Shut Up, I Explained

By Joe Rago ‘05

Editor’s Note: This piece was published in The Dartmouth Review on September 20, 2004.

Amid the paraphernalia that’s accumulated in our offices over the past twenty-five years, there’s wheat and there’s chaff. For instance: we claim a mechanical wooden hand that Jeff Hart used to crank when faculty meetings grew tedious, so that its fingers would drum loudly and impatiently against the boardroom mahogany. But “The Dartmouth ReView [sic]” is also guilty of possession, it pains me to note, of a “Student Activist Award” by way of David Horowitz. The distinction, so far as I’m concerned, is mortifying, not least of all for the association with a thing as unsavory as Activism.

Not incidentally, Mr. Horowitz is a conservative Activist himself and, not surprisingly, he’s a controversial figure in contemporary higher education. Some years ago he installed himself as Viceroy of young conservatives and began steeling his soldiers for combat (which probably accounts for the provenance of the ReView’s war medal); now, he’d like to deliver a great coup de main against the leftist regimes he believes are ruining the nation’s colleges and universities.

The central fieldpiece in the campaign is an ‘Academic Bill of Rights.’ If adopted – several state legislatures are considering it – the Bill would mandate ‘intellectual diversity’ in faculty recruiting and tenure decisions; require ‘viewpoint-neutral’ and ‘politically-balanced’ reading lists, lectures, and assignments; and create bureaucracies to handle accusations of ‘bias,’ ‘unfairness,’ and ‘marginalization.’ It’s only fair, the thinking goes, because conservatives are an ‘underrepresented minority’ on campus these days, and ever so sensitive about it.

That the climate of academia is overwhelmingly left-liberal shouldn’t send anyone rushing for his defibrillator. It’s so blatant that only a fool or a liar could dispute it – leading many professors to acknowledge it themselves, often in the most indulgent of justifications. Last year, Dartmouth English Professor Ivy Schweitzer asked, “Is the general atmosphere here ‘liberal’? Yes, because we are a liberal arts institution, and liberal arts education is supposed to produce ‘liberal’ attitudes that encourage forward-thinking ideas about inclusion, equality, and innovation.” Well, no, but never mind.

But while it might be one thing to sympathize with the efforts of Mr. Horowitz and his legions, it’s quite another to support them. It’s like drinking at 10 on a Sunday morning – sure, you’ll do it, but it just doesn’t seem right.

The last thing conservatives should be joining is the ranks of the perennially indignant. The attitude appears to be, I’m unable to marshal a genuine argument and you’re one of those shrinking violets, so you supply the pretensions and I’ll bring the cant words of identity politics. To arms! The whole approach is disheartening. I’d expect the campus conservative to have more fortitude than a shucked oyster.

Come on now. The problem with the Academic Bill of Rights is its disingenuousness: that it is so obviously a MacGuffin, that its lexis and arguments are so obviously sleight-of-hand. Mr. Horowitz is taking higher education to task because he disagrees with its politics, not because of some abstract commitment to the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. He doesn’t really want an ‘intellectually diverse’ academy but a more conservative one. If the situation were instead reversed and Mr. Horowitz the head of one of those ruinous regimes, he’d be ordering cauldrons of hot oil for the Jacobins pounding at his gates, no matter how loudly they screamed for intellectual diversity or for mercy or for anything else.

I don’t have any more patience with the state of academia than Mr. Horowitz does. But I don’t want to get a more conservative education as a trade-in for my biases – a part of my very constitution, after all – in the name of intellectual or political neutrality and I don’t want anyone else to either. I didn’t come to Hanover for a convalescent education or for people to agree with me all the time – neither of which makes for a keen mind, or, for that matter, a very lively college experience.

Besides, simply because the prevailing winds at Dartmouth are liberal – the administration’s interminable shilly-shallying, the baying of the loudest professors, the gutter patois of the Daily Dartmouth – doesn’t mean all the details are. The Economics Department, to cite one example, is consistently excellent, hardly a bastion of liberal thought, and perpetually oversubscribed, while year after year Education, say, is on the brink of foreclosure. A few of the most progressive departments (History and English come to mind) can be very, very good. Dartmouth has some terribly silly professors, but it has some tremendous professors too, and some of them, believe it or not, are liberals.

The real task, then, is to separate the wheat from the chaff. This is done best not by appropriating the academic liturgy or by wallowing in victim culture or even by Activism but through robust, intelligent criticism – the reasoned exercise of judgment, discrimination, and taste.

Might I suggest a venue? Consider writing for The Dartmouth Review. What you’ll find is an independent counterweight to all the nonsense at Dartmouth today; that takes the issues seriously but never so itself; whose animadversion is spirited, articulate, sharp-witted, and irreverent of pieties. What you’ll find is a critical voice in a pitched contest of ideas about what the College should and should not be – the sort of conversation that is the only legitimate way to straighten out the politics of higher education. And most importantly, should you be inclined to contribute to our pages, the only oysters you’ll encounter are the ones at our raw bar.