The Purists of the Campus

June 30, 2021 Updated: July 1, 2021


A couple of years ago, while doing a week of lectures in Australia, I was told by my hosts of an initiative to start a small Western Civilization degree program at the University of Sydney and other colleges in the nation. The program would be but one portion of the giant slate of offerings to undergraduates each term, a fledgling initiative that surely wouldn’t draw more than a handful of students in the first few years of its existence.

Traditional programs such as English and history would barely notice the program as it moved forward. Also, money to support the program would come from an outside source, so no loss of funding would be suffered by other campus units. (People off-campus should not underestimate the degree to which humanities departments see one another as competitors for scarce resources, not as colleagues in a mutual enterprise.)

But, my hosts told me, the proposal had been shot down. Activist faculty members mobilized against it, sending dire messages across the campus and forewarning administrators that this plan would become an irritating controversy if it proceeded. The basis for the protest was all too predictable. The profs decried the focus on Western Civilization, which by 2018 was routinely characterized as white supremacy. They objected as well to the private funding, which they treated as a cheap bribe aimed at inserting conservative content into the curriculum without undergoing faculty oversight. Worse, the professors might find some conservative teachers hired behind their backs. It had to be killed.

We needn’t go into more detail, only remark on the disproportions. (You can find more faculty responses to the proposal with a quick internet search.) On one side we had a modest effort to add a traditionalist element to the vast array of humanities courses available at the schools every term, a good portion of them taking a progressivist angle on the materials. The slice of the pie that Western Civ would take amounted to barely a sliver of the whole. And on the other side, we had a faculty reaction that treated this effort as if it were a Fifth Column, the first step in an insidious indoctrination, the machinations of dark forces out to undermine the very integrity of higher education. The advocates of the program were modest and conciliatory; the professors were fearful and indignant. Why the outsized response?

I’ve seen it before, this strange impulse to keep the conservatives and traditionalists out, to keep them away, expel them all and for good. The Western Civ faction at Sydney would never be more than a tiny piece of ground on the campus, and it would have virtually no institutional power at all. If the program did manage to hire a few traditionalist teachers, in a college-wide faculty meeting they would be outnumbered 50-to-1. Their votes on curriculum and other matters wouldn’t change anything. Ideological control by the left would not be jeopardized.

Clearly, though, control wasn’t enough, nor was domination. This was more extreme, and it was wholly familiar. I’ve observed it again and again in four decades on campus. At academic conferences and within many institutions I’ve seen people with advanced degrees and in secure positions bristle at the bare presence of a conservative voice in the proceedings, though it be one voice out of 20, powerless and solitary. They’ve sat in uncomfortable silence in contemplation of that disagreeable figure on the other side of the table, and they’ve risen to speak in righteous tones if the conservative himself took an opportunity to give an opinion.

The dynamic makes you think less of politics and more of purification. Better to interpret it with the eyes of an anthropologist than those of a political scientist. That’s what it looks like as it unfolds, a group psychology in action. The professors act as if conservatism is just that, a contaminant, an impurity, a bad apple that will, indeed, spoil the whole bunch. The invasive vine must be weeded out; the hallways must be cleansed.

What do calls for intellectual diversity mean in this climate? Absolutely nothing; or, no, they mean something much worse: the allowance of a toxin into the system. Conservatives typically understand leftist anti-conservatism as a form of political arrogance, but the attitude runs deeper than that. It’s visceral. Conservatives aren’t just wrong, confused, misguided. No, they’re noxious. The logic is elementary: Why should a deliberative group admit morally repugnant members? No, they can’t be introduced to the polity, not a single one of them. They can’t be fixed or cured. They’re irredeemable, as Hillary Clinton stated quite bluntly.

Everyone recalls the “deplorables” part of her infamous remarks, but not so much that follow-up verdict: “Now, some of those folks, they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.” In concluding that “they are not America,” Mrs. Clinton frames them as a foreign element, a virus within the body politic. The language is unmistakable. It says, “You conservatives—not all of you, I grant, but a lot of you—you may live in this country, you may pay taxes and own property, but you don’t really belong here, you’re not really American.”

The irony in this is, of course, that conservatives are the ones accused of a nativist attitude, who are said to be anti-pluralist and xenophobic. If I had a dollar for all the times I have heard leftist academics say that conservatives are “threatened” by the advance of women and minorities in the professions, that they’re “afraid” of postcolonialism and other innovations, I’d be in a much higher tax bracket. I recall a faculty dinner long ago when a professor at the table said that very thing (relative to Queer Theory), and I replied, “No, I think they just disagree with it.” That brought a pause to the conversation, with no follow-up, and we moved on to other subjects. We had to. If liberal professors accepted conservative responses to left-wing developments as having intellectual grounds, the norms of academia would demand an intellectual rejoinder. That in itself would grant conservatism a seat at the table, a legitimacy it doesn’t deserve. If conservative opinion is emotional, however, if it has a neurotic basis, then it doesn’t merit any substantive consideration at all. It must be cancelled.

Yes, cancellation was the process. Conservatives were not beaten in debate, defeated in the marketplace of ideas, or persuaded of the superiority of liberal aims. No, they were simply removed, displaced, not hired and not encouraged to try. Campus liberals and leftists had to get rid of all the old-fashioned ones, because the continuance of a single one of them suggested that the position was, perhaps, a viable one, if a minority preference. It would jeopardize the categorical dismissal of conservatism.

Hence, the overreaction of the professors at Sydney and a thousand other campuses. As with so many other innovations of the Age of Woke, the campus was a testing ground for social transformation. It proved that pluralism was not a binding ideal. Leftist professors could ramp up the tensions to dire threat levels, frame conservatism as a poison, and act in wholly illiberal ways with full justification—and moderate center-left professors wouldn’t object. This is why the conservative/libertarian calls for free speech and intellectual diversity accomplished nothing. They assumed a First Amendment-based culture that no longer exists.

Conservatives are never going to out-argue and out-debate their academic adversaries. They must develop other methods, all of which begin with this premise: they despise us—they abhor us—they don’t want us around … and they guard the gates, the portals, and the pipeline with ever greater vigilance.

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.

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

Mark Bauerlein
Mark Bauerlein
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.