The Conservative Push for the Right Student

The news of right-wing assaults on higher education keeps coming: The state of Pennsylvania has a congressional board set up to investigate cases of bias in the classroom, the State University of New York System’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously to allow white students to apply for scholarships originally earmarked for black, Hispanic, and American Indian students. Barely a day passes when those of us who work in higher education are not forced to face yet another example of the increasing power of the right’s ability to push its educational agenda.

These assaults, of course, are not new. Most of them have been circulating since the culture wars. But it was the attacks of 9/11 and the war on terror that gave them newfound power. Stanley Kurtz, the conservative critic who argued for government oversight of area studies programs, makes the point: “The war has unquestionably brought a new level of scrutiny to our politically correct campuses. Once the initial years of the campus culture war had passed, the public decided that campus leftism was either beyond the reach of anyone who hoped to do something about it, or irrelevant. The war changed that” (2002). What lends force to these attacks is that they are presented as stemming from a desire to protect student rights. The public has been regaled by tales of the helpless student who was victimized by a left-leaning faculty member who forced her class to watch Fahrenheit 9/11 and then penalized students who didn’t like the movie with bad grades. Or we hear of freshman classes who have had to suffer through reading texts sympathetic to Islam. In addition, the media reports that university faculty are overwhelmingly leftist and hell-bent to indoctrinate their students.

There have been many counter-arguments posed that suggest that these attacks rest on faulty research, that the nature of teaching lends itself to left-leaning politics, that seeking political diversity among faculty members is impractical, etc but not enough attention has been paid, in my view, to the right’s characterization of the student as a helpless victim. These attacks have typically been disguised as a defense of student rights — such as the right to academic freedom, the right to transparency in reporting facts about universities, the right to fairness and balance in courses and curricula, the right to be taught about the greatness of the nation and of Western civilization, the right to exposure to conservative faculty, etc. — but really the assault is on the student.

Let me briefly list some of the claims being made by the right regarding the assault on the student:

* Students are victims of indoctrination.

“For some time now, conservatives have watched anxiously as tenured leftists have conducted mind experiments on American campuses, regulating speech and punishing ideas that are politically incorrect.” ­David Horowitz (The Art of Political War 2000, 73).

* Students have been denied access to conservative faculty.

The “About Campus Watch” site claims that “[t]he Middle East studies professorate is almost monolithically leftist due to a systematic exclusion of those with conservative or even moderately liberal views” (n.p.).

* Student ideas are often discounted by professors, which is a violation of their academic freedom.

“Rather than fostering intellectual diversity-the robust exchange of ideas traditionally viewed as the very essence of a college education-our colleges and universities are increasingly bastions of political correctness, hostile to the free exchange of ideas” (Anne Neal, co-president of the ACTA, Congressional testimony, 2003, n.p.).

These three points interconnect and reveal important premises that underpin the right’s assault. Similar to the McCarthy period the right now claims that students are victims of indoctrination. Brainwashing and mind control in classrooms constitute a parent’s worst fears. Merely accusing a professor of indoctrination sends shivers throughout public consciousness. It is, without a doubt, the most effective way to cripple the progressive potential of higher ed, because it immediately makes the public suspicious of professors. But let’s consider for a moment what such charges presume, especially when they are bundled with the second claim that students need more access to conservative faculty.

Throughout the Bush reign the public has been repeatedly asked to uncritically believe, to have blind faith, to sacrifice, and to obey. The connections between the type of public ideally imagined by the administration and the nation’s youth should be obvious. If you require an obedient populace, then it is essential that you begin training the youth accordingly. Favoring tests over critique, memorization over engagement, loyalty over social commitment, individualism over community, and so on implies a student educated to passively consume what the government provides rather than actively participate in the construction of a democratic society. This negative view of the unthinking student repeatedly appears in arguments that assume that students are docile and submissive, easily persuaded to accept their professors’ politics. The right also confuses the necessary confrontations that arise in an atmosphere of critical pedagogy with hostility towards student’s views.

