RSS
Where are the real liberals on campus?
In an age of trigger warnings and hypersensitive politics, true liberalism can be found in the most unlikely of places
 
Brigham Young University: bastion of liberalism?
Brigham Young University: bastion of liberalism? (Facebook.com/BYU)

I've said it before, I'll say it again: Genuine liberalism is lamentably rare in our politics and culture. I don't mean the liberalism of progressive taxation, government benefits, and federal regulations. There might not be as much of it as Democrats would prefer, but many millions of Americans support liberalism in this sense.

I mean an older vision of liberalism — one rooted in the ancient virtue of liberality, meaning generosity and openness to difference. Including, for example, openness to traditionalist religious believers whose faith keeps them from affirming the legitimacy of gay marriage. When supporters of gay marriage denounce such believers as bigots, excommunicate them from civilized life, and get them fired from prominent jobs, they think and act illiberally.

At its best, liberal education gives us a glimpse of the classical liberal ideal in action, instilling wisdom and a sense of humility by exposing students to a wide range of human opinions and outlooks, as well as a multiplicity of experiences, thoughts, and feelings, without judging or dismissing any of them too quickly or easily. There's a reason why the core of a "liberal arts" education is the study of the fields known as the "humanities": History, literature, philosophy, theology, foreign languages, the arts. It is through the study of these subjects that one gains an open-minded, genuinely liberal education in what it means to be human in all of its pluralistic diversity.

But liberal education is often far from its best today.

One problem is the epidemic of lazy moralism among a clamorous cohort of students and professors. When combined with the cravenness of university administrators out to protect their institutions from bad press at all costs, this faction has succeeded in getting a range of speakers to back out of (or to be disinvited from) delivering commencement addresses at several colleges this year.

But as The New York Times reported on Sunday, this is hardly the only intellectually stifling (and illiberal) trend sweeping across campuses these days. There's also the growing demand among students for "trigger warnings" to protect them from readings and other assignments they may conceivably find overly challenging or disturbing.

The combination of crusading moral indignation and hypersensitive self-protectiveness has the potential to stamp out genuine liberalism at some schools, transforming them into institutions devoted to insulating students from provocation and free thinking rather than to exposing them to it.

At a time when increasing competition for jobs and the perpetually rising cost of a college education are already driving more and more students to view their time on campus entirely through a careerist lens, the collapse of liberalism at many elite universities would be a serious and significant loss for American culture and civic life.

But it wouldn't be a total loss.

In my experience, liberalism in the classical sense often thrives where many scholars and academics would least expect to find it — in institutions of higher learning that are unlikely to get swept up in the illiberal currents currently washing over so many of the nation's campuses. I'm talking about schools with deep, serious religious commitments.

I happened to spend two years in the late 1990s teaching at one of these schools — Brigham Young University, wholly owned and run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and it was a clarifying experience.

In some ways, BYU was a profoundly illiberal place. Nearly every member of the university community — 28,000 students as well as thousands of faculty members and administrators — was a Mormon, the vast majority of them deeply devout. As a non-Mormon, I had almost no chance of having my visiting professorship converted into a tenure-track position. My two-year contract included the requirement that I abide by the university's strict honor code, which mandated that I shave my beard, refrain from uttering curse words, and forswear alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea for the entire duration of my employment.

And yet I was perfectly free to teach whatever I wanted in the classroom. And I did. I taught large introductory lecture courses in ancient, medieval, and modern political thought, including some of the most radical writings of Plato, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, and Marx. I also taught advanced seminars on Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. We were free to discuss anything in class, including Nietzsche's suggestion that "God is dead." The only stipulation was that I not personally endorse these views — which was fine with me, since such an endorsement would have been a form of attempted indoctrination and therefore inimical to the liberal education I hoped to impart to my students.

In my time at BYU, I encountered resistance from students only once. One day during my second year on campus, the chair of the political science department summoned me to his office. Two young women from a small homogeneously Mormon town in rural Idaho had come to see him about something I had said in class the previous day. In paraphrasing Aristophanes' comic play about Socrates, The Clouds, I had noted in passing that in one scene the playwright portrays the philosopher masturbating in a flea-infested bed.

Despite my use of clinical terminology, the students had been scandalized by my statement and hoped that going forward I might be forced by the university to provide something like a trigger warning to the class. I tried to explain to the department chair the importance of the scene in the play — how Aristophanes intended to mock philosophy for its subversion of common moral restraints and for its auto-erotic tendencies — but the chair wasn't particularly interested. He merely wanted to inform me of the complaint and let me know that I had his support. There was no reprimand — and no request that I change anything at all about the course.

Not even to include a trigger warning.

Where will you find the real liberals on campus? Maybe at some of the most conservative and religiously devout colleges in the country.

 
Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is also a consulting editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press, a contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week