In a Sun column some time ago, a graduating senior prided himself on having gone through Cornell and having remained a “conservative” — one of the few on a campus that pushes the “liberal agenda.” Reflecting on his experience in the community, he lamented that while racial, ethnic and sexual diversity are plentiful at Cornell, the campus is unfortunately bereft of “ideological diversity.”
While this paean to diversity invokes all the positive associations of the term, “ideological diversity” is at heart deeply anti-intellectual.
I can only think that this student went through Cornell and missed the point. This is a person who spent four years dividing students into “liberal” and “conservative,” for whom these terms connoted not incongruous and unstable collections of ideas, but a single, fixed identity. Moreover, this identity had to be defended, kept pure from the miasma of the (essentially corrupting) university atmosphere.
Modern universities stand as symbols of confidence in human thought, dedicated to the Enlightenment belief that veritas vos liberatum. They serve as fora where complex ideas are produced, examined, challenged and put to the test.
The premise underlying ideological diversity runs counter to this basic philosophy. It does not treat intellectual life as dynamic. Instead, students come to the university with fixed and immutable prejudices. They are defined by this set of “values”; this is a campus not of thinking scholars, but of “Marxists,” “Liberals,” “Nihilists,” etc. The ideas become identities that remain constant throughout one’s undergraduate career. Upon graduation, if one remains an X, one has been true to oneself.
The academic experience then revolves around this code of belief that serves as the touchstone for all new information. Contradictory evidence is either ignored or twisted. One ferrets out supporting evidence. All this begets a community of warring ideologues engaged in polemics, not of scholars engaged with each other and with shared problems and inquiries.
It should be noted that ideological diversity is not the same as the diversity and free expression of ideas, which are essential to academic progress and imply flexibility and openness. The latter does not necessarily ensure that ideas are viewed equally or that all will gain currency in the intellectual marketplace, but it does give them a shot. After all, academia is inherently unstable given its task of understanding the world. The 20th century saw seismic shifts of opinion in academic departments — mergers, schisms and the creation of new fields.
Ideological diversity is also not on par with racial and ethnic diversity. An African-American growing up in Birmingham post Civil Rights Movement can comment on the dynamics of racism in the South. An international student brings knowledge of a culture and language that will help educate his or her peers. While it is true that a dialogue between a liberal and a libertarian would provide the opposite side with a different perspective, the educational value is lost if each side stays committed to his or her platform. And if a libertarian persuades a liberal on a point of contention, has ideological diversity at Cornell decreased?
Furthermore, it is unclear how Cornell’s administration would undertake the practical task of ensuring an ideologically diverse university atmosphere. Does this mean stacking the biology department with Creationists? Or ensuring the history department has at least one fascist sympathizer? Would it mean recruiting students based on ideology, having checkboxes for capitalists and socialists?
The disastrous consequences of taking the argument to its logical conclusion lead me to suspect that the argument is disingenuous, a misconceived attempt to point out a contradiction in Cornell’s stated commitment to diversity. It seems that this student did not in fact want ideological diversity, people who thought differently from himself. Rather, the student wished there were more conservatives — and more conservative opinions — on campus. The ideological diversity argument amounts to the accusation that universities are too liberal.
Students who consider themselves conservative should feel comfortable expressing themselves on campus. Some of the persecution complex is endemic to the worldview of a moral crusader, but as has been discussed in the national media, professors will often crack a political joke that relies on the assumption of shared political values, something that happened in a lecture I attended this past week. A Republican falls outside of the circle of humor in a joke made at the Republican Party. These “paper cuts” matter.
I don’t think one can — or should — eliminate politics from the classroom; important ideas will always have political valences. But it is intellectually lazy of professors to crack jokes without fully putting the issue on the table and giving students the opportunity to respond. And it is similarly a problem for ideologically identified students to come to college thinking the point is to defend their values. At a leading center of higher learning like Cornell, the real point should be to think critically about ideas and put down the banner.
Gabriel Arana is a graduate student in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be contacted at email@example.com. The Red Line appears Thursdays.