TCS Daily

Universities and the Left: A Reply to the Critics

By Edward Feser - February 20, 2004 12:00 AM

The debate over the Left's domination of the modern university has always been an emotional one, and my recent two-part TCS article on the subject has certainly generated some passionate responses. Most of these were from conservative professors, students, and parents who feel besieged and were gratified to read something that takes their concerns seriously. But there were also some objections, to which I'd like to respond. Some of these were serious. Some were not at all serious -- despite their having been made by people who evidently take themselves pretty seriously.

The Professors Weigh In

To take the latter first: Professor Brian Leiter, who fancies himself an arbiter of all things academically respectable, disagrees with my assertion that conservatives are treated with condescension and hostility in the modern university. His way of proving me wrong is to call me "embittered" and a "crackpot," a "lunatic" whose "ranting" and "paranoid" "lies" are not only "embarrassing," but raise "a serious psychological question" about my mental stability. Then, calling in the heavy intellectual artillery, he links approvingly to another blog which characterizes my article as "bullshit" and "total crap," and me personally as "nuts," a "Neanderthal," "stupid," "dim-witted," "a twit," "a moron," a product of "the breeding ground of chaos and hate in this country [which] lies nested in the pathological conservativism of murderous anti-abortionist goons, right-wing militias, and wanna-be theocrats," and -- the coup de grace -- "Ann Coulter's long lost fraternal twin." At this point Professor Leiter and his fellow bloggers apparently exhausted the thesaurus.

A wag once wrote that no one doubted the existence of God until some philosopher tried unsuccessfully to prove it while delivering the Gifford Lectures. Of that I'm not so sure, but it seems to me that if there was any doubt about the truth of my own thesis, Professor Leiter has kindly, if inadvertently, provided the missing evidence with his eloquent "refutation" of it.

Leiter also goes on at length about the negative impact my article might have on my professional standing, and has evidently employed a crack staff of blog readers to track down a number of obscure bits of Feser trivia from around the Internet, which he has posted and analyzed meticulously. His interest is flattering, if creepy. But it leaves me puzzled. If my thesis is wrong, why should my article cause me any professional trouble? Won't the conservatives with which the academy is, by Leiter's lights, veritably teeming, welcome me with open arms in reward for my service to the cause?

Now maybe he thinks that even such conservatives would, given their sense of academic decorum, refrain from associating with a fellow right-winger who would dare to break ranks with his fellow professors by writing a critique of the contemporary academy. Yes, that must be it. After all, a left-wing professor who claimed, say, that the universities were in thrall to corporations and the military-industrial complex would be run out on a rail by outraged fellow liberals who would not stand for such crackpot ranting even from one of their own. We can expect Noam Chomsky's sacking from MIT any day now.

But wait: though in his comments on my article Leiter dismisses the suggestion that conservatives are underrepresented in academia, one finds on perusing an earlier blog post of his -- one concerning the now-notorious comments of Professor Robert Brandon on conservatives in academia -- that he there acknowledges the "small number of conservatives in academia" and that "certain kinds of conservative views are underrepresented in the academy."

What's going on here? Perhaps, despite his apparent contempt for my admiration for the philosophers of the Middle Ages, Professor Leiter has himself taken on board a version of one of the less happy specimens of Medieval philosophy, the notorious and allegedly Averroist doctrine of "double truth": when a liberal professor like Brandon affirms the paucity of conservatives on the faculty, what he says is true; but when one of us benighted conservatives affirms the same proposition, what is true is its negation. This is a remarkable development in contemporary philosophy, and it is odd that Professor Leiter, whose blog is so devoted to chronicling the ups and downs and ins and outs of the exciting world of academic life, has failed to make more explicit note of it. But that is, no doubt, merely owing to his evident modest and self-effacing nature.

Then there is Professor Michael Bérubé, himself the author of an unintentionally hilarious piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education a couple of months ago dealing with the very topic of conservatives in the academy. He there expressed puzzled exasperation at the suggestion that conservative students are treated with disrespect by their professors -- and then devoted the rest of the article to paint a detailed picture of "John," one of his own conservative students, as a paranoid loudmouth. This is either breathtaking cluelessness of Leiterian proportions, or a self-deprecating satire. Either way, the joke's on Bérubé. But one suspects he doesn't quite "get" it.

