The Liberal’s Hard Choice

December 1, 2021 Updated: December 13, 2021


Several months ago, a professional acquaintance of mine died after a long and happy married life, a distinguished academic career with many books written and essays and reviews published in top periodicals, and a liberal philosophy nicely intact in this age of confusion.

I’d met him 20 years before at an academic conference in a faraway city. During a discussion at that event, he had risen in the audience to defend the literary theorist Paul de Man, and I admired his willingness to voice an opinion against the dominant one in the room. I approached him and introduced myself. We talked for a few happy minutes and parted ways.

A week later, I contacted him again. Earlier that year, I had written a review of a collection of essays by diverse people and edited by him on the subject of pragmatism in literary and cultural criticism. It was a negative review, not entirely so and not nasty, but a solid takedown of some of the contributors in the volume. I sent it to him because I thought I had to. It would be a little weasel-like to have approached him in person with a compliment and not be honest about having written something against him not very long before.

The letter went out, and a few weeks later I got a reply. He told me that it took a lot of chutzpah to have shown him the review—authors and editors can be awfully thin-skinned about their works—and he laid out some substantive criticisms of my criticism. But after that, he added a nicely collegial opening for further encounters in the future. From then on, every year or so, we traded messages. Every other year, we crossed paths at conferences or met in New York, where he had resided for nearly all of his life.

I bring this up because the course of our acquaintance shows precisely what academia has lost in the past 30 years. His response to me modeled the traditional liberal attitude: We disagree, we debate, we hash it out, and we don’t let the differences ruin the collegiality. There may be irritation, annoyance, or impatience, but those feelings are worked out through the deliberative process. An academic camaraderie underlies the tensions—a common enterprise. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. We’re all teachers and scholars with the same purpose: the enlightenment of the rising generation, a literary education for everybody, humanism, and reading habits.

That was my assumption when I left graduate school in 1988. Such an assumption no doubt sounds callow and unrealistic to observers of and participants in academia in the 21st century. In the faculty lounge, my friend’s attitude is now as rare as socially conservative individuals. The willingness to engage a critic, to assume a shared mission underlying disciplinary disputes, to go so far as to invite a friendship: That’s gone. People are more reactive now, more suspicious, sectarian, and political. They don’t want any gadflies around, nor do they want troublemakers or misfits raising bothersome questions. They want uniformity, increasingly so, as one can see from the steady disappearance of conservatives from the faculty over the past 50 years.

Everybody knows this, of course. Political correctness has gotten worse, campuses are more illiberal, conformity reigns, pluralism is out, and conservative people and ideas are the victims. But they’re not the only victims. The very thing that made academia special—the open forensic of debate—suffers as well. Academia was the one place where ideas could be entertained freely, where the threshold of offense was high and people didn’t take disagreements so darn personally. That was the academic idea and everybody knew it, even as they also knew that the professors often fell short of it.

It made the seminar room fun. When someone proposed a wacky interpretation of an Emily Dickinson poem, it fired up all of the attendees, made the colloquy exciting and memorable, and also made us practice our speech without having to worry about anything else but getting our words and ideas straight and persuasive. It was great. How lucky we were to be in a place where all you had to do was read books and speak and write about them intelligently.

That’s why people poured into graduate programs in the 1970s and 1980s, and well into the 1990s, even as the job market for doctoral degree holders was getting worse and worse. Compared to the rest of society, this was a heavenly realm of free intellectual practice, where you were judged by the quality of your thinking, rather than by your money, looks, or background.

I said that my friend died with his liberal beliefs intact. I don’t think he ever voted for a Republican, not once in his long life. But four years ago, he told me a story that revealed that he wasn’t entirely happy with his liberalism, at least as it applied to campus affairs. As we sat in a café on Columbus Avenue near 103rd Street, he told me a story about a curricular change that his English department had instituted many years before. Up until that time, the department had required of majors a few courses in Shakespeare and other major figures—not too many of them, but enough so that every English graduate got a little exposure to the greats and the masterpieces in the tradition.

But the chairmanship of the department had been passed to someone who didn’t like the Dead White Male focus and demanded more diversity and less prescription. She had formed a committee to recommend changes, my friend recounted, and she didn’t want to discuss the first question of whether there should be any changes made at all. That decision was closed: It had already been made.

My friend didn’t like that. As I said, he was a liberal Democrat all the way, and he supported diversity initiatives in many spheres. But he also believed in the literary tradition and gradations of greatness. If you asked him about diversity in his teaching, he probably would have said, “I want to see more variety among students and teachers, yes, but everybody should read some Shakespeare and Milton and Chaucer.”

The people on the committee disagreed. When the department met as a whole to discuss the recommendation that those existing requirements be scrapped, my friend planned to speak warmly in favor of keeping the classics as necessary readings. But a brief exchange with the new chairperson brought him up short.

As people filed into the room, he sat next to her and stated quietly that he didn’t want to lose the core courses. He expected her to come back with an affirmation of the high value of other authors and works, especially those that might appeal to female and minority students, who, presumably, wanted to see their identities reflected on the syllabus (this was the going rationale for diversification in the 1990s).

But that’s not what she said. Instead, she took the identity factor to a whole new level.

“She answered, Mark,” my friend continued, “by saying that when we require Shakespeare and not minority authors, we are saying not only that those minority authors are inferior. We’re also saying that the people who teach those authors are inferior.”

My friend paused as he told me this. I shook my head, astonished. This was a point I hadn’t heard before, and I didn’t know what to say. When you personalize things that much, the argument ends. In effect, she had told him that if he insists upon the old requirements, he would insult his colleagues. What he thought was a decision over subject matter was really an issue of respect for others.

My friend did have a reply, though.

He told her, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Yes, he said that—that’s why I liked him in spite of our political differences. She stared back at him, turned away without speaking, and, in fact, didn’t speak to my friend for another five years. He had put himself outside the realm of reasonable discussion.

There you see the liberal dilemma. Liberals in academia and other deliberative bodies realize that the norms of deliberation have ended. The “woke” outlook doesn’t admit them. It’s all personal: You’re with us or against us, on board or not, with the program or not.

The liberal way doesn’t force those choices, but the current dispensation certainly does. It has moral fervor, and liberals don’t know how to fight it. They give the victim argument too much validity for them to call it out as the bullying maneuver that it is. If a liberal professor does object, and does so with all due professionalism, he’s nonetheless shunned, and no liberal wants to be so classified.

Liberals have faith in their dutiful handling of institutions and people. They’re very good at management and operations, they believe. That’s why they’ve risen in the ranks and kept the wheels turning so smoothly.

Now that the leftists have acquired so much power, though, liberals don’t know what to do. As my friend told me his story, he admitted defeat. His liberalism gave him no weapons in this victimology atmosphere. An illiberal outlook had taken hold, and all he could do was denounce it one time and walk away. It made him unhappy in his final years as an academic. It’s made us all unhappy, except for the woke ringleaders. They’ve, indeed, dismantled the institution. If you can’t debate ideas and objects without those things being attached to people, the whole enterprise is over.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Mark Bauerlein is an emeritus professor of English at Emory University. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, the TLS, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.