Why Are Conservatives So Afraid of Higher Education?

By Paul W. GleasonJanuary 8, 2019

Why Are Conservatives So Afraid of Higher Education?

The Diversity Delusion by Heather Mac Donald

AMERICAN HIGHER EDUCATION has been about to ruin the country for a long time.

William F. Buckley first sounded the alarm in his 1951 jeremiad God and Man at Yale, and politicians and pundits have echoed him ever since. Soon and very soon, this chorus cries, in unison and across the years, tenured radicals will indoctrinate a generation. Today’s student protestors will capture the commanding heights of American politics and culture tomorrow. Taught to despise capitalism, religion, even Western civilization itself, they will imperil it all.

But the red brigades never take charge. Canonical authors survived the upheavals of the 1960s, and the political correctness craze of the 1990s. Outside of campus, a free enterprise system based on competition and self-interest survived both, too. Perhaps America has her right-wing Cassandras to thank. If not for the occasional broadside like Heather Mac Donald’s The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture, every collegiate football game might begin with a rousing rendition of “The Internationale.”

Or maybe the Cassandras are wrong, and have always been wrong. As far back as 1963, University of California president Clark Kerr was already calling campus radicalism one of the “great clichés about the university.” No matter how wild Berkeley looked on the nightly news (or online today), “the internal reality is that it is conservative.” He was referring to academia’s internal organization, which was and remains steeply hierarchical. But higher education also plays a conservative role in American life. Consider academia’s history or social function at any length, and the cliché of the radical campus becomes difficult to believe. The real question is why it persists.


With no less vigor than Buckley, Mac Donald charges higher education with corrupting the youth and endangering Western culture. While he decried atheism and collectivism, she singles out race and gender studies, which in her mind “dominate higher education.” Today “the overriding goal of the educational establishment is to teach young people […] to view themselves as existentially oppressed.” True to the old formula, Mac Donald warns that what happens on campus won’t stay on campus. Those who cry #MeToo and chronicle microaggessions will one day “seize levers of power.” The stakes, as always, couldn’t be higher: “[A] soft totalitarianism could become the new American norm.”

Trained as a lawyer, Mac Donald offers a one-sided brief, a classic polemic. The book is full of anecdotal evidence and statistical sleight-of-hand, with partial truths and gross distortions on almost every other page. Mac Donald is aghast, for example, when UCLA’s English Department drops its Shakespeare requirement, detecting “a momentous shift in our culture that bears on our relationship to the past — and to civilization itself.” She never mentions the department’s extensive historical requirements, or the fact that it will offer 16 courses on Shakespeare this academic year. Outside of higher education, the National Science Foundation is “consumed by diversity ideology” because it offers a few $1 and $2 million-dollar grants for implicit bias research and promoting women and minorities in STEM fields. For context, the NSF’s 2017 budget was $7.4 billion.

In any case, the real problems with the book go beyond shoddy sourcing. Start with the “dominance” of race and gender theory. Departments like African American and Women’s Studies tend to be relatively small, and although race and gender are popular topics across the humanities, an honest look at top university presses, as opposed to small and specialized journals, would find nothing close to dominance. (Harvard University Press’s winter catalog opens with a biography of Charles de Gaulle.) Nor are these issues omnipresent on campus. Mac Donald describes higher education as something like a one-party state, but aside from the occasional banner celebrating “diversity” or a poster asking students not to don a sombrero this Halloween, the supposed ruling party has a suspiciously light touch. From community colleges to the Ivy League, the vast majority of teaching and research proceeds without any reference to race or gender whatsoever.

But surely the professors are as radical as ever, poisoning young minds? It’s true that the professorate sits to the left of the general population, especially at selective liberal arts colleges. But in the most comprehensive survey of higher education available, conducted by the sociologists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons in 2007, more of the faculty was “moderate” (46 percent) than liberal (44 percent). And while 17.2 percent of older faculty claimed to be “liberal activists,” the percentage of young faculty members who said the same was minuscule: 1.3 percent. Even if the number of activist professors has grown since 2007, they aren’t necessarily radicalizing their students. A good deal of research suggests otherwise. According to the political scientist Mack Mariani and education specialist Gordon Hewitt, students become slightly more liberal during college, but no more than their non-collegiate peers do during the same time period. Fearsome as they seem to Mac Donald, student radicals are like their mentors: met more often online than on campus.

But wait, Mac Donald might reply, what about those posters and banners you mentioned? Like the ones at Berkeley reading “I will acknowledge how power and privilege intersect our daily lives,” or “I will be a brave and sympathetic ally.” Or what about Berkeley’s Division of Equity and Inclusion with its bulging staff and $20 million budget? In Mac Donald’s lone innovation to the campus polemic genre, she pays more attention to administrative press releases and campus decorations than she pays to professors’ books. Yet while diversity initiatives (and bunting) are indeed prevalent around many campuses, she misunderstands them. She believes that they reveal “the contemporary university’s paramount mission: assigning guilt and innocence within the ruthlessly competitive hierarchy of victimhood.” What they really reveal, although indirectly, is the present state of one of American higher education’s oldest and most intractable tensions.

