The Academy Then and Now

A widely held view in the national press and certainly among academics is that we’ve come a long way in overcoming prejudice. Presumably we’re now more open to a wider variety of opinions than ever before. 

According to this narrative, all social institutions, including universities, once writhed under the weight of accumulated bigotry. Students and professors felt muzzled and were unable to express unconventional insights that clashed with the sentiments of the master class. Now, however we live in an age of greater openness and candor.

One way that was achieved was by instituting and enforcing sensitivity guidelines in business and education. The result of this massive social engineering project has, I’ve been told, been an all-inclusive discussion of views that was impossible before. 

As a professor of forty years, however, I never perceived this progress in the way instruction was given and received. Indeed, my impressions are exactly the opposite. 

What I noticed by the end of my career were students reeling off politically correct (PC) slogans they picked up in other classes instead of responding to my questions. They were not more intellectually curious and receptive to controversial ideas than in the past, but markedly less so. There was no longer any need for students to think critically, as opposed to feeding back to the instructor what were the prescribed, memorized positions.

Regarding the faculty, scholarly discussions have mostly been replaced by absorption in procedural minutiae and over-the-top statements about sensitivity. Many younger professors exhibit indifference toward even minimally original research. By the time I went to my last faculty position over twenty years ago, I found some of my most intellectually stimulating encounters were over lunch with the grounds crew, talking about college football. 

These impressions were confirmed in my mind when I recently went back to the college from which I retired and conversed with a former colleague. I asked about a new “sensitivity” class, which the school had made compulsory for all faculty members. Since he and I had been close friends, I ventured the opinion that back in the early 1960s when I went to college, university learning was far more open to discussion. 

My friend responded that I may have been laboring under an illusion. 

What I mistook for openness, he argued, was the exclusive association of speech and thinking with white male voices. Since I sympathized with those voices, he said, I naturally took their sound for a free exchange of ideas. In fact there was much more diversity of expression now than in the past. It was just taking time to sensitize everyone to everyone else’s diversity. There was, moreover, the burden of prejudice that we inherited from an earlier era and which we were still working to overcome. 

Of course some people, my friend hastened to add, confused this learning process with censorship. They read too much into the fact that voices and attitudes that belong to the unreconstructed past are no longer welcomed into the discussion. But this was not an attempt to suppress anyone’s thinking.  What was happening was something more benign: We were all becoming aware of each other’s needs and discovering the missing voices from the past. 

Up until the last few decades women and other minorities were not allowed or encouraged to speak as independent and often rebellious voices, he argued. Now they were being listened to with special attentiveness to enrich the academic and scholarly conversation.

My memories of the pre-PC academic past, however, are much different than those of my friend; they were also informed by actual experience. 

Like Alan Kors, who benefited greatly from leftist professors who were committed to scholarship rather than their beliefs (and has written on this topic), I have fond memories of my old-fashioned leftist professors. I would never confuse these socialists and Marxists for the raving PC maniacs who have supplanted them as “progressives.” They were intellectuals who enjoyed debating and, contrary to my friend’s assertion, no voices were kept out.

I recall meeting such contentious leftist intellectuals long after I left graduate school at the editorial board meetings called by Paul Piccone, when he ran the leftist and at one time Marxist journal Telos. I was on the editorial board, and although never a Marxist, I thoroughly enjoyed the company of at least some of those who claimed they were. 

In the heat of battle they may have denounced me as a “fascist” or counterrevolutionary but they met my verbal thrusts with well-considered counter-arguments and gave evidence that they had reflected long and hard on their positions. They met arguments with arguments, not with personal attacks.

Next to today’s academic luminaries, my Stalinoid mentor Herbert Marcuse exemplified intellectual tolerance. I say Stalinoid because Marcuse, father or grandfather of the American New Left, passionately defended Stalin’s “march toward socialism” in our classes. 

There was no confusing where he stood politically. Despite our unbridgeable differences, however, he and I would debate furiously in class. I was a critic of all egalitarian ideology and often mentioned genetic differences as a source of human difference. Statements like that today, which would cause me to be bounced out of supposedly conservative foundations as a rightwing extremist, were totally acceptable in our discussions. 

That was because debating from evidence, as Professor Kors has observed, used to be integral to college learning. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.  

There are reasons why professors once welcomed debate but now mostly prepare students to mouth slogans that stop debate in its tracks. First, higher education was once about sharpening the mind and not about mind-numbing sensitization. Second, most professors, including the admirers of leftist totalitarian societies, assumed that college teaching required the open discussion of ideas. That went with their vocation, just as the designation of victims and victimizers and certain god-terms define the academic calling today. 

The older generations were feistier, less easily cowed, and more open to hearing ideas that may not have been theirs (or those of the dean or provost). The oppressive groupthink that I have observed taking hold of college faculties was simply not as strong forty years ago. By the time I left the academic world, what I perceived among my much younger colleagues was endless moral posturing. That took the place of testing one’s wits and teaching students to think.

A final observation about the changes I witnessed has to do with why people became professors. 

As a student, I noticed that most of my teachers were immersed in books and ideas. They were genuinely in love with their disciplines and would spend their evenings and vacations pursuing their studies full-time. In college I majored with one professor who was a multilingual scholar in intellectual history. One of his books, which my mentor was too modest to discuss, was a study of the effects of Impressionist art on the prose style of Marcel Proust. 

It was quite by accident that I discovered that his wife worked as a volunteer for the Liberal Party in New York City. Although he too voted like his wife, I would have been hard put to figure out the politics of either one of them from my conversations with them at college or as a visitor to their apartment. 

Unlike today’s professors, they were not “politicized” and had no problem separating social and scholarly activities from their political preferences. Even the possibility of that separation began to end with the rise of the New Left in the 1960s, which turned every aspect of life into an expression of political commitment. 

Professors were among the first to take over this attitude, but as the years rolled by, their leftist politics became an empty convention rather than deeply felt dedication. 

But something even more depressing has become obvious to me about much of the faculty today.  Some professors strike me as men or women simply holding down “jobs” without a deep commitment to learning as practice (in the Aristotelian sense). Others seemed to be not quite fully grown-up adults burdened with personal and emotional issues—people who didn’t fit into a bourgeois moral world and who were looking for an environment that they could mold to their proclivities.  

Most of the others strike me as misplaced office workers.