When & How Did Universities Become So Crazy Left?

I was fortunate yesterday to take in part of a two-day conference at AEI in Washington DC in honor of Princeton’s Prof. Robert P. George (Robbie to his friends, but still “Professor George” to me and most other mortals), and in particular a retrospective of his early book published thirty years ago, before he had achieved tenure in Princeton’s political science department, entitled Making Men Moral. It set out a strong case against the emasculating effects of modern liberal relativism, and its critique remains more relevant today in light of a number of trends, well illustrated yesterday by some excellent presentations on recent social science data from Mark Regnerus, Brad Wilcox, and Ian Rowe, among others. But Robbie’s book was politically incorrect then, and even more so now. As one panelist remarked, “If Robbie is ever up for canonization in the Catholic Church, earning tenure at Princeton after this book was published will be acknowledged as his first miracle.”

I’ll skip over the highlights of the proceedings, which would be of interest mostly and only to academics, except for one point that prompts a further chain of reflection on a question that is rarely discussed in depth these days, namely: Colleges and universities have always been left of center, and conservatives have been complaining about this since at least the 1930s. Or just think of William F. Buckley’s first book, on this exact problem, God and Man at Yale (1952), or my mentor Stan Evans’s first book, Revolt on the Campus (1960).

In other words, things were bad long before Allan Bloom’s massively popular indictment in Closing of the American Mind in 1987, and all of the sequels since then. I contend that while universities were always left, there were some outsized step-increases in campus leftism starting in the late 1960s and 1970s, such that today older liberals and even some leftists say they can’t recognize their campus culture anymore. How did this happen? I have a new cause to ponder, but it takes a minute to unspool.

A particular question posed by Prof. Christopher Wolfe, emeritus from Marquette University, started my reflection on today’s campus leftism. Prof. Wolfe asked: why has there been no successor to John Rawls as the preeminent thinker of the left? Rawls, of course, is the author of A Theory of Justice that attempted to re-found liberalism on non-foundational (that is, non-Lockean, etc) grounds, though Rawls’s dense 600 pages really just boil down a fancy argument in favor of egalitarian redistributionism by the state. Rawls’s book became the ur-text of the left following its appearance in 1970.

Surrounded by a roomful of Rawlsians, 2013. The thought bubble would say, “Oh God—these people really have drunk the 180 proof Rawlsian Kool Aid.”

I was taken aback by prof. Wolfe’s premise that Rawls is obsolete or discarded. To be sure, Rawls has receded somewhat, but my experience is that he is still very much alive and kicking among the college intelligentsia. My very first day on campus at the University of Colorado ten years ago involved a vigorous debate between me and a roomful of Rawls-spouting leftist philosophers. (That was a fun first day! Nearby is an action shot from the panel I was on.) And I still see frequent reference to Rawls today at Berkeley. Then, too, Rawls has found some purchase on the right. I have mentioned more than once on the podcast, and in print, the shock of hearing Ted Cruz say, after the 2012 election defeat, that conservative social policy “has to pass through a Rawlsian lens.” The irony here is that Cruz was a student of Robbie George at Princeton, and as Robbie is a fierce critic of Rawls, I’m wondering if Ted Cruz skipped class that day.

“Okay, let me tell you about a guy named Hayek you’ve never read. . .”

But to the extent Rawls has receded and not been replaced by anyone else, it is because for today’s campus left, Rawls isn’t radical enough. And if there is no single dominant leftist thinker one can put on a pedestal in his place (though I think I see the corpse of Michel Foucault frantically raising his hand in the front row of the classroom), it is clear that the whole riotous rampage of postmodernist leftism is the replacement for Rawls. And that mélange of morosity begins with a rejection, sometimes explicit, of reason and objectivity itself, which is why it is actually impossible for any one single thinker to become the preeminent successor to Rawls.

So how did we come to this point of mass insanity on college campuses, whose manifestation right now of open anti-Semitism is one of the most obvious fruits of the further gallop to the left on campus? (In passing I note that I don’t think there was a single peep of significant campus protest against Israel in the 1967 war, or the 1973 Yom Kippur war. How come now? Well done, universities!)

There are lots of reasons for this, and no one single reason. Most everyone likes to talk about the 1960s, “America’s cultural revolution,” and this is of course true. But on closer look I think we can make out more specifically one of the greatest examples of the law of unintended consequences from a well-meaning social policy: the student draft-deferment system of the 1960s. Thousands of young men who might not otherwise have gone to, or remained in college, did so to avoid the draft, and many thousands of them continued into graduate school to continue avoiding the draft, and newly radicalized departments, especially sociology, expanded to absorb the draft-dodgers. (This was also the beginning of grade inflation and dumbing down the curriculum, as sympathetic professors wanted to make sure students kept their academic standing clear. The grading system, a popular account had it, was revised: A—excellent; B—good; C—average; D—below average; V—Vietnam.) And after getting a fill of new leftism, this draft-dodging cohort shaped the new generation of the left professoriate that has been replicating itself ever since. Thus, more than 50 years since the draft ended, the draft-deferment system may be the largest single cause of the extreme campus leftism we have today.

Nice going liberals.

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