Magazine article The American Conservative

Closing of the Scholarly Mind

Magazine article The American Conservative

Closing of the Scholarly Mind

Article excerpt

Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias, Donald Lazere, Palgrave Macmillan, 292 pages

Donald Lazere's stale '80s culture-war remix is fresh in one way. Other academics on the left use neutral sounding terms like "global citizenship," "diversity," or "social justice" to brand the view that higher education should guide students toward the social and political attitudes of their professors. Lazere boldly calls his book Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias.

Lazere, an emeritus professor of English at California Polytechnic State University, has a straightforward argument. Liberal education should "broaden students' perspectives beyond those of their upbringing." Students' perspectives are today narrowed by our political discourse, which occupies a "spectrum whose leftward limit is the Democratic version of governance by relatively liberal, wealthy corporate and military executives." Neither mainstream liberals nor mainstream conservatives question the "unmarked norm" of capitalism, and consequently students don't question it either. "Isn't there something to be said," then, "for ... preserving in the human imagination ... socialist ideals," and "mightn't college liberal arts teachers ... be indulged in this role, like the monks who preserved the manuscripts of classical humanists?" Such teachers honor the great tradition of "the liberal arts as a Socratic gadfly to the body politic."

In "The Crisis of Liberal Education," Allan Bloom (disclosure: Bloom, whom Lazere attacks, was my teacher) argued that universities should preserve for students serious and neglected alternative accounts of the best way of life. In Lazere's hands, Bloom morphs into Ralph Nader, for whom the only such way of life worth mentioning is rebellion against the corporate oligarchy. Lazere's "Socratic" gadfly buzzes only about socialism and the deficiencies of Fox News.

Lazere's book is unintentionally instructive. We are told not to worry that college and university faculty are overwhelmingly left or liberal because students' political views do not change much in college. Even if that's so, the leftist bias Lazere proudly recommends and exemplifies distorts his vision of students and what they need. Teachers who follow Lazere may not indoctrinate their students, but they will not much help them reflect on how to live a good life either.

Lazere thinks his students tend to be "limited in their political views to the conservative commonplaces they have heard from their parents and peers." I don't know Lazere's students, but I do know that the Higher Education Research Institute annually conducts a survey of incoming freshmen. That survey shows that more students enter college as self-identified liberals (26.8 percent in 2012) than enter as self-identified conservatives (21.1 percent). Many (47.5 percent) call themselves middle-of-the-road. Seventy-five percent agree that same-sex marriage should be legal. Some 64.6 percent agree that the wealthy should pay more taxes. So much for conservative commonplaces.

Recall that Lazere thinks that capitalism is our "unmarked norm," which students blindly adopt. Moreover, the "capitalist status quo" is abetted by "conservatives' monolithic propaganda campaign" against socialism, so that the left cannot get a hearing. But the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press tracks how people react to politically loaded terms, including capitalism and socialism. Among 18-29 year olds in 2011, 46 percent of respondents reacted favorably to the word "capitalism," while 47 percent reacted unfavorably. Socialism does considerably better in this age group, with 49 percent viewing it favorably and only 43 percent viewing it unfavorably. Even when all age groups are taken into account, capitalism is viewed favorably by 50 percent of respondents, better than "socialism" at 31 percent but no better than "liberal," which also comes in at 50 percent.

And, as the infomercials say, that's not all. …

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