” to follow it? All evidence is to the contrary.

Kurdziel finally claims that:

The most important argument for attracting more conservative professors to universities focuses not on the ramifications of allowing liberal academics to dominate the discussion, but instead on what will happen if conservative students have no one to guide them.

But this simply shows his lack of understanding of the role of college professors. We aren’t there as guides but as teachers. We don’t want to tell our students what to believe, but how to learn about the world. If we guide at all, it’s to an understanding of methodology and an ability to negotiate the complexities of thought and the world. This is the difference between a college of liberal arts and one devoted to religious training. There, the intent clearly is to guide. There, panic would reign if it were discovered that graduating students were less religious (for example) than incoming.

There is plenty of “guidance” for both liberals and conservatives in our culture. Our colleges don’t need to get into that business.

Which brings us to Luke Bidikov’s essay. He writes:

Liberal students[…] do not have to hear opposing views; they can turn off Fox News if they want to. Conservative students, however, cannot stop listening to their professors. Liberal students, unlike conservatives, can completely immerse themselves in a bubble, devoid of conservative influences.

Given the conservative dominance of our national debate for a generation now, this is an impossible argument to sustain. Even on the most isolated college campus, students are bombarded by conservative ideology. Also, though most conservative students are quite willing to listen, learn, and debate, there is a surprising number who refuse to listen at all, encasing themselves in a bubble of iron belief, one much stronger than anything a real liberal will willingly construct. There’s another danger in this kind of statement: Bidikov is writing as though he really understands the experience of liberal students. Not being one, he cannot really tell what their experience might be.

Bidikov’s essay contains other assertions that cannot be supported. He says that:

colleges convince slightly more Democrats to become Republicans than the other way around.

While it may be true that there is a motion from Democrat to Republican during college years, it does not follow that colleges “convince” students one way or another. More likely, the students become more influenced by the wider media culture with its strong conservative taint. Bidikov even shows that he knows this, arguing that, in the face of liberal ideas:

right-minded students [are able] to carefully shape and mold their arguments (drawing on the wide range of conservative media available to them) until they become more convincing, more rational, and more truthful. Constantly asserting one’s opinion against adversity improves one’s clarity of thought and promotes ease of argumentation.

He follows that with a statement that contradicts what he and Kurdziel have already stated, that college students graduate more conservative than they entered:

After years of agreeing with their peers and professors, liberal students leave college with a mindset that is far to the left of the average American. Conservatives, on the other hand, leave college with a full range of well-defined, persuasive ideas.

Actually, college students graduate with political attitudes remarkably similar to that of the general American population. And conservative students, if these two are representative examples, certainly don’t show “a full range of well-defined, persuasive ideas” that is any greater than that shown by liberal students.

Some students do leave college with a good grounding in logic, an understanding of the scientific method, and familiarity with the avenues for research in a number of fields–as well as a knowledge of history and culture. These, however, cannot be characterized as predominately liberal or predominately conservative. Ideology, in fact, has nothing to do with a student’s success or failure in education.

When Kurdziel and Bidikov learn that, they will have taken another important step in their own educations.

Good luck to them!