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October 11, 2003

conservatives on campus

David Brooks' Sept. 27th New York Times column, "Lonely Campus Voices" claimed that conservative graduate students face job discrimination, mainly because of the topics they prefer to study (e.g., warfare instead of social history; Churchill instead of Ghandi). These students can't survive in academia, although some make their way successfully in Washington. My favorite line was at the end: "Last week the professors at Harvard's government department reviewed the placement records of last year's doctoral students. Two had not been able to find academic jobs, both of them [students of the conservative scholar Harvey Mansfield]. 'Well,' Mansfield quipped, 'I guess they'll have to go to Washington and run the country.'"

Brooks' column has provoked a lively debate among law and politics professors, which Dan Pinello has collected on his website. Much of this discussion focuses on one conservative scholar, Princeton's Robert George, who (according to various participants) believes that homosexuality violates natural law and teaches this position in his classes, while treating alternative views respectfully. I do not know George's work in any detail, so I would prefer to discuss a hypothetical case. Is it OK for a professor to tell students that in his opinion homosexuality is sinful, if he gives arguments for this position, invites and even describes counter-arguments, and treats all positions equally for the purposes of grading? The following positions (among others) have surfaced in the debate:

Telling a class that homosexuality is sinful is akin to expressing the view that non-Whites are intellectually inferior; both positions are deeply hurtful to vulnerable minorities, and thus cannot be expressed ethically by a professor or other authority figure.

It undermines freedom of speech and open academic culture to stifle a view such as moral opposition to homosexuality.

No professor should express his or her views on any contested topic. A good teacher's own political views will be literally impossible to detect by students.

There are pervasive liberal biases built into modern academic culture; thus the explicit conservative biases of a few professors should not draw special attention.

For what it's worth: I try to frame debates for my students and don't promote my own positions. However, I am fully aware that my choice of topics is not neutral, and that in general the topics we study in the humanities and social sciences are driven by left-of-center concerns. (The same is not true in professional schools.) I don't think this is necessarily wrong, since there is no principled reason to try to cleave to the current political center, wherever it may happen to be. However, acknowledging that the curriculum is tilted leftward robs liberals of an argument against conservative dissidents. It is not only the Robert George's of academe who are "biased."

Furthermore, I am not sure that it is bad for students to experience a teacher's passionate and reasoned commitment to a particular point of view. I think young adults are hard to brainwash. I also think that a consistent refusal to take positions suggests that there are no right answers to moral debates; thus everything is a matter of opinion and no statement should be taken seriously. As an alternative, it can be salutary for students to encounter a teacher who frankly promotes his own views. Opposition to homosexuality is a troublesome extreme case, since gay students are an embattled minority, subject to regular abuse by peers and national figures alike. Yet I am quite uncomfortable with the idea that conservative natural-rights theory cannot ethically be taught in a modern university.

October 11, 2003 12:32 PM | category: none


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