College Quarterly
Fall 2008 - Volume 11 Number 4
Reviews Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities
Bruce L.R. Smith, Jeremy D. Mayer and A. Lee Fritschler
Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2008

Reviewed by Lisette Boily

When I first saw the book jacket of Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities by Bruce L.R. Smith, Jeremy D. Mayer and A. Lee Fritschler, I was immediately drawn to the illustration of the ivy, symbolically covering most of the solid, rust coloured brick (presumably the brick of America’s post-secondary institutions). The result of the book’s research—a the truth under the ivy—is that very little intellectual debate on controversial issues of any kind exists on American university campuses, to the detriment of all. I found that the extremely objective tone of the book, however, to inconsistently highlight the significance of some of its more important findings, and to gloss over some of its unexamined statements or arguments.

Closed Minds? is authored by three George Mason University (Virginia) professors: Bruce L. Smith, Jeremy D. Mayer and A. Lee Fritschler. At the time of publication, all were teaching in the university’s School of Public Policy. Smith has published widely, mostly in the areas of governance, education and ‘sci-tech’. Mayer’s subjects include analyzing racial politics in post 1960s presidential campaigns, ‘deconstructing’ Ronald Regan and exploring post 9-11 America. Fritschler has written on, among other things, the importance of keeping government intervention out of the classroom. But he is perhaps most well known for his influential ‘administrative’ posts: as a previous president of the elite Pennsylvania Liberal Arts University, Dickinson College (1987-1999) and as assistant secretary of post-secondary education in the final years of President Clinton’s administration. Finally, Fritschler and Smith have both held previous administrative postings at the Brookings Institution, which published Closed Minds? Brookings is an extremely influential U.S., nonpartisan research organization, with a host of US and international scholarly experts in educational, political, public, administrative / executive and international policy fields and related issues. The credo on its website is: “Quality. Independence. Impact”.

The stated purpose of Closed Minds? is to explore whether or not American universities are incubators of left-wing political bias, as many right-wing politicians and educators have repeatedly alleged. The terms right-wing and conservative and left-wing and liberal are used interchangeably in the book. The authors state from the outset that their extensive research findings disprove these right-wing, conservative allegations. Working from a research methodology that included previous studies and a variety of original student and faculty surveys they concluded that professors at American university campuses and classrooms do not, in fact, exhibit any overwhelming left-wing bias, or any political bias, at all for that matter (although this does not mean that they don’t have political views). Students apparently do not perceive any overwhelming political bias on the parts of their professors, either. Another conservative charge, that conservative and Christian faculty receive less preferential treatment from university hiring committees, etc., was also proven false by the surveys.

The authors of Closed Minds? place these false assumptions within a larger history of American post-secondary institutions and educational debate, in meticulous detail. All this leads to the conclusion in Closed Minds? that such false charges of left-wing bias have silenced all real, ‘unbiased’ dialogue and discussion on American University campuses, these past decades. The result is a false ‘peace’ on campus—the opposite of the tumultuous cultural battles of the 1990s, for example. I cut my ‘academic teeth’ during the so-called ‘culture wars’ of the 1990s (albeit in Canada) and the inquiring ethos I learned then, to investigate long-held assumptions, explore and debate any and all sides of issues, has stayed with me. But many are not only tired of the battle, they are also afraid to show their thinking on their sleeves, according to Closed Minds?

This combination of self and institutionalized censorship has stifled not only discussion, dialogue and debate across the American university system, assert the authors, it has have also inhibited student learning—in civics and the body politic, in ethics in society and in their future professions, and in an awareness of, and respect for, diverse viewpoints. Students in this a-political (out of fear or fatigue) climate lack the ability to understand politics and political history or respect diverse views, let alone debate them. The most important argument Closed Minds? makes is that students can’t currently learn how to intelligently debate, for example, because they don’t see their professors doing it with each other or with broader social and political voices. Therefore, an important part of student university education, and possibly implicit civics education, is missing. This is a bleak picture. And I wonder how broadly true it is.

Interestingly, the authors’ concluding arguments seem preoccupied in distinguishing between the role of political activism and social change, on the one hand, and political and social inquiry and debate, on the other. For Smith, Mayer and Fritschler, independent inquiry and debate are the two important pursuits that must recover from the ‘false’ peace of the recent past. They assert that the true (American) university mandate is to inquire and debate and not to (seek?) change. Intellectually, I understood the argument but I could not help but wince when I read it. Another curious conclusion here is that professors should, by all means, engage in political discussions within the classroom, as long as those discussions are ‘appropriate’. They do not go into any analytical detail about what they believe to be ‘appropriate’ in this context—except to vaguely distinguish informative (good) and persuasive (bad) political communication. But who decides what is appropriate, when and for whom, in the classroom and on campus? I wonder if they are falling into the same inertia they sought to examine. The authors have their own biases, after all—although certainly very reasonably argued.

Are American universities on the cusp of a new era of openness, in the dialogue-embracing (not to mention government intervening) Obama era? Perhaps this is the other truth under the ivy on the book’s front cover. But perhaps there is yet another truth, showing the way towards genuine inquiry, reasoned debate and active social changes en route to some much needed justice in various quarters. Hopefully, this won’t soon seem so frighteningly ‘un-American’ to the American postsecondary system.


Lisette Boily teaches English in the Faculty of Business at Seneca College in Toronto. She can be reached at lisette.boily@senecac.on.ca.

Reviews

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