The faculty lounge: An appreciation

President Obama at Barnard College this month. Republican candidate Mitt Romney has accused him of being a product of the "faculty lounge." PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS / Associated Press
President Obama at Barnard College this month. Republican candidate Mitt Romney has accused him of being a product of the "faculty lounge." PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS / Associated Press
Posted: May 29, 2012

I rise to defend the faculty lounge, that magical idea factory that has become, in the current presidential campaign, an object of unexpected derision.

Mitt Romney and his supporters have developed the unfortunate strategy of referring to President Obama as a product of "the faculty lounge." I would like to appeal to them, respectfully, to stop.

Some articles have pointed to the oddity of the swipe against the Democratic incumbent, given Romney’s two Harvard degrees. The problem isn’t the Republican candidate’s resumé. It’s his effort to transform membership in a university faculty into a pejorative.

If what he means is that the professoriat at most universities is overwhelmingly Democratic, then the claim might be true, if not particularly interesting — akin to criticizing a Republican on the grounds that he’s a member of the PGA. I suspect that those who refer to the faculty lounge, conjuring the image of a physical location, mean to imply something more sinister: a place where the left hatches its nefarious schemes to undermine American values.

I will admit to a certain bias here, having been a professor for 30 years. Nevertheless, I would suggest that university faculties, and the lounges where they do indeed occasionally congregate, constitute one of America’s greatest triumphs — and a major competitive advantage.

Families from all over the world — and, here at home, from across the political spectrum — send their children to America’s great colleges and universities. What higher education offers isn’t merely a credential. At its best, the campus remains the world’s freest forum for the thoughtful and reflective exchange of ideas. The symbol of that exchange is the faculty lounge.

To believe in the faculty lounge is to believe that ideas matter, that people can and often do respond to appeals not to their self-interest, but to their reason. As the economist Deirdre N. McCloskey argues persuasively in her excellent book Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World, it is better ideas more than anything else that have built the West. You cannot explain the Industrial Revolution, for example, simply by "adding up the material causes." There are reasons that some countries adopt particular technologies, laws or norms that others could but don’t. One of those reasons, McCloskey contends, is better ideas.

Once we concede the power of ideas, we must envision places where ideas are nurtured. They do not arise fully grown. They emerge gradually, through dialectic aided by argument and reason, and although that conversation might take place anywhere, our colleges and universities pursue as a particular part of their mission the cultivation of the idea.

Some silliness

I am the first to admit that there is some degree of silliness and pretension on the best of campuses. A few years ago, I had occasion to chat with an Ivy League professor who had published a vehement attack on a controversial book. Skeptical about some of his claims, I asked him a couple of elementary questions, and he soon admitted that he had never read the book in question.

Yes, there is the occasional case of political correctness gone awry. Everyone has a favorite horror story. Consider the sad but well-known tale of a state university employee who was threatened with disciplinary action for reading a book from the university library about how students at Notre Dame fought against the Ku Klux Klan. (School authorities backed down after bad publicity.)

There are also a fair number of people on campuses who seem unaware of the possibility of rational or reflective disagreement, or who refuse ostentatiously to read essays expressing opinions different from their own. What makes this sort of anti-intellectualism memorable is precisely that it is the exception rather than the rule.

A contrarian by nature, I tend to argue and question a lot. In my experience, those who police the rules of correctness most adamantly are often those whose contributions to scholarship are the slightest. Serious intellectuals welcome serious criticism.

Anti-intellectualism

Why, then, this urge to attack both university faculties and the lounges where they gather for coffee and argument? One answer was offered half a century ago by Richard Hofstadter in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. The disdain for the highly educated, he points out, stems from the supposition that the dominance of the intellectual is undemocratic.

This concern is as old as America. It was present in the age of the founders, who were seen as part of a "patrician elite" that oppressed the common man. Those fears flamed into Jacksonian democracy, which burned across the young nation in the first half of the 19th century. Among its legacies is the requirement in many states that judges face the voters.

Conservatives tend to dislike Hofstadter, whose contempt for those whose politics differed from his own was legendary. But on this point — that the public distrusts elites — he is correct. Consider the case of Abraham Lincoln, who, though fiercely intelligent, lacked formal education. In part because of this, Republican Party leaders viewed Lincoln with skepticism, but as biographer David Herbert Donald points out, Lincoln’s handlers intentionally packaged their candidate as the self-made rail-splitter to enhance his appeal to voters who were suspicious of elites.

Even today, few if any candidates run for office by emphasizing their educational credentials. Universities are feared but needed. Everyone wants the fruits of the research done on campus. Every family dreams of college education for its children. All of us need the ideas that the campuses nurture. Indeed, conservative critics should recall that it is not only Obama’s health-care reform law, but also President Ronald Reagan’s economic program that was largely birthed in the faculty lounge.

Training the mind

At its best, the university trains the mind. "The nation’s future," the Supreme Court has observed, "depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth ‘out of a multitude of tongues, rather than through any kind of authoritative selection.’ "

Intellect and authority are indeed antipodes. But the largest threat to the freedom that has made our colleges and universities the best in the world is not the criticism of outsiders; it is the choice of insiders to withhold dissent. Whatever their reasons — a desire to advance the goals of a political movement, say, or a fear that unintellectual colleagues might vehemently disagree — their reticence is counterproductive. Here is Hofstadter again: "Intellect is dangerous. Left free, there is nothing it will not reconsider, analyze, throw into question."

Left free: There’s the point. The principles of the faculty lounge at its best include tolerance of disagreement, preference for reason over authority, and avoidance of slogan and emotional appeal. These are the principles that those of us who teach (and, one hopes, all adults) should model for our students, and encourage them to carry with them into the world beyond the groves of academe. The better we do our work, the better our politics will be.

So if Romney thinks Obama has bad ideas, he should say so. If he wants to criticize his record, he should go ahead. All of that is politics as usual. But please don’t drag the faculty lounge into it. Leave that space free for serious, uncensored arguments. Our democracy will be better for it.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale. He is the author of "The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama," and his next novel, "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln," will be published in July.

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