Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.

Zagacki and Cherwitz: Liberals, conservatives not immune to academic impairment

  • Comments

In his May 19 Forum page column, Brian Coulter raises valid concerns about higher education. However, he would be happy to know that not everything is going to hell and a handbasket in American public universities. In many ways, higher education is intellectually flourishing more than ever before.

He complains about the lack of free speech on university campuses and suggests that only liberal ideas get aired. Doubtlessly, he refers to certain high-profile cases (in conservative media, anyway) at public universities in California and elsewhere, where some conservatives were not allowed to speak on campus.

However, we worry that Mr. Coulter does not indicate where to draw the line concerning which speakers public universities invite to campus. Many public colleges are understandably reluctant to welcome neo-Nazis, white nationalists and other far-right extremists to use their campuses as conduits for spreading hate speech. Not to mention, liberal and conservative scholars long ago refuted these ideas. Thus, they no longer require or deserve a public airing or can be intellectually tolerated.

It might relieve Mr. Coulter to know that the perspectives of respected conservatives are not as prohibited in public university classrooms as he seems to believe. Conservative thinkers routinely make their way into required course readings and lectures. These include Plato from the classical world, Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas from the Medieval, and then influential modern philosophical and religious conservatives like C.S. Lewis, Russell Kirk, Whittaker Chambers and William F. Buckley.

In our own public university courses, we have used the speeches of Edmund Burke and Ronald Reagan as examples of effective political oratory. We discuss conservative political theorists such as Richard Weaver and F.A. Hayek and bring them into conversation with more contemporary perspectives such as critical race theory. Most of our colleagues do the same.

Mr. Coulter appears worried that Democrats make up the majority of public university faculty. But this only confirms that a lot of professors are Democrats. Many conservatives wrongly assume that those instructors must be indoctrinating students with radical leftist ideas. They believe there exists some united campaign to groom students ideologically.

Surely Mr. Coulter knows that Democrats, like Republicans, come in many ideological and intellectual stripes. Claiming that all professors, who happen to be Democrats, are also radical leftists is like arguing, falsely, that all Republicans are white supremacists.

Lastly, Mr. Coulter laments what students don’t know of the humanities and social sciences: They don’t know American history or foreign policy; they flunk English grammar; they can’t cite great authors. We lament this, too. But we do not blame public universities.

One implication of arguments like this is that college students spend too much time getting “woke” by their radical professors to learn such foundational materials. Yet it is our experience that public universities provide plenty of opportunities for students to immerse themselves in federalism, Melville, verb tense, American foreign policy, and just about any other subject that Mr. Coulter thinks is taboo on college campuses.

What college students do with this knowledge is really up to them. Professors teach these subjects, often in tandem with or in comparison to contemporary diverse writers and thinkers. That’s the part many conservatives don’t like and want to eliminate from public schools by taking over school boards, banning books, imposing education curriculums, cutting DEI programs and intimidating faculty.

Whatever intellectual impairments have supposedly come to afflict some public university students, these impairments affect them whether they are liberal or conservative. Mr. Coulter seems to decry the liberals and appears to suggest that their lack of fundamental learning threatens American democracy. This is a legitimate position. But we worry just as much if not more about the conservatives and whether they would fare any better on Mr. Coulter’s test.

One seriously doubts conservatives like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Tommy Tuberville or the former president, Mr. Trump, are able to tell the difference between “go” and “went,” Ukraine and Uruguay, or the Boston Tea Party and the Jan 6 insurrection. That doesn’t bode well for American democracy either.

— Kenneth Zagacki is a professor of communication at North Carolina State University. Richard Cherwitz is a professor emeritus in the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin.