Finnegan Schick is a senior at Yale University and an editorial intern at The New Criterion.
On a winter morning after Donald Trump’s election, I sat in a Yale classroom, awaiting a lecture on Shakespeare’s Othello. Students around me slouched, heads bowed. Few had done the reading, and many had not even shown up to class. The professor announced to the room that he had never seen a college campus so sorrowful since teaching at Columbia University during the September 11 attacks.
For several minutes, my professor set Shakespeare aside and turned to the topic of Trump. Which Shakespearean villain was most like our new president? Iago? Richard III? The syllabus yielded endless possibilities.
Students I spoke with after class appreciated the “relevance” of the lecture, noting how the election had revitalized the otherwise inaccessible works of Shakespeare.
It’s been over 7 months since Trump was elected, yet my professors show no signs of putting their political digressions on hold. The spread of this phenomenon to subjects like Literature and English reflects a troubling trend: the growing partisanship of higher education.
In recent article in the Yale Daily News, one freshman student noted that in his spring semester seminar, on the topic of persuasive rhetoric, the professor allowed students to discuss Trump on a daily basis. According to the same student, these discussions lent the course “modern significance” and “made it relevant to the students’ lives.” An additional six Yale professors quoted in the piece said they have discussed partisan politics in some capacity during their classes this spring.
For many, this will be nothing new. The political homogenization of the academy since the 1990s is well documented; political scientists Jon Shields and Joshua Dunn recently published an entire book on the dearth of conservatives in academia. But the rise of Trump has accelerated the Ivory Tower’s politicization, allowing the campus Left to condemn dissenting students and faculty with new vigor. A fall survey of over 2,000 Yale students found that 95 percent of conservative-leaning respondents felt the Yale community does not welcome their opinions.
Because my English professors at Yale are largely liberal, the political message in my classes is always the same: Trump is a demagogue, American society is doomed, and English literature is our refuge. Liberal professors and students increasingly feel that it is their duty as professors and humanists to promote their vision of the political good. Meanwhile, the remaining campus conservatives have become less outspoken and remain fearful that they may suffer academically as well as socially for their views.
The liberal domination of the classroom is one problem, but even if the academy reached political equilibrium, the imposition of politics into everything we read would still remain an issue.
Humanities scholars have always dabbled in politics, but until Trump’s election, their sojourns into partisan debate remained fairly minimal. Now, however, students and faculty are treating Trump like an ideological threat. Students have gone into periods of post-election mourning, administrators noted students feeling “numb,” “shocked” and “hurt,” and race and gender studies have found, in Trump’s bigotry and sexism, a newfound relevance.
Universities — once characterized by a detachment from overt partisanship — have become hotbeds of anti-Trump “resistance.” In one sense, then, Trump’s America really is “victimizing” students and faculty, insofar as academics has taken a backseat to politics. The real victim of Trump’s presidency may turn out to be a generation of adults whose liberal arts educations were hijacked by political debate.
Full disclosure: politically I am center-left, voted for Hillary Clinton, and I dislike our current president. Politics in the classroom does not unsettle me because I disagree with the liberal viewpoints. What unsettles me, rather, is the thought that my education is being politicized at the expense of timeless truths.
I chose to study English because I wanted to improve my writing and reading abilities, because I value the literature of the language I speak, and because some aspects of the human condition are only accessible through books, plays, and poems. Reading Shakespeare should, of course, inform the way we think about systems of government, political leaders, and historical change. But it shouldn’t require an “I’m With Her” sticker and a subscription to The Washington Post. One will have a difficult time deciphering the hidden nuances of Julius Caesar if one is determined to view his character through the prism of current events.
Literature is ideally a way of broadening our social imaginations. If authors are only worth reading insofar as they inform modern phenomena, then the entire English canon is of mere antiquarian interest and can be summarily dismissed.
Classrooms need not be purged of politics altogether. That’s neither possible nor desirable. But professors must recognize the line between timeless political insights and rank partisanship. Politics in the classroom can also be a distraction from the syllabi and the space built into the curriculum for contextualizing historic sources with contemporary situations.
Just as some universities have committed to increasing viewpoint diversity on their campuses, I believe college faculty nationwide should make a similar commitment to political neutrality. Professors, let your students know what your political views are, but urge them to see classroom time as an opportunity to learn to think for themselves. A seminar should be a place where deeply-held convictions can be aired, and, most importantly, challenged.
Let’s keep the punditry to a minimum and focus on the things that truly matter: the well-rounded, comprehensive education of our future leaders.