Even the internal life of universities is far more complex and diverse than the standard anti-intellectual story about them is able to capture. There is, for example, a great variety of ideological and political sensibilities found across the faculties of American universities. At the philosophical level, law schools unsurprisingly tend to presuppose a certain basic deference toward American ideological and legal norms; departments of economics are often (though not always) heavily shaped by classical economics and theories that incline toward advocacy of markets; a similar point could be made of business schools. Humanities and social-science faculties in the United States for their part have scholars of great books, humanists, and, yes, radicals.
Berkeley itself—perhaps the American university with the strongest reputation for liberal activism—is far more complex a place than the standard caricatures allow. (I know because I completed my graduate education there and yet now teach at a private Christian university.) For example, Berkeley hosts a wide range of political clubs, including the largest College Republicans group in the state of California. It is also home to more than 50 student religious organizations—including everything from evangelical and Catholic to Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist groups. This diversity of spiritual options is hardly the same as the lack of higher purpose held together by a few empty “left-wing pieties” described by Douthat. A pluralism of spiritual traditions housed by the same university is not the same as a vacuum, much less a single monolithic liberal voice. Indeed, how many people know that in addition to seven Nobel Laureates, Berkeley also has John Yoo, one of the country’s most prominent conservative legal scholars on the law faculty (who zealously defended some of George W. Bush’s most controversial policies)?
Ultimately, the deep philosophical problem with the standard political narrative about America’s universities is that it is far too essentialist and reductive. The criticisms are essentialist because they hold that American universities can be fairly described in terms of a few core features (“liberal,” “hypersensitive,” “intolerant”); they’re reductive because they assume that other complex aspects of university life can be simplified to these elements. But is the professor who holds unorthodox or even radical political views really unable to shed light on the poetry of T. S. Eliot, the paradoxes of behavioral economics, or the history of religion? America impoverishes itself when it determines beforehand whom it can and cannot learn from in this way.
Any society that routinely attacks and undermines the institutions that support its greatest minds is caught up in an act of either extravagantly naïve or profoundly sinister self-sabotage. America’s college campuses remain places of astounding diversity in which democratic exchange of the highest kind still routinely takes place. The country’s university system remains, with all its imperfections, the best school for American democracy.
If the United States is to flourish in the coming generation in the way it did in the prior century, it will need to embrace and even learn from the diversity and dialogue of its universities—not destroy them through simplistic grabs for popular power.