Conservative is the new black, pt. 3

This is the third in a series of posts on issues raised by Mark Bauerlein’s Chronicle piece. See Part 1, Part II, Appendix (Colorado).
My slow reading of Bauerlein’s piece continues.
The public has now picked up the message that “campuses are havens for left-leaning activists,” according to a Chronicle poll of 1,000 adult Americans this year. Half of those surveyed — 68 percent who call themselves “conservative” and even 30 percent who say they are “liberal” — agreed that colleges improperly introduce a liberal bias into what they teach (↓1). The matter, however, is clearly not just one of perception. Indeed, in another recent survey, this one conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute of the University of California at Los Angeles, faculty members themselves chose as their commitment “far left” or “liberal” more than two and a half times as often as “far right” or “conservative.” As a Chronicle article last month put it: “On left-leaning campuses around the country, professors on the right feel disenfranchised.”
I like that ‘picked up’. As if conservative authors and foundations hadn’t been promoting this “message” (which is, for once, the right word) for years. I also like the bit about perception. Here’s glory for you:
Academia is perceived as liberal.
Therefore something needs to be done.
It’s a bogus argument. Especially if the perceptions are being created by interested parties.
Bauerlein tries to back up those carefully nurtured perceptions with hard facts. I’ve mentioned the UCLA survey: Bauerlein omits the one-third who identify themselves as middle-of-the-road. I don’t know what “middle-of-the-road” means in the survey. But one could just as well have said that a faculty member is about as likely to be center-right as to be liberal-left. Not quite so alarming, is it?
The Chronicle story is entitled “Conservatives in a Liberal Landscape/On left-leaning campuses around the country, professors on the right feel disenfranchised” (↓2). It details the hard times undergone by three conservative professors, including John Yoo, co-author of one of the memos on torture that surfaced in the summer of 2004 (quote: “I’m a big believer in decentralized government”). The stories are in the usual quote-both-sides style. Bauerlein’s quotation, you’ll notice, is from the subheadline. It is not supported by the story itself, most of which is devoted to the three unfortunate professors. The only claims about “campuses around the country” come in a paragraph on the same UCLA survey mentioned by Bauerlein (but being in the minority is not “disenfranchisement”), and from—who else?—David Horowitz and Stephen Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars. Suffice it to say that these are not disinterested, impartial observers of the academic scene.
In sum: we have a irrelevant claim about perceptions, naïve at best, disingenuous at worst; a survey; and a quotation pulled from a story that in fact doesn’t bear it out. Not much! But we are, after all, in Op-Ed Land. In Op-Ed Land, the important thing is to have an Op. Verdict first, trial later, as the Red Queen said.
On with Bauerlein:
Yet while the lack of conservative minds on college campuses is increasingly indisputable, the question remains: Why?
The obvious answer, at least in the humanities and social sciences, is that academics shun conservative values and traditions, so their curricula and hiring practices discourage non-leftists from pursuing academic careers. What allows them to do that, while at the same time they deny it, is that the bias takes a subtle form. Although I’ve met several conservative intellectuals in the last year who would love an academic post but have given up after years of trying, outright blackballing is rare. The disparate outcome emerges through an indirect filtering process that runs from graduate school to tenure and beyond.
Some fields’ very constitutions rest on progressive politics and make it clear from the start that conservative outlooks will not do. Schools of education, for instance, take constructivist theories of learning as definitive, excluding realists (in matters of knowledge) on principle, while the quasi-Marxist outlook of cultural studies rules out those who espouse capitalism. If you disapprove of affirmative action, forget pursuing a degree in African-American studies. If you think that the nuclear family proves the best unit of social well-being, stay away from women’s studies.
That broad brush is so much fun to paint with. Presenting evidence is such a bore (↓3). I looked at the newsletter for the School of Education at Stanford. Given the enormous liberal advantage there (as demonstrated by Klein & Western; see Part 1), you’d expect to see constructivism ruling the roost there if anywhere. I looked at the Newsletter of the School for signs that constructivist theories of learning predominate, for symptoms of antirealism.
