Liberal Academia (Part 1)
“An interminable making of interpretations is the duty of the teacher; in this duty of mindfulness, never fully to be discharged, he is freer than most citizens. That unique condition can only exist if academics do not try to destroy it by a frequent taking of sides, as auxiliaries in the ever-changing struggle for power. If we teachers understood those struggles, we would stay out of them; battle lines are not to be trusted.” –Philip Rieff, Fellow Teachers, 1972.
A recent post by Megan McArdle about liberal bias in academia has been getting some attention in the blogosphere, so I think it’s appropriate to discuss the issue, something I personally relish a bit more than discussing abortion with strangers and a bit less than declawing a feral cat without the use of anaesthetic.
McArdle’s basic thesis is that there is a widespread, underlying liberal bias in academia that fuels discrimination in the profession against conservative academics and ideas; and that this systemic discrimination explains the relatively low percentage of conservative academics. This doesn’t strike me as a terribly new or surprising argument, but numerous writers have taken offense to what they see as MaArdle’s jihad against universities. She tends to grate on some people’s nerves anyway due to her style of argumentation, which strikes me as being a bit like:
McArdle: What a beautiful, sunny day this is!
Non-McArdle: Wait, no, it’s raining and overcast- look.
McArdle: Well, I suppose a liberal might raise that objection, but I see no reason that it disproves my original thesis.
I understand why her critics are skeptical. Moreover, Tom Levinson points out in some detail that she cites the following essay in a way that misrepresents what it actually says. Finally, I find it striking that she lists off alternate theories proposed to her original thesis about the lack of conservative academics without mentioning the most obvious one: American conservatives, in general, have a really low opinion of professors, and it’s therefore about as hard to imagine them actually wanting to become professors as it is to imagine a bleeding heart liberal joining the police force.*
But, to be honest, I’m not terribly interested in discussing McArdle’s post. Absent McArdle, David Horowitz, and any other conservative writer who one may or may not consider ideal, this critique of academia is not going away. There are five reasons to address it head on: 1. Republicans are often in power and will often have a say in education funding, 2. Addressing the criticism could lead to a much more vibrant academic community and improve town-gown relations, 3. More conservatives in academia could encourage the growth of a more intellectually-vibrant conservative movement, which would be good for political life as a whole, 4. The critique might well have some weight to it, and 5. Circling the wagons is seldom preferable to self-criticism and soul searching. So, let’s dive into this cactus together, shall we?
It seems to me that there are two claims that conservatives make about academic liberal bias: I’ll call them the hard argument and the soft argument. The hard argument, which McArdle doesn’t make but plenty of her commenters do, is that academia is simply a harsh environment for conservatives: if students express conservative opinions the professors attack those opinions and give them failing grades, their ideas are openly ridiculed in classrooms, and the actual instruction amounts to interminable lectures on the evils of America and the glories of Marxist socialism; ultimately, this climate drives out conservatives and makes academics progressively more liberal- the Indoctrination model, basically.
The soft argument is that liberal academics probably don’t openly discriminate, except in rare cases, but their underlying biases make it hard for them to see the merits of intelligent conservative arguments, associating them with other, less intelligent conservative arguments, and perhaps they suspect that conservatism is just not a marker of intellectual seriousness; finally, that over time, this subtle, nearly unconscious bias will have the effect of weeding out conservatism in academia. After all, our job is, basically, to judge the quality of each other’s thought. And, if you think that conservatism is lower on the intellectual scale than liberalism, it could be hard to judge conservatives fairly.
What conservatives have to understand is that, for many of us in the profession, the hard argument simply doesn’t square with our experiences. I’ve got twelve years in higher ed under my belt, four universities attended, and numerous “conservative” opinions that have been fairly well received by my peers. I’ve never heard the anti-American jeremiads or the encomiums on the virtues of Communism in lecture halls; I’ve never been ridiculed for my illiberal opinions; I’ve yet to meet any of the raging ideologues I’ve heard about; finally, I suspect that my own grading is a bit inflated for the conservative students due to concerns about my own biases and the biases of my profession.** Simply put, academics are opinionated, like most people, but my experience is that they’re also professional in their work. In fact, many of the behaviors that conservatives claim are widespread and commonplace are incredibly unprofessional and widely recognized as such by people who actually do this work.
It’s not to say that they never happen- every profession has some unprofessional people- but that there’s a tricky bit of math being used to claim that they’re widespread: you take a handful of anecdotes about shitty professors and conflate this with the percentage of academics who are registered Democrats and you can claim abuse is commonplace. And, indeed, I have to wonder if bright conservative students don’t enter academia now with the expectation that they won’t get a fair shot. We can call this the ‘dark legend’ of academics.
But what about the soft argument? Academics find it easy to discount the hard argument because it’s so exaggerated, but at the expense of asking whether or not one’s political convictions really do shape their view of individuals with different convictions. After three decades of Foucault’s stock being somewhat overinflated in the profession, we should have some awareness of how the creation of knowledge intersects with the production of power. Why aren’t there more conservatives in academia? And why, aside from self-interest, shouldn’t we poke this particular hornet’s nest? Instead, the discussion usually begins in a dead-end, with conservatives making increasingly exaggerated claims about academics and both liberals and academics discounting anything conservatives have to say about the profession; this in turn validates the belief of conservatives that academia is a closed shop.
I don’t think anyone should see academia as a closed shop. The specific problem I want to address is evoked by a recent letter in our university newspaper from an undergraduate asking the provocative question: “Why do most professors support the creation of a socialist dictatorship?” It’s a bit ridiculous, of course. But it’s the latest in a stack of evidence that suggests to me that we’ve reached a point in which many academics expect their ideas to be denigrated by a large percentage of the general population and a good number of students believe that their ideas will be denigrated by a large percentage of their instructors!
So, I want to consider how we could get to a point in which all scholars, junior and senior, trust that their ideas will be judged fairly by each other, but also by the public. I do think we can work out a hypothetical solution that would enrich academia, liberalism, conservatism, and the culture at large; I believe a healthy, democratic society needs all of these things to survive. But, as it would likely require a fair bit of detente and effort from conservatives, liberals, and academics, I also realize that there’s no chance of it ever being carried out. We can call it an academic exercise.
* And, no, I don’t think she actually addressed that with, “Conservatives don’t want to be professors because they’re anti-intellectual”. Maybe nobody raised the point, but it seems like a pretty obvious one.
** The obvious rejoinder here is that my experiences would likely be different if I was a conservative Republican. I plan to address that point in the next part.