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 Barack 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 resume. It’s his effort to transform membership in a university faculty into a pejorative.
If what he means is that the professoriate 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.
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.
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.)
As 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 same as those whose contributions to scholarship are the slightest. Serious intellectuals welcome serious criticism.
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 — to advance the goals of a political movement, say, or because of 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, please, Gov. Romney. If you think President Obama has bad ideas, say so. If you want to criticize his record, go ahead. All of that is politics as usual. Please don’t drag the faculty lounge into it. Leave that space free for our serious, uncensored arguments. Our democracy will be the better for it.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. 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.