  • Spring 2004: The lead story concerns a benefit performance by Bill Cosby “with proceeds to establish fellowship funds for teachers in the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP) who commit to working in schools serving low-income children after they graduate”.
  • Fall 2004: The lead story is on “The Brouhaha Surrounding Scientifically-Based Research”. It details the debate concerning the insistence of the Department of Education that “randomized controlled trials” are “the only research design that provides strong evidence of effectiveness”, ignoring the recommendations of a 2001–2002 NRC committee. The committee, which included two Stanford faculty, argued that different methods were appropriate for different sorts of question. It is a point that a constructivist might agree with. But the story makes clear that the Stanford faculty who take issue with the DOE guidelines do so not on the grounds that truth is relative or that there is no reality, but rather on the grounds that certain kinds of fact are better investigated by ethnographic or case-study methods.
  • Spring 2003: A story on students using “Probeware” (sensors hooked up to cellphones which are networked with computers).
    This June, eighteen STEP cooperating teachers will use probeware to collect and analyze soil temperature data. These science teachers will teach high school students to collect and analyze temperature data at their school site using probeware. The students’ data will be posted on a collaborative website with Jasper Ridge scientists and become part of a real scientific study.
  • Fall 2003: The lead story is “Empowering Youth to be Agents of Change”, about a project called Youth Engaged in Leadership and Learning (YELL). YELL aimed “to educate people, including media representatives, about dominant stereotypes and introduce them to alternative, positive images of youth in West Oakland”.
Hardly a whiff of constructivism. On the contrary, there seems to be a strong current of realism running through these stories. I don’t doubt that someone who thinks that No Child Left Behind is a smashing success would encounter a great deal of skepticism at Stanford, that someone who is satisfied with the present very unequal distribution of educational resources in the US might find disagreement, might even find some hostility. But what they won’t find, if the newsletter is any guide to what goes on at the School, is rampant constructivism or antirealism.
Of course one example does not establish a general claim about schools of education. But neither does no example, which is what Bauerlein has to offer.
I would guess that the last two claims in the passage above are true. If you oppose affirmative action you will probably not have much fun in an African-American studies department. But you can always settle for a lucrative career in right-wing think tanks (↓4). If you believe that the nuclear family is ideal, I don’t suppose the feminists in Women’s Studies will be baking cakes for you. But you can probably find a psychology or sociology department, say at Liberty University, that will treat your beliefs with the respect they deserve.
The element of truth in Bauerlein’s observations is that (setting aside schools of education) women’s studies, African-American studies, and cultural studies—all of them fairly new—were founded by people who agreed on certain fundamentals which could reasonably be described as liberal or leftist. African-American studies programs were sometimes founded in order to compensate for the neglect of African-American viewpoints and contributions in more traditional departments, and to be centers of support for African-American students. This at a time when there were very few blacks in academia, and when the Republicans were making themselves over according to Nixon’s Southern strategy. It’s not surprising that programs founded under such circumstances would be liberal or radical in orientation.
Other fields allow the possibility of studying conservative authors and ideas, but narrow the avenues of advancement. Mentors are disinclined to support your topic, conference announcements rarely appeal to your work, and few job descriptions match your profile. A fledgling literary scholar who studies anti-communist writing and concludes that its worth surpasses that of counterculture discourse in terms of the cogency of its ideas and morality of its implications won’t go far in the application process.
If a student came to me with a thesis topic like the one proposed here, I would indeed be dubious. I’d be equally dubious if the terms were reversed. What would this student include under the heading of “anti-communist”? Whittaker Chambers? Phyllis Schlafly? J. Edgar Hoover? George Lincoln Rockwell? Garner Ted Armstrong? And what under the heading of “counterculture”? Paul Goodman? R. Crumb? Bob Dylan? The terms are not well-defined, and to the extent that they do pick out something definite, I don’t think they make a very useful contrasting pair. The “counterculture” of the sixties included Herman Hesse, H. P. Lovecraft, Marshall McLuhan, even Robert Heinlein—a writer not noted for his sympathies with communism.
