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Captive Minds: Conformity and Campus Intellectuals

No matter the reigning orthodoxy -- in our department it was, as in the vast majority of English departments across North America, Leftist, anti-Western, feminist, and multiculturalist -- the desire to fall in line, and to compel or outlaw those who do not, seems to be an enduring fact of human nature.

I still remember my surprise at the uniformity of opinion I discovered in that department. Expecting to find open, civil debate -- every one of my colleagues, after all, held a doctorate and was a published author accustomed to defending his or her research in public forums -- I was struck by the timorousness of many of my colleagues in discussion and the aura of the forbidden sacrosanct that seemed to gather around many subjects.

The phenomenon, not surprisingly, reached beyond individual departments. Attending an international conference on the novelist Carol Shields, I noticed how the few male scholars in attendance were so eager to display their feminist badges of membership. One older man, perhaps aware that his age and deportment might identify him with the (now long-defunct) patriarchy still so strenuously “resisted” by the feminist scholars, sought at every opportunity to show his pious solidarity with their cause.

One might object to my implication that there is any bad faith in the ideological fellow-feeling I observed. After all, thinking people may come, quite independently and non-coercively, to agree about such contentious matters as the pervasiveness of hetero-patriarchal oppression, the plight of Palestinian victims, the crimes of the United States, the environmental measures necessary to save the Earth, the nature of Islam as the maligned religion of peace, and so on -- the litany of positions that have become articles of faith in so many departments of English. For a variety of reasons, however, I do not believe that my colleagues came to agreement in such an innocuous way.

First, there is nothing in the study of literature that would necessarily incline those who pursue it to take up Leftist positions. If anything, literature in English -- which brings to vivid life the stories and worldviews of peoples of many different historical periods, cultures, and belief systems -- would seem more likely to appeal to scholars with divergent political convictions and ideals; indeed, it might appeal equally well to those who lack strong convictions, who are curious and impartial.