Guest essay: A liberal academic tells what’s wrong with liberal academics, and newsrooms

By Johnathan Zimmerman

Earlier this month, I read the single sharpest criticism of the American university I’ve encountered in many years. And it wasn’t even about the American university.

Penn prof Johnathan Zimmerman spills the illiberal beans (Photo: Kielinski Photographers)

It’s an essay that appeared in the Economist by former The New York Times opinion editor James Bennet, who was forced out in 2020 after he published an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) calling for the use of the military against violent protesters. Bennet ran the op-ed not because he agreed with it (he didn’t) but because he believed the newspaper had a duty to provoke debate, and — most of all — because he thought his readers could come to reasoned conclusions about it.

That’s the foundation of the small-l liberal creed: Since none of us has a monopoly on truth, we need to let everyone determine it on their own. But in the era of Donald Trump, who thinks he’s right about everything, journalists started to imitate him. They knew the truth, especially about Trump, and their job was to make sure other people knew it, as well.

I’ve seen the same trend play out in higher education, ever since Trump’s surprise presidential victory in 2016. Faced with an existential threat to our democracy, we can no longer indulge the liberal ideal of debate across our differences. What’s to debate, really? Trump is wrong … and we are right. Get with the program.

Full disclosure: I detest Donald Trump. Like the vast majority of college professors, I’m a Democrat. I disagree with Trump about immigration, abortion, and almost every other major political issue. And I remain outraged by his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

But I don’t try to impose my views of Trump — or of anything else — upon my students. My job is to help them arrive at their own reasoned view of the world, which might not accord with mine. And like Bennet, I thought my institution had the same goal.

We were wrong. The small-l liberal principle is no longer dominant at our universities, any more than it is at our newspapers.

I realized that something important had changed a few years ago, during a chat with a fellow education professor about the term Latinx. He argued that schools should teach students to use that word instead of Latino or Latina — which are gendered — or Hispanic, which connotes Spanish colonization.

I told him that I understood why he favored the new term, as do many other academics. And surely, I added, everyone should have the right to describe their backgrounds with whatever words they choose.

But most Americans who descend from Latin America don’t endorse — or even recognize — the term Latinx, as a 2020 Pew survey confirmed. I asked my colleague if that made him doubt whether we should tell students to use it.

“Not at all,” he replied. “It just shows how much work we have to do.”

That might seem like a small matter, but it speaks volumes about our moment. If we know what’s good — and bad — why pretend otherwise? We should tell it like it is, so our students get on board. We have so much work to do.

Affirmative action? Good. Gender-affirming medical care? Also good. The border wall is bad. And so is anything else associated with You Know Who.

And if you demur, you are a bigot. Ditto for anyone who provides a “platform” — that is, airtime — to the haters, which places their targets in danger.

That’s what Bennet was told when he ran the op-ed by Cotton. The next day, the Times’ writers’ union declared that Cotton’s op-ed was “a clear threat to the health and safety of the journalists we represent.”

In the heat of the moment, Bennet apologized for the “pain” he had caused them. But now he regrets that statement, as he wrote in the Economist. “Opinion journalism that never causes pain is not journalism,” Bennet explained. “It can’t hope to move society forward.”

His comment reflects another founding premise of small-l liberalism: The best route to progress is a full and free dialogue — even when it hurts. In a democracy, we can’t make anything better unless we can talk to each other. We need to trust that messy and difficult discussions will yield a more just, fair, and informed outcome than anything that you — or I — can imagine on our own.

And when journalists stop trusting the public, the public stops trusting them. The same goes for our universities, which have lost much of the popular admiration they used to enjoy.

That’s not because we harbor legions of hateful antisemites, as Republican lawmakers told three university presidents at a congressional hearing earlier this month. It’s because we have framed the world as a contest between love and hate, with good people on one side and bad on the other. The essential purpose of universities — and of newspapers — is to question everything. We can’t do that well if we’re also giving the answers.


Johnathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania.

24 thoughts on “Guest essay: A liberal academic tells what’s wrong with liberal academics, and newsrooms”

  1. I read this piece and said “Bingo.” Zimmerman got it right and amplifying Bennett’s was the right vehicle. I subscribe to the NYT print and digital. But I take it with the bias that I know is embedded in the product. But as long as I factor in that bias, I can find value in the many offerings that I do appreciate in the complete product. 2023 has been a rough year and I worry about what is coming next. But I will remain optimistic and hope the better angels in our City, Country, and World will find their way to make it a better year.

  2. I’d be curious to know why Zimmerman and the vast majority of his peers are Democrats. Is it self selection, i.e. those whose politics lean left also happen to like academe? Or is it that the academy has become such a left leaning club that those who don’t lean left don’t feel welcome and thus don’t try to join? Or is it something else?
    Regardless, the political lopsidedness in some of the disciplines was startling. There must be an explanation for it.

    1. Great insight and question. In general a or The progressive movement leaders knew that if they captured the high ground (a military tactic) they could control the results. The “high ground”* are:
      Education and The Media. I know this doesn’t answer your question and will follow as I SM interested in what might be the answer.

