Affirmative Action for Conservatives?
by Ari Armstrong, November 12, 2002
Liberals have discriminated against conservatives on college campuses in order to build and expand their power base, which has led to the exploitation of students. To rectify this inequality, colleges should hire more conservatives to promote a more egalitarian outcome.
Thus, Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers, a self-described conservative, uses the intellectual tools of the left to attack the left (thought she didn't couch her arguments in precisely those terms). Strangely, she seems not to have noticed this irony. However, she said she grew up as a liberal and both her parents are liberals, so it's not too surprising that she has adopted liberal modes of argument to promote her conservatism.
Sommers, a philosophy professor turned think-tank scholar (she works at the American Enterprise Institute) and author of Who Stole Feminism and The War Against Boys, spoke at CU, Boulder Tuesday evening about Challenging the Liberal Bias on Campus. The talk was sponsored by Young America's Foundation and the Equal Opportunity Alliance.
No, Sommers did not explicitly argue colleges should hire conservatives only to remedy existing inequalities. Unfortunately, she didn't address that point directly at all. However, she did argue in favor of intellectual egalitarianism. She lamented there is no "healthy difference of opinion" on many college campuses. There are "almost no conservatives," and the "absence of conservatism is a bad thing." It leads to "Stultifying conformity... intellectual conformity." There has been a "near extinction of intellectual diversity." And this has negatively impacted students' education.
Possibly Sommers thinks colleges should only stop discriminating against conservatives, which would lead to more of them being hired. At one point, she seemed to indicate a lopsided liberal outcome is okay so long as it is only the result of "self-selection." Still, her arguments could also support something of an affirmative action program to assure a diversity of views.
Sommer's most obvious data that favor her theory is that humanities departments (English, history, journalism, political science, etc.) are dominated by professors affiliated with the Democratic party. For instance, at CU, Boulder, Democrats outnumber Republicans in the humanities 116 to 5. However, Sommers admitted the hard sciences and philosophy don't seem to be tainted by a liberal bias. A member of the philosophy department, then, wondered whether the figures demonstrate self-selection rather than institutional bias. Sommers replied that conservatives do seem to do better in philosophy, and outside evidence such as assigned texts, syllabi, and collected anecdotes support her theory of bias. One formal study created two mock resumes, with the only difference a mention of a liberal or conservative point of view, and the former was preferred by college hiring staff.
Sommers also noted conservative speakers are often heckled or shouted down on many campuses. For example, when Dinesh D'Souza went to Columbia University, he was mobbed. Rather than defend his right to speak and the students' right to listen, the president of the college canceled the event. The protesters chanted, "Access denied -- we win." Sommers wondered what they thought they had won by precluding rational discussion. Students like the ones that silenced D'Souza are "intoxicated with anger," Sommers said. They "intimidate speakers and shut down free speech." Too often, liberals "don't welcome that kind of engagement" on college campuses. Instead, they seek a "diversity of people who think just like you."
Sommers said humanities classes suffer. They sometimes promote global conspiracy theories. Women's studies classes often present a "false picture of how oppressed women are." In fact, women in America are among the "most emancipated in the world." Yet male-bashing is common. The promoted view seems to be, "Women are from Venus, men are from hell." Some feminists are shocked to hear Sommers claim capitalism helped women, yet "bourgeois capitalism liberated women."
Sommers asked one liberal why she only assigned leftist readings. She replied that the students are constantly bombarded with the popular view, so she felt she needed to offer an alternative in class and encourage "agents of social change." But Sommers didn't buy this explanation. People often get a liberal perspective from the popular media. Regardless, students need to balance liberal scholarship with conservative scholarship. Sommers said the perspective relayed by the liberal "assumes a monopoly on truth and goodness," when in actually the truth is more likely to be found in intellectual contention. Finally, Sommers thinks the attitude she has found is "very patronizing toward the student," as its goal is getting the student to act in certain ways rather than simply gain an educated.
On this point, however, Sommers again failed to be sufficiently self-reflective. One member of the audience pointed out that Sommers was herself hostile toward liberals by calling them names. (She did throw words like "crazy," "neurotic," and "paranoid" toward liberals.) Another member of the audience asked, "Why do conservatives think there's evil?" The crowd leaned right, and one guy retorted, "Because there IS evil!" But that is to miss the point of the question.
After all, a lot of conservatives are judgmental and boastfully intolerant. I know because I've met them that some conservatives are bigoted against blacks, homosexuals, and/or women. As the philosophy professor noted, many self-described conservatives cling to the notion that the earth is just a few thousand years old (does this view also deserve a hearing in college classes?). I can sense the frustrated response of modern American liberals to Sommers' arguments: "You claim we should have diversity to include conservatives, but conservatives are overtly antagonistic to diversity! Given the chance, they would exclude liberals in the same way Sommers believes liberals have excluded conservatives!" This points to a tension in Sommers' presentation and also in the liberal framework.
Sommers cited J.S. Mill, who said that in order to understand an argument, one needs to understand the opposing view as well. The best way to understand the opposing view is to listen to it in its most advanced form from somebody who believes it's true. Thus, liberals would do well to heed Sommers' advice and make sure conservatives (perhaps we should say "high-conservatives" or "scholarly conservatives") are not discriminated against on college campuses.
However, as Sommers herself noted, Mill's thought embodied "classical liberalism that grew out of the enlightenment." So what is all this talk about conservatism and liberalism? What Sommers is really arguing is that she is the true liberal, whereas many people who claim to be liberals today are really bigoted reactionaries. Perhaps her talk should have been titled, "Promoting the Liberal Perspective on Campus." She promoted the market-liberal and social-liberal agenda.
It would have been nice to hear Sommers talk more about the historical roots of liberalism and contrast classical liberalism with both conservatism and modern left-liberalism. Not only would her talk have been more interesting, I think it would have opened the door wider to discussions between people who today think of themselves as conservatives and liberals.
There's another problem that weighed on me through parts of Sommers' talk, but one she never addressed. Most colleges today are bound up with the state. It is the "University of Colorado," after all. Political elections determine some of its leaders. It is subject to legislative guidance, and it gets some tax dollars.
Chris Matthew Sciabarra writes of "class dynamics and structural crisis" from a libertarian perspective in his Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. For libertarians, the main problem is not that conservatives or liberals have the upper hand on college campuses: the problem is that colleges are influenced by state power.
It's interesting to speculate how colleges might be different on a free market. First, colleges would probably be smaller on average and more diverse in their orientations. Students would have more power over the curriculum because they would be less likely to pay for nonsense, whether "conservative" or "liberal." Students who wanted a one-sided education could find institutions to fit. Others who wanted exposure to a variety of perspectives could also find what they were looking for. Colleges would be perfectly free to hire all conservatives, all liberals, all libertarians, all Christians, or whatever, without tax subsidies. They would also be free to hire based on merit, ideological orientation, or whatever.
I'm a libertarian, but I'd rather be taught by a Marxist who knows the material and who engages his or her students than a libertarian lacking ability. Sommers' main point is well-taken: many "liberals" on modern American campuses wrongly discriminate against "conservatives." That should stop. Unfortunately, she makes it seem as though the goal is simply to achieve diversity. (True, I am basing my comments only on the content of the talk, whereas a thorough review of Sommers' writings might reveal a more complete perspective.) A real liberalism, an enlightened "classical" liberalism, is concerned not so much with diversity but with quality and individual achievement. Diversity is a healthy bi-product of liberalism that often indicates an absence of bigotry, but it is not the central goal.