It's that time of year again, when high school graduates set out on their annual tours of campuses, parents in tow, in search of the right bang for their educational buck. This spring I made my own parallel tour, speaking at colleges in Chicago, Boston, New Haven, Quinnipiac, Houston, Dallas and -- Bates College in Portland, Maine. Part of the subtext of my tour was to gauge how much college life had changed since my own student days, back in the 1950s.
At Bates, the topic of my lecture was "The intellectual tradition of the left is bankrupt and its hegemony at Bates is an abuse of academic freedom." In a rare departure from the norm, I had been invited to Bates by the dean of the college, even though, as he informed me shortly after we were introduced, he was a "leftist."
Out of 100 or so colleges I have spoken at in the past several years, I have been invited officially only to four, including Bates. Unlike the greetings they give my former political comrades, college administrations roll out no red carpets for my visits, provide no honorariums or air fares, nor do faculty members normally offer credit to students for attending my lectures (a common practice for many speakers). Even on this occasion, with the Bates dean's official invitation in hand, my reception was a little, shall we say, underwhelming.
I arrived at the airport in Portland the night before my scheduled evening lecture and was met by a driver, who drove me to an apartment provided by the university. Until my evening lecture the next day, my schedule was open. So, I decided to drop in on the dean to thank him for my invitation and inquire if he would like to have lunch. At his office, I was informed he was unavailable.
Instead, I was provided with a student escort, who took me to the school cafeteria, where I ate by myself. The cafeteria meal was complimentary, and the dean eventually showed up to invite me back to his office. His manner was entirely cordial, though he explained that he had taken some criticism from members of his faculty for even inviting me to visit Bates.
Later, after I returned to California, I received a somewhat testy letter from him because of a full-page ad I had run in the school paper on the day of my lecture, which he had not seen at the time. The ad announced that the dean was inviting students to attend my evening talk. It then continued with the following headline: "Marxism is a resurgent doctrine in the former Soviet empire and apparently on American campuses too."
Below this headline was a reminder to students that the false doctrines of Marxism had led to the deaths of 100 million people. Below that was a selection of book titles by authors like Thomas Sowell, David Gress and me offered as "antidotes" to what students were being taught by their professors at Bates.
In all fairness, the dean had a point. I had undoubtedly made his life more difficult. Still, his anguish was just another indication of the pressure he was under from his left-wing faculty because of my visit.
How leftist is his faculty? In the Bates catalog is a course listed as "the Cuban revolution: problems and prospects," which includes a two-week visit to Cuba. The course had been taught by Aviva Chomsky, daughter of the MIT Thersites, until she left Bates, as the dean explained to me, for a more "working-class" school. At my talk that evening, I couldn't resist making the point that the Cuban revolution had no prospects.
Since I had a whole day available, I decided to sit in on one of Bates' political science courses to check my impressions about the state of the contemporary university. I asked students for directions to the building in which political science courses were taught, and went to the office on the ground floor. None of the administrators seemed to have a problem with my auditing a class, so I approached a professor as she was entering her classroom and asked permission to attend.
She was a woman in her 30s who looked Indian and spoke with a British accent, and she seemed pleased at the prospect of having an adult in her audience. All through the class hour she smiled at me and talked in my direction, and even encouraged me to answer a question when the rest of the class could not. In the college courses I had attended at Columbia some 40 years ago, there was rarely an "official" text for the course, and if there were one, my professors seldom referred to it. The real "text" for the course was the professor's lecture notes, and we were expected to read several books, usually by leading contributors to the subject and usually with strongly differing views. A political science course devoted to modern industrial societies, as this one was, might have had texts by Weber, Marx, Durkheim, Tonnies and Hayek, for example.
In this course, however, there was a single 600-page text called "Modernity," edited by the well-known English new leftist Stuart Hall. Like Hall, every contributor to the text was a Marxist. There was no lecture, and no real contribution from the teacher, who merely guided students page by page and paragraph by paragraph through the text at hand. It resembled a science course, based on an accepted body of knowledge, where a single class text is the norm.
