Campus protest about-face A young conservative takes aim at Ivy League liberalism
Poisoned Ivy, by Benjamin Hart. New York: Stein & Day. 254 pp. $16.95. When Upton Sinclair wrote ''The Jungle,'' a scathing expose of the Chicago meatpacking industry at the turn of the century, he was bent on socialist political reform. Indifferent to his politics, the nation demanded better sausages.
It's too early to tell just where Ben Hart's conservative broadsides at Dartmouth's faculty and administrators, campus homosexuals, feminists, nuclear freeze supporters, and affirmative-action advocates will lead. Mr. Hart is a 1981 graduate of Dartmouth and a founder of the irreverent, conservative off-campus paper, the Dartmouth Review.
When the reader fixes his gaze beyond Mr. Hart's politics and on his vignettes of student social and academic life, one thing becomes clear, however: Parents who read this book will want to sit their teen-agers down and talk heart to heart about the priorities of a college education. For at stake, Hart convincingly argues, is not just the idea of a university but the very ethos of a liberal education. Should such conversations prove half as lively as ''Poisioned Ivy,'' much could be gained.
''What Hart describes will prove interesting to everyone interested in the kind of experiences young people have in college today,'' writes William F. Buckley Jr. in his introduction to the book. Buckley, on whose magazine (National Review) Hart's father is a senior editor, adds ''. . . a knowledge of what young men and women are reading, and saying, and listening to, is social intelligence of the very first rank.''
Hart writes with a keen mind for the obvious; this is not to denigrate his youthful perspective, but rather to point out that what it lacks in subtlety and nuance, it makes up for in openness. His writing is devoid of the neurotic self-absorption (if not the poor taste betrayed by giving readers yet another drinking scene) of so many college writers.
Hart's campus priorities are clear: ontological questions about God; character development and the game of football; social life (or possibly antisocial life, depending on one's point of view) in a fraternity; the ideal that a university should be a place that nurtures the intellectual traditions of the West.
In bemoaning the loss of a core curriculum, Hart is a fellow traveler with a National Endowment for the Humanities commission that recently issued a report on the sorry state of the humanities in colleges across the United States. Titled ''To Reclaim a Legacy,'' the report sheds sober light on the lack of intellectual substance in many college programs. ''A student can obtain a bachelor's degree from 75 percent of all American colleges and universities without having studied European history, from 72 percent without having studied American literature or history, and from 86 percent without having studied the civilizations of classical Greece and Rome,'' it says. For the most part, colleges and universities fail to give students ''an adequate education in the culture and civilization of which they are members.''
Hart sees Dartmouth as liable to such charges.
So disarmingly adolescent are Hart's descriptions of college life that, like a lengthy letter from a youngster at summer camp, it unwittingly conveys both sides of an issue. More often than not, the reader ends up rooting for Hart in his many battles with the college administration.
The war against the campus bureaucracy takes on broad proportions for Hart. It symbolizes a ''liberal ethos,'' intolerant of any challenge or criticism. Among Hart's targets: blacks choosing to live in segregated dorms and the college administration approving such dorms; the official campus chaplain writing first-year students in support of the active homosexual life; the brouhaha over the Dartmouth Indian, the school's traditional symbol, banned since 1972 by the administration as a racist affront to native Americans.
Hart's real cause celebre, however, is persecution of the Dartmouth Review. The administration built its case on the grounds that the ''property rights'' of Dartmouth belonged to the college and that use of its name in such a publication could not be allowed. This despite the fact that there is a Dartmouth Cab Company, a Dartmouth Bookstore, and a Dartmouth Travel Agency with no formal affiliation with the college. Hart objects to the administration's attempt to muzzle the publication solely because, he says, it takes conservative, anti-establishment positions. Short of libel and slander, Hart simply wants the same right to free expression afforded anyone else on campus.
Just as delegates to the recent Democratic National Convention in San Francisco were out of touch with a broad spectrum of American society (Ronald Reagan 49 states, Walter Mondale 1), the Dartmouth administration and much of its faculty are out of touch with the aspirations of their students, Hart suggests. And, with exit polls showing the 18- to 24-year-olds' votes going overwhelmingly for Reagan, Hart and his friends can lay some legitimate claim to speaking for a large portion of their generation.
One occasion when they did that on campus was during a college-sponsored ''consciousness raising'' session on Veterans Day in 1981. On that day, faculty and administrators, Grandparents for Reducing the Arms Race, and children dressed up as radioactive mutants engaged in guerrilla theater on Dartmouth Green. Ben Hart and friends hung a large American flag from their third-floor dorm window, played John Philip Sousa records loudly, and toasted (with brandy) the American experience.
''Poisoned Ivy'' will be closely read by Dartmouth students, faculty, and alumni. If nothing else, the college can use it as evidence that someone knows how to teach writing at Dartmouth. There is no doubt in Hart's mind that an excellent education is available there.
Readers not directly connected with this campus may not be so keenly interested in the institutional self-analysis. But they will find the liberal and conservative biases pinpointed by Hart more than entertaining.
Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.