GOP College Plan Reveals Contradictions of the Left
by Ari Armstrong, September 24, 2003
The Republican plan to bolster the influence of conservatives on state-associated college campuses has the left in an uproar. Partly the reaction of the left is an understandable response to the David Horowitz-inspired proposal that is likely to prove unworkable and counterproductive. But partly the vehemence of the reaction is rooted in the contradictions of the left. In pushing the so-called "Academic Bill of Rights," Republicans have unwittingly uncovered a number of these tensions.
Both the left and (what passes today for) the right support the political oversight of education. (Actually, some members of the radical left don't like state control of education for many of the same reasons libertarians don't like it, but we'll focus on the mainstream.) One reason the left gives for politically-controlled education is that children need to be "socialized" -- i.e., taught the values and ideas of politicians and bureaucrats rather than parents. Well, obviously there are more Republicans than Democrats in Colorado, so "socialization" would seem to demand some attention to right-wing modes of thought. This latest incident shows the left doesn't really want "socialization" -- it wants leftist indoctrination. But this point applies more to K-12 than to colleges. The usual leftist argument for politically controlled colleges is that poorer students need greater access to college. But if this is what the left believes, it would do better to argue for a voucher system for college students, with strict protections against (other) political interferences.
Incidentally, this also brings out a contradiction of the right. State-associated colleges, after all, are still largely funded by student fees. Thus, the political control of colleges is less than it is over state-run K-12 schools. In addition to pushing for more conservative-friendly colleges, Colorado Republicans also passed laws encouraging students to say the Pledge of Allegiance in government schools and initiating a small voucher program. As State Senator John Andrews put the matter recently, "[O]ur nation... [offers] universal free education, and this brings us back to the truism: eat my bread, sing my song. Though education is not indoctrination, it does impose obligations on the learner -- not only study and exploration, but also socialization into certain customs." But this is precisely what makes vouchers so frightening. If vouchers eventually extend tax dollars to otherwise market schools, how long will it be before the left flings Andrews' rhetoric back in his face as proof more political controls are needed to ensure proper "socialization" in these schools? To Andrews' clever saying, "eat my bread, sing my song," I'll add another: what's good for the goose, is good for the gander.
Another contradiction of the left has never been far beneath the surface. On one hand, the left wants to implement the "will of the people" and ensure democratic outcomes. Many on the left found it outrageous that somebody could become President without winning the popular vote. On the other hand, the left wants to protect select minorities. But the left doesn't have a very clear theory describing which values trump in which circumstances. Thus, I conclude the left mostly uses rhetoric about "democracy" and "minority rights" to couch its fundamental concern: overcoming economic exploitation as understood along essentially Marxist lines.
A number of left-of-center columns have pointed out the Republicans already control all branches of Colorado government -- so why do they want to control colleges, too? This is obviously an anti-democratic argument, given legislators are popularly elected and Republicans outnumber Democrats in Colorado.
At the same time, Republicans have argued persuasively that conservatives are the minority in college humanities and social sciences departments. But this minority is not one that merits special legal protection, the left argues, for various reasons. Which minorities do so qualify? The "oppressed" ones, of course. And who decides what counts as "oppression?" The left does, of course. (Everybody agrees that some racial minorities have been oppressed; the point is that this theory is not easily harmonized with the notion that democracy is intrinsically valuable.)
While in this case the left is quick to see the unintended consequences of trying to guarantee equality through force of law -- a concern shared by libertarians -- the left completely ignores how this argument applies in other cases. Conservatives, along with libertarians, have long argued that well-intentioned laws meant to protect racial minorities have too often become a system of de facto quotas that has punished innocent business owners for hiring competent employees or firing incompetent ones. For the left, quotas are good only if they protect leftists (though we won't call them quotas); for the right, quotas are good only if they protect right-wingers (though we still won't call them quotas). Not surprisingly, libertarians are the only ones who consistently express skepticism at using political force to achieve egalitarianism (other than the simple egalitarianism of equal enforcement of property rights).
The debate over "academic freedom" also lends credibility to philosopher Stephen Hicks' thesis that postmodernism is really more of a political tool for the left rather than something leftists take seriously. In his critique of the "Academic Bill of Rights" for the September 18 Metropolitan (the newspaper of the Auraria campus), Joel Tagert writes, "This is Horowitz's basic contention: that liberal college campuses present a 'hostile learning environment' for conservative students. What Horowitz and the SAF [Students for Academic Freedom] doggedly ignore is that not all views are equal. Of course right-wing students' views are 'under attack.' It's because many of their views are wrong." So much for relativism.
When intellectual contradictions make their way into public policy, they often have nasty consequences. The one sure way to protect ourselves from the pathologies of left and right is to refuse to let either wing control our social institutions. The libertarian alternative is to get politicians (of whatever ideology) out of higher education. There should simply be no set of laws whatsoever that pertain specifically to colleges. Then, power over colleges would naturally return to the employees of specific colleges, the students, the fee-paying parents, and donors. Yes, the libertarian approach means some colleges will be more conservative or liberal or libertarian or socialist or religious (or whatever), and that is a main strength of the system: people can go where they're happiest. For most, that will be a school that encourages robust debate and independent thinking. The main reason American colleges are so successful is that they are largely separated from politics. They will be even more successful when the political connections are finally severed.