Except that this norm was the discredited intellectual tradition of Marxism. I looked over at the text of the student next to me and asked what the acronym ACS staring up out of the page stood for. She said "advanced capitalist society." I noticed another acronym, MIBTC, and was told it stood for "military industrial bureaucratic technocratic complex." The teacher was admonishing the students to pay attention to the main points in the authors' arguments and to take note of the way they grounded them -- whether in authorities or facts. Then she had the class break up into small groups, each of which was to apply this technique to a different section of the text and to assess whether the author of that section satisfactorily proved his point.
My group was assigned a little section on "American militarism." The question put by the text was whether militarism emerged out of the capitalist economic structures of ACSs, or whether once it emerged it became systemic. There was no question of whether American society (where, to the non-ideological, the military appears firmly under civilian control) can reasonably be described as "militarist." One young woman in my group wondered aloud whether the author had proved there was an MIBTC by pointing out that cell phones made by AT&T were used by the army in the Gulf War. (I assured her he had not.)
Subsequently I bought "Modernity" from Amazon.com and checked that the passage was typical rather than exceptional. The viewpoints in the text ranged from classical Marxism to feminist Marxism to postmodernist Marxism. There were no countervailing views introduced except to be refuted. There were plenty of discussions of obscure Marxists like Nicholas Poulantzas, who wrote a book on the "ruling class" in the 1960s before jumping out a window at age 29. But in the book's index there was not a single reference to, for example, the name Hayek.
After the class, I went up to the teacher and said that while I admired her pedagogy in advising the students that she wasn't there to tell them what to think but to teach them how to think, I thought that by assigning an ideological Marxist tome as the course's only text, she was working at cross-purposes with that goal. The smile disappeared from her face as she said: "Well, they get the other side from the newspapers." This education was costing the students' parents $30,000 a year in tuition alone.
This was not to be the end of my auditing adventure in the contemporary academy. Afterwards, the lecturer phoned a complaint in to the dean. He called me in my apartment to tell me I should have gone through his office if I wanted to sit in on a class. I explained the circumstances that had led me to the class, the encouragement of the departmental administrators, the pleasure with which the lecturer herself had welcomed me and the reason for her change of heart. But all to no avail. Obviously she had given him a hard time, and there was no way he was going to sympathize with my perspective on what had happened. The intimidation of the dean was of a piece with the later intimidation over the ad and with the criticism he had received for inviting me at all. It served a purpose, and served it effectively: to minimize the contact that professors and students might risk with conservatives like me.
That was no doubt why the little reception with faculty that he had arranged for me before my talk was confined to the handful of older professors at Bates who shared my views, or at least were not ideologically repelled by them. I admired the courage of these professors to even attend my event, while cognizant of the fact that even in the darkest days of the McCarthy Era, Communist faculty were not so threatened with ostracism by their peers, as politically incorrect academics are today by the reflexive McCarthyism of the tenured left.
I gave my speech to about 60 students, among whom seven or eight formed a very unhappy contingent of campus leftists. Had I not been officially invited by the dean, it is more than likely that even these few would not have been there.
I spoke about the religious ideas that had led to the destruction of 100 million people in our century, people who had been killed by progressive missionaries in order to realize their impossible dream. Revolutionary leftists were modern Manichaeans who believed that the world was ruled by alien (and evil) powers. Even democracies were not free societies but were dominated by these powers, which Marx called "ruling classes" against whom all those who believed in social justice were at war. Even though these Marxist fantasies had led to unprecedented ruin for all the societies that eventually came under their sway, their currency was evident throughout the curriculum. Now the alien powers were called the "patriarchy" or the "white male oligarchy," or more obliquely "institutional racism," but they were just as fantastic, while belief in them inspired passions potentially as destructive as the passions of classical Marxists. No one, I said, was oppressed in America (except perhaps children by their abusive parents). To even suggest as much was to enter the realm of the absurd.
