Jewish World Review April 24, 2000/ 19 Nissan, 5760
This is the season of speeches and seminars, and lately I've been a guest of campus organizations on campuses from Missouri to Pennsylvania, and the first question I get, asked in a manner usually hostile but occasionally plaintive, is this: "How can a woman be a conservative?''
The point of departure is nearly always abortion, and anyone who admits to thinking that abortion is a complicated issue is regarded as a heretic and a beast, like a skeptic of the doctrine of the virgin birth at a seminary in Rome.
But the campus contempt for conservatives, or for anyone who questions the feminist dogma, goes beyond abortion. When, for example, I explain that as a cultural conservative I want to preserve the roots of a successful society, which requires that we acknowledge the differences between men and women, the fierce defenders of dogma usually drag out the college catalog, with its list of courses in women's studies, and demand to know how on earth any sane, good and worthy person could object to any of them.
Intellectual horror stories abound in academia, provoking the student joke at one Midwestern campus that "what we need here is not more academic freedom, but freedom from the academics.'' Indeed, my concern is not an ideological one at all, but academic: The campus life is the last time students will have the leisured opportunity to read and debate the great books, the great ideas, the great controversies -- the Federalist Papers, the Greek philosophers, John Milton's "Paradise Lost.'' Why should the kids be required to spend these golden years reading minor works by obscure pamphleteers? These pamphlets, which usually read like complaints, appeal to emotion over intellect, feelings over thought. There will be time enough to read such "masterworks'' later, when the students are on their own.
There's a rising anger from many of the brighter kids on campus. They know they're being cheated and they're angry because they can't voice dissenting opinions without risking the grades that will determine the jobs they'll get when the golden years are over. In my lecture here at Penn State the other night, I was astonished at the reaction I got to what I thought was a well-known quotation from John Stuart Mill: "He who knows only one side of the case knows little of that.'' Mill had the applause line of the night. Two earnest young men came up to me later. "That line from Mill was great,'' one of them said. "We had never heard that.''
All the sadder, then, that rigorous intellectual discipline is compromised elsewhere on campus. Christopher Gillott, one of the members of the Penn State chapter of Young Americans for Freedom that invited me to speak here, makes a telling cost-benefits argument against the excesses of women's studies courses.
"Traditional arts and sciences teaches students to think systematically and logically, to weigh competing ideas objectively, and to master a specific body of knowledge,'' he argues in a column for the Collegian, the Penn State daily. "Professional schools train individuals to succeed in a specific career by mastering its language, methodology and technology. By these standards, how do women's studies programs measure up?''
He cites one Penn State course with required readings on masturbation and "reverse-gender roles,'' and the requirement for women to write "a hypothetical essay on what life would be like if she had male genitalia.'' (Wouldn't that make her a he and not a she?)
"Instead of preparing students for specific careers,'' concludes my young friend, "those who have majored in women's studies have spent four years doing little else than talking about gender and feeling their way around the insular world of feminist ideology.''
Or to quote John Stuart Mill again: "As often as a study is cultivated by narrow minds, they will
draw from it narrow
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