Commenter “huxley” asks this question:I’m trying to understand how academia slid further and further to the left…
I’m interested in Prof. Everybody, the academicians who watched and are still watching as their world was gradually taken over by the left.
Ideally, being a professor is a more serious calling than being a pipefitter or computer programmer. If nothing else it requires a commitment to academic freedom. Given the opportunity, we have heard many high, wise words to that effect. However, we have seen few efforts from the rank-and-file to uphold that commitment against the left over the past fifty years or so.
I’m wondering how that worked.
I don’t have the answer, but I have some guesses.
(1) Most people are afraid to speak up when their livelihood is threatened, and that’s not just people in academia. I’m not sure whether professors are less courageous than most, although they might be. But I don’t think that sort of commitment to liberty no matter what is common anywhere.
(2) That said, professors tend to work in the realm of ideas – except for those in more practical fields such as science, where ideas have more obvious consequences and require (or used to require) more proof. Leftism is an idea with some emotional attractiveness, and my guess is that professors may be more likely than others to be drawn to it, because of their general preference for dealing with ideas.
(3) Not only that, but much of the leftism advanced in the universities has employed race and the threat of calling someone a racist in order to first attract and then intimidate those who might object.
(4) For the most part, professors are people who have done well in school and never left it, staying to take on more power and prestige within that setting. Therefore I don’t think they are selected for courage, or for even necessarily for thinking for themselves (with exceptions, of course). For the most part, they have been very good at taking in information and then giving it back again, perhaps with a small advancement on current knowledge in a very circumscribed field. So there may be more people in academia who are selected for conformity, and they are less likely to buck the prevailing winds.
(5) My guess is that, particularly for professors in the sciences or in business, those who object to the leftward drift of the university have quite a few options in the private sector and may choose to leave the university rather than stay and fight. Professors in the humanities probably are more likely to be with the leftist program in the first place, but if they’re not, they probably have far fewer options outside of academia. And so they stay and keep their mouths shut.
(6) Not everyone did keep his or her mouth shut. I know some professors who stayed and fought. But it’s been a lonely battle over the years, and a frustrating and ultimately a losing one.
(7) The takeover of the academy by the left started a long time ago. I won’t quibble over when, but suffice to say it has been many decades. So there’s been a selection factor over the years as well, a factor that’s only increased over time. At a certain point it became well-nigh impossible for a new hire who didn’t toe the party line to be given a job in the first place. Therefore the number of professors on the other side (or potentially on the other side), has became smaller and smaller over time.
(8) Freedom of speech is one of those concepts that is probably difficult for a lot of people to defend when it involves speech they don’t like. I’m not sure why academicians would be any different in that respect, particularly since they deal in the world of ideas and like to be right.
I keep coming back to Allan Bloom and his 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind when dealing with such matters. So I’ll give him the last word; here he is describing events at Cornell University in 1969, where he was a professor [emphasis mine]:
The [Cornell] provost was a former natural scientist, and he greeted me with a mournful countenance…there was nothing he could do to stop such behavior in the black student association. He added that no university in the country could expel radical black students, or dismiss the faculty members who incited them, presumably because the students at large would not permit it.
The provost had a mixture of cowardice and moralism not uncommon at the time. He did not want trouble. His president had frequently cited Clark Kerr’s dismissal at the University of California as the great danger. At the same time the provost thought he was engaged in a great moral work, righting the historic injustice done to blacks. He could justify to himself the humiliation he was undergoing as a necessary sacrifice. The case of this particular black student clearly bothered him. But he was both more frightened of the violence-threatening extremists and also more admiring of them. Obvious questions were no longer obvious. Why could not a black student be expelled as a white student would be if he failed his courses or disobeyed the rules that make university community possible? Why could the president not call the police if order was threatened? Any man of weight would have fired the professor who threatened the life of the student. The issue was not complicated. Only the casuistry of weakness and ideology made it so. No one who knew or cared about what a university is would have acquiesced in this travesty. It was no surprise that a few weeks later – immediately after the faculty had voted overwhelmingly under the gun to capitulate to outrageous demands that it had a few days earlier rejected – the leading members of the administration and many well-known faculty members rushed over to congratulate the gathered students and tried to win their approval. I saw exposed before all the world what had long been known, and it was at last possible without impropriety to tell these pseudo-universitarians precisely what one thought of them.
It was also no surprise that many of those professors who had been most eloquent in their sermons about the sanctity of the university, and who had presented themselves as its consciences, were among those who reacted, if not favorably, at least weakly to what was happening. They had made careers out of saying how badly the German professors [during the Nazi era] had reacted to violations of academic freedom. This was all light talk and mock heroics, because they had not measured the potential threats to the university nor assessed the doubtful grounds of academic freedom. Above all, they did not think that it could be assaulted from the Left or from within the university. These American professors were utterly disarmed, as were many German professors, when the constituency they took for granted, of which they honestly believed they were independent, deserted or turned against them. To fulminate against Bible Belt preachers was one thing. In the world that counted for these professors, this could only bring approval. But to be isolated in the university, to be called foul names by their students or their colleagues, all for the sake of an abstract idea, was too much for them. They were not in general strong men, although their easy rhetoric had persuaded them that they were – that they alone manned the walls protecting civilization.Their collapse was merely pitiful, although their feeble attempts at self-justification frequently turned vicious. In Germany the professors who kept quiet had the very good excuse that they could not do otherwise. Speaking up would have meant imprisonment or death. The law not only did not protect them but was their deadly enemy. At Cornell there was no such danger. There was essentially no risk in defending the integrity of the university, because the danger was entirely within it. All that was lacking was a professorial corps aware of the university’s purpose, and dedicated to it. That is what made the surrender so contemptible.
These events occurred over fifty years ago, and those observations were published nearly thirty-five years ago. The only things that have changed are that the vast majority of professors don’t even pay lip service to free speech anymore, the threats against them if they did are more serious, and probably most of them know very little about how professors behaved in the Germany of the 1930s.
Let me doubly emphasize this portion of what Bloom wrote back then:
But to be isolated in the university, to be called foul names by their students or their colleagues, all for the sake of an abstract idea, was too much for them. They were not in general strong men, although their easy rhetoric had persuaded them that they were.