In any case, the good professor has seen fit to provide commentary on my own article. It doesn't begin well. Alluding to an earlier TCS piece of mine, he alleges that

"Feser...has recently written that 'the ideal presidential candidate of a Pacifica Radio Network listener or Mother Jones subscriber - or, to make a more timely reference, a contributor to' would be none other than Adolf Hitler."

Of course, as readers of that piece know, that is a rather cheesy distortion of what I actually said. Since Professor Bérubé is, despite his experience in teaching literature, apparently as literal-minded as the hapless students he likes to badmouth in national publications, let me briefly explain for him the (apparently too subtle) meaning I was trying to convey.

No, I don't really think that left-wingers like Hitler. The point was rather that, given the actual content and historical development of Fascist and National Socialist doctrine, there are far more connections between it and the modern Left than there are between it and the modern Right. Therefore if, as so many Leftists like to do, you are going to play "pin the Swastika on the donkey," it follows that it is far more plausible to pin it on the Left than on the Right. So, Leftists should, if they are intellectually honest, stop playing that stupid game, and in particular quit using the tired "Nazi" and "Fascist" labels to smear anyone who disagrees with them. All clear?

In any event, it mustn't be thought that Bérubé's crude literalism has completely robbed him of a sense of humor. On the contrary, he has shown himself to be a practical joker of the first water. Case in point: A flattering but strange email was sent to me by what seemed at the time to be a rather simple-minded reader, to which I nevertheless sent an encouraging reply. (I am, I confess, more inclined than Bérubé is to suffer fools gladly -- except when they've got Ph.D.'s, anyway. I just cannot bring myself to insult apparently sincere readers the way he publicly insults his students.) It turns out, however, that this email was a hoax perpetrated by one of Bérubé's "readers," as our prankster professor has revealed with a flourish on his widely-consulted blog. Well, what can I say? Kudos, Senor Bérubé! You got me! Alan Sokal's got nothing on you, fella.

Nor is the crude "gag email" the only sort of high jinks of which the resourceful Professor Michael "Shecky" Bérubé is capable. In commenting on my article on campus Leftism, he also proves himself a master of the art of subtle and biting sarcasm, as evidenced by the following "confession": "I myself spend six solid classroom hours a week denouncing Bush as a drunken, lying fratboy and reminding my students that they will be graded on the basis of how well their term papers argue that Bush is a drunken, lying fratboy. And frankly, I don't want this important aspect of my pedagogy to go overlooked." (N.B. For those readers as literal-minded as Bérubé: that was SATIRE. Just for yucks. He didn't really mean it, OK? So spare the poor professor your emails, hoax or otherwise.)

Now, this is funny stuff, to be sure. But Bérubé is a Serious Thinker, so surely at some point he'll cut the comedy and present an actual argument against what I wrote? And so he does, I think, though he has cleverly hidden it among his witticisms. It would seem to be this: the vast majority of university professors do not spend much, if any, class time agitating for left-wing political causes (e.g. by ranting against Bush); therefore the curriculum is not biased in a left-wing direction. The premise is, I readily grant, true. But the conclusion doesn't follow. To see why not, compare an argument the fallaciousness of which Bérubé cannot fail to acknowledge: the vast majority of preachers do not spend much, if any, time in their sermons arguing for the existence of God; therefore their sermons are not biased in a theistic direction. The problem with the second argument is obvious. The fact that preachers don't argue for God's existence is irrelevant to whether their sermons are biased toward theism, because the subjects they choose to preach on, and the texts they will typically appeal to in the course of their sermons, will themselves be biased toward theism insofar as they will presuppose and/or insinuate the truth of theism, with the opposite point of view discussed, if at all, only in a pejorative way.

Similarly, it might be true -- indeed, I have claimed that it is true -- that even though liberal professors do not typically explicitly agitate in favor of Leftism in the classroom, their choice of topics, the way they approach them, and the texts they assign nevertheless presuppose and/or insinuate the truth of left-wing attitudes in matters of politics, morality, culture, and religion. If, for example, a course in political philosophy is offered in which the readings comprise selections from the likes of the liberal philosopher John Rawls, the libertarian Robert Nozick, and various feminist and left-of-center communitarian critics of Rawls, with no conservative writers assigned at all and with Nozick treated as an easily-refuted eccentric whose views are not shared by any other contemporary philosopher worth reading, then students will -- obviously -- get the impression that the left-of-center views are the only realistic options. And this sort of thing is, I submit, extremely common in the contemporary university.

