‘Let’s Be Reasonable’

Professor discusses his book on a "conservative case for liberal education."

February 12, 2021

Jonathan Marks is a conservative professor at a liberal arts college. A professor of politics at Ursinus College, he might have written a book that simply denounced liberal arts colleges. But in Let's Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education (Princeton University Press), he takes a different approach. Sure, there is plenty of criticism. But there is also deep appreciation for the meaning of a liberal arts education, and the role of the faculty in promoting it. He answered questions about his book via email.

Q: You are a conservative and a strong advocate for liberal education. Why have so many conservatives come to be seen as enemies of liberal education? And of higher education generally?

A: On the eve of the 2016 election, Michael Anton, who would later serve in the Trump administration, wrote a controversial essay entitled “The Flight 93 Election.” In that essay, he argues that conservatives, obliterated in the culture wars, should think like passengers on the flight that terrorists tried to fly into the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 11. They had to rush the cockpit. Perhaps no one would know how to fly the plane, but at least they’d have a chance. Vote for Trump.

When Anton referred to being obliterated in the culture wars, he referred to America altogether. How much more, from that perspective, ascendant as Trump has been ascendant, have conservatives been routed in the left-liberal academy. If America is, from this conservative perspective, one bad election away from ruin, our colleges and universities are utterly lost. So in the run-up to and run of Trumpism, conservatives, whose ill feelings toward universities had often mingled with a reformist impulse, set aside their hopes for liberal education and rooted for a cleansing flood.

But colleges and universities are not free from blame. As conservative numbers have dwindled at universities -- they now barely outnumber self-identified far leftists -- academics, otherwise ever alert to the possibility of bias, have shrugged. Perhaps, they reason, conservatives stay away from universities because, money-hungry, they don’t like the salaries or, closed-minded, they don’t like all the openness. Combined with the social justice pronouncements emanating regularly from the president’s office, this indifference, verging on contempt, to conservative concerns about bias has reinforced those concerns.

Q: Your first chapter deals with the holiday place mat for social justice at Harvard University in 2015. What was striking to you about that story?

A: That story had a little bit of everything. An initiative of the freshman dean’s office and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the place mats offered advice on how best to explain certain matters --- the abandonment of the title “master” for resident heads, for example -- to one’s unwoke relatives.

It was striking that this minor incident received coverage from major outlets, including Fox, CNN and The Washington Post. Not only right-wing media but other media are fixated on these “the campus crazies are at it again” stories. It was striking that the perpetrators were not campus crazies but rather administrators who initially seemed surprised at all the attention. “Of course we’re distributing social justice talking points,” they seemed to tell us. “Why all the fuss?” Still occasionally the province of marchers with signs, the struggle against injustice is more routinely handled by able administrators. It’s institutionalized, and campus leaders seem not to know or care how baking left-inflected politics into the bureaucracy may damage their reputations and undermine their academic missions. It is striking, maybe most of all, that students, often cast as snowflake villains in these tales, were the ones who explained that “prescribing party-line talking points” on controversial matters “stands in stark contrast to the college’s mission of fostering intellectual, social and personal growth.” They were asking to be treated as reasonable people.

Q: You also have a chapter on the movement to boycott Israel. How do you think the boycott movement should be opposed?

A: The academic boycott Israel campaign, as Susaina Maira explains in her 2018 book, Boycott, is part of a wider movement, comprising not only professors and students but also off-campus activists, against “U.S. imperial power and its proxies.” The academic wing seeks to transform universities, now “settler universities,” into “sites of struggle.” The attempt to turn the university into a base for waging cultural and political war on Zionism should be rejected aloud by anyone, whether she has any interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or not, who thinks that universities are in the business of cultivating reason. Simply speaking up is an important way of opposing the boycott movement.

The approach to BDS most consistent with our work is to tend to the demand side, to create a community whose members consider it demeaning to resort to or fall for propaganda in the house of reason. One can get somewhere by teaching, where activists are compelled to make arguments in front of their opponents, before nonaligned students, on the basis of evidence available to everyone. The classroom is different from the emergency assemblies and student government meetings at which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is now disposed of, where it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the most numerous and most passionate voices making assertions that cannot readily be tested. The classroom’s spirit of inquiry can also be made to inhabit nonclassroom events.

Nonetheless, one has to campaign. In my book I highlight the way in which anti-BDS historians at the American Historical Association prevailed by appealing to professional standards. But prevailing also required getting people to show up at the meeting, identifying persuadable people, finding time to compile fact sheets, to make copies, to learn the rules of the meeting and so on. This is hard work for which I’m grateful.

Q: What is the best way for conservatives to be heard in campus discussions?

A: That’s bound to vary from campus to campus. I am a voracious reader of campus horror stories, so when I wrote, in 2016, a review for The Wall Street Journal that criticized the spirit of activist campaigns then taking place at many colleges, I feared a call from the higher-ups. In fact, I did get a call from someone in the administration -- inviting me to present on the review at a student affairs discussion group. That experience suggested to me that I had, because of what I’d read about other colleges, underestimated the professionalism and openness of my colleagues. Perhaps the best way of being heard is to appeal to standards like professionalism, academic freedom, rigor and inquiry, which still have some purchase, if not as much as one could wish, across fields and political sects. It helps, too, if one is able to form otherwise good working relationships with one’s colleagues.

In saying that, I don’t mean to deny or minimize incidents in which conservatives and dissenting liberals have been subjected to disgraceful treatment. Nor do I propose that we are likely to win many arguments. But I agree with David French that too many conservatives, particularly tenured ones, are more cowed than they should be by widely covered public shamings. His article is entitled “Courage Is the Cure for Political Correctness.”

Q: What is it like to be teaching at Ursinus as a conservative scholar?

A: As the story above suggests, I have found Ursinus College a good place to be a conservative scholar. That’s not to say that it is immune from discouraging trends I describe in the book or that its faculty isn’t, like faculties at most small liberal arts colleges, left-leaning. But it is defined academically by a first-year seminar, the Common Intellectual Experience, and a core, Ursinus Quest, that center on questions: What should matter to me? How should we live together? How can we understand the world? What will I do? Most faculty, many staff and, of course, all our students participate in the core, and having questions, rather than themes or commitments, at the center of things discourages dogmatism. The administration here has supported my work, and my colleagues, generally supportive, have yet to boil me in oil, or even unfriend me on Facebook. And I am, just now, co-teaching a course on conservatism with a colleague on the left.


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