Upon entering Ithaca College’s departments of anthropology and art history in the spring of 2017, students were met with a glass encasement of communist paraphernalia. Banners urging workers of the world to overthrow the capitalist system are more commonplace for today’s college students. However, in the years following World War II, these departments would undergo interrogation about their “academic neutrality”.
This was when America’s Red Scare was in full swing. The emerging conservative movement was stricken with “McCarthyism”, a reactionary fear of home-grown communism scornfully named for Joseph McCarthy who tried to expel any communists among his fellow congressmen.
The Red Scare stretched far beyond government; workers in Hollywood and private colleges were harassed by employers and bureaucrats if they spoke out against their country’s foreign policy of soviet containment. According to a New York Times article, 1,500 professors were registered by the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee as “card carrying communists” by 1952.
As a result of partisan rancor on campuses during the Red Scare’s aftermath, political ideology in the university is largely segregated by on department. Classes in sociology and the humanities most frequently incorporate a critical analysis of society, descended from a Marxist class analysis with the intent to reform. The departments of business and law, on the other hand, both reflect foundation institutions of that same society—a competitive market economy and a stable legal structure.
And thus two disparate views of western civilization—and the university itself—are created. According to departments in sociology and the humanities, capitalism and law maintain civilization as an oppressive system. According to business and law departments, these same conventions of western civilization have raised living standards above near universal poverty.
Academic neutrality in the wake World War II
The tradition of universities trying to maintain political neutrality dates back to the late 19th century when private institutions like Ithaca College dissociated from government and religious interests. Professors were to be skeptics of political causes rather than the advocate of any one. But this philosophy changed as the government began to subsidize wartime efforts of universities and colleges.
By the end of World War II, reformist academics questioned the neutrality of their institutions. Sociologists from several universities were hired to help the military strategize against communist insurgencies in eastern Europe and Latin America. In fact, the Latin American Studies Association was first established to aid the Cold War effort against communist insurgencies. Not to mention the University of Chicago aided the U.S. government in the creation of two atom bombs. In the nuclear age, not even science was neutral.
Ambitious academics saw new opportunities to fund their work; radical professors saw colleagues complying with a quasi-fascist state. Not only did neutrality during the Cold War seem impossible to them but unethical to attempt. This was when criticism of mainstream American society and the institution itself became integrated in departments of sociology and political theory.
The policies of the New Deal were established as the desired politic of the American professorate since the early 20th century. During the Progressive Era, urban university faculty allied with public housing projects, taking their cue from state-interventionist programs of Germany and the United Kingdom. Since then, the politics which conservatives call “big government” became naturalized in the language of academia.
Faculty from the social sciences to the natural sciences championed communitarian politics as the height of western civilization as well as intrinsic to human nature. Ashley Montagu, professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, wrote in On Being Human that the benefits of democratic socialist policies were not just personal opinions but biologically determined.
“Man does not want to be independent, free, in the sense of functioning independently of the interests of his fellows,” Montagu wrote. “This kind of negative independence leads to lonesomeness, isolation and fear.”
Informed by psychoanalytic and Marxist theory, Theodore W. Adorno wrote The Authoritarian Personality in 1950 which described democratic socialist politics as a psychologically healthy response to the inequalities of western bourgeois society. Comparing the Republican party to Nazi Germany for their anti-communist witch hunts and Cold War foreign policy, Adorno described the emerging conservative movement as a kind of pathology, political “phoniness” resulting from a “father-fixation”.
Scholarly journals from the post-World War II era reflected a sense of duty to bestow the values of liberalism and social democracy upon students. Liberalism was more than a partisan ideology; it was a natural and necessary response to the inequalities of industrialized capitalism.
What these three constituents—McCarthyites, social Democrats and radical reformers—shared was the conviction that their cause transcended partisan politics. Just like today’s political actors, each acted with a sense of civic necessity.
The McCarthyites had to stop the insurgency of dangerous biases, although ignorant of their own; social Democrats integrated the language of the modern Democratic platform in their scholarship; and radicals returned students to their parents with radical Marxist critiques of western society in the name of academic freedom.
The civil rights era and Vietnam War protests of the 1960s initiated the rise of reformist, left wing intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institution of Technology who famously compared the United States’ involvement in southeast Asia to Nazi Germany’s invasion of eastern European countries on William F. Buckley’s television program “Firing Line”. Conservative pundits like Buckley have since suggested critics such as Chomsky remain within their field of expertise rather than integrate their political convictions with their scholarly work.
In order the accommodate a plurality of interests, higher education adopted a new philosophy of neutrality by the end of the civil rights era: since bias of individual faculty members was inevitable, institutions could demonstrate their political neutrality by hiring professors of all political stripes. Isn’t the very standard of objectivity subject to one’s own biases? This is the question Kenneth Kenniston asked in his 1968 essay, “Criticism and Social Change”.
“Any attempt to distinguish between ‘objective’ and ‘partisan’ criticism ignores the role of judgement and values in the critical process. For all values and judgements can be deemed partisan by those who reject them,” Kenniston wrote.
Kenniston and his fellow academics in the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) believed a free market of ideas would allow universities to maintain a healthy dose of public scrutiny. But such a free market had to be fought for in the late 1960’s by an alliance between students, professors and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a socialist revolutionary group. Modern campus communities owe many of the institutional norms, like ethnic studies programs and an integrated student body, to the outcomes of many of these protests.
Protests also cemented college campuses as a political battlefield where the students had leverage. Administrators, rather than being solely beholden to government interests, now had to answer to the tuition dollars of a progressing society.