What is most revealing is that the right suggests that political affiliations of faculty seamlessly transfer into classroom dogma and that students readily accept anything a professor says. If that were true, and if it were also true that the academy was dominated by the left, then wouldn’t the nation be overwhelmingly leftist? If professors control their students, and if the left controls the universities, then why are there so many college-educated Republicans?

And, if it is abundantly clear that such arguments make no sense whatsoever, then what is it exactly that does worry the right? Not left-leaning faculty I contend, but, rather, the intellectually sophisticated students left-leaning faculty hope to encourage. In fact a recent study by April Kelly-Woessner and Matthew Woessner that will soon to be published in PS: Political Science & Politics – finds that students are the ones with bias and they are more likely to judge their professors on political beliefs than on merit. The study shows that students do not change political affiliations because of classroom experiences.

The next three ideas coalesce around the concept of intellectual unity and diversity:

* Students have not been presented with a diversity of ideas and competing viewpoints.

Article 4 of the Academic Bill of Rights: “Curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences should reflect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge in these areas by providing students with dissenting sources and viewpoints where appropriate” (n.p.).

* Students have not been presented with sufficient faculty unity regarding the war on terror because academia is dominated by faculty who support terrorists.

“ colleges and university faculty have been the weak link in America’s response” to terrorism (ACTA Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It, 2002, 1).

” many U.S. scholars of the Middle East lack any appreciation of their country’s national interests and often use their positions of authority to disparage these interests” (“About Campus Watch” n.p.).

* Students have been deprived of a strong, solid education by the multicultural curriculum.

“Instead of broad courses on the full sweep of American history, many universities require a narrow focus on racism and inequality” (Restoring America’s Legacy, Anne D. Neal and Jerry L. Martin 3).

“Instead of solid core requirements, many colleges now offer students a cafeteria­style menu of hundreds of often narrow and even odd courses.” (Jerry Martin Congressional testimony on accreditation).

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni or ACTA quickly exploited the public panic after 9/11 in order to accuse academia of anti-Americanism, to claim that curricula did not prepare students to defend American values or understand American history, and to suggest that general education has abandoned a “solid” “core” in favor of a “cafeteria style” selection of “odd” topics (2002). ACTA argues that faculty must be united in their defense of American civilization against terrorism but they also argue that students are not presented with sufficient “diversity” of opinions. So, which is it? Is the university united or not? Does ACTA support the “robust exchange of ideas” that would logically result from a nation’s decision to go to war, or not? Consequently the term “intellectual diversity” as it has been used in these assaults is code for right-wing views because diverse opinions about the war on terror are unacceptable. Again, it is clear that these claims do not support student’s rights, but rather right-wing politics aimed at suppressing the student’s right to dissent.

The last and possibly most important attack reveals the economic side of these assaults:

* Students and parents are not getting their money’s worth, because increasing tuition costs go to supporting left-wing curricula and faculty.

“By empowering the consumers of higher education–students and parents–with information, we will ensure they can fully exercise their power in the marketplace of higher education. Be it adding transparency to college costs or adding sunshine to the accreditation process, the bill will give consumers access to significant new information to help them make their own best decisions about higher education” (Representative John Boehner’s introduction to HR 609 2005, n.p.).

This last issue, regarding consumer protection for students and parents, exposes one of the most potentially devastating features of the right-wing assault, because it reminds us that this assault is ultimately an attack on funding and public support for higher ed. These assaults have often been accompanied by major cuts in state and federal support for higher education. With efforts to eradicate minority scholarships and to slash financial aid, it becomes clear that these assaults hope to eliminate the notion of the university as a public good that should be available to all.

As education becomes increasingly privatized and our students increasingly consider education as a consumer product, it will become more and more difficult to encourage students to use the university as a site of social engagement and collective critique. On the positive side, the greatest advantage the left may have in this battle is its respect for the student. Fostering wakefulness over dreams, engagement over loyalty, vigilance over obedience, political activism over passive consumption, and hope over fearfulness may very well be our best weapon.

SOPHIA A. McCLENNEN, author of The Dialectics of Exile: Nation, Time, Language and Space in Hispanic Literatures, is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, Spanish, and Women’s Studies and Co-Director of the Graduate Program in Comparative Literature at Pennsylvania State University. She can be reached at: