Some weeks ago, I wrote an op-ed arguing that the free-market approach to freedom of speech (often identified with the University of Chicago) is inadequate for bringing more intellectual diversity to college campuses. The recent string of right wing provocateurs successfully baiting left leaning students on college campuses is, I think, a symptom of a deeper problem. We need to find productive ways of dealing with intellectual/ideological difference. The Wall Street Journal published the piece this past weekend under the title “The Opening of the Liberal Mind.”
I have received plenty of responses from readers—some applauding my call for greater intellectual diversity, some angered by my use of “affirmative action” as a label for the kind of proactive work that universities should be doing in the humanities and social sciences to explore different viewpoints with students. I thought the irony was obvious; legacy preference in admissions, after all, is often described as “affirmative action for the wealthy.” My point is that we can’t rely on the market of ideas to create intellectual diversity; we must be intentional in seeking out serious ideas from traditions under-represented on campus. This is critical for our students’ intellectual development, giving them the opportunity to test their own thinking against different approaches to enduring questions.
Since I took an early stance against what I called “the Trumpian Calamity” and have urged resistance to attempts by the current administration to curtail civil rights, others have asked how I could now call for more scholarly attention to conservative ideas and intellectual traditions. It should be clear that I do not regard the president’s incoherent leadership—which is so often driven by impulse, resentment and prejudice—as belonging to significant streams of conservative thought, even broadly conceived. And we already study the dynamics of authoritarianism.
My example of the Posse Program for Veterans as contributing to intellectual diversity does not, of course, imply that all our Posse Scholars (or all veterans) are conservative. The point is that these older students have different life experiences than most undergraduates, and that this likely leads to a different mix of political views.
I should emphasize that the courses supported by the endowment gift mentioned in the op-ed will be created and taught by faculty—not donors—as is always the case. The goal here is to expose students to a wider range of thought—with especial attention to the classical liberal tradition—and develop their capacities to engage with those who may hold positions different from their own. We are regularly developing our curriculum to fill gaps in instruction and provide students with a broad education. We have engaged in similar fundraising to develop: the Quantitative Analysis Center; The College of Film and the Moving Image; The College of the Environment; and the Creative Writing Program—just to name a few.
Our present political circumstances should not prevent us from engaging with a variety of conservative, religious and libertarian modes of thinking, just as they shouldn’t prevent us from engaging with modes of thinking organized under the banner of progressivism or critical theory. Such engagement might actually lead to greater understanding among those who disagree politically, and it might also allow for more robust critical and creative thinking about our histories, our present and the possibilities for the future.
Naturally, I didn’t expect my op-ed would generate agreement among all readers, least of all among all Wesleyan readers. I am pleased it has generated conversation. That’s the idea!
There is no denying the left-leaning political bias on American college campuses. As data from UCLA’s Higher Education Institute show, the professoriate has moved considerably leftward since the late 1980s, especially in the arts and humanities. In New England, where my own university is located, liberal professors outnumber their conservative colleagues by a ratio of 28:1.
How does this bias affect the education we offer? I’d like to think that we left-leaning professors are able to teach the works of conservative thinkers with the same seriousness and attention that we devote to works on our own side of the political spectrum—but do we?
It is hard to be optimistic about this challenge in the wake of recent episodes of campus intolerance for views on the right. Would-be social-justice warriors at Middlebury College transformed the mild-mannered political scientist Charles Murray into a free-speech hero, and campus appearances by the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald and the right-wing provocateur Ann Coulter have been handled badly, turning both women into media martyrs.
Most colleges, of course, host controversial speakers without incident and without much media coverage. In March, for instance, Franklin & Marshall College gave a platform to the Danish editor who published cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. There were protests and arguments but no attempt to silence the speaker.
Academics worried about attacks on free speech have felt the need to respond, and they have articulated sound principles. Princeton professors Robert P. George and Cornel West recently attracted lots of supporters for a statement underscoring that “all of us should seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views” and that “we should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree—especially on college and university campuses.”
