Universities have become key battlegrounds in the American culture wars. Conservatives rail against “leftist monoculture” in academia, liberals decry the conservative “obsession” with college campuses, and the air is quickly filled with the heat of mutual recriminations.
Amid the crossfire, some liberal commentators have offered moderate and well-reasoned interpretations of academia’s troubles. They point out that although university faculties do lean overwhelmingly to the left, it’s quite rare for students to be “successfully” indoctrinated by their progressive professors. Others note that there already exists a certain degree of viewpoint diversity in some areas of academia, given the prevalence of right-leaning professors in, for example, economics and law departments. There’s some truth to such arguments, though I would maintain that many college environments are indeed stifling intellectual freedom. (A personal example: When I wrote an essay for my college paper defending the Western literary canon, I was promptly accused in print of having been “indoctrinated by white supremacy.” Needless to say, nobody enjoys being accused of such things.)
But another common view among many liberals holds that even if academia has an ideological-homogeneity problem, it is artificially amplified by the right-wing media’s addiction to covering the excesses of leftist university culture. Sure, this argument goes, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and hysterical breakdowns over Halloween costumes can be annoying, but they do not merit the relentless stream of conservative op-eds, Fox News segments, and right-wing-news stories condemning “liberal snowflakes” and “radical professors.” The social-justice mobs might be scary, but their influence is confined to a tiny sector of society: universities, and elite universities at that.
Here I would counter that while conservative media outlets probably do spend too much time criticizing the absurdities of the campus scene, the substantive issues debated on college campuses are nevertheless certain to have a large impact on the future of our country. They should therefore receive a substantial amount of attention. Academia, after all, exerts an outsize influence on our culture; the ideas that arise inside its walls rarely stay enclosed within them. Universities, moreover, train our nation’s lawyers, educators, executives, managers, and journalists. The beliefs with which graduating students enter their professions will inevitably shape the contours of our institutions.
Notwithstanding conservatives’ sometimes-hyperbolic coverage of academic leftism, the truth is that there’s much at stake in university debates over intellectual freedom, racial justice, and gender inequality.
Ideas that originate in the academy often spread into the wider society through some sort of osmosis. “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence,” goes the old quote from John Maynard Keynes, “are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.” His observation is not confined to economics; many ideas about other political matters also spread from the universities outward.
The clearest example of this phenomenon is seen in how intersectionality — an academic ideology if there ever was one — has influenced protest movements surrounding issues of race. The ideology of Black Lives Matter (BLM), one of the foremost protest movements on the left, shows clear signs of having been shaped by highbrow intellectual currents. BLM’s platform makes clear references to Marxist political economy, declaring “that patriarchy, exploitative capitalism, militarism, and white supremacy know no borders” and that its members “stand in solidarity with our international family against the ravages of global capitalism and anti-Black racism, human-made climate change, war, and exploitation.” It owes a debt to intersectionality as well, as we can infer from its affirmation of “the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.” These are not just abstract rhetorical points: They translate into BLM’s policy demands. For instance, BLM believes that “Black humanity and dignity requires political will and power,” asks that higher education be made free for black students, and argues that black Americans should receive a form of universal basic income.
Whatever one thinks of BLM’s policy proposals, they are indisputably influenced by an intersectional ideology with deep roots in academia. If BLM successfully effects policy changes, those changes will owe an intellectual debt to the influence of intersectional theorists in the academy.
Nor is BLM an isolated case. The same basic point could be made about the left-wing positions that surround the other two hot-button campus issues of the moment: free speech and gender politics. Again, the substantive matters of those debates (Should one defend the free expression of disagreeable people? Is gender a social construct? If not, how should our policies reflect biological sex differences? Etc.) are bound to have serious consequences for our society.
The academy is not the sole driving force of American politics, of course, but what happens on campus rarely stays there. Notwithstanding conservatives’ sometimes-hyperbolic coverage of academic leftism, the truth is that there’s much at stake in university debates over intellectual freedom, racial justice, and gender inequality.
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