Fear not the Radical Professor

Though it may not have been the intended reaction, I was greatly amused that William F. Buckley, Jr. actually seemed to take his professors so seriously in his classic God and Man at Yale.  Of course, this book was published before the countercultural movements of the 1960s.  That era and the subsequent generation of academics it produced profoundly changed the dynamics of the University, and I believe it did so for the worse.  I have always been intrigued by professors who claim to embody and perpetuate the spirit of the 1960s counterculture.  But after I actually got to know many professors over the years, I found that their academic personalities and their actual personalities do not comport.

My observations from academia are not based on hasty encounters with professors at some cocktail party.  No, I experienced the many faces of academia not only as an undergraduate, but through eight years of graduate school, interacting with professors in and out of the classroom, in hallways and offices, at conferences, and in their homes.  And after all that time, I became increasingly convinced that the public’s perception of the wacko liberal – even dangerous – college professor is way off.  You see, these “radical” professors are not radicals at all.

I realized this after I began graduate school in August 2001.  A few weeks into the semester, just as I was growing accustomed to much more reading, writing, and T.A. duties, a seemingly normal Tuesday morning became what we now know as September 11.  Just days after the terrorist attacks, as I was recovering from the shock and grief that so many of us naturally felt, I remember standing in my advisor’s office.  He was at his desk, the attacks came up in conversation, and he asked for my opinion about them.  I said I was shocked by the whole thing and was having trouble processing it all and that, for some reason, I had this nagging feeling of guilt.  I said that, as an American, I felt partially responsible for what had happened.  His response,  “Good.”

Unsurprisingly, that professor and others in that department sprung on the opportunity to spew hateful rhetoric about the United States and its imperialistic pursuits (among many other atrocities) over the next two years of my master’s program.  I heard numerous undergrads complain about some of the appalling (and ridiculous) things some of their professors said in class, but there was nothing we could do about it.  (I went elsewhere for my doctorate.)

Still, I deduced something contradictory about “radical” professors’ personas on campus or in the company of their peers and their private lifestyles.  Somehow it is harder to take one seriously when he rants about the plight of the underclass and the Third World if he drives to campus everyday in a Mercedes, makes nearly (or over) $100,000 a year, wears designer clothes, and takes expensive, exotic vacations.  Seriously:  How does such behavior reflect a socialist or “progressive” philosophy?  “Subvert the dominant paradigm!” exclaims one popular academic slogan.  It appears that all they’re subverting is their credibility.

If these “radicals” truly believe in a socialistic society, why don’t they agree to committing 10% of their salaries into a pool to “spread the wealth” and give their graduate students more than a subsistence living?  Do these professors truly want equality and social justice?  Why don’t they drop their academic rank and endowed professorships to counter academic stratification and give everyone an equal standing?  Why don’t they forego taking the summer off and devote it to maintaining their campuses and give the university custodial and grounds keeping staff a break to ease the difficult, tiring, and backbreaking manual labor of their own campus proletariat?  Somehow I don’t see any of that happening.

One of the saddest realities of academia is that academic freedom, free thought, and free speech on campus are all myths.  I’ve known several professors who find ways to punish students for saying or writing something that does not follow their dogma.  But this just points to more hypocrisy.  Professors may vociferously tout their views in the classroom, but they also hide behind tenure to claim immunity if anyone dares to question them.  And, curiously, many will cravenly use pseudonyms when they submit editorials critical of academia to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Of course, not all professors are radical and there are some great professors.  But they are often overshadowed by the “radical” ones who unfortunately draw negative publicity to universities.  I suppose their “radicalism” is the most effective way to get any attention at all.  Advocating socialism or extreme leftist ideologies attracts attention; it shows a disruption of the status quo.  So why do it?  As far as teaching, it keeps students awake who would otherwise fall asleep and indoctrinates some of the more impressionable pupils along the way.  The prospect of attracting naïve disciples is too much to resist for some of these people.  If a professor cannot show that he is hip, rebellious, and anti-establishment, how will he appeal to otherwise indifferent students?  Professors can be as vocal as they want on campus or in print because they know it will get them attention they would otherwise never receive.  This is key because, oftentimes, there is no other place in society for many academicians, particularly the “radical” ones.

