ot so long ago, leftists on campus insisted that there was no discrimination against conservatives in academic hiring. They claimed professors were hired on the basis of merit (and “diversity”), and few if any meritorious (or “diverse”) conservatives wanted to be professors anyway. The left now has a new and better argument for not hiring or tolerating conservative professors, formulated by a former conservative—the University of Pennsylvania’s Damon Linker. Writing in the Week in August 2017, Linker claims that conservatives are not hired as professors in the humanities because they cannot produce “scholarship,” which “in our time is defined as an effort to make progress in knowledge.” Such progress requires addressing “the concerns of the present.” Specifically, Linker wrote that scholarship is needed “on such topics as ‘Class in Shakespeare,’ ‘Race in Shakespeare,’ ‘Gender in Shakespeare,’ ‘Transgender in Shakespeare,’” and so on. The problem, according to Linker, is that conservatives prefer to write on themes like “Love in Shakespeare” or “God in Shakespeare,” and “centuries of people have written and thought about” such things.
“What’s new to say about them?” Linker asks. “Probably nothing.”
On September 15, Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, published an article in the New York Times entitled “Don’t Shun Conservative Professors.” In his bid for tolerance, Brooks observed: “American liberalism has always insisted it is the duty of the majority to fight for the minority.” Four days later, a letter to the editor of the Times from one Gerald Harris argued: “The soul of true scholarship is a search for new meaning and a rigorous testing of old bromides. Conservatives, by definition, are committed to upholding or returning to the status quo and to resisting ground-breaking change. This is hardly a mind-set to be celebrated and rewarded at institutions dedicated to inquiry and pursuit of new challenges.” Conservative professors, therefore, deserve to be shunned.
This is precisely the opposite of the truth. After 50-plus years of university dominance, leftists are the ones who offer nothing new when it comes to scholarship. In applying postmodernist theories repetitively and uncritically to every subject under the sun, leftist scholars necessarily arrive at the same few stale conclusions time and again. It is only the rigor and honesty of traditional scholarship that allow for the flourishing of new knowledge. And in effectively barring that practice from universities, postmodernist scolds have fashioned and ennobled a regime of obscurantism.
inker’s argument depends on several assumptions that have become well established in universities. The first is obvious and justified: that scholarship should contribute something new. If you write an article demonstrating that Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died in 1616, nobody will give you much credit for it, no matter how well documented and well written it may be, because these are already well-established facts. Yet the conclusion that conservatives are incapable of new scholarship also depends on some assumptions about scholarship that conservatives do not share: that its purpose is to judge its subject on ideological grounds, that nothing matters about the subject but its ideology, that leftist ideology is incontestable, and that the accuracy of scholarly facts and the logic of scholarly argument are of little or no interest. This last assumption is an explicit tenet of postmodernism—the doctrine that nothing is objectively true and that everything is simply an expression of power. And the left now holds power on campus.
Thus most leftist professors expect most scholarship to show that the ideas of Shakespeare (or Freud, Nietzsche, the Greeks, or the Gnostics) either support current leftist dogmas about race, class, and gender and so should be praised and emulated, or contradict such dogmas and so should be condemned and avoided. Linker implies that he would be willing to consider the merits of a conservative scholar who wrote on, say, “Supply-Side Economics in Shakespeare,” but alas, conservative scholars refuse even to do this. This is because conservative scholars are interested in Shakespeare for reasons unrelated to economics, are skeptical that Shakespeare himself was much interested in economics, and think that even if he did have a few ideas about economics, we can get more useful economic ideas from sources other than a playwright who lived in an age when the economy was very different from what it is now.
Leftist professors have no such inhibitions. In their opinion, there can be no legitimate reason for scholarship except to pursue “the concerns of the present” and conduct “a search for new meaning and a rigorous testing of old bromides.” The works of Shakespeare or any other great men are of no use except to illustrate currently fashionable ideology. Moreover, since the only point of scholarship is to advance ideology, questions of accuracy are irrelevant. In combating racism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity, patriarchy, elitism, and other evils, the genuine study of literature, political science, philosophy, history, art, and religion is quite incidental. Scholarship done for nonideological purposes, perhaps especially if it faithfully represents the past in its own terms, can only serve to reinforce an unjust society and culture.
