Aaron Hanlon thinks anti-conservative bias at colleges and universities is a molehill that a lot of people try to make into a mountain. To the dismay of Hanlon, a professor of English at Colby College, some of his fellow liberals are among those who, in his opinion, exaggerate the problem and thereby bolster the right’s case.
Last Thursday in The New Republic, Hanlon went after New York Times pundit Nicholas Kristof for three 2016 columns critical of the leftward lean of America’s campuses. For example, in late May, Kristof wondered that since “liberals claim to be champions of inclusiveness…why, in the academic turf that we control, aren’t we ourselves more inclusive? If we are alert to bias in other domains, why don’t we tackle our own liberal blind spot?”
“There’s certainly room for more ideological diversity on campus,” wrote Hanlon, but “Kristof’s recurring argument…reinforces the hyperbolic view of colleges and universities that the right uses to undermine the credibility of people speaking from academic and pedagogical expertise [and] contribute[s] to the enduring strain of anti-intellectualism in American politics.” Moreover, Kristof “generalizes about liberal intolerance on campus and cites extreme examples.”
Hanlon asserted that in academia as a whole, “even at elite liberal arts colleges, there’s a lot more dialogue between liberals and conservatives than critics suggest,” and that “there’s also plenty of evidence to disprove Kristof’s broader claims about a liberal ‘echo chamber’ on campus…A largely liberal faculty doesn’t guarantee a systematic liberal one-sidedness or indoctrination in the classroom…A Harvard Institute of Politics study finds that 21 percent of Republican students nationwide report feeling uncomfortable sharing their political opinions on campus, compared with 8 percent of Democrats. As [Colby sociology professor Neil] Gross observes, ‘If suppression of conservative voices were rampant we’d see a far larger share of collegiate Republicans concerned about their freedom of speech.’”
Hanlon concluded (bolding added):
Kristof’s portrayal of campus liberals is just another form of elitist stereotyping, the mirror image of assumptions that every Trump supporter is a narrow-minded racist. By burlesquing progressives in academia, Kristof is making a faux-populist gesture of the very sort that drives the Trump-era right in its contempt for teaching and learning. Trump and his supporters have no regard for knowledge or debate, and thrive on petty caricaturing of political opponents. The right has turned the learning process that is student activism, with all of its inevitable triumphs and miscues, into national news fodder that’s meant to mock and discredit academia, not to bolster freedom of speech or ideological diversity. In this era of virulent anti-intellectualism, we don’t need more caricatures of academic life, especially from the left. We need more public intellectuals, especially progressive ones like Kristof, to stand up for the value of higher education—because without it, our political echo chambers would become that much worse.