How Not To Fix Higher Education

by Daniel McCarthy

It had to happen – the Bush victory has restored conservatives' faith in government. Just look at National Review Online, where Stanley Kurtz of the Hudson Institute has come up with a novel solution to the problem of political correctness in our universities: federal intervention.

Specifically, Kurtz thinks that by putting another Lynne Cheney or Bill Bennett type in charge of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Bush administration will "impart a lasting cultural legacy" and "do something serious to take back the academy."

Assuming that Kurtz is right and the National Endowment for the Humanities really has that much influence upon our universities, what happens the next time we get a Democrat administration? The Democrats would more than undo whatever good the Bush administration did once they got their hands on the power. This is a very basic objection to any positive use of federal power, one that constitutional conservatives and libertarians have made time and time again. But the thought doesn't seem to occur to Kurtz, and when big government conservatives do address it they usually argue that they'll just recapture the government eventually and make it all better again. Nevermind that in the meantime an institution as valuable as the academy might be ruined.

Thankfully Kurtz' proposal almost certainly would not work. The evidence Kurtz himself provides suggests why. Describing how the Left came to dominate the academy in the first place, Kurtz writes "Fifteen years ago, a radical feminist like Catherine MacKinnon would have been dismissed, even in the New York Times, as a leftist loon. Now, having packed the law schools and women's studies programs with her acolytes, MacKinnon writes the nation's sexual harassment laws."

In other words, the Left itself used private means, not the state, to install its agenda in the universities. MacKinnon and her ilk did not use the law to take control of the academy, they used the academy to take control of the law. Given the Left's preference for the use of state power wherever possible, it's likely that the reason they didn't use it here is simply because they knew it wouldn't work. What professor in his right mind, or even a left-wing professor who might not be in his right mind, is going to listen to a politically-appointed educrat from the National Endowment for the Humanities?

The Kurtz plan itself is nothing to worry about then. But his reflexive appeal to federal power should set off alarm bells. Why doesn't it occur to the big government conservatives at least to try private measures first, especially when the Left has shown that they can work? It probably has to do with the nature of the latter-day conservative movement as a whole and its inordinate focus on politics. The Left loves the state, sure, but surprisingly Leftists often seem to have more of a life outside of politics than conservatives do. Leftists pursue a wide range of careers and interests, including scholarship and journalism, and they push their agenda in every walk of life. All too many conservatives, by contrast, pour all of their civic activity into politics.

Someone might object that conservatives are active in business and religion, and that they're just too busy making money to go into the media or academy. But this isn't true; the business world (specifically big business, not the little guy) is as politically correct and statist as the rest of the culture. Most of the major religious denominations are likewise under siege from the Left.

So where are all the conservatives? Like Kurtz, they're out there trying to solve society's problems by electing more Congressmen and crafting public policy. When it fails to stop the creep of cultural Marxism, rather than try another approach, they dump all the more effort into politics.

Universities, as a microcosm of society, illustrate the point quite well. On any given campus if there is a right-wing organization at all it is probably one affiliated with a national political party, either the GOP or the Libertarian Party. By contrast on most campuses the most active left-wing group is not the College Democrats, but the cause du jour, whether it's the anti-"sweatshop" people or the homosexual club, or the Mumiacs, or whatever. These groups are politically involved, to be sure, but they're also largely cultural, and rather than try to accomplish their ends by electing a Democrat to congress, they stage sit-ins or boycotts or "candlelight vigils" against "hate." These groups don't accomplish much but even so they demonstrate the Left's interest in life beyond partisan politics.

If we want to stop political correctness in the academy and elsewhere, we must do precisely the opposite of what Kurtz advocates. Opponents of the Left must not only use the government less, but even think about it less, and apply their efforts instead into the culture.

P.S. A good place to start is to learn ancient Greek. By doing so you'll be helping to preserve and extend Western civilization, both the pagan writers and the Bible. Nothing could be more politically incorrect.

Daniel McCarthy is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.