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Davis, California

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Column: Besieging the Ivory Tower

Speaking at a campaign event a few weeks ago, failed presidential hopeful Rick Santorum expressed his shock that “seven or eight of the California system of universities don’t even teach an American history course.” As anyone who attends school here knows, Santorum’s statement is obviously untrue.

Santorum’s error seems to have been inspired by “A Crisis of Confidence,” a report by the National Association of Scholars (NAS). The National Association of Scholars, a group funded by conservative organizations, claims that the radicalization of UC schools has led to a systemwide decline in quality of instruction. To support this claim, the NAS presents a series of anecdotes and cherry-picked comments from students, followed by unrelated findings about Americans’ inability to remember historical and political facts.

The solution, NAS argues, is for administrators to force professors to teach more right-wing ideas and return to a curriculum that emphasizes “Western civilization” and “American institutions.”

Of course, if the NAS knew its “Western civilization,” it would also know that conservatives before them descried the disappearance of many Latin and Greek authors in favor of newfangled anglophone works, like that rabble-pleaser Shakespeare. Every generation, new authors enter the canon, shoving out old ones. Only recently, those new authors have happened to include women, minorities and open homosexuals, adding new ferocity to a perennial cultural debate.

Bad research and historical shortsightedness notwithstanding, the NAS’s report is just incoherent. The NAS explicitly condemns key values of the university, including multiculturalism, diversity and tolerance, while at that very moment appealing to those ideals to justify their cause. Even as they condemn “victimology,” the NAS paints conservatives as victims in need of affirmative action.

Moreover, the report’s argument rests on a fundamental logical flaw. The purported rise in leftist professors coincided with declines in education. But, contrary to the report’s illogical inference, correlation does not equal causation. The same period also correlates with state defunding of public education and the mania for standardized testing in primary schools, which has left many incoming freshmen unprepared for flexible critical thinking.

In reality, this report is part of a political assault on universities. It provides an excuse for small government conservatives to justify continuing cuts to education. Republican politicians gut school budgets, thereby radicalizing professors, and then point to radical professors as a good reason to keep cutting.

Indeed, if the right genuinely wanted to find indoctrination and academic conformity, it would look at private Bible colleges, which often require professors to sign oaths professing their belief in Jesus Christ as their personal lord and so on.

But that doesn’t explain why many conservatives have such an antagonistic relationship to the academy. For example, why did Santorum, a man with an M.B.A. and a J.D., accuse President Obama of “elitist snobbery” for suggesting that American citizens should go to college? The answer, I would argue, has more to do with the Republican Party’s shift rightward than with the university’s shift leftward.

As has been pointed out, many of the recent gains in left-wing professors have come from the natural sciences. Given the decades-long Republican war on evolutionary biology and climate science, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Beyond the hard sciences, social science and humanities have good reason to bend to the left. Many popular conservative ideas, like eternal cultural values, American exceptionalism or the rational individual, have long been debunked by social sciences and discredited in the humanities.

The nostrums peddled by many culturally conservative politicians just don’t hold up to academic scrutiny. It’s difficult to believe in the absolute perfection and universal truth of the American nuclear family if you study kinship structures in Kinshasa or the marriage mores of Elizabethan theater-goers.

While academics do not have to subscribe to a particular ideology to do good research, the left has historically shown itself to be friendlier to the kind of pluralism required to research other times and other societies for their own sake.

If the Republican Party wants to make in-roads with intellectuals, it should start first with some self-criticism. No amount of administrative monitoring and control is going to make a dogmatic thinker like Santorum palatable to academicians.

Though I would agree that more professors swing left than right in their personal politics, I disagree with the notion that this has interfered with teaching. The same openness to other voices and perspectives which pushes many professors to the left also allows them to argue both sides and suspend their judgments in the classroom. Without leftist principles of equality and difference, instruction would become far more doctrinaire and close-minded.

JORDAN S. CARROLL is a Ph.D. student in English who can be reached at jscarroll@ucdavis.edu.