Ortega y Gasset remarked more than fifty years ago that "the simple process of preserving our present civilization is supremely complex and demands incalculably subtle powers." There is nothing subtle, however, in the intent of the zealots now so amply represented within the ranks of academe, nor much in their doings that would work to strengthen the foundations of civilized life.
In its traditional liberal vision the university perpetuated the ideals of Western civilization in two separate but related ways. First, it imparted a sense of intellectual method which rejected dogmatic, monistic, and conspiratorial formulations in favor of a broadminded empiricism and a regard for the world's complexity. Second, it conveyed an appreciation for the underlying values of free societies, most notably a respect for the moral worth of the individual and for the ideals of personal liberty and constitutional democracy which emanated from it. As a result the university experience had a dual character, in part a process of intellectual training and in part a process of socialization.
At a deeper level, however, method and values reflected and reinforced one another. Operating within such a system, academics were able to illustrate what was just and admirable about Western civilization simply by adhering to the canons of their own fields of scholarship. Or, taking the other tack, they could promote intellectual openness and tolerance through an honest reading of the West's achievements. A study of ancient Greece was a study of life, not a preachment or conversion; but the highest ideals of that civilization carry their own persuasiveness, and are the precursors of our own.
All this is quite alien to the spirit of what aspires to become the new, radicalized academy. Armed with a variety of totalistic visions and millennial expectations, its partisans have little sympathy either with open discourse or with analytic procedures that fail to guarantee desired conclusions. It is not a coincidence that the epistemological relativism prominent in the early writings of Marx is also a common feature of the theories of contemporary academic radicals, be they feminists, deconstructionists, or Marxists. After all, if one wishes to reach a rather improbable goal without undue let or hindrance, the fewer the methodological constraints the better. As Howard Zinn, professor of history at Boston University, once put it, "In a world where justice is maldistributed, there is no such thing as a 'neutral' or representative recapitulation of the facts.'' In such a view, objective truth is only what the present dictates or what the future requires.
The organizing principle of radical scholarship inheres in its purpose rather than in its methods or theories. And its purpose is unremitting attack on existing cultural traditions and political and economic institutions. Thus, Paul Attewell, in a friendly survey of the work of radical economists, can locate "a major goal of most Left theorizing" in "the dual accomplishment of a political-economic analysis and a moral critique in which the economic analysis shows that an 'evil' is systematically and necessarily produced by capitalism" (emphasis in the original). Of course, a scholarship which sets out to prove that which it already knows, and whose underlying conviction is the necessary and systematic relation of the universe of evils to the structure of a free society, is no scholarship at all. What this statement describes is something quite different: a campaign of defamation.
Perhaps the most ominous aspect of this campaign is the use of the classroom for the cultivation of ethnic and class resentments, particularly among minority students entering into higher education for the first time. Until recently the university served as an important means of integrating the future leadership of American society and assimilating the upwardly mobile. A significant part of it now strives to do precisely the reverse, by fostering political estrangement and cultural segmentation. And even where, as is generally the case, the result falls short of instilling hatred, the atmosphere so created sours the country's image for many of those emerging into active citizenship.
At the very least, the rise of adversarial education has deprived many students of an adequate opportunity to be exposed to what is best in their own cultural tradition. (And given the decline of American secondary instruction, colleges are frequently the only place where such material can be absorbed.) In its search for opportunities to investigate the underside of American life, the Left has littered college catalogues with all sorts of marginalia. Some of these novel courses may have limited academic relevance. Unfortunately, however, time spent studying "Chicano Theater" or "Sex and Violence in the American Family" is time lost from the study of classics of political theory or world literature. The result is often a college graduate with as little sense of the deposited wisdom of his civilization as that of a troglodyte who never opened a book.
To an astonishing degree the relative acceptance of radical ideas at our universities has been accompanied by changed ground rules for teaching, scholarship, and peer review. In the process, academic freedom, which is the foundation on which teaching and learning prosper, has been transformed. As a principle it was meant to shield the academy from external pressure and manipulation, but, like most other freedoms, it simultaneously conferred a responsibility, involving a willingness to uphold basic standards of inquiry and to render judgment on the quality of colleagues' ideas.
The zealots who now threaten the academy do so out of the certainty and urgency with which they embrace their favored truths. But milder men also threaten it when they cease to believe in any truths at all, or lack the courage to bring their beliefs to bear on professional decisions. What follows is a careless latitudinarianism that parcels out portions of the academic terrain among every group too large, too vocal, or too assertive to be comfortably ignored, whatever the intellectual merit of its positions. The reductio ad absurdum of this appeasing attitude, a kind of ideological affirmative action, is nicely captured in Professor William Van Alstyne's recent complaint at an AAUP meeting that Marxists are underrepresented in college classrooms since, in contrast to the academy, "two-thirds of the globe is persuaded by Marxism writ large."
In the last analysis, it is less the academy's radical minority and more its liberal majority that is at the heart of the problem. Since the mid-60's a diminished belief in American society has left that majority unable effectively to counter the genuinely impassioned forces of the Left. Accordingly, it is a revival of that robust and clear-sighted liberalism, once so cognizant of extremist dangers in all their forms, which constitutes the essential condition for restoring a healthier campus climate. The future of higher education hinges on how the internal crisis of American liberalism is eventually resolved.(Stephen H. Balch and Herbert I. London, "The Tenured Left," Commentary 82 [October 1986]: 41-51, at 50-1 [italics in original])