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Myth of decline and fall of US colleges

A new mythology has arisen concerning the intellectual status of American colleges. That mythology - which has gone largely unchallenged - contends that the typical campus is heavily politicized, doctrinaire, obsessed with race and gender, and contemptuous of all things white and Western. To put it bluntly, that is not an accurate description of the reality of the university campus at which I've been teaching for more than 30 years, nor of the many other colleges and universities (large and small, public and private, religious and secular) where I've guest-lectured during this long period.

I happen to be male, white, conservative, and a known Republican, having taken leaves of absence to serve in the Nixon and Reagan administrations. I should be a natural target for the supposedly doctrinaire radicals who allegedly dominate the college scene these days. Sorry to disappoint the unprepared reader, but - without exception - I have never suffered pickets, insults, threats, or other actions that, to use an ancient phrase, would violate my academic freedom.

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Quite to the contrary. On every campus I have visited, I have been treated with courtesy and given full and unhampered opportunity to present my views. If on occasion the questions are especially tough, that attests to my ability to keep the students awake!

Far more important, in each campus - and particularly my own - I have encountered a wide variety of viewpoints among the faculty and the students. I may have been the "show" conservative when I joined the Washington University economics department in 1964, but today I have a great deal of intellectual company.

Do we have some radical faculty on our campus? I should hope so. When I served as department head, I stressed the importance of our students encountering a wide variety of viewpoints and methodological positions in the course of their studies, and we recruited our faculty accordingly. Does our university house some doctrinaire professors and others opposed to the status quo? Undoubtedly, although they don't cluster at any one point in the political spectrum.

As is customary these days, many colleges offer courses in nontraditional fields. For example, Washington University has set up programs in African and Afro-American Studies, environmental studies, Jewish and near-Eastern Studies, and women's studies. Frankly, I haven't been the most enthusiastic supporter of these innovations.

Nevertheless, I must acknowledge that the somewhat less-than-incendiary courses these programs present to our students include beginning Swahili, African civilization to 1800, the black church in America, critical issues in the environment, Islamic civilization, classical Jewish philosophy, women and technology, and women and social change.

The faculty involved includes some truly outstanding scholars, including a recent winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Far more compelling - and universally ignored in the current mythology about campus life - is that most students at most colleges most of the time take the same conventional courses their parents and grandparents took.

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The majority of faculty teach courses that aren't exactly "race- and gender-oriented" - chemistry, physics, economics, history, composition, and literature in English and a variety of other Western languages, as well as mathematics, music, and philosophy.

As for student activism, on most campuses there is an abundance of student groups representing virtually every political, social, and cultural interest.

However, at any time when one of those groups is trying to get students to protest on some current issue, you usually will find far more numerous arrays of students studying in the library, engaging in athletics, attending a play, concert, or movie, or attempting to impress a member of the opposite sex.

Subject to the inevitable exceptions - but contrary to the new mythology - intellectual life is alive, well, and diverse on American college campuses in 1999.

*Murray Weidenbaum is chairman of the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University, in St. Louis.

Contrary to unchallenged belief, the average campus isn't contemptuous of all things white and Western.

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