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A Brevard Community College professor reportedly handed out a bookmark urging all students to vote for President Obama. A University of Texas professor said he would not brook contrarian student views in his classroom.
This has been a political season, and the political class of university professors has felt obliged to wear its sentiments as a badge. Needless to say, from a sample of two, a generalization may not apply. However, this sample is consistent with my observations made over nearly four decades and is compatible with the growing belief that professors have a stake in the left-wing orthodoxy that has emerged in academia.
In the late 1960s, an Australian political scientist anticipated the convection of political attitudes by contending, "my job is to win." By that, he meant that his aim was to transform the university into a hotbed of radical, even revolutionary, sentiment, so that the institution itself would be a catalyst for change.
While universities have always had liberal leanings—based in large part on John Dewey's view of pedagogy as a collaborative experience that trumps individual aspiration—they generally maintained the appearance, and often the reality, of openness. That started to change in the late 1960s and 1970s with the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. Campuses became political battlegrounds where, with few exceptions, the pro-war opinion was denounced. Rallies on campus amounted to anti-war cheerleading sessions where dissenters were shouted down or excoriated.
It soon became clear that the university had become a place for preaching, and not necessarily for teaching. The open exchange of views and consideration of various ideas became a prelapsarian concept, even though the university was predicated in part on lernfreiheit, the German idea that a student should be free to learn without the constraints of intimidation.
Intimidation in the form of chastisement became a ploy practiced by campus radicals who maintained that their browbeating was necessary to promote a "higher good" or "transcendent belief." Debate was not acceptable, or, to be more precise, fair debate was not acceptable. Why allow contrary opinion into a discussion when it only hindered the process of proselytizing?
These tactics, employed in the overheated decade between 1965 and 1975, have borne results. Faculties are now largely controlled by the left. Student opinion may be mixed or even mildly conservative, but most students are reluctant to challenge their tenured radical professors. Hence, the classroom in most institutions of higher learning is a propagandistic nirvana serving up doctrinal bromides that cannot be challenged. Invariably I hear from students who tell me, "My professor is hopelessly dictatorial, but rather than object, I just go along and nod approvingly. It doesn't pay to contest what you may believe is invalid."
As I see it, this is the tragedy of university life. Tenure protects the proselytizers, and students are cowed into submission so as not to jeopardize their grades, or even their degrees. The intellectual vitality that emerges from honest reflection and disagreement is absent from most college classes. Students are there to be manipulated as if they were objects in a grand experiment.
The radicals have won; they control the campus and write the doctrines. Yet this is a pyrrhic victory. As a consequence of the transformation, the university no longer garners the approval it once did. The leftist march through the institution is nearly complete, but the institution has been debased, its legitimacy called into question. It's no wonder that most professors won't tolerate challenges: they can't defend doctrines that undermine the give-and-take that intellectual exchange demands. They represent a new priesthood of scholars without empiricism and professors without vision. The real hope for the future is the increasing graying of the professoriate. •
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