Liberal academics (part 2)
I’ve always had a bit of a Napoleonic streak, and so, in spite of my first post in this series being a bit unsuccessful at illuminating the political leanings of the academy, I am going to do as Napoleon did in Egypt when facing difficulties with the Mamelukes, and push farther onward no matter how ill-conceived the plan! Once more unto the breach dear friends!
I’ve intended to use this post to clarify our terms and some thought I meant terms like “conservative” and “liberal”. But, since that there are already reams of postings at the League trying to pin down political definitions, I think we can assume some familiarity with those terms. What I had in mind was trying to define what “liberal bias” might mean in the academic context, so that we can determine what behaviors, norms, and mindsets might actually be problematic, and how to address those problems.
A minor interest of mine is just how people come to be embedded in communities, through things like behavior, speech, relationships and normative values; and conversely how they can be alienated from those communities. So, when conservatives talk about being alienated or ostracized from academia, instead of taking the defensive position typical of academics, I think it’s more interesting to take the claim at face value and try to see what that ostracizing looks like.
So, let’s start with a hypothetical group of academics that we can agree are ostracizing towards conservatives. Group 1 would consist of those academics that went into the profession specifically as an extension of their left wing political goals, their blood boils whenever they hear conservative opinions expressed in an assignment or class discussion, and they flunk perfectly good students based on their political opinions. I think we can agree that Professor Guevara’s bias is a problem, and that there should be structures in place to mediate against such abuses, or really any sort of abusive behavior towards students in the classroom, regardless of motivation. In my experience, these professors do exist, but they’re definitely not an overwhelming majority in academia. They’re the ones you hear apocryphal stories about. And I’ve never seen a university without structures to file complaints, even against senior professors. Finally, given that tenure is being replaced with at-will hires throughout academia, this concern is becoming a bit irrelevant. As an “instructor”, my contract states that I can be fired at any time without explanation. So don’t worry about me screaming Communist doctrine at students.
Group 2 consists of academics who are liberals and make frequent, perhaps convivial references to their left wing politics in class. This is, in my opinion, generally unprofessional because usually the class topic really doesn’t relate to your thoughts on Bush, and because it can give the impression, which might be unfair, that you could give bad grades to students with differing opinions, as you are, after all, in a position of authority. Also academics might have a certain status as “learned people” that could give more credence to your opinion that “Sarah Palin is like really stupid” than is deserved.
In my experience, group 2 is a bit larger than group 1; however, here I’m still thinking of one philosophy professor I had in the last decade, and he was so jocular with the conservative students that I’d imagine they weren’t too worried about their grades. Also, I think most of us would imagine that tub thumping in class, while unprofessional, is a lesser problem than grading based on the student’s politics. A professor with a modicum of professionalism is not going to do the former, but still might do the later. And I think more of us would agree on measures to protect against the former than the latter. Should there really be administrative rules about expressing opinions in class? I don’t know. But, certainly, if you are looking to build a case against “liberal academia”, you won’t make these distinctions.
Group 3 is those academics who don’t proselytize in class, but make the occasional joke about Bush or mention voting for Obama or whatever. These would be the profs who aren’t aggressively liberal, or obviously liberal but who the students suspect are probably liberal. Maybe they have the Obama bumper sticker on their car. They tend to be a larger group than 1 or 2, and it’s much harder to really say whether they’re being unprofessional. Lecturing tends to either be semi-improvisational or boring. If part of what you’re doing is thinking aloud, it is very easy to let slip and say something that expresses some opinion. And, if you’re a student who believes that “academics are all liberals” it is easy to see these slips as proof of “underlying bias”.
For example, once, in a discussion of propaganda, I tried to make the point that political speech is always a bit exaggerated and dishonest, but propaganda is the official story told by the state. To this end, I made an off-the-cuff reference to the then-current election campaigns of the candidates, “Grandpa Grumpy and Mister Hopey-Changey-pants”. Anyone want to guess why a student complained? Yep- I was ridiculing a Republican war hero. Sorry! I don’t make contemporary references very often anyway, but I can see where it can lead to tension. And, of course, bureaucrats despise tension. At some universities, the admins have actually told instructors not to put campaign stickers on their cars; they could create a threatening environment towards students with different political opinions- the poor dears.
Group 4, consists of all professors who are registered to vote for the Democrats or another left-wing party. This would include the three other groups, as well as registered voters who never let on about their opinions in class, and it would be the largest group on campus. In fact, nationwide, this would be a majority of academics, at least in the humanities. And, if you are a Republican politician trying to raise awareness of the “overwhelming liberal bias” of academia, it’s guaranteed you will site this percentage, and you might mistakenly characterize all members of group 4 as belonging to group 1. In fact, if you were dishonest, you might intentionally conflate them, and thus make the problem look huge, vague, and overwhelming. Not that anyone ever does that.
The problem, of course, is that unless you went to UC Berkeley, your school probably looked nothing like the vage, overwhelming and huge Marxist Reeducation Center described on talk radio . And by describing the situation in this exaggerated way, critics make the problem look much more pressing, but much harder to solve without some sort of government intervention or affirmative action, which conservatives are opposed to on principle. This, I suppose, might explain why conservatives have been raising awareness of this problem for four decades now and have, by their own account, had no successes whatsoever. Academia is more liberal than ever! Read my book!
In spite of all this, it’s fairly clear what problems can arise in academic environments and why they’re so hard to solve. Even if you make sure that there are structures in place to prevent abuses at all levels, you could still end up with departments and fields in which a majority holds certain opinions as axiomatic, which could, and probably often does, lead to a consensus effect. Matters of some debate- such as whether or not gender is socially-constructed or if there is man-made climate change, start seeming like settled facts within the group. This is not only pernicious; it’s intellectually stultifying. And, even if this doesn’t produce rigid social norms (and the critics don’t seem to understand that it generally doesn’t), it can lead to a certain amount of blandness and unoriginality in the discourse. Consensus is quite often boring. And, if your opinions are outside of that discourse, you could find the environment quite lonely, even if it isn’t particularly hostile.
Secondly, even if academics adhere to the traditional standards of polite discourse, or the sort of nicey-nice corporate politesse that actually dominates in classrooms now, the perception that to be academic is to be liberal, usually unaddressed or dismissed as a wicked lie by academics, could pursuade right-leaning students that they won’t get a fair shake, even if that conviction is based only on those bumper stickers they see in the parking lot or the horror stories they hear on talk radio.
Finally, I think the academy has an obligation to fight its enlistment in the culture wars no matter what side is calling for a draft. If anything, we need inactivism. Academics need to start asserting our right and professional privilege to hang back from the larger society and its frequently meaningless tohu-bohu. Certainly, after ten years of higher ed, I have little interest in belonging to a political party and no conviction that any of them are right more than 5% of the time. No more settled worldviews, please. Besides, if the story of Socrates should teach us anything it’s that, when thinkers allow their ideas to be associated with one side or another in culture wars, eventually they end up getting it in the neck.
1. Nevertheless, I will try in Part 3 to suggest some ways that the problem might be addressed.
2. I hate to add more to a 1500 word post, but let me make this clear- what I mean by the consensus effect is precisely what people mean when they talk about “bias”- matters of scholarly debate are not debated because they’re seen as settled information. This is the specific problem of having a majority in the profession coming from one particular viewpoint, even if their behavior towards other scholars is always of a high professional and personal standard.