Now with a preacher, you expect this sort of thing to happen: anyone who attends a church service does so with full knowledge that he is going to hear a message that assumes the truth of theism. Similarly, someone who goes to a religiously-affiliated university knows at the outset that the curriculum is going to be influenced to some extent by a certain theological outlook. By the same token, if an institution called itself "Liberal University," or "Marx and Engels University," or "University of the Democratic Party," no one could reasonably complain if he found, upon enrolling, that the curriculum tilted Left. He should have expected that. But the problem with the contemporary secular university is this: unlike churches, religious institutions, and the "little Red schoolhouse" of Red Diaper Baby fame, it pretends to be neutral between competing worldviews, and it just isn't.


Does the subtle politicization of which I speak happen in every single university, in every single classroom and with every single professor? Well, no, of course not. The point, however, is that it is nevertheless the predominant tendency in the modern university. Leiter and Bérubé seem to think that their razor-sharp ability to spot an occasional non-Leftist like Nozick, or myself, on campus grounds suffices to disprove my thesis. Perhaps they also think that the vegetarian who has trained his dog to eat nothing but soy burgers has thereby disproved the generalization that canines are carnivorous.

Our professorial duo and their less illustrious blogging partners also try to work up a few laughs over my suggestion that the modern university serves in practice to undermine its students' commitment to traditional attitudes, but the laughter is embarrassingly strained. Indeed, I must say that I simply do not believe them when they claim to doubt this. It is true enough that there are lots of conservative students, and true enough too that lots of them stay conservative long after they graduate. But that isn't what's at issue. The real question is whether on balance, in general, students tend to become more liberal as a result of their university experience; and this question can, for clarity's sake, be broken up into a number of sub-questions:

1. Are students today, on balance and in general, more likely after having attended university to be hostile to capitalism?

2. Are they, on balance and in general, more likely after having attended university to think that modern industrial society is inhuman, devastates the environment, impoverishes the Third World, etc.?

3. Are they, on balance and in general, more likely after having attended university to think that differences in wealth, income, and the like between the sexes and between ethnic groups are the result of deep-rooted sexism and racism in American society?

4. Are they, on balance and in general, more likely after having attended university to believe that the history of Western civilization is largely a shameful history of oppression and exploitation?

5. Are they, on balance and in general, more likely after having attended university to believe that there is no rational foundation for traditional religious belief, especially of the Christian sort -- indeed that Christianity is a uniquely repressive and irrational creed?

6. Are they, on balance and in general, more likely after having attended university to believe that traditional moral scruples, especially concerning sex, lack any rational justification and ought to be abandoned as mere expressions of superstition and bigotry?

The list could be expanded, but that's enough to make the point; and the point is that to ask these questions is to answer them. For Professor Bérubé's sake, I suppose I ought to spell it out that the answer is in every case "Yes"; and for Professor Leiter, I recommend that he check to see whether Professor Brandon has said something similar, so he can decide whether or not to believe it himself. In any case, I simply deny the intellectual honesty of anyone who claims to believe otherwise -- or at least doubt that he's spent much time among university students. Yet to acknowledge that these questions must be answered in the affirmative is to acknowledge that the modern university does indeed serve the de facto function of undermining the commitment of the young to the traditional institutions of Western civilization.

It seems to me that when one carefully reads the objections of the likes of Leiter and Bérubé to this thesis, one will find that their problem isn't really with its description of the condition of the modern university, but rather with the fact that there are those who disapprove of that condition. All reasonable people, in their view, should be pleased that the answer to the questions above is in the affirmative. Indeed, one blogger submits, without any trace of irony, that it is only "unreasonable" conservatives who are underrepresented on campus. Reasonable conservatives -- our blogger never defines them, but they are apparently those whose "conservatism" consists of a preference for John Edwards over Howard Dean -- are as plentiful on campus as frat parties. This saves the thesis that the university is indeed politically balanced after all, but only at the cost of vacuity.

Further Objections

Several readers have objected that the current vogue for evolutionary psychology provides evidence against the claim that the professoriate tends toward the Left. I fail to see how. Presumably they do not mean to suggest that evolutionary psychologists, unlike other academics, tend to vote Republican. Is the claim instead that the ideas of evolutionary psychologists are in fact conservative, however liberal their voting habits? That also seems false: indeed, evolutionary psychologists are often extremely keen to emphasize that they have no intention of endorsing traditional attitudes, but are interested only in explaining their biological basis, so that egalitarian social policy might be given a more realistic empirical foundation. This is hardly less condescending toward traditionalists than is the view of Freudians or Marxists that right-wing attitudes can be "explained" as being the products of repression or vested economic interests.