I would go on to ask what sort of thesis is being proposed. Is it philosophical? If so, then the cogency of ideas and the morality of implications would matter. One could indeed revisit The Making of a Counterculture or Growing Up Absurd and see how they stand up. But I doubt that anything useful or profound could be said about anti-communist writing or counterculture discourse in general. Consider just one point (I'm supposing that definitional questions can be settled). Anti-communist authors mostly favored the war in Vietnam; the counterculture opposed it. Which group’s discourse surpassed the other in the “morality of its implications”? On that point alone, serious work would be required just to decide what the implications were. In short, the topic is unpromising.
That “filtering” occurs at every step of the system by which people enter the professoriate is indisputable. It occurs everywhere: hence there too. Pierre Bourdieu’s studies of higher education in France show how strongly the desire to enter the academy (which rests on the belief that doing so is a realistic possibility for people of one’s sort) and the qualities that make it possible to do so depend on class (or, more precisely, on the more fine-grained “fractions” that Bourdieu uses as his social categories). Ideological outlook is a component of the habitus acquired through membership in a certain class. In the US, as far as I can tell, the class in question is the middle or upper-middle class, professional more than commercial, with various additional qualifications; the habitus of that class, or some subset of it, is one that favors intellectual endeavor, and (for those entering the humanities) an affinity for “high” culture, for the “bookish” world of research in the humanities.
I’m no sociologist. I haven’t done more than read a few things online on the topic of political affiliation among academics (the references are given below ↓5). But as Rothman et al. note, there isn’t much data, and much of what exists has been gathered by interested parties. Their evidence seems to favor the claim that political orientation (specifically right as opposed to left) and religion (specifically Christian) do have a small effect on professional advancement, once various other factors have been taken into account. What their study doesn’t consider is whether the observed effect could just as well be one of class prejudice as of political discrimination per se.
A Canadian study (Nakhale & Brym 1999) yields mixed results on that point. For example, academics with lower rank and lower income are more likely to to be liberal than those with the highest rank and income. Those with working-class fathers are more favorable to unionization. Nevertheless the influence of class origin tends to be damped out by professionalization. (Here the story is complicated by the fact that disciplines tend as wholes to select unequally across classes, so that the political cast of a discipline may be determined in part by the class of those likely to be recruited into it.) As an antidote to Bauerlein’s glibness, I quote the closing paragraphs of Nakhale and Brym:
Various markets demand intellectual products, but that demand is always accompanied by pressure on suppliers to conform ideologically to the interests of those who control the markets. Insofar as markets for different intellectual products are controlled by different classes and other groups, the professoriate is pulled in a variety of ideological directions. Governments and corporations are the main markets for the intellectual products of engineers, natural scientists, and business professors. Along with new accounting principles, bridge designs, and nickel-smelting technologies, the people who control these markets expect a high degree of ideological conformity to their corporate and government interests. In contrast, the main markets for the intellectual products of liberal arts professors are controlled by other academics, the educated public, the mass media, and various grassroots organizations, including trade unions and citizens’ groups. Those markets are more likely to allow and even encourage a left-wing outlook. In short, the ideological contrast between different segments of the professoriate is due in part to their different patterns of association with, and service for, dominant versus subordinate groups and organizations.
On a broader historical canvas, therefore, the shape of the class structure and its political expression have a major bearing on the political ideologies of the professoriate. The extent to which professors develop leftist ideologies depends on such factors as the degree to which subordinate classes are organized and influential, business classes are weak and divided, regimes are moderately repressive, and political structures facilitate intellectual employment outside state bureaucracies (Brym, 1980; Brym and Myles, 1989; Karabel, 1996). In short, by investigating the structure of demand for intellectual services, one can go a long way towards understanding the social roots of intellectuals’ ideologies.