Consequently, I am suspicious of anyone who avows to be socialist or communist, especially after hanging out with so many professors.  They continue to insist that nationalizing the American economy would work, even though such claims have been discredited by every sane, reputable economist out there.  I think the socialistic tendencies also stem from an entrenched sense of inferiority that American professors feel toward their European counterparts.  Somehow they think that proclaiming socialism as the answer to everything is a way to ingratiate themselves to Europeans to gain intellectual acceptance.  Much of their love for socialism comes from their claims of empathizing with those less fortunate after going slumming that one summer or through their fetishism of the Third World.  But don’t confuse their “compassion” for the way many of them treat their own students or sometimes their own colleagues.  No, professors pretty much only care about themselves.  It’s all about prestige and self-advancement.  If you think high-minded professors are above intimidation, extortion, exploitation, or outright abuse, you are sorely mistaken.

Many follow a “postmodern” creed, excoriating racism, sexism, classism, and act as apologists for terrorists and criminals, but they support the illogicalities of affirmative action and cultural relativism.  Political correctness is more about atoning for their own white guilt and the fact that the University has been one of the most exclusionary institutions in history.  Professors claim to be “non-judgmental,” but academics are actually some of the most judgmental people around, especially toward those they deem as unenlightened or somehow less-than.

Though I am critical, I actually see a lot of humor in professorial hypocrisy.  I hope my remarks offer some reassurance to people concerned about the current political and economic climate and the perceived shift to the Left or, some might even say, toward socialism.  I am skeptical that there are more than a handful of any true radicals on either side of the American political spectrum and I doubt you will find many genuinely dangerous individuals in universities.  In most cases, such professors are surpassed in their phoniness only by politicians, entertainers, and elite media figures.

I do want to be clear that I am in no way offering an indictment of higher education.  I wholly believe that the University serves a necessary, worthwhile, and noble purpose.  Furthermore, I fully believe in the principles of academic freedom and liberal education.  But when there is a highly questionable demeanor coming from certain factions of the professoriate, it undermines the credibility of the University and only deepens the suspicions that many feel toward our colleges.

With that in mind, whatever happened to scholarship that had the goal of educating and illuminating its readers?  The works of Gordon Wood, Joseph Ellis, David McCullough, and Samuel Huntington are prime examples of respectable, valuable, worthwhile, and readable scholarship.  This is probably why they sell books and win awards unlike other smug, masturbatory, highly esoteric research that often doesn’t go beyond the Ivory Tower and only perpetuates the cycle of problems we see in academia.

These problems have been around for years, but I hope I offer some insight from someone who has endured many years among these people.  And I say with little doubt that “radical” professors shouldn’t be feared simply because most of them are just pretend radicals.  And I would even go as far to say that many of them are only nominally liberals.  So while we need not fear the actual professors, we should be concerned about the young people they “teach” and interact with, as too many are easily taken in by their charisma and brainwashed accordingly.  They may offer lots of theatrics and haughty rhetoric, but many of these individuals conduct lucrative consulting work on the side, send their kids to private school, live in posh homes in tony neighborhoods, list questionable and creative “business” and “educational” expenses as tax deductions, and never miss an opportunity to plug their most recent book.

Other academics might dismiss me as some jaded, pseudo-intellectual wannabe.  But my thoughts on the hypocrisy of “radical” academia only intensified with each year I spent in it.  And I think that the “radicals” know the truth.  So don’t let their Marxist-chic, America-hating, sanctimonious rhetoric fool you.  After all, I’m not convinced that they’re even fooling themselves.


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