I had been meaning to post for a while on the conservatives in academia thing, because I wanted to tell the story of one of my friends, a conservative grad student whom we will call C. I feel a bit ambivalent about doing so, because I realize I don't want to imply bad things about the Berkeley Classics Department, which is populated on the whole by very kind, sensible people. I don't think this is a tale of anyone meaning to do C. any harm or plotting against him in any way, and lots of people drop out of grad school for lots of varied reasons. Nonetheless, there's no question that C. was made to feel unwelcome in the department -- perhaps moreso by his fellow students than by any professors, now that I come to think about it.
C. was raised by his grandparents in somewhat straitened circumstances in South San Francisco because his single mother wouldn't or couldn't care for him. He never talked about her, so I don't know what the story was. He did well in public school, enough to get into Cal, but sort of floundered as an undergraduate; he had a long commute, was working, and just didn't have it all together. But, he learned Latin and he really liked one of his Classics profs, a very old-school and now-retired British guy. So, then he up and joined the Marines, partly to help pay for school. They taught him Arabic as well as your more traditional how-to-kill people skills (hey, he could go far these days!). He fought in the first Gulf War, mostly working as a translator for interrogations, as I understand. I see him as the good cop, for sure. While he was in the Marines, he taught himself Ancient Greek, whiling away the boring hours of troop transports with a Loeb containing the Laches, given to him by the old prof (the Laches is the Platonic dialogue on courage). When he finished up, he returned to Berkeley to finish his BA, and joined the Classics PhD program in my year, one of five in the class.
When I first met him and heard all this, I thought C. was the man. Really, how cool is he? (And no, this isn't about Tacitus' secret life; I think he was in the army or something, and anyway he's a bit older.) He and I became friends, though not close friends. Now, C. is a libertarian-type conservative. I have known a few libertarian guys of this kind: raised in lower-middle-class surroundings by grandparents or single moms, smart over-achievers. (I only know guys like this; I think women raised in similar circumstances tend to face enough blatant sexism not to turn out quite the same way.) C. felt like a fish out of water among the (for the most part, pretty rich) Ivy Leaguers around him, and he resented being told by people who had been to Yale and come out without any debts that he was the recipient of vast privileges because he was a white man. I think it would be fair to say that most of his fellow students regarded him as a big freak at best, and possibly an evil person at worst. This is not to say that most people weren't nice to him, to his face, but they did all think he was crazy because he wasn't a lefty. I mean, really crazy. And dumb.
Why would anyone think C. was dumb? Well, he was a conservative in intellectual matters as well as political ones, i.e., he was hostile to Theory. These two things don't necessarily go together in Classics. The most up-to-date gender theorists in Classics still make you take exams in which you translate the Times of London obituary of Winston Churchill into Greek in the style of Demosthenes, after all. And, given the way of things in academia, the very crustiest prof on the roster is as likely to be some kind of unreconstructed Commie as not. Nonetheless, people with far-left political views are usually hot on Theory, and politically conservative people cool to it.
So, I think it would be fair to say that C. was excluded from the inner circle of grad-studentdom, the people who are percieved to be going places and hooked up with the younger and/or the more prominent professors in the department, on the basis of his conservatism (in both senses.) Now, maybe he had made it all too clear at some point that he didn't think much of them either; no one is going to waste their time mentoring someone who thinks ill of their work. In this sense, discrimination against conservatives is just a kind of creeping extension of collegiality. It's also important to note that if feeling bitter about everyone in grad school constitutes being discriminated against, then all grad students are victims of terrible discrimination. Nonetheless, I think it would be fair to say that C. faced an environment which merits the term 'hostile', and which was hostile to him in a way that it was not to me. He went around all day with the fully justified suspicion that people discounted his contributions to seminar as both obviously dumb and motivated by a highly suspect ideology. This made him a bit testy, I think (and he was a sardonic fellow to start out with).
There were certainly professors who were more conservative in the roughly anti-Theory sense with whom C. got along fine (I realize that I have no idea about the political views of these men, even some I knew well). I always liked those guys too, but they were not hip and happening; not people whose recommendations you would imagine, even in a hopeful moment, might help you in the shark-pit of job-hunting). The ascendancy of Theory does produce a somewhat troubling result in a Classics department, which is that those old crusty guys do a lot of work that is boring, and you would never want to do it, but you do want someone else to have done it. Textual criticism, of the old-fashioned kind, for example. (I mean the kind where you posit the existence of a particular misreading in the now-lost manuscript gamma.) Or military history. In my experience people pay a lot more attention to the sexy moment just before the plays start, where all the budding hoplites get displayed before the assembled polity, than they do to boring developments in tactics. So much more can be said about the former. But when you complain that the towering work in some sub-field was written in 1898 and is obviously massively suspect for that reason (as I have done myself plenty of times), then you have to be sure there are people around who are going to write a new one, and not just stuff about performing gender. Note that this is true even if you think lots of excellent work is being done along Butlerian lines.
The long and the short of it is that C. left the program. (Then again, I am not in Berkeley finishing my thesis at the moment either, and the Berkeley Classics Department gave me lots of money, lavished personal attention on me, and so on. It's hard to say why people do things). I always felt that he was treated rather shabbily, and undeservedly so. There were people in the program who actually were crazy and dumb, whose comments in seminar I felt quite justified in ignoring. C. was neither crazy nor stupid. He knew the languages really well (a point of macho pride in Classics); he cared a lot about his students and taught some of them exceptionally well. He had a teaching style some found intimidating (though I prefer it): he had very high standards and expected his students to work very hard. He lost some people this way (this is whay I say "some of them"), but if you stayed in his Latin I class you would come out knowing the material very well -- better than the students of more touchy-feely grad student instructors. He and I once engaged in a doomed struggle to change first- and second-year language instruction from 3 days per week to 5. It seemed ridiculous that people were being given more class time to learn Italian than Latin, even though it's much harder to learn a non-spoken language. Of course we, um, didn't have any authority to raise the pay. Yeah, so, moving on...
C. was a perfectly sensitive reader of ancient texts, and his specific criticisms of theoretical models were usually spot-on, though they often provoked uncomfortable silences in the seminar room. Some people have their feeling hurt when the theories they advance are criticized, but, frankly, those people aren't taking their intellectual responsibilities seriously, and are great big wusses besides. I remember quite well that when we did a kind of round-robin criticizing one another's papers for a Livy class, C. was the only one to deeply question the theoretical basis of my paper (I was using Girard's sociological theory in an entirely different, i.e. literary context, without any justification), and he was totally right. Everyone else was too polite to mention an obvious, and quite serious flaw. So, I think it was a loss for the field that C. is now doing whatever other white-collar job he is doing now. When last I talked to him he was considering a political career, but he seems much too smart for the California Republicans. Those people really are crazy.