A Shiv in the Back

How politicized college courses mangle education.

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

A review of Ben Shapiro’s Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth.

The small cadre of conservatives in the university often feel like the Trojan princess Cassandra, who spent ten years telling everyone Troy would be destroyed without anyone ever believing her. Book after book has come out in the last twenty years detailing and documenting the stranglehold a liberal, if not leftist, professoriate has on the curriculum and culture of American colleges. Yet despite these warnings, the politicizing of the university continues apace, to the point that there are whole departments in American universities that do not have a single registered Republican or an acknowledged conservative on the faculty. Indeed, a conservative in the university is about as popular as a snitch in prison, and is just as likely to get a shiv in the back.

So this academic Cassandra for one is pleased to see Ben Shapiro’sBrainwashed and to have the conservative complaint supported by one of the paying customers, a student who actually has had to sit through the courses and suffer firsthand the political bigotry and prejudices of the typical prof. Ben Shapiro is a wunderkind who graduated from UCLA at the age of twenty, is the youngest syndicated columnist in the country, and now is fighting the good fight at Harvard Law School. While at UCLA he wrote a column for the Daily Bruin and was fired for his conservative heresies. In his vigorously written, brutally funny book he names names, calls names, and takes no prisoners in his scathing indictment of how professors—subsidized by federal and state tax dollars, and protected from accountability by tenure—impose their political prejudices on their captive audiences of students.

Shapiro’s twelve chapters each focus on a different set of leftist political beliefs and received wisdom infecting the classrooms of his teachers and very often reflecting an obvious partisan bias in favor of the Democratic Party. Consider the numbers: 84% of professors voted for Al Gore in 2000; 57% identify themselves as Democrats, compared to 3% who call themselves Republican. And if you break down party affiliation by department, the numbers are even more depressing. Stanford’s history department has 22 Democrats and 2 Republicans; Dartmouth’s 10 Democrats and zero Republicans. Given this imbalance, it is no surprise that polls at universities reveal a similar slant among the student body, who as freshmen enter with political views similar to the mainstream but as graduates skew overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic.

And no wonder, given the partisan beliefs promulgated by their teachers. After the 2000 election, a UCLA English professor wrote a Daily Bruin article that accused the Bush campaign of “‘mob intimidation'” and “stalling legal tactics,” getting the win only because Bush “‘systematically deprived'” minorities of their “‘equal voting rights.'” Bush’s spokesmen were accused of “‘intellectual dishonesty, ethical indifference and spiritual ugliness.'” At a rally protesting the election, this same professor trotted out his distraught wife, who said, “‘I don’t believe in God. The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are narratives to me of how the world should work, and what happened in the last election destroyed that.'” As Shapiro dryly comments, “She’s God-less. She’s Constitution-less. She’s world-less. She’s brainless.” On issue after issue—tax cuts, liberal media bias, “social justice,” and the general evil of stupid conservatives and Republicans—the University speaks with one mindless voice, repeating clichés and stale progressive ideas with nary a nod to any opposing viewpoint.

This numbing orthodoxy partly results from old-line Marxist received wisdom that, despite being repudiated by history, lives on in the groves of academe like some wood-boring beetle. Despite its success at creating wealth for vast numbers of people, capitalism is condemned for increasing poverty and income inequality. For example, a tenured professor at the University of Texas calls capitalism “‘a system based on exploitation and domination and racism and war–and lots of other things.'” An article assigned in a geography course—yes, geography—at UCLA stated that free-market capitalism “‘do[es] not have a good track record in feeding people, nor in tackling the underlying structures of poverty which consign over one quarter of the world’s population to hunger.'” As compared to what other economic system, one might ask? “Last time I checked,” Shapiro responds, non-market systems “had starved twenty million people in the USSR, thirty million people in China, and millions more throughout the world.” This disconnect between ideological bromides and the simple facts of history, evident in the presumed bastions of critical thinking and factual accuracy, should disturb us all. As Shapiro sums it up, “Marxism is dying globally. But it’s alive and kicking at America’s universities.”

