Neil Gross: Why Conservatives Hate College

tags: conservatism, Salon, William F. Buckley, Neil Gross, college



Neil Gross is author of "Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?" (Harvard University Press; April 9), a professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia and a visiting scholar at New York University's Institute for Public Knowledge. This post is an excerpt from a longer excerpt of "Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?" published on Salon.

If you want to understand the origins of the 21st century campaign against the liberal professoriate, you have to understand why conservatives like William Buckley were engaged in a similar campaign in their day. Some of the anger that National Review authors directed at left-leaning academics reflected the same impulses and strategic calculations that sustained McCarthyism: the sense that the nation was under threat during the Cold War; the view that the ranks of the American left were filled with communists or former communists who were either outright traitors or simply not to be trusted, especially with the impressionable minds of youth; and the awareness that even if there was a meaningful difference between communists and liberals, the distinction could be blurred to good political effect. Buckley, after all, was one of McCarthy’s most vigorous defenders, coauthoring in 1954 (with Brent Bozell, his brother-in-law) “McCarthy and His Enemies,” which a reviewer for the New York Times appropriately described as “the most extraordinary book yet to come forth in the harsh bibliography … of ‘McCarthyism,’” given its point-by-point defense of some of McCarthy’s most outlandish claims. However, most of the criticisms of academia that appeared in National Review did not allege subversion by professors per se, and this was particularly the case from the 1960s onward. What lay behind the alternative lines of critique that Buckley and his collaborators pursued?

First, as someone intensely committed to invigorating the conservative movement, Buckley took seriously the notion that he had to engage the American left in a war of ideas. Intellectuals, he believed, play vital roles in politics by articulating conceptions of “the good” and theories of the world that may filter down to average people and shape their political predilections, through their direct educative functions, and as advisors who sometimes have the ears of policy makers and politicians. As Kirk put it in 1962 in a regular column he wrote called “From the Academy”: “Today’s lectures in the classroom become tomorrow’s slogans in the street.” The American professoriate, Buckley and his colleagues felt, had in recent decades strongly backed the cause of liberalism not simply in terms of professors’ personal political commitments but also in their behavior in the public sphere. Given these beliefs, going after liberal academics was an entirely natural thing for them to do.

Indeed Buckley’s assumptions about the importance of the intelligentsia to the American left were not without some basis in fact. On the one hand, the 1950s and 1960s were decades of major expansion in the American college and university sector. Expansion of the nonacademic intellectual class was almost as large, fueled by the growth of government bureaucracies and the cultural consumption needs of an increasing number of educated, white-collar workers, which created new markets for journalists, writers and others. As creators and disseminators of ideas, intellectuals were playing a more significant role in American life than ever before....




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