Politics & Policy

Liberalism on Campus Matters

Student protesters disrupt a speech by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Harvard University, September 28, 2017. (Mary Schwalm/Reuters)
Academic groupthink has effects far beyond the university.

Conservatives, facing an overwhelmingly liberal academic environment, often respond by pointing to their better standing in the business and political spheres, otherwise known as the real world. However, as yesterday’s academic protesters become today’s academic establishment, Marxism and other radical ideas are making a comeback, expanding beyond the ivory towers, and infecting the nation’s political debate. The liberal embrace of false consciousness, social constructionism, and the blank slate on academic campuses is showing up in liberal policies ranging from education policy to prison reform.

False Consciousness: False consciousness, the liberal idea that everyday people fail to be conscious of their interests as members of their class and support policies antithetical to their own interests, undermines the value of bottom-up systems. This mindset often leads to the elevation of the views of academics and experts over those of everyday people, and argues that consumers and voters require educated elites to guide them through the fog of their inherent biases. Thus, elitist liberals rage that blue-collar workers are tricked into voting against their own economic interests whenever they support Republican candidates, whether Reagan or Trump.

The solution, obvious to credentialed academics, is to centralize decision-making power in the hands of a professionally trained bureaucracy. It is one thing to defer to an expert when a child requires heart surgery, quite another to assume the masses are incapable of running their daily lives. According to this view, parents cannot be trusted to make critical decisions on how to educate their children, as evidenced by restrictions on school choice. Families are not sophisticated enough to choose correct benefit packages, as evidenced by President Obama’s banning of many popular types of health insurance. Taxpayers will not spend their own earnings properly, justifying liberal plans to expand government spending at the expense of tax cuts. In contrast, free-market economics and liberal democracy empower and value the preferences of the laity. Liberals astonished at the rise of populism here and abroad may want to consider the possibility that it does not require an advanced degree to observe the contempt they hold for the voters on whose behalf they pretend to be acting.

Social Constructionism: Radical liberals view relativity as the one absolute, expanding social constructionism to encompass all of reality, as opposed to viewing the world as objective reality readily discernible to people’s senses and thoughts. Whereas liberal intellectuals on campus were once content to stay in their lanes, hiding in the semiotics department, they now romp across the entire curriculum. Whereas the sciences were once considered safe havens compared to the humanities, this mindset politicizes everything on campus, as no discipline is seen as safe from gender or ethnicity bias, and this leads to the politicization of everything in society. One of the reasons political debates seem so much more intense nowadays is that they encompass aspects of life formerly regarded as off-limits. Just as science can no longer retreat from liberal attacks behind the defense of empirical verification, political debates are no longer settled by reference to facts, as each side simply ignores or devalues the legitimacy of truths inconvenient to its arguments. In addition to being entitled to their own opinions, both sides now also want their own facts. The epithet “fake news” may be here to stay.

Blank Slate: The view of humans as blank slates at birth, which can be trained to be egalitarian socialists with the proper upbringing, prioritizes nurture to the exclusion of nature. Ignoring human nature in favor of manipulating the environment has led to tragic violations of individual autonomy, as regimes seek to repress their people’s natural inclinations.

The blank slate also denies the existence of inherent group differences, regardless of whether they are caused by natural selection, environmental factors, intelligent design, etc., and then obsesses over them in the political sphere. As Steven Pinker notes, one result is that laws that provide equal opportunity, i.e., ignore innate traits and treat individuals the same, result in unequal outcomes. Yet liberals cite disparate outcomes as a priori proof of inherent bias requiring state intervention, quotas, mandatory training, financial penalties, and other corrective actions. They no longer bother looking for intent or actual discriminatory actions before suing.

Another consequence of the blank-slate approach among radical liberals, like some within the Democratic Socialists of America, is the movement to abolish prisons and police departments. If the environment is to blame for criminality, including violent crimes like murder and rape, the argument goes that remediation is more just than imprisonment. There is a fundamental difference between protesting particular instances of police misconduct and the more radical condemnation of the entire system as inherently racist, unjust, and ineffective.

Rejection of the blank-slate theory does not entail ignoring individual effort or environmental effects, or otherwise endorsing biological determinism. Group averages may vary, but there is still significant overlap between groups, so that it is impossible to predict an individual’s outcomes based solely on group membership. Also, some group averages may change and even dissipate over time, and are often misrepresented by one group trying to dominate another. For example, standardized-test scores improve as group previously facing discrimination gain access to better educational opportunities and the resulting economic mobility. The law rightfully prohibits certain considerations, for example based on gender, race, or religious affiliation, given the particular history of discrimination on these bases. History is filled with the grotesque dangers of abusing the role of group differences, such as Nazism and eugenics.

Conservatives cannot ignore the one-sided debates happening on too many college campuses, and need to make the case for free will, objective reality, and the role of human nature. Never mind liberals’ obsession with political correctness; a highly moralistic approach to politics and human relations is incompatible with their insistence on relativism and the denial of absolute truths. Liberals make up in intensity what they lack in coherence, and their radical ideas are beginning to have real-world consequences in American politics.

Bobby Jindal served as the governor of Louisiana between 2008 and 2016 and, previously, as a U.S. congressman and as the vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

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