Everywhere one looks in most universities, professors uncritically chant the same old tired mantras. The gods of “diversity” and “multiculturalism,” for example, are worshipped incessantly in the “kinder, gentler” university. Particularly in history departments, the facts of American and European history are given short shrift in order to puff up the “cultures” and “heritage” of those minorities deemed victims of past European and American sins. Any Western history that is taught is usually done so from the perspective of Western crimes against all those peace-loving “others.” Thus the whole catalogue of “isms”—racism and sexism particularly—dominate the teaching of history. Lately sexual preference has wormed its way into equal status with gender and race: one course at New York University manages to get the whole unholy trinity on one syllabus: “Race, Gender and Sexuality in US History” teaches its students that the “‘social, economic, moral, and political arguments advanced to sustain the subordination of people of color, women, and gays and lesbians have frequently revolved around the sphere of sexuality.'” Like bad money, bad courses drive out good ones, with the result that fewer and fewer students are equipped with the factual information necessary to understand American history: Shapiro quotes a 2001 study that showed only 23% of seniors at the top 55 universities in the country could identify James Madison as the father of the Constitution, and only 40% could identify the 50-year time period in which the Civil War took place. As Shapiro quips, “But at least the seniors aren’t Eurocentric.”

On topic after topic, Shapiro shows how the prejudices, bigotries, ideological preferences, and unexamined ideas of leftist professors shape the content of undergraduate education. Those same apostles of tolerance and sympathetic understanding feel no compunction whatsoever at expressing their ignorant prejudices against Christians and observant Jews and their beliefs about homosexuality, abortion, Darwinism, and a whole host of other contested issues. “Fundamentalist” or “creationist” is an epithet as powerful as “racist” and “pedophile” in the worldview of the professors, who as Shapiro notes, “see [religion] as outdated, a danger to modern society, and the cause of thousands of pointless deaths.” The only exception for many professors is Islam, which has been repackaged as the “religion of peace,” according to a professor at Boston University, the victim of “ignorance, prejudice and intellectual racism,” in the words of a University of Texas professor. “Sure, that must be it,” Shapiro snorts. “It [negative views of Islam] couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that most terrorists are Muslim and that Muslim terrorists have killed thousands of Americans.”

Most disturbing in these times of crisis is the knee-jerk anti-Americanism of many professors. The catalogue of ignorant comments made by professors after 9/11, many of which Shapiro quotes, should outrage all of us. A University of Texas professor said that the attack “‘was no more despicable than the massive acts of terrorism . . . that the US government has committed during [his] lifetime.'” Many others counseled students to avoid judgment and attempt to understand why the terrorists did it, a question whose answer usually led to cataloguing American sins against Islam and the Middle East, especially America’s support of Israel. This antipathy to America helps to explain the overwhelming opposition of the professoriate to the War on Terror and the wars against the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, as well as the studied avoidance of anything remotely patriotic in the various events commemorating the 9/11 victims, including the national anthem and the flag, which the president of the Berkeley Graduate Assembly called “‘a symbol of US aggression towards other countries.'”

This is just a small sampling of the outrages Shapiro documents. Readers should consider as well his sensible solutions:  donors and alumni should refuse to give funds to universities and colleges that allow the politicizing of the curriculum and campus life, redirecting that money to existing and “start-up” colleges that are more balanced and fair; and new college guides should be developed and used by business to promote such colleges. Here I should mention Choosing the Right College, an annual college-guide published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (www.isi.org), an organization that provides resources and opportunities for students who because of their politics or religion are often marginalized or ignored in many universities. The ISI college guide rates the curriculum, the level of politicization in courses and freshman orientation, the crime levels, and the social life of universities so that students and parents have a good idea about what’s really going on behind the public relations hype that fills most other college guides.

The politicized university Shapiro examines will change only when parents and alumni demand change and use market forces to convince self-satisfied administrators and faculty that there is a price to pay for passing off propaganda as education. But students and parents alike first have to become informed about what really goes on in the hallowed groves. Ben Shapiro’s Brainwashedis an excellent place to start.

©2004 Bruce Thornton

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