      * acknowledge this phrasing is from “Battle for the American Mind”

      1. Or into fields where they are welcome, which they seem not to be in education or journalism. Or so it seems by those in those fields who self-identify as Democrats/Liberals/Progressives. Just a theory.

      2. Good thought. Doesn’t explain why wealthy Elites politicians , Gov Murphy, Biden, Pelosi et al are liberal. Seems to me that most wealthy Attorneys and Accountants are Dems or vote Dem. Often seems that voters vote “against” a candidate than for a candidate. The vote “against Hilary Clinton is what pushed Trump over the top. This did not hold true for Krasner vs Vega as most of the Community voted as were told to by the poor leadership in the Community. Don’t hear any of the charlatans saying openly saying they support Krasner but won’t deny they did. Money talks.

  3. Excellent essay and I agree with most of it. But Zimmerman has it wrong on at least one point. This slide into intolerance did not happen after Trump’s election. It has been there for many years. I professed at Penn in the last half of the 1990s and what is now referred to as “woke-ism” was alive and thriving then (for those interested see the water buffalo incident). It drove me bananas during my Penn career and I am a liberal Democrat. So there is that.
    As for the commenters who seek some explanation for why academe is full of “liberals”, as if media and education were somehow responsible for this state of affairs, let me throw this out. Propaganda whether it is Faux News and their ilk or homeschool/Christian nationalist education is propaganda. Far left is no better than far right in their illiberalism. What you are seeing here is the indoctrination of people with ideas that have no tolerance for critical thinking and actual diversity of opinion. The purveyors of illiberalism are found on both ends of the political spectrum, but they appeal to different groups of individuals. And their goals are the same — to actually suppress opinions different than their own.

    1. Wanda, your point that both ends of extremism are responsible for the state of affairs in our country today is so much in agreement with mine. And this goes to the statement in the 3rd paragraph from the end in Zimmerman’s writing: “His comment reflects another founding premise of small-l liberalism: The best route to progress is a full and free dialogue — even when it hurts. In a democracy, we can’t make anything better unless we can talk to each other. We need to trust that messy and difficult discussions will yield a more just, fair, and informed outcome than anything that you — or I — can imagine on our own.”

    2. Wanda, good perspective and helpful for those of us who never professed.
      I don’t expect I’ll hear from Mr. Zimmerman, but since you have been in academe, do you have any thoughts about why the pronounced skew to the left in the academy that he refers (and links) to? I don’t recall that the skew was as evident when I matriculated a half century ago, but maybe I was too young and naïve to notice.

      1. Yes. I do. And I, like you, did not recall such a skew when I matriculated (albeit in the Dark Ages). I was pretty aware as an undergrad but do not remember such partisanship and I do remember my professors trying hard to teach us Goldwater and McGovern. When I went for my masters I saw a little skew then, but when I got my doctorate it was pretty entrenched liberal, but not yet oppressive. My answer is that this happened in academe in the same way as the poisoning of conservatism has happened. People retreated to their silos, listened to ever more radical nonsense, and now you have a lot of perverse fascistic impulse on the left and right. It really is sad.

  4. The far left have taken over the media our schools and the Democratic Party. Our children are being told what to think and to not question what they are being taught. And if they do they are being attacked for being racist or against democracy. This group of fascist who want to tell you what type of car you drive what kind of appliances you use. They want to control everything you do in life and steal your freedom. I don’t know how to stop this but this I do know. As a former democrat the old time democrats have to wake up and see this is not your party anymore. This is a party that is determined to destroy the country. Just look a what’s happened the last 3 years.

    1. And the GOP doesn’t — get real. How about women’s right to determination over their bodies as just one example. And no one is telling you what car to drive and what appliances use. Stop reading the Epoch Times for chrissakes!

      1. Zimmerman is talking about people like you who teach young women it’s ok to murder their babies. Immoral academic know it all’s who should be teaching these women to be responsible for their own bodies. The great majority of abortions are performed on women between the ages of 20 and 40 women who should know better. You insult the responsibil e women who didn’t get pregnant

  5. To me, the line that leapt off the page was “…Bennet apologized for the ‘pain’ he had caused [the writers union].” That apology speaks loudly to the sword that hangs over the head of anyone who dares disagree with the Left. Bennet paid with his job. I wonder what our lives would be like today if the writers of the Declaration of Independence had apologized to the British for the pain it caused them.

  6. Basically, I believe the main problem is that common sense has left the building. There should always be room for opinions of all shapes and sizes. However, it’s evident in the past 5-7 years that we can no longer agree on facts. This is a problem of epic proportions, because without agreement there, it is virtually impossible to have a reasonable debate. The whole 2020 election is the perfect example of this. One group of people continues to put forth the lie that the election was stolen, this with absolutely zero proof or evidence of such. How does one deal with that? To their credit, virtually all respectable journalists have come together to call bullshit. Yet people still refuse to believe it. I have no clue how to address things like that without calling out the blinders being worn. I dare anyone to provide a good response to this other than “stop being a dope and follow the facts.” Maybe it’s just me. But I doubt it.

