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Distributed November 19, 2004
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About 780 Words

Robert Scholes
No Student Left a Democrat

Democrats are said to outnumber Republicans on the nation’s college campuses, both among faculty and students. What might that mean, and what’s to be done about it? It all depends on what is meant by the terms liberal and conservative.

Recent studies show that Democrats outnumber Republicans by wide margins on many college and university faculties. The numbers go something like 10 to 1 at Berkeley and 7.5 to 1 at Stanford, for example. And this is now being trumpeted by conservative think-tankers as justification for requiring more conservatives to be given faculty appointments. In particular, Stephen A. Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars, has claimed that “American academe behaves as if it were a church with a creed rather than a marketplace of ideas.”

One might draw that conclusion, but that is not the only conclusion that can be drawn from such data – assuming, of course, that the data are accurate. One could also conclude that conservative ideas are losing in the college marketplace. But that might depend on what is meant by conservative ideas. Actually a lot of current conservative ideas come from creeds – like the idea that evolution is just a theory and should not be preferred to the notion that the universe was created 6,000 years ago, with human beings running things in the Garden of Eden. For some reason this creationist idea is not popular among biology faculties, who are sometimes threatened or ordered to modify their curricula to accommodate such unscientific notions.

The idea that teachers of liberal education should turn out to be liberals seems startling to the conservative think-tankers, but, again, that depends on what you mean by liberal. Matthew Arnold, the often cited champion of teaching the Great Books, is now a darling of conservative thinkers about academic curricula. But he considered himself as a liberal in politics and used the L word about himself frequently. And he argued against a literal or strict construction of biblical text, as being unworthy of a civilized culture. Obviously, he was a dangerous corrupter of youth – like Socrates.

Seriously, I think of myself as a conservative person. I do not believe that human beings are capable of perfection. I know that popular revolutions turn into dictatorships with alarming regularity and that democracies have elected tyrants since the time of the Greek Republics. This makes me skeptical of imposing democracy upon people who are used to tyranny. And my various skepticisms are, no doubt, a part of what I teach. But my affiliation with any particular party is not a part of what I teach – nor is it anybody’s business to inquire into it. I think it would be nice if more really conservative people made the sacrifices involved in becoming teachers. But I am less ready to welcome those for whom conservatism is a creed, a species of fundamentalism and an enemy of free inquiry.

Of course, it is by no means clear just how far down in the school system the push to install conservative faculty is prepared to go. So far as I know, the think-tankers have not yet surveyed the teachers in our secondary schools. But if they did, they would find, I am quite sure, numbers like those at Berkeley. Still, there has been no great outcry to install conservatives in the ranks of high school teachers. I wonder why? Perhaps it would be too much like putting CEOs on the assembly line. And didn’t our retiring Secretary of Education recently stigmatize a teacher’s union as “a terrorist organization?” Perhaps we need more Republican terrorists. Or, we need to get so many Republicans teaching in the schools that the unions can be voted out. There’s an idea. Though I fear that the experience of such teaching might radicalize the most deep-dyed conservative.

What I believe is really going on is that the conservative think-tankers are worried about the exit polls that show young voters going Democratic and they think they can cure this by putting more Republican teachers in classrooms. But classroom indoctrination does not work. It did not work for Franco or for Stalin, and it is not working for Castro in Cuba. If conservatives really believe in liberal education, they will have to allow liberals like Matthew Arnold and his academic descendants to teach young students. But I do not think they really believe in liberal education. Nor do they really want a “marketplace of ideas.” Rather, they want a indoctrination in a creed that matches their own.

“No Child Left Behind” is a nice slogan. The reality is proving to be a bit different, but that’s another story. What is more sinister is the new reality taking shape behind these surveys of the politics of teachers: “No Student Left a Democrat.” Now there’s something for the think-tankers to work on. It shouldn’t be too hard to get funding for a program like that.

Robert Scholes is a research professor in the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University and is currently president of the Modern Language Association of America.

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