On February 10, 2020, the Buckley Program hosted a dinner seminar with Professor Carlos Eire GRD’79 to discuss his recent comments regarding the state of intellectual diversity on college campuses and in the field of academia. Professor Eire is the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Daniel Blatt: Thank you for joining the Buckley Program this evening, Professor Eire. I wanted to start with this gem of a line on your bio on the History Department website, which reads, “All of his [Professor Eire’s] books are banned in Cuba, where he has been proclaimed an enemy of the state – a distinction he regards as the highest of all honors.”
Professor Carlos Eire: It still is.
DB: I want to use that as way to start the interview and get at the importance of intellectual diversity in academia. Everyone today seems to hail diversity as this great end-all be-all, but why is intellectual diversity so important?
CE: The university is a place for the exchange of ideas and learning. When it comes to something like cell biology, for example, the political side of thinking doesn’t get into that very much, but for all the other subjects other than hard science, especially in humanities and social sciences and the professional schools such as Law and the School of Management, having intellectual diversity certainly is important. And by intellectual diversity it’s a by-word, a euphemism for political diversity, looking at the world through a different perspective than the majority because, it’s pretty clear, everyone acknowledges it, no one denies it, that the vast majority of American academics call themselves liberals and progressives, or even something farther left than that!
CE: And the number of people who self-identify as conservative or as having conservative beliefs is infinitesimally small. That’s not a healthy intellectual environment for many reasons. There’s also an acknowledgement that perhaps this is a problem, but I think it’s a hollow acknowledgement by the 98 to 99 percent who actually, very much like fish in the ocean, who swim in a substance that they take to be utterly real and no different from what we consider air, but in fact they’re in water. What we bipeds consider necessary air, doesn’t exist; for the two percent who identify as conservative, we’re strange, we’re from another world. It’s difficult to exchange ideas precisely because of that atmosphere; the liberal atmosphere is taken to be so normative, so utterly real, so objective, that anyone who disagrees and says, ‘by the way this is water,’ you’re immediately pegged as not being very smart – or as perhaps being even evil.
DB: Yeah, I just came from a section in a Roman Empire history course, which I love, but in that section were discussed the experiences of Roman women and began by talking about gender as a social construct and a role that is learned. And no matter what you believe about that issue, as one student asked, ‘what’s the point of analyzing ancient Roman women this way? It’s inconceivable Roman women 2000 years ago viewed gender as a social construct, when not even all Americans believe this today.’ We were just taking this very modern, controversial lens as the status quo.
CE: Of course.
DB: It’s omnipresent.
CE: That’s right, and you can’t question it. Especially as a student, what’s an even worse experience for the lack of diversity is that the faculty holds the power of a grade over students. I can disagree with my colleagues and there’s no price to pay with my permanent record, but for a student it’s different.
DB: Do you have any advice to conservative students for how to conduct themselves in such a monolithic environment?
CE: You have to be very careful because you can easily get marked down for having the wrong answer because, in the face of the objectivity of the liberal perspective, which is so taken for granted, that if you question it, you’re wrong. If you provide the wrong answer so far as the liberal perspective, you deserve to be marked down. You have to be careful and pick you battles. In class it’s always risky, it’s always dangerous. A lot depends on class, there are other areas in which you should have freedom to speak your mind.
DB: So how did liberal arts schools become so liberal?
CE: That’s a very good question. It’s not a recent trend, but it’s been this way for quite some time. This is not my area since I don’t study the history of American education, but certainly since the Great Depression, in the ‘30s. But, it began even earlier than that. Of course, American colleges and universities were very different back then, they attracted a very different demographic profile. I just read that 100 years ago, something around 40 percent of Americans had high school diplomas. And I immediately thought, few people were going to college and, you look, it’s a much smaller enrollment and fewer colleges. So, I think it all began to happen very quickly post-WWII, but especially by the ‘60s. In the ‘60s American campuses were already very leftist, and even radicalized, and the students were very radicalized. Among students from what I could see myself – I was college student in late ‘60s, early ‘70s, everyone, absolutely everyone was liberal or pretended to be liberal. I didn’t, because of my peculiar background. Everyone I knew was liberal – professors, most of them were liberal. In the ‘80s I was already teaching, but I noted, and it might be where I was, I was teaching at the University of Virginia, and that’s when the whole yuppy phenomenon was at play, but at UVA there were a lot more conservatives, conservative students than I was used to.
DB: What’s scary is that it feels like Yale has more conservatives than most top colleges.
CE: I’ve noticed that, but it’s an underground. You have to scratch or dig to tap into it.
DB: You mentioned your unique background and, you probably get this question a lot, but can you please talk a little bit about your background and how it has informed your views on intellectual diversity?
