Viewpoint-Neutral Teaching Isn’t Enough

If reformers want to tear down progressives’ campus hegemony, they need better tactics.

[Editor’s note: Late last year, faculty at the University of California protested an initiative that would have encouraged the “viewpoint-neutral” teaching of Middle Eastern history. Below, Martin Center contributor Scott Yenor offers his own take on the subject. To read the second article in the series, “How the AHA Killed Viewpoint-Neutral Teaching,” please click here.]

California’s higher-education system, beset by alarming acts of hate, intimidation, and bigotry on its campuses (e.g., anti-Israel and anti-Jewish protests), has launched a series of initiatives. Among them is an educational program that will present a “viewpoint-neutral history of the Middle East.” Many UC faculty oppose the plan and accuse UC president Michael Drake of an assault on their academic freedom. This raises important questions of principle: Is “viewpoint-neutral” history possible? Is it desirable?

Opponents of the hegemonic, imperial American Left’s control of the education space have an almost instinctive recourse to slogans. As the Left increasingly uses the education system to propagate its culture, conservatives seek forms of education that are not political in any comprehensive sense.

The Left presents a one-sided vision, so opponents demand “viewpoint-neutral” teaching perspectives.The Left stands for indoctrination, so opponents advocate for “education, not indoctrination” or “teaching kids how to think, not what to think.” The Left controls public schools, so opponents embrace “educational choice.” The Left practices cancel culture, so opponents bemoan it and embrace “free speech.” The Left presents a one-sided vision, so opponents demand “content neutrality” or “viewpoint-neutral” teaching perspectives.

These slogans have fostered decades of failure. They have failed to win the day because they encourage a partial opt-out from the inescapable reality that all education is political and enculturation, or paideia as the Greeks taught. All education teaches us at least what to think about but also what to think. Educational choice is always relative to regime. All cultures are, to some extent, cancel cultures.

John Stuart Mill has never and can never run the show in political communities, nor even in academia. The Left openly embraces enculturation, and enculturation is bad only when it elevates a false, corrupting culture, as it does today. Opponents of the educational Left must respond not with apolitical pap but with a defense of the questions and answers that are central to our civilization. Civic education and classical education, along with workforce preparation and research for public purposes, must guide the public university systems, which are aimed at perpetuating our civilization and its standards. The Left is infused with moral purpose because it is promoting a new, unworkable civilization. Its opponents must have a similar moral purpose in promoting a workable, standards-based defense of our Western Civilization.

The aspiration for content neutrality or “viewpoint-neutral” history is merely a lullaby sung by opponents of the academic Left. No teaching is, strictly speaking, “viewpoint neutral.” Let me speak from experience. I have been a university professor for over 20 years. At the onset of my career, I always gave “equal time” in my classes to competing ideologies. I taught Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom to capture the libertarian perspective, Michael Sandel’s Democracy’s Discontent to capture the communitarian perspective, Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice to teach socialism, articles from Ronald Dworkin to teach liberalism, and C.S. Lewis or others to teach conservatism.

After a while, however, I realized that I was simply reinforcing today’s Overton Window—i.e., trying to deepen students’ understanding of contemporary political divisions. Later, I added Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones, selections from Plutarch, and dystopian novels to expand the Window. Yet eventually I abandoned the effort to give “equal time,” since it had become increasingly obvious that every syllabus violates exactly that idea. The reality of education compromises the dream of “content neutrality.” No one is being taught “how to think” (as the bromide goes), since the chosen subject matter clearly instructs students on what to think about and the ways to think about it. I always strove to judge students on their ability to make their own arguments, not on their particular conclusions. Many liberal-minded professors act in precisely this way (a great many more than one might think). Yet intellectual diversity always takes place within the context of our civilization’s greatest principles and virtues.

Intellectual diversity always takes place within the context of our civilization’s greatest principles and virtues.Even this conclusion understates the problem with content neutrality or “viewpoint-neutral history.” As the leftist professors complaining about the California initiative have implied, chronicling the facts concerning the founding of Israel is easy; selecting what to chronicle and how to understand the interrelation of events is precisely what distinguishes history from chronicling. This is why it is best to hire historians at universities who do not simply give “equal time” but who, as the late Rush Limbaugh used to say of himself, are themselves “equal time.” The solution is intellectual diversity, not the failed dream of supposed neutrality.

Opponents of leftist campus hegemony do not really care about “content neutrality.” They want, and are right to want, genuine intellectual diversity at public institutions of higher learning. In the case of the Middle East Studies programming at issue in California, this would mean, very generally, one professor who thinks the claims of the Palestinians are strongest and another who favors the claims of the Israelis. The problem is that professors in Middle East Studies departments overwhelmingly and censoriously endorse Palestinian claims.

Sincere and “principled” opponents of leftist campus hegemony should not settle for lame, self-defeating, unenforceable calls for “viewpoint-neutral” teaching. Nor should they, captured by their own bromides, be leery of mandating “intellectual diversity” in hiring. If others insist on “viewpoint-neutral” teaching, it is because they know that they cannot achieve intellectual diversity in their corners of higher education. Many academic disciplines, after all, are so ideologically hegemonic that they cannot produce intellectual diversity.

Demanding intellectual diversity is a matter of saving universities or portions of universities from themselves. If departments are allowed to control their own hiring, they will not bring about the intellectual diversity that is necessary for education. In such a situation, there are two options.

Many “principled” opponents of leftist campus hegemony are simply unwilling to allow public authorities to pick winners and losers in the academic marketplace, so they have permitted leftist monopolies within higher education to operate without regulation and have hoped to end those monopolies through jawboning, shaming, or prayer. Of course, a new Right could take a different tack. The academic monopolies could be regulated with the demand that they practice intellectual diversity. (Affirmative Action for conservatives!) I have my doubts about the efficacy of such calls. Leftists cannot be trusted to hire toward intellectual diversity. Neither can university administrators, who are often more partisan than the faculty. Both faculty and administrators would probably define conservatism more and more loosely. Someone who thinks Israel might have a right to exist would be a conservative in Middle East Studies.

Calls for “viewpoint neutrality” understate the problems on campus.The alternative is that the monopolies could be abolished. Disciplines like Middle East Studies, Women’s Studies, Sociology, and others might simply be removed from the university, since they can no longer provide an overall education based on intellectual diversity. Such disciplines might be removed from the general-education core as a first step. Then, their majors should be downgraded, they should not be given additional faculty lines, they should be shoved into separate colleges or programs, and they should cease to receive state funding. This would provide “incentives” for programs to protect and cultivate genuine intellectual diversity and the professionalism in the service of civilization that accompanies it.

The aspiration for “content neutrality” marks a genuine frustration with aspects of modern university life. But calls for “viewpoint neutrality” and even for hiring toward intellectual diversity both understate the problems on campus and misunderstand the entire educational project. The abolition of ideologically captured disciplines is the necessary step toward saving our troubled, compromised universities. This means, in a sense, politicizing institutions that have been captured so that they achieve more balance. It means using legitimate power to achieve that balance and chilling the environment for activist disciplines and our new activist universities. California is using public power, very lightly, to achieve very limited ends. Its analysis of the situation points toward the need for broader action to achieve the real goals necessary to restore our universities.

Scott Yenor is senior director of state coalitions at the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life and a professor of political science at Boise State University.