Professors and administrators may consider themselves egalitarians, but especially in the top tiers, their schools create elites. As Paul Mattingly writes in American Academic Cultures: A History of Higher Education, colleges and universities have long been “highly selective devices for producing not only trained minds but also a social leadership class […] in a society formally committed to democratic equality.” Back in the early 1960s, Berkeley’s Kerr thought he had a way to ease this tension between elitism and democracy. “The great university is of necessity elitist — the elite of merit — but it operates in an environment dedicated to an egalitarian philosophy.” This prompted a question: “How may an aristocracy of intellect justify itself to a democracy of all men?”

Yale and Harvard once groomed the sons of the nation’s great families, Bushes and Cabots and so on. In postwar America, Berkeley would justify itself on the grounds that it produced “the elite of merit,” a meritocracy. Kerr’s vision of the university is now a reality. A college degree is all but necessary for entry into managerial, professional, or creative fields, which comprise the heart of the nation’s upper middle classes.

The trouble is that in order for a meritocracy to be fair, the competition has to take place on a level playing field: in order to have true equality of opportunity, one’s background shouldn’t determine where one ends up in life. In the United States, it largely does. According to studies headed by the economist Raj Chetty, America’s social mobility rate lags behind that of Canada, Denmark, and even the United Kingdom, a famously class-bound society. Although college admissions looks like a level playing field (anyone can apply to Harvard), SAT scores follow family income, and the overall admissions process favors those who can pay the sticker price, even after taking affirmative action into account.

Once enrolled in selective institutions, students compete with each other again — for grades, prestigious extra-curricular positions, and internships. They build social networks and learn to work and behave in line with the norms of the upper middle class. After graduation the victors, bedecked with honors, can pursue lucrative careers, or even rise to positions of prominence in American public life. But despite all that competition, a 2015 Pew study still found that “a family’s economic circumstances play an exceptionally large part in determining a child’s economic prospects later in life.” To the extent that its sorting process reflects existing inequalities, higher education can’t help but replicate and thereby reinforce inequalities in society at large. There’s a word for an institution that does that, and it isn’t radical.

In this context, diversity banners are not evidence of Maoism on the march. They are evidence of an institution whose ideals are at odds with its social function. Few in higher education want to work in a laundering operation that exchanges parental capital for students’ social capital so that they can turn it back into material capital again. The promise of affirmative action is that it will work against this tendency, at least a little. Affirmative action policies often assist students from poor families, and after college they do about as well as their wealthier peers.

There’s a rich irony at the heart of the old radical campus cliché. During the postwar period, conservatives feared that higher education was fomenting leftist revolution. In reality, elite institutions like Berkeley and Yale were enshrining meritocracy as the official rule of American life, while more quietly preserving the advantages that come with money. Higher education prepares students to succeed within a competitive, stratified American society, not change it. The fear is always that today’s radicals will implement their ideas tomorrow. Or, in Mac Donald’s words, “a pipeline now channels left-wing academic theorizing into the highest reaches of government and the media.” But will those who attain “the highest reaches of government and media” really be interested in tearing the heights down? It didn’t happen in the 1960s. It didn’t happen in the 1990s. Don’t count on it this time, either.

So why does Mac Donald insist otherwise? Why are conservatives still so afraid of higher education after all these years? Most obviously, demagoging higher education works political wonders. It’s not only Buckley and Mac Donald who sell books against higher education; politicians from Nixon and Reagan to Scott Walker and Donald Trump have sold their campaigns that way, too. While lambasting egg-headed professors, they can both pose as populists and promise tax cuts for the rich.

Even more, though, precisely because higher education turns out the American elite, small disturbances in academia resonate deeply within the conservative soul. The political theorist Corey Robin has argued that reactionaries draw their energy from “the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” Whether it’s Burke horrified by the fall of the Bourbons, or Buckley opposing the Civil and Voting Rights Acts, conservative movements thrive on imminent threats to existing hierarchies. Imperiled, they sound the alarm, rally the troops, man the battlements, and eventually ride out to conquer. Robin has suggested that, despite its seeming strength, American conservatism is actually in disarray because it lacks a worthy antagonist. Numerically speaking, the socialist left is tiny, while the Democratic Party embraces “market-based” solutions to health care scarcity and global warming. Without a suitable enemy, the whole movement could collapse.

But what’s that sound? A handful of protestors on the quad? They’ve arrived in the nick of time! Never mind that they’ve been showing up since the 1950s. This time, it’s different. This time, the threat to “our culture” is real. If so, then even modest reforms — meant to do nothing more terrible than diversify the upper middle class — must be opposed as if they were threats to civilization itself.


Paul W. Gleason teaches in the religion departments of California Lutheran University and the University of Southern California. In 2017, he received the National Book Critics Circle’s “emerging critic” award.

LARB Contributor

Paul W. Gleason’s essays and reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Point, and many other publications. He also writes the substack Unfamiliar Letters about his old scholarly interests: American religion, literature, and higher education. More of his writing is available at www.paulwgleason.com.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.