After being a part of the higher education system for many years as a student and having the blessed opportunity to teach on campuses around the country, I can confirm that there is indeed a liberal bent in academia. There is no other way it could be. Conservatives are more commonly interested in deregulating markets and in choosing careers that are lucrative while liberals seem more commonly interested in the life of the mind and the marketplace of ideas. Liberal people are more typically the ones that choose to become professors for a reason. College campuses, by design, are meant to be the hub of local and international intellectual curiosity, and do not exist merely as training grounds to acquire wealth (business schools excluded). Their worth runs deeper.
Why is it vital for universities to embody a liberal attitude? For most of recorded history, conservative monarchies have been the norm, from pharaoh to king, from emperor to czar. As these leaders claimed Divine Right as the basis of their legitimacy, they didn’t want any upstart philosophers knocking them off their perch. Needless to say, free speech was suppressed, as any disagreement was equated with treason and blasphemy.
From ancient philosophers through the establishment of the early universities and beyond, academic discourse has challenged the status quo; this is how those who claimed Divine Right were brought back down to Earth. Plato related how, in the Meno, his teacher Socrates effectively countered those who would supply a simplistic definition of virtue. He demonstrated that true knowledge comes through continual examination and questioning of what is accepted by society. Later, Plato’s pupil Aristotle stated a similarly challenging thought: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
More than a millennium after the discourses of Socrates and Plato, the modern conception of the university was created throughout Europe. One of the earliest was the University of Padua in Italy, founded in 1222 by students who wanted more academic freedom than they had at the University of Bologna, and who elected their teachers. Their efforts paid off with theories that shook the core of established beliefs. One student, Nicolaus Copernicus, eventually challenged the long-held belief that the earth was the center of the universe. Later, Galileo, found increased academic freedom at the University of Padua, where he lectured from 1592-1610 (his lectern is still present at the university).
In our contemporary understanding of what a university atmosphere can foment, activists on campuses have often been catalysts for seismic societal change. In February 1960, college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, began a campaign of lunch counter sit-ins with the goal to promote desegregation in community facilities. In doing so, they acted on the precepts of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” It was these humble but brave actions that provided the spark that eventually led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.This, in turn, spurred other college protests. When authorities at the University of California at Berkeley prevented students from distributing civil rights leaflets on campus in 1964, students responded with the Free Speech movement. This movement moved universities out of the grip of Cold War politics and ushered in a decade of student protest involving opposition to the Vietnam War and other issues such as minority rights, anti-Apartheid action, and more inclusivity for vulnerable populations outside the mainstream.
For generations, it was the college ideal that led many Jews to climb out of old mentalities (generally speaking) and prosper more openly. Jews are disproportionately represented on campus. Jews are the most educated religious group worldwide, averaging more than 13 years of formal education, versus the second group, Christians, who average approximately 9 years. In the United States, a 2014 survey found that Jews had the highest percentage of college degrees (59 percent) among all mainstream denominations. Jews also remain among the most liberal. Preliminary exit polls for the 2016 election indicate that about 71 percent of American Jews voted for Hillary Clinton and only 24 percent for Donald Trump, a larger majority than among Hispanic Catholics. The age old Jewish commitments to education and to social justice are intertwined.
Conversely, the same surveys showed that only 19 percent of Southern Baptists had a college degree, and that more than 80 percent of evangelical Christians voted for Trump in 2016. Among wealthy conservatives, there is a similar lack of stress on higher education. While an overwhelming majority of Fortune 500 CEOs have at least one college degree, many do not even list that degree in their corporate bios.
College, specifically the liberal arts, need to remain open, pluralistic, and intellectually rigorous. In an era when too many conservatives in leadership roles deny climate change, swear that former President Obama was a Muslim born in Africa, and believe that the Newtown massacre and the Boston Marathon bombing were false-flag operations, a rigorous debate-based curriculum which seeks to attain critical knowledge-gathering skills is sorely needed.
Contemporary progressive ideas tend to value the collective welfare and the university is the locus for intellectual growth for that collective. It is the universities, more so than many communal institutions, that feed the passion for new ideas. To my conservative friends, colleges are not around to demonize your beliefs. The environment of the university is meant to provoke and cause deep inner reflection. Rather than complain about a liberal bias on campus, I believe it is more worthwhile for my conservative compatriots to think more about encouraging advanced education in conservative circles and support children in entering academic careers. It will strengthen both mind and country for the better.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.