  7. Professor,
    I doubt Trump had anything to do with how far removed from reality those who write for the press are and have been this century; same as my Penn classmates, class of 1970, who, even before earning a basic undergraduate degree, protested at the drop of a hat, marched, took over the President’s office and wrote for the school paper, the DP, were of the same naive, intolerant but cocksure self righteous ilk we see on campuses today, with merely a high school diploma!! Many professors then, too. An observation is that the loopy ones of my classmates probably became the editors of our disturbingly lost-in-space national new sources. They never matured!

    A question for Professor Zimmerman, please:
    Do you know why there has there been dead silence in the national press since the release of the video, “The Fall of Minneapolis?”

    The video tells that the coroners report which was suppressed in the trial of George Floyd, says with certainty, (the video’s certainty) that George Floyd died from a lethal mix of illegal drugs he had taken before he was arrested, ( it certainly looked as though he was high on drugs in the video of him in his car) similar to a near death during a previous arrest of G. Floyd, according to the “Fall of Minneapolis.”

    It also showed with certainty that the restraining method of knee on shoulder blade was the method all police use; it is in the Minneapolis police manual, the approved method which the Minneapolis police chief denied, under oath, was in the manual. The other camera angle, also suppressed by the judge, according to this video, showed Officer Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s shoulder blade as per police procedure and not on his neck.

    Coroner’s report wrote that Floyd “did not die of suffocation,” that there was no damage to his windpipe, which was the whole case against the four police and the judge suppressed that report from the evidence, according to this video.

    Why has there been dead silence in the national news sources?

    And why are we not reading about efforts to release the four policeman who appear to have been bound, gagged and railroaded by that judge, by the prosecuting lawyers , by their own police chief, and by the jury? Railroaded by the press, too.

    Is the video credible?
    Thank you.

    1. FFS Gardner, get your head out of your a**. That poorly produced conspiracy video has zero credibility, which is why no one in the MSM is taking it seriously. It has been thoroughly fact checked and debunked — do a simple google search. Floyd’s autopsy report states that his cause of death “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual (crushing), restraint, and neck compression.” The manner of death, he wrote, was homicide. I have testified in numerous restraint death cases and Floyd’s death was a textbook case –including the “I can’t breathe” cry. He died when his heart stopped (arrest) from the numerous obstructions to the bellows actions of his lungs (asphyxia causing heart to stop) which were evident from the pressure of the knee on the neck and the pressure to his back between his shoulder blades which kept him from breathing. If the morons who made this crowd, sourced, right wing bunch of hoo-ha had consulted an actual expert in positional asphyxia deaths, such as myself or numerous other scientists in the field, they would not look as stupid as they do now. As do those who who fall for this BS uncritically.

      1. Wanda,

        Your responses today are forcing me to agree with some of the regular posters.From your Abortion right stance to the use of the term “debunked” a favorite of the media talking heads.

        I believe in a woman’s choice to a certain point. However, as a parent and grandparent that has had the chance to hold newborn babies, you will never convince me that it is a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy in the last trimester.

        I did not watch the Fall of Minneapolis documentary, but I probably will after this column. The term “debunked” generally gets my attention as I like to obtain as many sources as possible when forming an opinion, especially in cases like George Floyd, where the media stoked the emotions of the world and shut down any questions that did not fit the narrative.

        I believe this was the point of the guest essay. You are entitled to your opinion on both subjects, but you are not entitled to shout down opposing opinions or information.

        1. No one is advocating late stage terminations except to save the life of the mother, genius. It is health care pure and simple. Not opinion – fact.
          Also fact is that I am an expert in restraint death (Google me) and knew from the first story on this that GF death was the fault of being deprived of 02 for > than 8 minutes which caused cardiac arrest. Note that Gardner didn’t respond. He probably googled me. Watch away. I did and it’s a lesson in misinformation and Dunning Kreuger speculation. Unless you have the expertise to evaluate this piece of crap, you too will be taken in.

          1. If you have a abortion because you don’t want to have a baby that is murder not health care. Your choice is to end the babies life. It is premeditated murder of the first degree.

          2. “Expert”? Googled you and maybe I can’t find THE Wanda Mohr because the one I found was in involved in another field.
            Re: the George Floyd matter, I’ll refer you to 2 Ivy League African American professors who have called it The Lie That Changed America. There is a very interesting discussion of the George Floyd incident and the phenomenon that followed and is continuing. The discussion is by 2 African American professors, Brown & Columbia. Their conclusions, if I can take the liberty of summarizing (you watch/listen with an open mind and decide for yourself), is that after viewing actual video and digesting other facts that there is a false narrative that was developed and which has set many destructive measures in movement.
            If have not seen and are interested it is at the link below. Peace.
            ……. Changed America

          3. Wanda,

            Many are advocating for abortions in the 3rd trimester, using the language of a woman’s right to her body or reproductive rights.

            I assume the reference of genius was not a compliment.

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