I’ve always been lucky enough to be suffered by people much wiser than I. When I was in eighth grade, I had an English teacher, equal parts kind and intelligent, who was ever-ready to entertain my tragically uninformed views of President Obama. English, theology, and history teachers in high school were similarly generous, listening to my opinions on matters of war and empire — issues that captivated me in those days. (By “in those days” I refer to events that happened all of four years ago. The irony of this is not lost on me.) And many of the senior writers here at National Review routinely listen with sincere interest to my worries about the future of American democracy.
The various instructors mentioned above are a pretty ideologically heterogeneous bunch. Most are staunch leftists, eager to challenge (among some other things) my rejection of most feminist theory. A few are firm traditionalists, seeking to impress on me the importance of organized religion, personal faith, and longstanding custom.
Being exposed to a wide range of political visions conferred on me innumerable benefits, not least of which was an ability lend sympathetic ears to both sides of most arguments. Listening to brilliant teachers articulate their different interpretations of the world, moreover, slowly allowed me to grasp just how deep are the philosophical divisions that separate the Left from the Right. That observation might sound rather mundane — obviously, you might think, the Left and the Right do not see eye to eye; that’s why they are taxonomically distinguished. What I mean to say, though, is that that the magnitude of the disagreement is enormous.
I am generalizing, of course, and losing exactitude because of it. Not every thinker fits neatly into the paradigm I propose. Still, the essences of leftist and rightist worldviews are irreconcilably different, despite the areas where consensus does exist. Left and Right disagree over the role of the state in a free society, over the causes of human inequality, over the speed at which large-scale social and political change should occur, over both the means and the ends of government activity, over what human nature truly is. The differences are colossal, fundamental in the precise sense of the word — they reach into the very foundations of political and social thought.
Consider, for instance, just one of the major Left–Right disagreements — the debate over human nature. People on the left are more likely to see human nature as fundamentally good, or at least as not inherently bad; further, they believe it to be largely malleable, subject to change by education and other forms of environmental conditioning. The Left is also more likely to analyze society in terms of structures rather than in terms of individuals. This emphasis explains why many leftists fault capitalism for causing war, patriarchal power relations for enabling sexual violence, poverty for engendering crime. Individuals, in this view, are but small components of a vast social, cultural, and economic organism that is the primary shaper of human behavior.
The Right sees human nature as rather more “constrained,” to borrow from Thomas Sowell. Under this interpretation, governments and institutions can’t socially engineer humans in any which way they desire; certain human characteristics will always reassert themselves and foil the utopian schemes of, say, a central committee. To the leftist belief that society, capitalism, or the patriarchy is to blame for the problems of the world, a conservative might reply: Well, but what is the most basic element of a “society” if not the individual? And if individuals are flawed, does this not imply that societies are sure to be flawed too? How can we fashion a perfect society if all its constituent parts are imperfect?
The human-nature debate is unlikely to be settled conclusively. But I am here interested in something else. My education, such as it was, led me to recognize that titanic intellects have stood on opposing sides of great political fault lines — Burke and Paine, Mill and Marx, and so on. I was fortunate, therefore, to have had teachers from all across the spectrum, the better to hear firsthand some forceful advocates of the various positions that make up the dizzying array of human intellectual diversity.
And yet, the more I progress in my college career, the less I encounter professors who subscribe to the constrained view of human nature specifically, or to the conservative vision of politics and society more generally. Statistically, my experience is hardly surprising: I study political science and history, academic fields that are today nearly bereft of conservatives.
I do not mean to overstate the problem. While most of my instructors have left no doubt in my mind as to where their sympathies lie, I have never been subjected to fire-breathing radical professors who discriminate against right-leaning students who dare to dissent. Even at Columbia, that high citadel of academic leftism, the conservative caricature of intolerant professors who give out bad grades to wrong-thinking students is just that — a caricature. That is not to say that such people do not exist; it is merely to suggest that they are not the majority.
More concerning, as Jonathan Haidt has labored to point out, is the ossification of leftist orthodoxies in our universities. Bigoted professors are unnecessary for such orthodoxies to become entrenched. To establish an orthodoxy and put certain beliefs above contestation, one need only create academic departments staffed entirely by people who believe similarly. And that is in effect what American universities have done.
Insofar as higher education is concerned with nourishing the minds of the young, few things would contribute more to that enterprise than cultivating intellectually diverse faculties.
What emerge, then, are places of learning where only one vision of the world is given a rigorous, scholarly justification; meanwhile, opposing theories are dismissed, at times with contempt, as reactionary, uninteresting, devoid of intellectual seriousness. As conservatives are (for various reasons) slowly pushed out of faculties, every facet of intellectual life at the modern university begins to bend toward the left and thereby to favor analyses that prefer the structural over the individual, the materialist over the spiritual, the state over the market, the unitary over the federalist. In such circumstances, conservative students are compelled to withdraw from university culture. They content themselves by lodging silent complaints against the hegemony of acceptable opinion, by enjoying Jordan Peterson’s lectures in places hidden from the thoughtcrime police, by carrying around in secret the forbidden literature of Burke and Hayek. (Alternatively, they become trolls and devote all their energies to “owning the libs.”) So it is that the orthodoxy persists, undisturbed.
Which brings me back to the lamentable scarcity of conservative professors, and to the fact that today’s students are for the most part prevented from attaining their insight. Among other shortcomings, including an ever-rising cost of tuition, the dearth of conservatives in the professoriate is one of the modern academy’s great failures. It calls out for redress.
Imparting a diverse set of ideas and broadening the intellectual horizons of its students should not be the sole function of a university. Universities also provide people with a means to climb the social ladder. But insofar as higher education is concerned with nourishing the minds of the young, few things would contribute more to that enterprise than cultivating intellectually diverse faculties. Hearing conservative voices defend tradition, the free-market system, incremental rather than revolutionary change, a politics of virtue, the importance of faith — or really any conservative principle — would better educate students, better allow them them to compare the weight of the evidence that Left and Right each brings to bear on its positions. It will demonstrate that people can be conservative for reasons other than to rationalize away their racial or sexual prejudices. It will improve the quality of all the research produced. And it will convince students that conservative beliefs are held by people who are just as decent — and just as thoughtful — as their leftist counterparts. A more balanced professoriate would smash orthodoxies in the spaces where they do not belong, enable students to pursue their intellectual curiosities more freely, and make room for a more constructive discourse.