This article is from our January symposium issue, in which 53 leading writers and thinkers answer the question: “What is the future of conservatism in the wake of the 2012 election?” Click here to read the entire symposium.
RUTH R. WISSE
When asked how it feels to be a rare conservative on a flagrantly liberal campus, I declare nothing’s easier than practicing freedom from behind the protective shield of tenure. A reputation for political nonconformity gets me access to the most genuinely independent undergraduates in the school. Almost never in my 20 years at Harvard has any colleague ever taken issue with my political writing: They apparently don’t read alternative publications, and like the president–who attended our law school–they prefer not to engage the other side of the aisle.
This pleasant life may explain why, like many old-school liberals now known as conservatives, I cheerfully forfeited the university in order, as I thought, to win the polity. I was delighted to see the boldest of our students gravitate toward opinion journalism, think tanks, the Federalist Society, and politics outright. For conservative-tending students who were headed to graduate school in the humanities or social sciences, I crafted letters of recommendation downplaying their bent lest they meet the fate of Jewish applicants in the 1930s.
All along, I expected “the people” to resist the academy; but all along, the academy has been reconfiguring the polity. Where others attribute electoral shifts to demographic changes (as though we expect people to vote their skin color), I see a political landscape influenced by university policies of racial profiling. Affirmative action–aka group preferences or quotas–has displaced the civil-rights commitment to equal treatment irrespective of color, gender, or creed. Faculty members admitted and advanced through policies of grievance and victimhood promote ideologies of grievance and victimhood, and they sponsor or become candidates for public office who win on that platform. The authorized liberal gatekeeping that was once introduced as a measure of redress for past injustice has all but eliminated conservative faculty and with them the conservative foundations of traditional liberal-arts education. Half the polity is no longer represented in the university, and students from that half are subjected to America’s version of political reeducation.
Key to this change is the word diversity, which has been hijacked (much as democraticwas by the German Democratic Republic) to mean “politically conformist.” An academic questionnaire now circulating to determine levels of faculty satisfaction includes under “demographics” the categories of gender, with subheadings for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer”; Hispanic or Latino; American Indian or Alaska Native; Native Hawaiian or other Pacific. (Categories have grown more refined with the appointment of each new “diversity” dean.) Designed to identify areas of stress, the questionnaire cannot fathom that some faculty may be stressed out by the substitution of this vulgar categorizing for the intellectual and ideational world we thought we had entered.
I take this presidential election as a call for university reform as well as tax reform. For a start, I suggest citizens challenge the use of “diversity” for racial and gender profiling and argue for reinvestment in teaching the foundational texts of Western thought. To conserve our liberal democracy, conservatives and other concerned citizens will have to work harder.
Ruth R. Wisse is Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and professor of comparative literature at Harvard University. She is the author, most recently, of the forthcoming No Joke: Making Jewish Humor.