Captive Minds: Conformity and Campus Intellectuals

I will always carry a memory of one of my colleagues, a genial and intelligent scholar of Renaissance literature and a tenured professor at a mid-sized prairie university, casting furtive glances around and behind him in order to see how others were voting, his hand mid-way into the air. We were voting in a hiring contest, a contentious one, and my colleague was looking to his friends for direction.

I don’t know the history of the departmental practice of public votes. A friend there once commented that she had always believed we should have courage enough to declare our preferences openly in matters affecting the department. But few did. In those public votes, we raised our hands for a number of reasons -- to form or consolidate alliances, to prove our ideological bona fides, to earn credit to be redeemed in a later decision we hoped to influence -- but rarely to express our rational and considered preference. Most often, we sought, as in the case of my careful colleague, to vote on the winning side.

Working for four years at this prairie college, I had many opportunities to see political correctness in action: in our so-called “equity” hiring practices, in changes to our course offerings to highlight racial and sexual diversity, and in the unfailing faux-reverence with which all aspects of Aboriginal literature and culture were treated, even down to a discussion about whether, in a job advertisement, we should refer to Canada by its indigenous name of Turtle Island.

But this was not a matter of political correctness alone: it was collective thinking in its most blatant form. There were striking parallels to what Czeslaw Milosz in The Captive Mind analyzes as the intellectual’s not-unwilling accommodations to Party orthodoxy. Milosz was interested not only in the compulsions of totalitarianism but in the significant emotional and psychological attractions of the Communist system: the reassurances and rewards of ceding responsibility for judgment, and the manifold reasons why an intellectual could find himself at home in conformity. Can it be that, even free of threat or compulsion, many intellectuals will choose to surrender their independence of thought? C.S. Lewis wrote about the seductive pleasures of belonging in “The Inner Ring,” brilliantly highlighting the desire planted deep in the heart of every human being to be approved, acknowledged as “one of us” by people we admire. To get into that charmed circle, Lewis warned, many of us will assent to nearly anything.