Last week I spoke at an elite private college in New England, which requires 1250 SAT scores for entry and $40,000 a year in tuition fees to attend. Before I spoke I met with the conservative students who had invited me and was told the following story by a young man who was a vice president of the student club and a junior at the school. In a political science course he had just taken, he wrote a paper on the Iraq war, which his professor was outspokenly against.
Why is the Iraq war, which is such a recent event and about which passions are so high, a subject of any undergraduate academic course? This was already, to my mind, part of the problem of today's college curriculum. When I went to Columbia in the 1950s any event that wasn't 25 years in the past was concerned too recent for academic inquiry, too open to what was then called "present mindedness, and considered an obstacle to reflective, academic thinking. Far too many of today's tenured faculty are political activists first and teachers only secondarily, if at all. Their agenda is indoctrinating students in their own political prejudices, while their academic colleagues who are not activists or ideologues studiously refuse to notice the abuses that are going on.
The student, who was a political science major, had written a paper supporting the Iraq war in a class he had recently taken. When he got the paper back it had been graded "F." On his previous paper he had gotten a "C-" which he accepted grudgingly at the time, not because he thought he deserved it, but because he couldn't actually believe his professor was grading him for his political views and not his academic performance. But an "F" was ridiculous. No one at this elite college, which required high SAT scores for admission, got "F's" unless they wrote their papers drunk -- and probably not even then. This time he went to his professor and complained. Taken aback by the student's passion in defending his paper, the professor conceded that maybe he had graded the paper unfairly. "I'll give you a chance to rewrite it," he said, "but you need to use the sources more." Since the sources were universally hostile to the war in Iraq, the cue was unmistakeable. The student went back and changed every statement that represented a point view to its opposite. Thus, where he had argued that the conflict in Iraq was central to the war on terror he changed the relevant sentence to say that it was a "distraction" from the War on Terror. The entire structure of the paper he handed back remained the same. Only the conclusions were changed. He got an "A." From then on he lied on the papers he wrote for this professor feeding him the leftwing conclusions he wanted to hear. The result was a series of papers the professor graded with an "A."
Revolting as this story is, it is not the worst of what I witnessed that evening. The student had told me the story at a dinner reception put on by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative organization that was hosting a debate between a liberal and myself. The presence of the liberal had attracted several professors who were not conservative. I introduced myself to one of them, a round, white-haired gentleman who looked a little like David Crosby but with sharper features. His eyes squinted at you in a cheerful way that invited a certain informality and trust. I was still upset by what the student had just told me and since he was a professor in the same Political Science Department and seemed approachable I relayed the story to him. I actually had convinced myself that this affable looking fellow might be someone to discuss how to bring this up with the professor in question and get him to change his ways. Or, alternatively, to get a departmental policy that would protect students in the future.
"I don't believe it," was his response when I told him the story. "You don't believe it!" I said in exasperation. "You're calling this student a liar? You don't have any interest in finding out what's going on in your own department?" Instead of answering me, he repeated himself. "I don't believe it," By this time my frustration was reaching a boiling point, but I tried to keep my response calm while letting him know exactly what I thought. "You're a typical arrogant leftist," I said, at which he exploded: "Fuck you," he unexpectedly shot back.
Even I, who am used to heated professorial exchanges, was taken aback. This was after all an academic reception in a context -- a 200 year old New England school -- which did not exactly seem the place for such expressions. On the other hand, since professors dress like truck drivers these days one can probably expect them to talk like truck drivers as well. The outburst caused me a little concern about the repercussions my provocation might cause for the student who was standing within earshot of the conversation. I certainly didn't want to cause him trouble at his own school, and I knew the thought had come to me a little late. But the student rescued me from my thoughts by boldly stepping forward and taking ownership of the story. He assured the political science professor that he was telling the truth and that it had happened to him at the hands of one political science departmnet colleagues. At the same time he assured me, "This professor" -- pointing to my antagonist -- "is fair."
I took the opening this provided to thank the professor who had just shouted an expletive in my face and inferred his student was a liar for being "fair." Such is the Alice-in-Wonderland scene at colleges these days that a professor like this has to be complimented for being fair and -- in the context -- probably deserves the praise. My words calmed the situation -- we shook hands -- and allowed me to go further. "Why wouldn't you believe this student?" I said. "Even though you are liberal" (he had informed that he was a Democrat moments earlier) "this student is perfectly capable of distinguishing between your fairness and your colleague's unfairness. Why don't you let him tell you what happened?" The expression turned sour. "I don't want to hear it," he said, and walked away.