This attitude inevitably dominates not only academic scholarship but also college teaching. In 2015, the New York Times columnist Frank Bruni denounced Republican efforts to cut funding for higher education by describing how he had been “transformed” by a marvelous course in Shakespeare he took from an outstanding teacher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the mid-1980s. He promptly heard from his old teacher, now at the University of Pennsylvania, that such courses on “dead white men” are thoroughly out of favor in English departments today. “Shakespeare,” she told Bruni, “has become Shakespeare and Film, which in my cranky opinion becomes Film, not Shakespeare.” She advised him to look at the current course offerings of Penn’s English department—“Pulp Fictions,” “Sex and the City,” “Global Feminisms,” “Comic Books and Graphic Novels,” “Psychoanalysis, Literature, and Film,” and “Literatures of Psychoanalysis.” The sort of class that Bruni loved 30 years ago is not the sort that universities now teach.
he truth is that non-leftists are discriminated against not so much because of their politics (which they can often hide) as because of their failure to do the kind of scholarship that hiring committees want. I went to an on-campus interview for a history position in 1988. A member of the department spoke to me at length about politics, and I tried neither to lie nor to reveal that I was a conservative. (It helped that my opinions are somewhat unconventional.) He figured it out, but with no clear evidence to cite, he failed to convince the rest of the department of something so improbable, and I got the job. (He and I later became friends.) In those days, my publications contained no explicit political content. My research on the Byzantine economy, however, soon clashed with established Marxist dogma, and my research on Byzantine historiography clashed with the postmodernist assumptions that all narratives are constructed and truth is irrelevant. The more I published, especially when I published detailed refutations of Marxist and postmodernist views, the less eligible I became as a candidate for other academic positions.
Since then, I’ve discovered that trying to engage modern issues without taking explicitly leftist positions satisfies no one. A journal once asked me to evaluate for publication an article on what Byzantine hagiography could contribute to modern legislation on child labor. The author (not identified, as is usual in such evaluations) concluded from studying the lives of saints that the Byzantines permitted child labor if the child was willing and the labor contributed significantly to household income and could not be done by anyone else in the family. The author suggested that these principles be applied in drafting modern legislation. In recommending against publication, I noted that these principles would have allowed child prostitution if the child was willing, earned a significant income, and could earn more than other members of the family. At the same time, I noted, such principles would have forbidden parents from making children clean their rooms if the child was unwilling. A clean room, after all, contributed nothing to household income, and other family members could do the cleaning. What’s more, most Byzantines thought that even unwilling children should obey their parents but should only do work that was consistent with Christian morality. The author probably considered these conditions too insufficiently modern to include in modern scholarship. In any case, not even I consider Byzantine hagiography a good source for child-labor laws.
What, then, can non-leftists contribute to scholarship that is new? No doubt it is harder to say something fresh and important about Shakespeare than about less thoroughly studied subjects, but almost all subjects are less thoroughly studied than Shakespeare. The chance to make major discoveries is one of the things that attracted me to Byzantium as a research field instead of, say, Classical Greece. Given the herd instinct that attracts academics only to the most fashionable subjects, the world is full of understudied topics, periods, and places. Moreover, new evidence, including documents and archeology, is constantly being found, making scholarly advances possible for every period up to the present. Scholars can also always contribute to progress by refuting the errors of previous scholars. This is true even in the most thoroughly exploited fields. As for postmodernist and leftist areas of study in particular, original but fallacious theories are common. Finally, it should be noted, talented scholars can make real contributions even in well-worked fields, such as Shakespearean studies, by looking at old evidence in a new way.
But there are no new ways for postmodernists. For even if a study is the first to demonstrate that some obscure figure was not a modern-feminist or leftist, this contributes nothing new, because nobody ever thought this figure was any of these things. Moreover, almost identical conclusions have been reached about tens of thousands of other figures. Such studies tell us little or nothing about literature, political science, philosophy, history, art, and religion, because the studies are not really about those fields, but about postmodernism and leftist politics.
These postmodern endeavors do not even constitute real research or scholarship. Research requires critical sifting of the evidence, making logical arguments from it, and questioning whether to change one’s mind based on the evidence that one finds. Leftist “scholarship” merely goes through the motions of research before restating the bromides that are its foreordained conclusions.
or such reasons, people who are truly interested in scholarship and research are now being strongly discouraged from going into the academy as a profession. They face a long road of formidable obstacles. First, they will probably be deterred as undergraduates by seeing their subject of interest being taught by faculty with almost no interest in it as such. If they do go on to graduate school, they will be discouraged from doing the sort of work that interests them. If they pursue the work that interests them, they will have a hard time getting hired by professors who oppose genuine research. If, by persistence or luck, these applicants get an academic job, they will then find themselves in a hostile environment.