The issue, however, isn’t whether the occasional conservative, libertarian or religious speaker gets a chance to speak. That is tolerance, an appeal to civility and fairness, but it doesn’t take us far enough. To create deeper intellectual and political diversity, we need an affirmative-action program for the full range of conservative ideas and traditions, because on too many of our campuses they seldom get the sustained, scholarly attention that they deserve.
Such an effort can take many different forms. In 2013, Wesleyan decided to join Vassar College in working with the Posse Foundation to bring cohorts of military veterans to campus on full scholarships. These students with military backgrounds are older than our other undergraduates and have very different life experiences; more of them also hold conservative political views.
One notable episode illustrates how this program has contributed to broadening discussion on campus. A student named Bryan Stascavage, who had served almost six years as a U.S. Army military intelligence analyst in Iraq and Haiti, came to Wesleyan to study social sciences. In the fall of 2015, he published an op-ed in the student newspaper questioning the Black Lives Matter movement, which enjoys widespread support here. He asked whether the protests were “actually achieving anything positive” because of the damage done by the extremists in their ranks.
The essay caused an uproar, including demands by activists to cut funding to the school newspaper. Most students, faculty and administrators recognized that free speech needed to be defended, especially for unpopular views. They rose to the challenge of responding substantively (if sometimes heatedly) to Bryan’s argument. As for Bryan himself, he felt that he had “field-tested” his ideas. As he told the PBS NewsHour in an interview about his experience at Wesleyan, “I don’t want to be in an environment where everybody thinks the same as me, because you just don’t learn that way.”
At Wesleyan, we now plan to deepen our engagement with the military. We have been working with the U.S. Army to bring senior military officers to campus, and starting next year, the first of them will arrive to teach classes on the relationship between military institutions and civil society.
Another new initiative for intellectual diversity, launched with the support of one our trustees, has created an endowment of more than $3 million for exposing students at Wesleyan to ideas outside the liberal consensus. This fall, our own academic departments and centers will begin offering courses and programs to cover topics such as “the philosophical and economic foundations of private property, free enterprise and market economies” and “the relationship of tolerance to individual rights, freedom and voluntary association.”
We are not interested in bringing in ideologues or shallow provocateurs intent on outraging students and winning the spotlight. We want to welcome scholars with a deep understanding of traditions currently underrepresented on our campus (and on many others) and look forward to the vigorous conversations they will inspire.
Many of our undergraduates already have a strong desire to break out of their ideological bubbles. Recently, the student Republican and Democratic clubs began jointly hosting lunchtime lectures and discussions. Catherine Cervone, a member of the Wesleyan Republicans and an organizer of the series, put it this way: “We recognized the necessity on this campus for dialogue and communication. We decided to reach across the divide to team up with WesDems in hosting this speaker series, a discussion forum with the purpose of really understanding what the other side thinks.”
Trying to understand the logic of someone else’s arguments is a core skill that schools should be paying more attention to, and it doesn’t always require elaborate new programs. The group Heterodox Academy, which includes faculty from many universities and from across the political spectrum, has recently launched the “Viewpoint Diversity Experience,” an online effort to combat “the destructive power of ideological tribalism.” The aim is “to prepare students for democratic citizenship and success in the political diverse workplaces they will soon inhabit.”
Such efforts are sorely needed, but they can succeed only if we do a better job of bringing underrepresented points of view into the mix. Simply relying on the marketplace of ideas isn’t enough. We need an affirmative-action program for conservative, libertarian and religious modes of thinking.
As someone who identifies with the political left, I welcome this intellectual diversity—and as a teacher, I know that education requires it. If you are on the right, you might call this a remedy for political correctness; if you are on the left, you might prefer to call it the “new intersectionality.” Whatever the label, the result will be a fuller, more meaningful educational experience for everyone.