Conservatives, Anti-Intellectualism, and Harvard, Oh My!

Well what the heck, we may as well make this a Power Line symposium, like Commentary does from time to time.  Paul and John’s posts are right down my alley just at this moment, as I’ve been in the throes of the University of Colorado business for the last several weeks.  (Concerning which, see the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley and James Freeman discuss the issue—and mention me—in this video; I’m avoiding public comment about the whole thing right now, but I’ll break media silence briefly to say that I agree with virtually every syllable of what Jason says here—especially his comment about Thomas Sowell’s philosophy of classroom teaching, which I fully share.)

A few observations: Paul is right to defend Ted Cruz about Harvard Law School, which in the late 1980s and early 1990s became almost wholly captured by the “Critical Legal Studies” fad (that would have been at the tail end of Obama’s time there, incidentally).  CLS is just Frankfurt Marxism wrapped in a legal brief, and on some other occasion perhaps I’ll go off on the “Frankfurters,” as I like to call them.  (Meaning, yes, they’re all a bunch of dicks.)  Things were so bad at Harvard Law in those days that it was typical for students who expressed non-liberal points of view in class to be hissed or booed openly—and the faculty did nothing to put a stop to this atmosphere.  Even Elena Kagan (now Justice Kagan, and obviously no conservative), when she became dean, could see that Harvard had swung too monolithically to the left, and she made a special effort to hire conservative law professors to bring some balance back to Harvard Law.  (And no one called it “affirmative action” for conservatives, I should note.)

Second, while the problem of leftist indoctrination does occur, it happens more often in the fringy, ethnic- and gender-studies programs more than in the mainstream humanities courses.  (Both the political science and history departments at the University of Colorado never wanted anything to do with Ward Churchill, it bears noting.)  And I also think blatant indoctrination occurs more at smaller, private liberal arts colleges than in the main departments at larger universities, especially the large public research universities like Colorado, Berkeley, etc.  Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are somewhere in between the large public research universities and traditional liberal arts colleges I think, which makes their cases even harder to judge.  But at all of those three, I can point to a number of solid professors, not necessarily conservatives, worth studying with.  For a long time Harvard’s government department featured not just Harvey Mansfield, but Sam Huntington, James Q. Wilson, Ed Banfield, and Sam Beer.  Today I’d unhesitatingly recommend Michael Sandel and Robert Putnam, as their liberalism is serious and thoughtful, and their courses, as far as I can tell, are conducted in the best tradition of non-indoctrinating liberal education.  Over in the Harvard economics department, today there are Jeff Miron and Greg Mankiw.  At Yale, Steven Smith, John Lewis Gaddis (who might even be a Republican), David Gelernter, Charles Hill, and Donald Kagan come quickly to mind.  Princeton has Robby George,  Aaron Friedberg, and I have considerable regard for Sean Wilenz (definitely a liberal).

Paradoxically, it is at private liberal arts universities where you typically find many more (though scattered) conservative professors than you do at the large research universities, so the radicalism of many classrooms is offset by these oases of sense.  And conservative professors are usually very popular with students for reasons I’ll discuss some other time, though this will be implicit in the serial descriptions of the new Power Line 100 Best Professors series.  But there are few such oases in the large research universities.  Jim Ceaser at Virginia is about the only person who comes quickly to mind.  The reasons for the near total absence of conservatives at large public research universities may have more to do with some of the defects (in my opinion) of the methodological narrowness of the public research university today than it does blatant hiring bias, though even once you factor in self-selection factors (i.e. few conservatives want to teach in the humanities in research universities), then the bubble effect of like-minded liberalism among the faculty reinforces this tendency in subsequent hiring cycles.  But beyond just the hiring controversy, I think the narrower specialization and methodological exactitude of research universities may be a more significant problem than blatant classroom bias.  Many more thoughts on this in due course.

Above all, as I often like to say, I’m happy to match conservative intellect against the too often unchallenged and therefore lazily self-satisfied campus liberal opinion.  I never start to get concerned about the odds until the panels are stacked at least four to one against me; any ratio lower than that I consider unsporting to the liberals.  This is a tiny part of what I had in mind with my recent post here about my non-use of the term “normative.”

Okay Scott, your turn.


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