Who's Paying for the Culture Wars?

By Selden, Steven | Academe, September/October 2005 | Go to article overview

Who's Paying for the Culture Wars?


Selden, Steven, Academe


Conservative critiques of higher education rely on liberal doses of cash.

Behind the conservative critique of U.S. higher education is a fervent commitment to ideals, to be sure-but there's also a sizable amount of conservative cash. The Bradley, Earhart, Castle Rock, and John M. Olin foundations have contributed lavishly to guidebooks aimed at steering young Americans away from certain colleges and universities. Choosing the Right College, The Common Sense Guide to American Colleges, The Shakespeare File, and Defending Civilisation charge these institutions and their faculty with poorly serving the needs of the nation.1 Unlike other college guidebooks, which are mostly descriptive, the rightwing guides mount an ideological assault on American higher education reflecting a broader conservative moral, social, and political agenda.2

This agenda joins support for economic privatization and conservative values in the public sphere to the Western canon and resistance to affirmative action in the academy. It is designed specifically to achieve a conservative reconstruction of the public's understanding of social justice, market economics, and the role and responsibilities of the polity in a democracy. The guides are thus an important weapon in the culture wars.

Through them, conservative activists use faculty and academic programs as proxies for a larger enemy: the national consensus that produced such programs as the New Deal and the Great Society and an accord regarding religion, markets, and the role of government in American life. Conservative organizations focusing on higher education include the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the now-defunct Madison Center for Educational Affairs, and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.3

Intercollegiate Studies Institute

In 1953, a $1,000 contribution from I. Howard Pew launched the libertarian oriented Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (ISI). Its first president was William F. Buckley, who had lamented the influence of secular humanism on his alma mater, Yale University, in God and Man at Yale, published in 1951. The ISI, renamed the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in 1963, has received more than $13 million from conservative foundations since its beginning.

Although conservatives' anxiety about secular humanism has now been eclipsed by concerns about multiculturalism and postmodernism, the ISI remains committed to "limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, free enterprise, and Judeo-Christian moral standards," according to its Web site. Over the past five decades, conservative activists have tried, without substantive evidence, to persuade the public that most university professors are somehow hostile to such values.

The ISI has concentrated much of its energies on the undergraduate curriculum. In the mid-1990s, at the urging of ISI president T. Kenneth Cribb, Texas oil billionaire Lee Bass withdrew a promise of $20 million to Yale for a program in Western civilization. Bass was originally moved to make his gift after hearing Yale historian Donald Kagan bemoan liberalism's destructive impact on the university's academic standards. In 1995, Newt Gingrich, who was then Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, wrote in To Renew America that the funding was withdrawn because no one at Yale was willing to teach Western civilization. The problem, however, had more to do with budget than ideology. In a time of fiscal retrenchment, the university wanted to reassign faculty from other programs to Western civilization. Yale did not want to make new hires. As the negotiations dragged on, Cribb flew to Texas, persuading Bass to demand the right to veto new faculty. Faced with this clear threat to its academic independence, Yale returned the money. There is real irony here. Tenured radicals did not reject Western civilization at Yale. It was stymied by a well-funded conservative activist organization. …

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