Dissidents and professors, then and now

I’m back home and won’t be on the road much during the coming weeks. I missed blogging, but Trunk and Rocket Man have been in such good form that, had I been posting, my contribution would have consisted mostly of “that goes for me too” or “bravo.”
The comments of the former campus recruiter for the Marines prompts me to add a few thoughts about campus dissidents and college professors, then and now. I can’t speak to Jim Sleeper’s description of 1960s campus radicals at Yale. My knowledge extends only to Dartmouth, Stanford and, to a lesser degree, Harvard. On those campuses I can say, based on first-hand knowledge, that key elements of the anti-war movement were, if not Stalinist, then avowedly Leninist. By that I don’t mean that they wrote ungentle articles about their professors. I mean that they subscribed to the basic philosophical tenets of Marx and to the tactics prescribed by Lenin. For example, they attempted to shout down speakers with whom they disagreed, disrupt the classes of professors with whom they disagreed, and to provoke the police by committing unlawful acts such as takeovers of college administration buildings. All of this was undertaken so that the radicals could become the vanguard of anti-war movement with the ultimate goal of shutting down the colleges they attended (which, at many campuses, they succeeded in doing for a month in the spring of 1970). It is hard to believe that Yale’s radicals differed significantly from those at comparable institutions. Thus, it is very odd that Sleeper would even suggest that these dissidents compare favorably to students like Little Trunk whose sin, as far as I can tell, consists of forcefullly stating their beliefs about the views of certain professors in non-campus publications.
And what of the mainstream liberal, moderate, and conservative professors of the 1960s and early 1970s? How did they respond to the attempts of 18-22 year-olds to undermine their academic freedom and to destroy they institutions that provided their livelihood, and that many of them loved? As Rocket Man suggested a while back, they responded for the most part by trying to reason with us. The professors with whom I talked politics — people like Charles Wood, Alan Gaylord, Herb James, and Jere Daniel at Dartmouth and Lawrence Friedman and John Kaplan at Stanford — didn’t try to brow-beat me with charges of incivility, nor do I recall them being condescending, as I think I surely would be if confronted as an adult with the kind of nonsense I espoused as a student. I recall nothing more intimidating from these professors than an occasional raised eyebrow or quizzical glance, as the force of their arguments forced me into increasingly untenable positions.
At the time, I wanted to attribute the kind of grace I witnessed from my professors to “liberal guilt” or a “loss of nerve” on the part of the ruling class. I now see (and at some level saw then) that it was nothing of the sort. The mainstream liberal, moderate, and conservative professors of the 1960s were committed teachers and they responded to the outlandish arguments of student radicals by trying to teach, rather than by trying to intimidate. They also tended to like students (most students, not just students who agreed with them), and thus were willing to forgive more than a little foolishness. Finally, although many had strong political beliefs, they did not see themselves as upholders of any particular substantive political orthodoxy. If they subscribed to any orthodoxy, it was that of learning, free expression, and open debate. And they believed in these values strongly enough to resist the temptation to deny them to those who were putting them in jeopardy.
How does today’s professoriate meaure up to this standard? Not very well, if Jim Sleeper is any indicator. Perhaps this was inevitable, given the fact that many of today’s professors were student radicals in the 1960s and 70s. Most, I suspect, have outgrown their Leninism. But how many have developed into mature teachers of the type described above? Too few, I fear.


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