God and Woman at Yale

Confessions of an ideological misfit


Economics 111b, Elementary Economics: Theories of income determination, economic growth, and international trade applied to problems of fiscal and monetary policy of developed countries and to economic problems facing developing countries.

Sounds pretty innocuous, doesn't it? This blurb describing an introductory economics class at Yale leads many unwary Bulldogs to believe that they will learn, with at least some semblance of objectivity, the fundamentals of economics. But this class, and many others at Yale, largely serve as pulpits from which liberal academics preach their politics. Political bias has a stronger grip on Yale than does the ivy on its walls.

Consider Mansfield's Principles of Macroeconomics, a typical introductory textbook required for Econ 111b. Mansfield informs the student that "no one believes that the price system, left to its own devices, can be trusted to solve our society's basic economic problems." Endless government spending certainly doesn't worry Mansfield, since he knows "it is not true that [government debt] somehow transmits a serious burden to future generations or that it may lead to bankruptcy." He proudly announces in his preface that "the Keynesian-monetarist controversy now occupies an entire chapter." One chapter—then back to the "real" thing.

Biased books like this are assigned by biased teachers in biased classes—which would be fine, if the teachers recognized and acknowledged that it's personal politics they preach, and if students had a variety of political sermons to choose from. At Yale, I found, neither is true.

It's not hard for professors to quietly slip their own politics into their classes—especially in introductory or survey courses, where students have little or no background in the subject. Professors pose the "right" questions and encourage the "right" answers; they exalt the "strong" theories (those that support their political beliefs) and ridicule the "weak" theories (all the rest); and they assign books that say the same things they say (which is easy—many assign books they wrote). Disputes rarely arise in these classes, since nothing is presented as disputable. Intellectually, students are given nothing to chew on—they are unwittingly (or, perhaps, not so unwittingly) spoon-fed the same bland, liberal mush in class after class.

In many upper-level courses, professors don't even bother trying to disguise their editorializing. Everyone on campus knows what lessons are being taught in courses like "Labor History," "Protest Movements," and "Women and the American Left." Just because these classes are blatantly ideological, however, does not mean that dissent is welcome—or even tolerated. Professors make it clear not only what they want to "discuss," but also what they want their students to conclude. And every grade-conscious Yalie knows how to win this game—repeat in so-called discussion groups what the teacher said in the lectures, expound on it in a paper, and spit it back (in a slightly personalized form) on the exam.

All of this would be a lot easier to take if students could at least choose which political ideology they'll be forced to swallow whole and regurgitate undigested. But there's only one—that tired old brand of New-Deal liberalism. Many professors proudly proclaim that they're socialists; few professors are conservative (certainly not the tenured ones), and none are libertarian. And this imbalance is by no means limited to one or two departments—it skews the departments of economics, political science, philosophy, sociology, psychology, history, American studies, Afro-American studies, and women's studies. It's impossible to get a liberal arts education at Yale without getting a liberal education.

Questioning the intellectual status quo is risky business. I remember one sociology class in which I nearly always balked at the particular form of government intervention that the professor happened to be advocating in any given lecture. One day the professor announced that we were going to "discuss" an idea she introduced as the best thing that could happen to women—comparable worth. I knew what I was in for, and I guess my face showed it. She sneered at me, in an I-dare-you-to-openly-challenge-me-in-front-of-your-peers tone: "Ms. Braun—would you like to stand up in front of the class and tell us your problem with comparable worth?" (And they charge $15,000 a year for this?)

I also remember how I felt in a class on the history of science and medicine. The professor was trying to make the point that science can never be objective because politics colors scientific paradigms. She wanted us to see how political "extremists" taint the credibility of scientists. As an example, she chose Herbert Spencer. I certainly didn't agree with all of his ideas, but I did find them different from anything I had ever heard. More importantly, I thought it would be interesting to talk about why his theories were so controversial. But we never got to that. We were only warned that his was the kind of thinking that was dangerous for truly "progressive" science (like the kind espoused by the Union of Concerned Scientists, I suppose).

