The Commiecrats are coming! Hide the silverware!

Maybe this is a sign of the times? Jeff Jacoby has an op-ed piece in today’s Boston Globe titled “A left-wing monopoly on campuses”, in which he makes the very original point of decrying the domination of universities by a “radical, aggressive and deeply intolerant” thing he calls “campus leftism.” As evidence for this phenomenon he cites surveys from such right-wing sources as American Enterprise magazine and the Center for the Study of Popular Culture (check out this link to David Horowitz’s project to sell his freaky version of far-right Trotskyism to people who have no idea what he is up to!) indicating that not very many university professors are Republicans.

Wait, did he really put a column in a major paper just with a little bit of thin evidence from dubious sources showing something that is only tangentially related to the thesis? Actually, there’s more: he has a survey showing that something short of a majority of students say that their professors sometimes mention their political views when they talk. Shocking! It leads Mr Jacoby to this conclusion:

"Academic freedom is not only meant to protect professors; it is also supposed to ensure students' right to learn without being molested. When instructors use their classrooms to indoctrinate and propagandize, they cheat those students and betray the academic mission they are entrusted with. That should be intolerable to honest men and women of every stripe -- liberals and conservatives alike."

Now I am really confused. He says that we are “molesting” students, which would of course be a criminal offense. And he says that we “use our classrooms” (does he really mean the rooms?) “to indoctrinate and propagandize.” Now that would be a genuine shame if it happened. Too bad his evidence says nothing of the kind.

I think that a lot of this artificial controversy has to do with a common perception that I cannot really explain, which is that what universities are all about is telling people what position they ought to take on the narrow range of political options currently available in mainstream US politics. My historian friends would call this “presentism.” Of course, we tell our students lots of things – for example, that their papers should be well reasoned, that they should evaluate and cite their sources, that they should make clear their theoretical and methodological assumptions. Like anything that anybody tells anyone, some of it they listen to and some of it they do not. If I know my students, any effort I made to tell them that they ought to share my political views or my interests would be met with the same kind of reception as me telling them what they should have for lunch.

The reason we bother with things like clarity, theory and methodology is because we know that if anybody listens to intellectuals at all, it is because they believe we have something to say that is not an opinion. It’s a hard lesson to teach, and over the course of a few years maybe not all students get it.

Let’s give young Mr Jacoby a “C-” for the skills he has shown in evaluation of sources and application of evidence, but give him the opportunity to revise for a better grade when he has thought about the question more seriously.

Update: Thanks to Andras Riedlmayer for directing me to this essay by the mighty Juan Cole regarding an earlier George Will column on the same subject. And to my friends on the right, does the phrase "orchestrated campaign of defamation" ring a bell?

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