The above considerations emphasize the historical variability and structural determination of intellectuals’ political attitudes. Our analysis should therefore increase skepticism about the transhistorical claims made by many Mannheimians and neo-Marxists. Intellectuals are not “free-floating.” Nor are they destined to follow a preordained political script because they are all members of a particular class or part of a class. Intellectuals are members of many groups, including classes. As the case of Canadian professors suggests, an adequate explanation of their political attitudes requires that we assess the cumulative lifetime impact of the institutional milieux through which they pass as these milieux are shaped by larger class and other group forces in particular historical contexts.
Common Assumptions
Skipping a bit, we come to the heart of Bauerlein’s argument. He describes three “social patterns”: the Common Assumption, False Consensus, and Group Polarization.
Liberal orthodoxy is not just a political outlook; it’s a professional one. Rarely is its content discussed. The ordinary evolution of opinion—expounding your beliefs in conversation, testing them in debate, reading books that confirm or refute them—is lacking, and what should remain arguable settles into surety. With so many in harmony, and with those who agree joined also in a guild membership, liberal beliefs become academic manners. It’s social life in a professional world, and its patterns are worth describing.
The first protocol of academic society might be called the Common Assumption. The assumption is that all the strangers in the room at professional gatherings are liberals. Liberalism at humanities meetings serves the same purpose that scientific method does at science assemblies. It provides a base of accord. The Assumption proves correct often enough for it to join other forms of trust that enable collegial events. A fellowship is intimated, and members may speak their minds without worrying about justifying basic beliefs or curbing emotions.
Party-poopers who take issue with the Common Assumption have to remain silent or endure “quarantine”. Note that the phenomenon here described has nothing in particular to do with liberalism. One would guess that in other contexts a Common Assumption of racism or antisemitism would oil the social gears just as effectively. Bauerlein later acknowledges that point.
False Consensus
The second pattern is False Consensus:
That effect occurs when people think that the collective opinion of their own group matches that of the larger population. If the members of a group reach a consensus and rarely encounter those who dispute it, they tend to believe that everybody thinks the same way.
The tendency applies to professors, especially in humanities departments, but with a twist. Although a liberal consensus reigns within, academics have an acute sense of how much their views clash with the majority of Americans. Some take pride in a posture of dissent and find noble precursors in civil rights, Students for a Democratic Society, and other such movements. But dissent from the mainstream has limited charms, especially after 24 years of center-right rule in Washington. Liberal professors want to be adversarial, but are tired of seclusion. Thus, many academics find a solution in a limited version of the False Consensus that says liberal belief reigns among intellectuals everywhere.
Such a consensus applies only to the thinking classes, union supporters, minority-group activists, and environmentalists against corporate powers. Professors cannot conceive that any person trained in critical thinking could listen to George W. Bush speak and still vote Republican. They do acknowledge one setting in which right-wing intellectual work happens—namely, the think tanks—but add that the labor there is patently corrupt. The Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and the Hoover Institution all have corporate sponsors, they note, and fellows in residence do their bidding. Hence, references to “right-wing think tanks” are always accompanied by the qualifier “well-funded.”
So many half-truths, so little time… Bauerlein tells us a story.
Episode I: We start with a universally acknowledged truth. If the people you encounter mostly agree with you, you are likely to believe that most people agree with you. Hence liberal academics think that most people agree with them.
Episode II: Whoops! In fact liberal academics are acutely aware that the majority doesn’t agree with them. How did that happen? Bauerlein doesn’t say.
That “the majority” and academics are strongly in disagreement is dubious at best. Abortion? 78% think it should be always or sometimes legal (Polling Report, CNN/USAToday/Gallup 21 Mar 2005). Rothman et al. have 84% of their academic respondents strongly agreeing or agreeing with a pro-choice statement (p7). The war in Iraq? A year ago 25% of the public were opposed; now 47% are (Polling Report, data from CNN/USAToday/Gallup 18–20 March). On a few points, I’m quite sure Bauerlein is right. On human origins, for example, 33% agree with the evolutionary acccount, 57% with the Bible (Polling Report, NBC 8–10 Mar). I don’t feel too bad about being out of step on that one.
Episode IIa: It’s such a drag to be a dissenter. (Notice that Clinton is “center-right”.)