I give the leftist students credit for waiting until the end of my talk to vent their outrage over the blasphemies I had uttered. One young woman got so emotional she decided to leave the building to save herself from further contamination. Another young woman stood up and, with a tremendous urgency, sputtered, "But what about the hierarchies? You didn't mention the hierarchies!"
She was referring of course to the hierarchies of race, gender and class that were the staples of her Bates education and that were alleged by her politicized professors to oppress people of color, women and, of course, wage-slaves in America. In 1999 America! Of course I had indeed mentioned the hierarchies (though not by name) and said they were left-wing illusions, no more substantial than the idea that somewhere behind the Hale-Bopp comet a spaceship was waiting to take the enlightened to heaven. So I tried another tack.
"Let me ask you this question," I said. "Where do you put Oprah Winfrey in your hierarchies?" Oprah Winfrey of course was at the bottom of any oppressive hierarchy conceived by leftists, as a woman born in Mississippi to a black sharecropper, who had been sexually abused. But Oprah had risen by dint of her own intelligence, effort and talent to become a mother-confessor and authority figure to millions of people until the fortune she amassed cast her among the super-rich of America's ruling class.
"She's a token," the young woman said.
"Sorry, she's not a token," I replied. "Cornel West is a token."
I had chosen among many examples a middling intellect whose skin color had catapulted him into academic stardom at Harvard. Derrick Bell is another. Cornel West is a token, because the university is a feudal institution, run somewhat like the Communist Party, where the elect raise people up to the heights by exercising the same kind of arbitrary droit du seigneur that was the privilege of rulers in pre-democratic and pre-capitalist times.
There was no tenure committee or central committee, or monied aristocracy, however, to lift Oprah out of the societal mud. To say, for example to Phil Donahue, "Move over Phil, we need a person of color to put in prime time for diversity's sake." The power accumulated by Oprah Winfrey refutes every clichi of the political left. Her psychological power over her mainly white audience has made her the first individual in history to be able by fiat to create a bestseller and the millions in revenues that go with it. She is a filmmaking industry in herself. She has shown that the barriers of race, class and gender are not insuperable obstacles to advancement in America, any more than residual anti-Semitism, or prejudice against the Irish, say, create impenetrable "hierarchies" of oppression to bar their ascent.
But, of course, such a perspective is politically incorrect in the contemporary academy, so dangerous that the faculty commissars are constantly on guard to prevent students from contamination. The Bates leftists, as I pointed out, were relatively well-behaved. This was unusual, in my experience. The norm approaches a kind of intellectual fascism that makes any dissenting discourse improbable, and often impossible. When I spoke at the University of St. Thomas in Houston on the same trip, and got to the line "Nobody is oppressed in America," one African-American student stood up and began ranting in my direction, "You're a fascist! I can't listen to this anymore." Then he thrust his hand into the air in a Nazi salute, shouted, "Seig Heil" and walked out.
My experiences at these pricey liberal arts colleges was perhaps best captured in an e-mail exchange with a professor at Smith, with whom I argued over the students' rights to hear conservative viewpoints. "I would gladly crush you in a debate on students' so-called right not to be ideologically indoctrinated in the classroom," wrote Smith professor E.C. Graf. "Your phrase 'students' academic freedom' is already a laughable oxymoron, as if students ever had such a thing or ever should. As for admitting that I 'indoctrinate' my students instead of teaching them, tell me my friend, when has there ever been a difference?"
These kinds of encounters demonstrated to me what has changed since my student days. Then, the censors who attacked the university did so from without. Today, the censors are entrenched inside as members of the faculties and the administrations themselves.
Then, the university defined itself as an institution "dedicated to the disinterested pursuit of knowledge." Now every term of that definition is under siege by academic postmodernists and deconstructionists, who themselves are the academic establishment and have redefined its mission as "an institution dedicated to social change."
Well, that type of institution should be called a political party, not a university. No wonder the academy is in such bad shape.