In fact, the real reason it is thought that evolutionary psychology is somehow inherently "right-wing" appears to be merely because it acknowledges that there really is such a thing as human nature. But that human nature is now regarded as a characteristically right-wing thing to believe in surely only further supports my thesis: the default assumptions among academics have over the last century moved so far to the Left that even to assert so simple a truism as that human beings have innate behavioral and psychological tendencies has come to seem shockingly reactionary.

We ought not to forget either that evolutionary psychology -- which is, even when its practitioners bend over backwards to establish their liberal credentials, still regarded with suspicion by much of the professoriate -- has gotten as far as it has only after decades of academic turmoil. It was, after all, not too long ago that even so prestigious and genteel a representative of the field as Edward O. Wilson could not speak publicly on the subject without fear that some cadre of hysterical campus radicals would shut down the proceedings. This was in the days when the field was more commonly referred to as "sociobiology" -- a label so tarnished that PR considerations as much as anything else led to its eventual replacement -- and its practitioners had constantly to face the usual tiresome charges of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. etc. made against any professor whose views seemed to the right of, say, Walter Mondale's. The history of evolutionary psychology thus reinforces, rather than undermines, the claim that the academy is inherently resistant to any idea perceived to be conservative.

Other readers have suggested that my thesis is refuted by the fact that university business and economics departments are not dominated by professors hostile to capitalism. Apparently these readers were too busy writing frantic emails or vulgar blog posts in response to what I wrote actually to read what I wrote. For I explicitly acknowledged that socialism as an economic theory is dead even in the academy, and that economists are more likely than other academics to see the flaws in egalitarian policy proposals. Indeed, economics and business departments, precisely because they must be able to attract students who intend to put their education into practice in the real world of everyday business life, could not long survive if their curricula were dominated by crackpot ideas. A humanities or social science department, by contrast, usually attracts students who are seeking only personal edification, who want to go on to teach someday themselves, or who intend to go into the world of politics and policy -- where what matters is, not what is true, but rather what will keep you in public office or firmly ensconced somewhere in the bureaucracy. There is accordingly far less chance for bad ideas in these fields to have an adverse effect on the people who believe them (though of course, this does not keep them from having an adverse effect on other people, e.g. those affected by bad public policy). And thus, there is far less pressure on such departments to weed out bad ideas than there is on economics and business departments.

That said, it is not as if economics and business departments are simply brimming over with Republicans and conservatives. Surely "New Democrats" of the Larry Summers mold are far more common; and surely only the sort of demented mind which takes the very existence of corporations to be overwhelming proof that our society is hopelessly right-wing can see in this a powerful conservative presence on campus.


Finally: Some readers expressed confusion at my apparent confession that "I want atheism to be true..." etc. They should have read more carefully: that wasn't my confession, but Thomas Nagel's, in a long passage I was quoting from his book The Last Word. Most readers, however, understood that I am no atheist; indeed, several irate skeptics demanded that I prove to them, via email: that God exists; that the human mind cannot be accounted for in materialistic terms; that Platonism is true; that the Bible is true; that Christianity is true; and so on and so forth. Apparently my article somehow conveyed to them the false impression that I've got lots and lots of free time, and that I like to spend it writing 3,000 word emails back and forth between multiple anonymous correspondents who can't be bothered to track down the many books that exist on subjects in philosophy of religion, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, and apologetics.

Perhaps these skeptics can direct their questions to Professor Bérubé or one of his readers, who, given the gobs of time they have to send around hoax emails, might be willing to spare a few moments to wax theological. Since I suspect that those of the Bérubian sect might not have much of value to say about such matters, however, I will recommend, out of a great many important works, an especially useful starting point: Atheism and Theism by Professors J.J.C. Smart and J.J. Haldane, now out in a second edition, which comprises a wide-ranging and high-level debate between an atheist (Smart) and a theist (Haldane). (See, I practice what I preach: both sides are represented.) I endorse almost all of what Haldane says, and he at least touches upon each of the metaphysical topics readers have queried me about; and the excellent "Recommended reading" section at the end will direct those interested in further study. Both of these writers exemplify in their book what academic life should be like, but too seldom is: a serious and fair-minded examination of all sides of an issue, including those that are currently unfashionable, at least among the vast majority of university professors.

Edward Feser ( is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and author of On Nozick (Wadsworth, 2003).


TCS Daily Archives