Episode III: Liberal academics, having somehow managed to figure out that not everyone agrees with them, go for the next most comforting hypothesis: all smart people agree with them.
Could someone versed in critical thinking vote for George W. Bush in 2004? I don’t know. A critical thinker might have noticed that the tax cuts, which were supposed to create jobs without increasing the deficit, did not in fact create very many jobs, and that the deficit—even apart from expenditures on the war—has increased a great deal. A critical thinker might have thought that the evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was weak. A critical thinker might have noticed that candidates for science policy panels were being screened for their political views, and that administration officials were rewriting or suppressing reports for political reasons. And so on. What’s undoubtedly true is that some liberal academics indulged in the common tendency to think that people who disagree with you are stupid. That is imprudent.
Episode IV: But alas! There seems to be intellectual work going on at those well-heeled right-wing think tanks. Now what? Liberal academics make the accurate observation that those think tanks take in lots of corporate cash. Bauerlein doesn’t deny that. Nor does he bother to deny that the inhabitants of think tanks funded by corporate cash “do the bidding” of their sponsors. I suppose the point is that even if they’re whores they can still be making good arguments.
What we have is a not very coherent story whose initial premise (“liberal academics are isolated”) is not well supported. Why did Bauerlein tell it? It does make liberals look bad—out of step, inconsistent, envious. But as an explanation of “groupthink”, it doesn’t have much going for it.
Group Polarization
[The “law of group polarization”] predicts that when like-minded people deliberate as an organized group, the general opinion shifts toward extreme versions of their common beliefs. […]
Group Polarization happens so smoothly on campuses that those involved lose all sense of the range of legitimate opinion. A librarian at Ohio State University who announces, “White Americans pay too little attention to the benefits their skin color gives them, and opening their eyes to their privileged status is a valid part of a college education” (The Chronicle, August 6 [subscription only]) seems to have no idea how extreme his vision sounds to many ears. […]
The problem is that the simple trappings of deliberation make academics think that they’ve reached an opinion through reasoned debate—instead of, in part, through an irrational social dynamic. The opinion takes on the status of a norm. Extreme views appear to be logical extensions of principles that everyone more or less shares, and extremists gain a larger influence than their numbers merit. If participants left the enclave, their beliefs would moderate, and they would be more open to the beliefs of others. But with the conferences, quarterlies, and committee meetings suffused with extreme positions, they’re stuck with abiding by the convictions of their most passionate brethren.
As things stand, such behaviors shift in a left direction, but they could just as well move right if conservatives had the extent of control that liberals do now. The phenomenon that I have described is not so much a political matter as a social dynamic; any political position that dominates an institution without dissent deterioriates into smugness, complacency, and blindness.
Group polarization is a well-supported phenomenon (↓6). But Bauerlein’s use of it ignores some important aspects (my reference is the paper by Cass Sunstein). In passing I note that Bauerlein has implied that the opinion expressed by the librarian at Ohio State lies outside “the range of legitimate opinion”. Is it so extreme to believe that showing members of a privileged group that they are indeed privileged could reasonably be considered part of a good education? But I suppose that if an opinion is not legitimate, you don’t need to discuss its content or test it in debate.
Sunstein’s paper is a plea for bringing findings about group polarization into law and political theory. In particular, theories of deliberation need to take it into account. A few points stand out.
  • “Social homogeneity can be quite damaging to good deliberation”(4).
  • Among the “social” causes of group polarization are:
    (i) “social comparison”—the desire to be viewed favorably by others (which, coupled with the fact that to be viewed favorably tends to require being viewed as similar, leads people to adjust their views to conform with those of the majority or the most prominent members of the group);
    (ii) “persuasive arguments”—“When people hear arguments that they perceive as valid, or find to be memorable, vivid, new, or weighty simply by virtue of emphasis and repetition, they will shift in the direction suggested by those arguments” (14). The sociologist doesn’t distinguish between shifts based on valid arguments, and shifts based on features irrelevant to truth.