CE: No, I don’t, I actually don’t get that question a lot because of the environment, right. I’m the wrong kind of person, because I fled from a socialist utopia and consider that socialist utopia Hell on Earth. So, no, I’m the wrong type of person so I don’t get that question very much, but people just assume if I say I’m a Cuban exile, the assumption is made that I’m the wrong kind of Cuban and wrong kind of person, and I’m not very smart either. Living in a totalitarian, communist, socialist utopia is Hell on Earth. I was only a child when the change took place in Cuba. I was 8 years old. I left when I was 11, but even at that age I could tell something awful was going on. And the worst part of it was not having empty shelves on stores. The worst part was that I felt like someone constantly was trying to steal my brain and my soul and I had to watch everything that came out of my mouth very carefully. My parents were of course just worried that I was going to blurt something out that would get us in trouble, because we had the neighborhood spy house right next door. So, I know firsthand what it’s like to be constantly indoctrinated as a child, but I could see it also was happening with the adults. Having no freedom to express yourself is, I think, worse than being in a prison. Because, in a prison, you know the exact setup. But when you’re still out in the world, you expect a sense of normalcy and being able to say what you think; but you can’t. It’s very scary and also very irritating because propaganda and indoctrination is so one-sided. Another really bad part of living in a society like this is that your intelligence is being insulted constantly and you cannot say anything. ‘Long live the revolution!’ You’re supposed to say that all the time. For adults, I saw my father forced to attend rallies and speeches and I knew members of my family well who were arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. It puts a whole different spin on things.
DB: Certainly. Unfortunately, many on Yale’s campus today glorify far-left, Marxist ideology. Where do you think this erroneous notion comes from?
CE: It’s a very pretty plan! Sounds good, there’s a bit of naivete and ignorance, since you don’t have to read that much to find out what happens in countries with Marxism as their guiding ideology. That sad truth is nothing works. As a historian and especially a historian of religion, I have a sort of peculiar perspective on this. The reason that socialism doesn’t work – it’s very pretty, let’s all share – is human selfishness. It will not work. As workers have said in every socialist state, they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work. You know self-interest is what creates prosperity and it can’t happen in a socialist state. Monasticism is older than socialism, it’s the oldest form of communism. And if you study the history of monasticism, you see it’s a, in case of Christian monasticism, almost 2000 of almost constant corruption and reform, corruption and reform. And very few orders that haven’t had to be reformed, haven’t gone off rails because of selfishness and misbehavior of all kinds. Th only kind of socialism or communism that works is voluntary. That’s why sometimes monasteries do work very successfully as communist societies, but it’s all voluntary. You cannot force human beings to share, to have no self-interest. Even worse, what ends up happening in every socialist or communism society in history proves this; you end up with a privileged oligarchy with plenty of self-interest and, their job becomes to prevent anyone else from joining their privilege group or from having any self-interest.
DB: I can’t help but think of Animal Farm.
DB: Yeah, it just comes to mind immediately.
CE: Well, Animal Farm is perfect. And George Orwell saw it. Saw it, socialism and communism at work fully in Spain during the civil war. He observed it first-hand. And 1984. Both of those books I think should be required reading for everyone. My worry is they won’t be taken as a real historical account but rather as fiction. In fact, 1984 when I was in junior high school was the future, now we can look back at it and say, it didn’t happen. But actually, it did happen, it happened in many places.
DB: How do you recommend Yale students go about educating themselves on the importance of intellectual diversity, of not adhering to mob-mentality?
CE: That’s a very good question. There’s no textbook, no bibliography for how to resist. But it’s basically what one has to do to. One has to resist. That’s what happens to any minority oppressed by a majority. And, in fact, are conservatives oppressed? I think so, maybe it’s more adequate or correct to say repressed. Silenced. Constantly. And especially for students, Yale students, in the classroom. You certainly are repressed; there is repression going on. Implicitly, sometimes perhaps it’s explicit. And having groups like this [Buckley] is essential. And there are several, getting together with like-minded people and perhaps formulating strategies. And at Yale one would hope because of the endowment and alumni pressure, students and alumni should pressure the university for real intellectual diversity. However, finding faculty w PhDs to bring diversity is very hard because the system weeds them.
DB: Because of graduate school?
CE: Yeah, if you don’t play by the rules of the majority. Number one you can’t be taken seriously, you won’t be taken seriously. Or you might be told that your work is incorrect in some way. Case in point, and I’ll bring this up in the talk later. I once met a woman from University of Wisconsin in public health. She spent several years in Cuba studying the so-called free health care system. She came back to Madison Wisconsin and wrote her dissertation based on research and personal observations. She concluded that so-called free health care was awful. They wouldn’t pass her dissertation until she changed her conclusion. She had to rewrite it in order to get degree. And this would’ve been early 2000s. That’s pretty recent, and I think things like this happen all the time. I felt terrible for her. It happens. If you want, for instance, in Latin America history, I think that might be the worst field for discrimination against conservatives. You will not be taken seriously, you will not move ahead if you do not have a leftist bent. It’s just impossible. It’s why I do European history from the long ago past, nothing close to the present day. I did that intentionally. I wanted to get as far away from Latin America and Cuba as possible in my professional career. It interested me, but I knew I couldn’t do it. Pushing for change I think is the key. How to push for change? Conservatives students need to work that out among themselves. And, also, just don’t be discouraged by the many times that you have doors closed on your face, because it will happen. But press forward. Until we’re able to attract conservative, young people to the academic profession, this situation will not change. So, it’s a challenge, like swimming upstream.
DB: It’s just shocking. Well, sounds like people are arriving downstairs. Thank you so much for taking the time to conduct this interview.