Speakers must reflect broad spectrum

This semester, I audited Professor Stillman’s class, “Market Freedom (or Neoliberalism) and Its Critics.” One of my disagreements with reader comments on the National Review website’s recent article “What’s the matter with Vassar?” is the myth that liberal professors cannot teach right-wing ideas without bias. Prof. Stillman is doing a fine job from what I can tell. While fixes are still needed in Rockefeller Hall, balanced political classes confirm that Vassar’s liberal arts education is alive. While Rockefeller Hall’s vices should be redressed, its virtues should be recognized. I’d encourage concerned professors to try out more courses on “neoliberalism,” also known as nineteenth-century liberalism, without worrying about getting it “right” to keep up the exchange of ideas. According to the Slate article “Why Is There No Liberal Ayn Rand?” by Yale historian Beverly Gage, “one of the [conservative] movement’s most lasting successes has been in developing a common intellectual heritage. Any self-respecting young conservative knows the names you’re supposed to spout: Hayek, Rand, Ludwig von Mises, Albert Jay Nock.” Like the Yale undergraduate seminar on conservatism and liberalism, Prof. Stillman’s class is a good starting point into the philosophy of the right and the left’s manifesto. Courses like these put everyone’s ideas to the test.

As a student of the right, I felt marginalized until Market Freedom. I thought my favorite writers and thinkers were being ignored, but liberals don’t see it that way. Gage tells us, “Liberals [are] abandoning the idea that ideas can be powerful political tools. This may seem like a strange statement at a moment when American universities are widely understood to be bastions of liberalism…but there is a difference between policy smarts honed in college classrooms and the kind of intellectual conversation that keeps a movement together.” One major reason for the unrecognized bias in Rockefeller Hall is that right-wing intellectual culture is foreign to liberals, who deconstruct authorship and the text. Also, this is why two moderate liberal former MICA members opposed big ideas in favor of policy tweaks in “Former MICA Leaders Oppose VLFF drive” (Miscellany News 03.27.2013). What’s the matter with Vassar is anti-intellectual liberalism more than institutional illiberalism.

While some have thought that starting a debate on fundamental ideas would hurt our alliance, MICA has emerged stronger because we embraced the ideas that unite the modern American Right outside Vassar. “What conservatives have developed is what the left used to describe as a ‘movement culture’: a shared set of ideas and texts that bind activists together in common cause. Liberals, take note,” writes Gage. Without a political canon, liberal activists are dividing the campus and hurting their cause, which hurts conservatives, too. “At its best, a canon helps people put the pieces together, offering long-term goals and visions that sustain movements through periods of trial and defeat. Without those visions, liberals have no coherent way of explaining where we’re headed, or of measuring how far we’ve come.” In other words, we should stop firing cannonballs and hit the books for a canon.

Astonishingly, the Vassar newspaper archives show few right-wing lectures since the 1980s. There’s a 1988 Vassar Spectator article, “Buckley Speaks at Vassar—400 Hundred Protest,”  the 2003 Alex Krieger ‘95 Memorial Lecture with Christopher Buckley (postponed by blizzard), the Miscellany News piece reporting: “Congressman Lazio returns to alma mater” (2005). But Vassar’s problem is intellectual, not political. In that case, there’s “Professor Kelley Speaks on Political Individualism” in 1983 and a listing in 1998: “The Revolution is scheduled here: Plan accordingly.” If that’s mostly it, please schedule more lectures in Rockefeller Hall soon and plan accordingly, VC.

At the MICA lecture Q&A, one well-intentioned Vassar Greens supporter unforgettably tried to recruit energy free marketeer Alex Epstein to guide the environmentalist movement’s future.  A Huffington Post response to Slate, “A Liberal Ayn Rand?” posed a similarly radical question: “why don’t liberals make Rand part of a new canon? Why let conservatives monopolize her? Rand herself, I suspect, would have welcomed this. In a talk in Boston in 1961, she lamented the fact that both liberals and conservatives were ideologically bankrupt…she was seeking to address, she said, “the ‘non-totalitarian liberals’ and the ‘non-traditional conservatives’” in the audience.” At VC, signs of need and frustration for a new liberal canon can be seen everywhere.

We know about Rockefeller Hall and its critics, but Gage shows how classes like “Market Freedom and Its Critics” can strengthen both Vassar’s left-wing culture and right-wing culture while “attempting to win political success without a political canon” leaves a stalemate. Yet there remains Lenin’s question, “What is to be done?” Do some of the same—continue teaching “non-traditional” conservatism, “non-totalitarian” liberalism and criticism in our hallowed halls. These are not just MICA’s thinkers and critics. These are Rockefeller Hall’s thinkers and critics as well.

While fixes are still needed in Rockefeller Hall, balanced political classes confirm Vassar’s liberal arts education is alive. While Rockefeller Hall’s vices should be redressed, its virtues should be recognized. I’d encourage concerned professors to try out more courses on “neoliberalism,” also known as nineteenth-century liberalism, without worrying about getting it “right” to keep up the exchange of ideas.

To answer Gage’s question, we can once more consult the Huffington Post: “Any liberal-leaning person today who seeks long-term goals and a new vision, but will not touch the political right because of conservatives’ anti-evolution, anti-immigration, anti-abortion platforms, would do well to remember nineteenth-century liberalism.”

 

—Julian Hassan ‘14 is a Cognitive Science major.

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