Deconstructing the 'Liberal Campus' Cliche

Uniformly labeling higher education as a community of hypersensitive, radical leftists is not only a false portrayal, but also undermines intellectualism.

A sea of graduates in caps and gowns
Graduates of the University of California, Berkeley, who do not all have the same thoughts (Noah Berger / Reuters)

Are American universities now spaces where democratic free expression is in decline, where insecurity, fear, and an obsessive, self-preening political correctness make open dialogue impossible? This was a view voiced by many at the start of the month, after the University of California, Berkeley, canceled a speech by the right-wing provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos, when a demonstration against his appearance spun out of control. Yiannopoulos had been invited to speak by campus Republicans, but headlines the next morning were dominated by images of 100 to 150 protesters wearing black masks, hurling rocks, fireworks, and Molotov cocktails en route to doing $100,000 dollars of damage to a student center named after the great icon of pacifist civil disobedience, Martin Luther King, Jr.

The university itself quickly rejected the rioting group of protesters, issuing a statement that read: “We deeply regret that the violence unleashed by this group undermined the First Amendment rights of the speaker, as well as those who came to lawfully assemble and protest his presence.” But official disavowals were not enough to spare Berkeley—which consistently ranks as the top public university in the country—from headlines depicting it as yet another college campus succumbing to anti-democratic sentiments. These headlines were followed by high-profile denouncements, from Donald Trump calling for defunding the university to the Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams announcing he was ceasing his alumni giving.

Berkeley is only one of a growing number of universities that have been highlighted as waning in their commitment to free speech. A little over a year ago, Yale came under scrutiny for a notorious case involving a debate about censoring Halloween costumes on campus. And last spring The New Yorker published an in-depth investigation of how a “new” activism at Oberlin College had weakened a sense of open dialogue. A few months before that The Atlantic also ran a big cover story highlighting how “in the name of emotional well-being” college students across the country were now “increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas” they didn’t like.

Such reports have in turn reinforced a longstanding political narrative, which seeks to demean America’s universities as ideologically narrow, morally slack, hypersensitive, and out of touch. For example, commentators like the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat have argued that America’s “university system” is “genuinely corrupt” in relying on “rote appeals to … left-wing pieties to cloak its utter lack of higher purpose.”

But does this widespread portrait of universities as morally weak and anti-democratic—circulating at least since the time of Allan Bloom—really hold true? This vision of American universities is largely inadequate in at least two ways. First, it incorrectly blames increased fragility exclusively on the university system itself and, second, it relies on a reductive caricature of America’s institutions of higher learning.

Undoubtedly a threatened sense of identity has led to a rise of some left-wing students making unreasonable demands in terms of censoring or excluding certain material. For example, at Oberlin College there was increased pressure on administration and admissions to expunge the institution of “imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, ableism, and a cissexist heteropatriarchy.” As part of this one student prominently called for “trigger warnings” so that students could prepare themselves for emotionally-challenging texts like Sophocles’s Antigone. This call in turn vexed faculty, other students, parents, and administration, generating divisions on campus. Yet a closer look reveals that the fragility of identity politics is far from limited to the left on college campuses.

Identity politics places individual and group notions of selfhood at the center of politics. As the philosopher Charles Taylor has argued at length, the main goal of identity politics is “recognition” or validation of a given identity by others in society. I have written elsewhere about how identity politics (normally associated with American liberalism) is actually a major engine fueling the rise of Trump. The categories of left and right often distort the ways in which cultural trends, like those associated with identity politics, are far more widely shared across American life. While some left-wing groups on campus are guilty of retreating from open dialogue, a conservative-identity movement has likewise tried to buffer students from having to hear ideas that upset them.

One of the more troubling examples of this is the attempt to stigmatize certain professors through the website, which compiles lists of professors that purportedly need to be monitored due to their “radical agenda.” This website professes to “fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish” but at the same time it publicly isolates professors whose perspective is seen as offensive or shocking to conservative students. Through the use of this website students can now know before they ever walk into their college classrooms if their professor is too “radical” to take seriously (or perhaps even too radical to take the class). At best the website serves as a massive “trigger warning” for conservative-leaning students; at worst it is a modern Scarlet Letter.

Because both the left and the right more generally are struggling to muster the confidence to be routinely exposed to dissenting points of view, it is neither fair nor constructive to lay the problem of hypersensitivity at the feet of America’s “liberal” universities. Rather, America as a whole is experiencing an extraordinary sense of fragility around identity—universities, like the rest of America, find themselves immersed in these tensions.

Reducing American universities to inaccurate clichés about the “collegiate left” does serve a hard-nosed political function: It marginalizes, excludes, discredits, and diminishes these institutions and intellectuals more broadly from public debate and office. This is part of a much longer tradition of anti-intellectualism in America, first tracked by Richard Hofstadter and more recently chronicled by Susan Jacoby. This culture of anti-intellectualism is likely an important factor in why the number of American professors who serve in Congress is dwarfed by politically dominant professions like lawyers and businessmen.

It has been a standard trope since at least the 1960s to dismiss the “liberal academy” and its intellectuals out of hand—as when William F. Buckley famously quipped that he would “rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard.” More recently the American right has routinely celebrated books by authors like Roger Scruton and Michael Walsh who rest the responsibility for what they see as an apocalyptic civilizational collapse squarely on the shoulders of professors in college classrooms.

But these attempts by other elite groups within society to gain popular political power by attacking universities and intellectuals has only been possible through distortions of reality. The ideological reality of American universities is in fact much more complex than the readymade bromides of the culture war. As of 2016, the United States is home to more than 4,000 institutions of higher education. Among them exists tremendous heterogeneity when it comes to educational missions, specialty and focus, civic and spiritual goals. A total picture of America’s academy would include everything from bustling state schools like the University of Alabama to small Catholic colleges like Thomas Aquinas College; it would span elite Ivies like Harvard and Princeton and highly affordable community colleges like Santa Monica College; it would include places specializing in sciences and engineering like Colorado School of Mines and art institutes like Rhode Island School of Design. American higher education has in part excelled due to a willingness to generously fund and support a wide diversity of institutions.

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.