It's a story told regularly in the conservative media. A student pleads for advice: The professors at his college or university are left-wing, and he must choose between regurgitating the leftist propaganda in class discussions, term papers, exam answers, and essays for an A, or telling the truth for a low grade. What to do?
The reporter or journalist almost always responds that the student should say and submit (for four years!) whatever the professor wants and graduate to the real world with his honors degree. Such a course of action leads to self-deception and, gradually, sincere conversion—or to lying throughout one’s postgraduate career. At minimum, it leaves less independent students in that class thinking that everything the professor teaches must be true, or someone would have spoken up. Many parents, if they knew all this, would bankrupt themselves to send their child to one of the handful of honest, scholarly, military or religious colleges and universities in America, or refuse to pay a cent for “higher education” and probably doom their child, however academically gifted, to a career in fast-food restaurants or garages, while the colleges swing further leftward.
I faced this same dilemma for many years, three postgraduate degrees and two successful careers ago. The choice was especially difficult for me because I had a double major: English and history, both playgrounds for the left. To make things more difficult I had little time to write in subtle double-meanings, because I worked my way through university with full-time jobs. Scholarships (outside of sports) were almost unheard of, and my boarding prep school had nearly bankrupted my parents. I did, however, find enough time (usually by sleeping during select classes) to found my university’s first chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, which had about 200 nominal members, of which about 30 were very active. It was in self-defense, as the commons were ruled by the Trotskyite “Students for a Democratic Society.” (So much for the myth that the left wasn’t active on campuses until the late 60’s.)
I quickly learned what my professors demanded and spewed it back. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I began to learn tactics to pacify my conscience. In history, for example, the professor would assign a term paper requiring that we prove that the United States would be better under an extremely centralized “Hamiltonian” system but toward ridiculously “Jeffersonian” ends; “Interpret these Founders as we [I] did in class.” I wrote a sophisticated paper according to the instructions, parroting my professor’s lectures, while simultaneously writing a contrary thesis. I handed in only the former. Our grades were posted on the bulletin board after being turned in to the administration. I then visited the professor in his artfully book-strewn office and told him I had made a mistake, and could I please still turn in the paper that I actually wanted graded, handing him the one that truly reflected history. He told me that it was not possible to change my grade (the highest in the class) this late, but he would truly enjoy reading a paper of mine that I considered even better. The next I heard of the matter, he was fruitlessly begging the dean to let him flunk me. So I guess he read it. But all that was too much work for me, with minimal results.
After a few false starts I found a partial solution that will work from Yale to Podunk Junior College, so long as the school contains a committed leftist professor whose classes consist of his opinions and 30 or so students.
At our university I would get as many conservatives together as I could, usually many more than the average classroom would hold. We would wander into registration, held in the basketball gym, ahead of time. We would already have chosen the worst of the worst among the professors. We’d find the table with his course and its grad-student registrar, line up at it, and sign in until the class was overfull. It was delightful to see the smile on the professor’s face if he happened to be in the building and looking at his table. So crowded, and by 9 a.m.!
Usually, the professor would begin with his inanities or lies at the class’s first meeting. One or two of us would raise our hands, attempt to reason with him and, after failure, walk out. The next meeting went the same. Within a week or two the classroom was empty but for a bewildered professor. We still had time to add or drop courses, according to the rules. We dropped that course and added another if we hadn’t already signed up for an extra, better course in advance.
I do not know what happened to the aged propagandists when they realized they had to teach to empty classrooms for a semester, and I don’t really care. I do remember hearing that the worst one we targeted had begun teaching at what we considered a far lesser school. Of course, there were always other bad teachers, so compromise was necessary. But even limited trials provide self-respect. Every school has some sort of conservative club. If it can publish an alternative newspaper, the student right can certainly do what we did. If enough students followed our example, administrations would have to begin selecting their faculties more carefully, and tenure would be rarer. (Incidentally, one of my careers was as a professor, but I taught my most controversial courses honestly and fairly.)
The absence of student rebellions explains why we face today a population of “educated” men and women lacking principles and honor, with whom one cannot hold a reasonable conversation and not encounter attention deficit disorder, and who possess nothing that would pass in Europe as an education. In America they head up corporations, law firms, and hospitals; professional schools provide no escape. After 30 years practicing law in a large city I have not met a single attorney who admits to having read a book cover to cover since college—not even since law school, because cases are selected from “casebooks.” Blackstone, Grotius, even Cicero or other writers touching on jurisprudence are unavailable and discouraged, as is questioning professors in class. I was forcibly reminded by the other students that they go to get a piece of paper, not to learn law. Other “learned” boot camps are the same.
Students who conform for a grade should keep in mind that lip service is often the most valuable service one can provide, and stifling what one knows to be the truth only gives one four full years of practicing deceit for selfish reasons. There is a rule that the Soviet Union as well as the United States had to learn: Moles often turn, intentionally or not. Over the years I have run into several conservative classmates for whom I once had great hope, but who had preferred to knuckle under “just for awhile.” Years later, they had become brainless sycophants.
This article first appeared in the October 2009 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.