  • “Polarization is most likely to occur, and to be most extreme, under circumstances in which group membership is made salient and people have a high degree of anonymity”, and when people have similar initial inclinations rather than well-considered judgments. When factual claims are at issue, group members who have reliable information tend to persuade those who don’t (or think they don’t) (17).
Start with the last point. In the academy, group membership is certainly salient, as it is in the professions generally. On the other hand, anonymity is rare. In matters pertaining to their own disciplines, academics have—or at least ought to have—based their judgments on a thorough study of the issues. As Sunstein notes, judgments so formed are unlikely to change. In other matters, I don’t know whether the habits exercised in one’s professional life carry over (↓7). If they do, then one would not expect political judgments to change much either.
I would guess that the force and effects of “social comparison” and “persuasive arguments” are attenuated, but certainly not absent, in academica. We’re only human (but one attraction of academic life is that it is, by comparison with many other professions, unstructured, “unbossed”; and it may be that people who like that are less likely, for example, to accede to arguments from authority). As for arguments, arguing is our business. It can hardly be a matter for criticism to be moved by arguments one “perceives as valid”. But of course academics are moved by vivid, memorable prose, and like anyone else may give it more credence than it deserves.
There’s not much reason, in sum, to think that academics are more prone to groupthink than, say, Bush’s inner circle (see Timothy Noah, “Against Deliberation”, Slate 10 Dec 2004). Whatever conditions conduce to groupthink hold also in boardrooms and think tanks. The tu quoque is inevitable here, because the sociological claims on which Bauerlein relies hold for any group. Hence when it comes to remedies, there must either be contingent features peculiar to academia that can be addressed by them, or else the proposal must amount, if it is not to be vainly willing that the laws of society be altered, to a restructuring of academic life so that Group Polarization doesn’t occur.
We might also want to distinguish, as the sociologist does not, between agreement on rational grounds (which in a group of rational agents will resemble polarization) and agreement brought about by the causes mentioned above. If the consensus in, say, critical studies were based on well-founded propositions, it would not be rational to change it. The general agreement among geologists that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old is not the result of “groupthink”. Hiring Young Earthers would not bring a breath of fresh air to the discipline. It would be a waste of money. That word “groupthink” tends to obscure this point. It implies that consensus rests on something other than good reasons. Bauerlein tells a story of students referring to Thanksgiving as “National Genocide Day”. Whether European settlers in the New World generally had any intention to eradicate native peoples I don’t know (↓9); but if we were talking about Tasmania there would be a pretty good case.
It’s a little odd for a conservative to argue as Bauerlein does. Humean or Burkean conservatism bases itself in part on the claim that human nature, and thus human institutions, are subject to general laws which cannot be altered at will. If indeed academic groupthink is a consequence of such laws, then proposing remedies is foolish and futile. Conservatives make that argument elsewhere: why not here?
What is to be done
Here is the conclusion to Bauerlein’s piece.
But we can’t open the university to conservative ideas and persons by outside command. That would poison the atmosphere and jeopardize the ideals of free inquiry. Leftist bias evolved within the protocols of academic practice (though not without intimidation), and conservative challenges should evolve in the same way. There are no administrative or professional reasons to bring conservatism into academe, to be sure, but there are good intellectual and social reasons for doing so.
Those reasons are, in brief: One, a wider spectrum of opinion accords with the claims of diversity. Two, facing real antagonists strengthens one’s own position. Three, to earn a public role in American society, professors must engage the full range of public opinion.
Finally, to create a livelier climate on the campus, professors must end the routine setups that pass for dialogue. […]
In Sunstein’s account of Group Polarization (which is causally primary among the three “patterns” described by Bauerlein), the variables affecting polarization are:
  • The social homogeneity of the group.
  • The initial inclinations of the participants (or the proportions that have differing inclinations), and whether they are toward extreme or moderate opinions.
  • The kinds of questions to be decided (factual, nonfactual).
  • The anonymity or otherwise of participants.
  • The saliency of group identity.
