The following note is part of a conversation with a well-left-of-center academic friend about the exclusion of conservative voices from the typical campus.


Dear _______,

I have been pondering your observation that conservative voices are not the only ones largely excluded from humanities departments, since the vast majority of members of such departments are white and, perhaps one might add, well-to-do.

I don’t doubt your facts about the composition of the professoriate, although it is noteworthy that the rising number of women in the professoriate in the last few decades has been remarkable.  I see no reason to think that the underrepresented groups that you mention will not be similarly included in time.  I would like to suggest, however, that the exclusion of conservative voices is far more damaging to the cause of real diversity on campuses and in classrooms.  In my experience religion and ideological commitments are more fundamental and important than sex, race, or economic status.  The color or sex or status of a reader and expositor of, say, a Donne poem or a Xhosa novel often will not be essentially significant, any more than is the race of Kathleen Battle singing Handel or of Renee Fleming singing a spiritual.  It is true that the selection of authors to study, e.g., or of historical incidents to examine may be affected by the background of the student, and that possibility deserves consideration.  But rebalancing the canon or considering hitherto overlooked events or perspectives need not have anything to do with the composition of the professoriate.  One doesn’t have to be African American to study African American literature or to conclude that some very interesting black writers have been too long neglected.

Put another way, you cannot tell Kathy Battle’s race or class when you hear her, unless you already know those facts.  Unless you know Helen Gardener’s sex you cannot tell her sex from her books and articles.  When you read a critic, however, you can often tell other things very quickly:  the things I have just described as more fundamental and important.

In theology what Tom Langford at Duke used to call ‘special interest theology’ really did not flow from an enriched or increasingly diverse body of scholars, but rather from the application of old ideas to new groups.  The old ideas came mostly from an old group of white men of the left.  All the various forms of liberation theology (the original South American writers; the black theology of James Cone; later permutations involving other groups and categories of oppression) were all really just sub-Marxism colored with some Biblical categories and images.  So too much feminist theology is really just Marxism, or post-modernism, or leftist structuralism, or other French and German ideologies, which have less to do with the sex or prior marginalization of the purveyors thereof and more to do with their prior ideological and religious presuppositions.  Altering the professoriate by adding, say, more African Americans or transgendered people or Sri Lankans, then, does not increase real diversity, except perhaps accidentally by adding a possible interest in some hitherto neglected objects for study.  And at this point such additions really are likely to mean people continuing to write more and more about less and less to be read by fewer and fewer.

From this I would conclude that a fundamental challenge to the new and stultifying orthodoxy that grips most elite universities and humanities departments – and therefore a true liberation into really self-critical thought – does not require adding yet more leftist voices (whatever their color, language, sex, or socio-economic status), but rather requires real intellectual diversity.  Harvard gains more diversity from one conservative than from a dozen more leftists of any sort.

By way of anecdotal support:  Harvey Cox, a theologian of the left and Harvard professor, in 1995 wrote an article about his time as a visiting scholar at Pat Robertson’s university (Regents, in Virginia).  The article ran in ‘The Atlantic’.  Cox said he was really astonished by the quality of the school and – my point in mentioning this here – found more real diversity at Regents than he did in the faculty club of Harvard.  Indeed.  No surprise to me.

Again years ago I heard a dinner speech at the Federal Reserve in Atlanta by my former teacher, John Agresto, about the state of the liberal arts in America.  At the time Agresto was the president of the Santa Fe campus of St. John’s College.  He argued that students were walking away from the humanities, and into business schools, glorified vocational training, and professional schools, because the humanities were narrow, ideological, and increasingly uninteresting.  I am inclined to agree.  The decline in the humanities is due, I think, not to materialism in the students or a turn in the nation from humane values and the liberating potential of a classical liberal education.  The problem is the composition, and particularly the ideologization, of the professoriate.

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