Conservatives, Political Correctness and the Academy

Stanley Fish has a thoughtful post on these and related issues.

I agree with Fish that “affirmative action”  for conservatives or some such would be an inappropriate response to the gross ideological imbalance in American academia.  (On the other had, a little, okay, a lot, more self-consciousness by left academics regarding whether they are improperly implicitly or explicitly smuggling ideological considerations into hiring–I was once grilled by telephone, after the official interviews, by a senior professor regarding my views on affirmative action when being considered for a lateral chair, with the explicit premise that if I didn’t pass the quiz, the professor would vote against me and rally her allies against me–would be welcome).

And for reasons Fish discusses, even a completely ideologically neutral hiring process would likely perpetuate the one-sidedness of the American academy.  I think this is a problem, not because the conservative side is somehow “entitled” to “fair” representation within the academy, but because liberal students are currently not being well-served educationally by their professors.

In particular, studies show that approximately 40% of American adults consider themselves to be conservatives.  I would therefore posit that a well-educated American college graduate should have some idea of what mainstream conservatives think, and why they think it.

Yet the late controversy over Rush Limbaugh and the Rams suggests that many well-educated liberals don’t know the first thing about American conservatism.  In particular, I found it extremely troubling that so many columnists, bloggers, political figures, and so on, were gullible/ignorant enough to believe that a mainstream figure like Limbaugh publicly praised the assassination of MLK, or stated that “slavery had its merits,” without any apparent controversy at the times these alleged remarks were made, with no diminishing of his 20 million strong audience, and with no harm to his political standing among conservatives and within GOP circles.

I’m a libertarian, not a conservative, and I’ve probably listened to a total of less then ten hours of Limbaugh in my life, but it was obvious to me that these alleged statements were phony.  I would have hoped that they would have at least raised eyebrows among liberal commentators, such that they would have demanded a firm source before attributing them to Limbaugh.  But no, apparently a significant fraction of well-educated American liberals, the products of our best universities, thought it unexceptional, indeed, completely congruous, that a mainstream conservative figure would praise slavery and James Earl Ray.

I’m not sure what the solution to this problem is, but I do think it’s clear that many product liberal-leaning institutions, starting with the universities, are sufficiently engaged in groupthink that they lack the most basic curiosity about or knowledge of what their ideological adversaries believe, and are instead inclined to dismiss them entirely as mere evil reactionaries.  [And they are sufficiently isolated from contact with conservatives that they don't have personal experiences to suggest otherwise; it's easy enough, for example, to go to a top university, on to a major journalism school, and from there to the New York Times or MSNBC or The Huffington Post without every having had a serious  intellectual discussion with a conservative colleague or mentor.]  That’s not good for the universities, it’s not good for liberals themselves (isn’t easier to defeat one’s enemies if one first understands them?), and it’s not good for America.

UPDATE: In response to some of the comments, I’m hardly suggesting that liberal students be required to study Rush Limbaugh.  What I am suggesting is that if the elite academy wasn’t so ideologically one-sided, both with regard to the faculty and the student body, graduates of these universities would have more contact with conservative ideas and conservative individuals (assumedly some thoughtful ones) and would therefore be less likely to adopt an uninformed, stereotypical view of conservatives and conservatism.  Undoubtedly, there are some self-identified conservatives who fit liberal stereotypes, just as there are some self-identified liberals who fit conservative stereotypes. But a conservative would be hard-pressed to, say, attend an Ivy League school and not be confronted with people and ideas that defy these stereotypes.  By contrast, I think that many liberals who arrive at such a school with stereotypes of conservative people and ideas will not only not find themselves challenged, but will find those stereotypes reinforced by the general intellectual climate, such that they could become an educated adult blogger, staffer at MSNBC, and so forth, and believe just about any nonsense said about any prominent conservative like Limbaugh.

FURTHER UPDATE: This seems like a good place to reprint an anecdote I published once before:

Senior year of college, I took a political economy class from a very left-wing, but very fair-minded, Sociology professor. One of the books he assigned was David Stockman’s The Triumph of Politics. Stockman was a libertarian Republican who served as Reagan’s first budget director. At the beginning of the book, he provided a concise summary of why he thought limited government was beneficial to the American people. When the class discussed the book, one of my fellow seniors exclaimed, “This was very interesting to me! He seems like a good guy… I didn’t know that any conservatives actually cared about people!.” Kudos to this professor for enlightening my classmate, but how does someone get to her senior year of college without being exposed to the radical idea that not all conservatives are innately evil?

I’d add that it’s hardly good for American democracy and public discourse that many students graduate without such enlightenment.