I was interested in many of the same social and economic problems that concerned other students, like sexism, racism, and poverty. But I did not approach these issues with the same paternalistic assumptions held by the other students. I got little encouragement or assistance when I rejected, or simply questioned, those assumptions. Soon I found that I wasn't even asking the same questions. Others asked, How can we help the poor? I asked, Under what conditions can the poor help themselves? But no one cared much about that kind of question.

I was labeled "conservative" (which was inaccurate and insulting) because no one knew, or at least acknowledged, any other alternative to Standard Yale Liberalism. Libertarianism was basically a nonexistent concept. Individualism was considered a vice, not a value. Concern for the political and economic well-being of others was believed to be genuine only if it led to grandiose schemes for government intrusion into their lives. This meant that when I dissented, my motives, rather than my beliefs, were questioned. It is, after all, easier to disarm political opponents by slandering their character than by facing and discussing legitimate ideological differences.

The few students who openly called themselves conservatives were a frightening crew. When the Yale Daily newspaper offered to show Yale what conservatives were all about, the group they chose posed for a picture wearing tweed jackets, smoking pipes, and looking pompous as hell. They talked a lot about communists. They whined about the demise of morality and virtue in America (which goes over really well on a college campus, let me tell you). They gave Yalies a bad name. They were gross.

It was interesting to watch the evolution of the student-as-political-animal at Yale. First-year students tend to be a liberal and idealistic bunch who get excited at the prospect of going to parties with names like "Rock for Social Justice." They participate in a slew of never-ending rallies, marches, protests, demonstrations, petition-signings—even strikes, if they're lucky—and other noble forms of procrastination. The sheer number of political causes one can call one's own is intoxicating.

But the lack of ideological variety in all this activism is suffocating, especially as four years of classroom indoctrination wears on. Students who swam against the political tide as freshmen are often discouraged or just plain exhausted by their senior year. And students who came to Yale already well-versed in the art of spouting big-government liberalism often get bored hearing the same old stuff and become apolitical or apathetic.

Some former I-hate-capitalism types even decide, 'long about spring of senior year, that it's time to stop sniveling about the evils of the corporate world and start getting ready to enter it. They rationalize this with that most virtuous of the liberal Yalie's emotions: guilt. Feeling guilty—for the plight of the poor and for being at Yale—makes it acceptable to do certain things after graduation, like make money or go to a good (elitist) graduate school.

One friend of mine (who came from a high school where students thought the median US income in 1980 was $40,000) said he felt guilty about being at Yale and he would feel guilty about going to Harvard or Yale law school (he was accepted at both), but after working at a prestigious law firm for a few years (just to make a name for himself), he'd quit the nasty capitalist scene and dedicate his life to the "real" work of wiping out individualism in America. And as long as he didn't make any money, he'd know he was successful.

It must sound like I hate Yale. In fact, Yale represents four of the best years of my life. In addition to all the wonderful (nonpolitical) things Yale offered me, I tried to turn the ideological intolerance to my advantage. Because I felt intellectually shut out, I spent a lot of time questioning, analyzing, and developing my own ideas. It would have been nice to be able to do it in the classroom—but at least I did it, which is more than many students do.

I don't know how much intellectual freedom to expect from a school headed by a president who has welcomed a freshman class with a tirade against a political group he finds personally distasteful (remember Bart Giamatti's anti–Moral Majority speech of 1981?). But I do expect more. Yale dresses itself up as a liberal arts college of the best kind—where people of all persuasions stimulate each other, challenge themselves, and learn the virtues of tolerance and open-mindedness. When one way of thinking is held as morally superior, everybody loses. I hope my favorite school will soon stop masquerading its liberal bias as "Light and Truth."

Lucy Braun graduated from Yale in 1984. (She has nothing to do with Accuracy in Academia.)