Many people outside academics still cannot believe that things are this bad. Often, they know professors from earlier generations who have a genuine interest in their subjects and in scholarship. They know people like Frank Bruni’s brilliant teacher of Shakespeare, Anne Drury Hall. Dr. Hall, who holds the rank not of professor but of lecturer, is now in her early seventies. Her generation, of which I am a somewhat younger member, is either retired or not very far from retirement. Such professors with traditional interests, having first been hired in the dismal academic job market of the ’70s and ’80s, have seldom gained senior positions in prominent universities. These traditional professors, who care more about their fields than about ideology, have only the most marginal influence in their universities, become fewer every year, and in 10 to 20 years will be gone.
There are also many professors, especially at small colleges, who are not leftists but do little if any research. Some even secretly vote Republican. Optimists point to them as signs of hope for American higher education. Yet these professors train almost no graduate students and will therefore have almost no influence on future generations of professors. They are usually silent when controversial issues come up because they have learned that keeping their heads down is the way to get hired or promoted. Many of their colleagues and most of their students are unaware of their views. They are content not to publish because they have nothing much to say, new or otherwise. Additionally, they tend to be lazy, because one of the main attractions of the academic profession—if you do little or no research—is how easy it is. Very few of them are inspiring teachers. Since most of them are easy graders, their students pay little attention in their classes (or skip them) and learn scarcely anything from them.
Nevertheless, there are some professors younger than 60 who are distinguished scholars and not leftists and have still managed to secure academic jobs. Most of these professors were taught by other distinguished scholars who are now retired or near retirement. Typically, the younger scholars got jobs by having hidden their ideas about scholarship before they had published much or before leftist dominance became firmly established in academia. Or perhaps they were hired through the special circumstances that sometimes arise in the many thousands of departments across a large country. Once hired, most of these professors get tenure (though a few of the more vocal ones are denied it for a “lack of collegiality”). But most of them teach at undistinguished institutions, where they are neither influential nor much appreciated.
These professors are scattered among many mostly obscure institutions and seldom express themselves on campus or in print. Some of the braver ones have joined Heterodox Academy, an organization promoting intellectual diversity in universities. It now includes approximately 1,300 professors, 17 percent of whom identify themselves as conservative, 25 percent as moderate, and 23 percent as libertarian (with 18 percent as leftist). Very few are at leading universities. While I have joined Heterodox Academy and applaud its aims, so far it has had little influence.
hat, then, is the future of American universities? They will almost inevitably get worse before they get better. The vast majority of professors in the humanities and social sciences who will train graduate students from now on will train them as they have been training others for decades, in leftist or postmodernist scholarship, if only to give them a better chance at employment. Of the scholars whose convictions might have been well suited to their joining some kind of opposition, most will either opt out of academic life, fail to get academic jobs, or take academic jobs and learn to keep their mouths shut. The remaining moderate and conservative professors will retire or die. Many politicians, journalists, alumni, parents, and other outsiders will continue to attack colleges and universities for their leftism and intolerance and will succeed in reducing their funding. This will mainly result in antagonizing professors and academic administrators and pushing them further to the left. These embittered figures will claim that universities themselves are under attack. And admittedly, many critics of today’s universities seem more interested in destroying them than in reforming them, especially because reform seems impossible.
Intellectual fashions don’t last forever, though postmodernism has had a longer run than most. Eventually, disgust with this ossified and intolerant ideology will mount even on campus. And after a long, chaotic struggle, postmodernism and leftism will be discredited. But this may take a generation or longer. By then, the great majority of professors will have had no training in traditional scholarship and will find such scholarship very hard to do. Indeed, they will be unable to remember higher education as it was before postmodernism and leftism were dominant; they will, therefore, have no model for what to do next.
Such are the dismal prospects that led me to propose last year in these pages the founding of a new leading university dedicated to intellectual tolerance and academic excellence (“The University We Need,” February 2016). Though recruiting enough professors for it would become harder as the years pass, it could still be done from the younger professors now scattered in many different colleges and universities, from the older professors who have not yet retired, and from public intellectuals. Its example could have real influence. But until that time, scholarship is unlikely to improve, and intolerance for anything but postmodernism will remain the norm. Despite the assertions of current university leftists, claims to “progress in knowledge” belong to an earlier generation of scholars. It will be some time before we can properly resume their work.