Bauerlein wants to alter the first, at least where political heterogeneity is concerned; the others, I should note, would be much harder. Here he can find support in Sunstein’s paper. Sunstein holds that one of the chief determinants of group polarization is the size of the “argument pool”. Heterogeneity promotes an increase. But not just any heterogeneity: “The constraints of time and attention call for limits to heterogeneity; and—a separate point—for good deliberation to take place, some views are properly placed off the table, simply because they are so invidious and implausible” (28). A debate on affirmative action need not include consideration of the merits of slavery. “What is necessary is not to allow every view to be heard, but to ensue that no single view is so widely heard, and reinforced, that people are unable to engage in critical evaluation of the reasonable competitors”.
If indeed liberal thought is so pervasive on campus that no-one can make a reasoned judgment for lack of exposure to alternatives, then it is rational to change that condition. On the other hand, there isn’t much of a case for bringing Ann Coulter or a white supremacist to campus. To hold that liberals are traitors is presumably invidious and implausible enough to justify the exclusion of that argument from deliberation (↓8). (Feyerabend would have taken issue with Sunstein on this point. To hold that “some views are properly placed off the table” is to open the way to the suppression of dissent. Who, after all, decides what is sufficiently invidious and implausible to be left aside? Is that a matter for deliberation also? Sunstein has in mind situations where time is limited, as in jury deliberations. But in the academy there is, so to speak, infinite time, at least in those cases where no action will follow upon the judgment. In deciding what King Lear is about, or whether minds are brains, we have all the time in the world.)
Granting, then, that diversity of views contributes to rational debate, are students in danger of lack of exposure to alternatives? Suppose (what is false) that every professor in every humanities department at Wash U was a flaming Maoist. A student all of whose classes were in the humanities would, in taking five courses, be exposed to fifteen hours a week of flaming Maoism, plus whatever time was devoted to reading required texts. What then? The campus is not isolated, certainly not in the era of the Internet and the cell phone. Our student has only to watch Fox News or read the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal (which at Wash U can be picked up for free). Those who come in with conservative views would probably leave with conservative views (I don’t know of any data on change in political views during the college years; the anecdotal evidence available by way of Horowitz and Students for Academic Freedom suggests that conservatives mostly emerge unscathed).
Those who take Bauerlein’s line tend to dismiss this argument. I don’t know why. The primary influences on longterm habits of thought are probably not professors or books, but rather peer culture and the ambient climate of opinion. My lectures are not, I hope, dull. But I doubt that anything I say is remembered half so well as the lyrics of current pop tunes. I myself remember the plot of Annie Hall and the words to “Like a Rolling Stone” better than most of the philosophy books I’ve read.
As I said earlier, Bauerlein is in a bit of a bind. If liberal bias and liberal groupthink are the result of social laws (or if they exemplify very general features of social groups), then only what in other contexts would be called “social engineering” will alter them. It would be like tampering with markets—achievable only by oppressive means, probably futile, certainly harmful. If, on the other hand, liberal bias and liberal groupthink are the result of contingent features of the academy as it is now, we would need to know what those features are and how it acquired them. We would need some history. Altering the effects of longterm historical developments is not easy, but (as the civil rights movement showed) it can happen. Bauerlein hasn’t exhibited any such feature. For reasons unknown, academics today “shun conservative values and traditions”: there’s your story.
His recommendations are anodyne. Liberal groupthink is supposed to be corrected under the very same protocols that permitted it; in the meantime, it would be nice to bring some conservatives to campus.
Mr. Slightly Less Nice Guy
A piece at the Forum of the National Academy of Scholars implies that sterner remedies may be in order (“Academic Freedom and Outside Action ”; also at FrontPage and SAF). Bauerlein begins by registering the objection that conservatives want to intrude on academic freedom.
As conservatives ask for greater intellectual diversity, this is the rejoinder we’re going to hear every time. Defenders of current practices will shout about censorship and zealotry even though our proposals merely ask that conservative opinion be granted a modest place in the curriculum and in student life. Moreover, their accusations will be simple, powerful, and soundbite-friendly, aligned (ostensibly) with democratic ideals and fitted to op-ed and talking head formats.
Referring to Stephen Balch, the President of the NAS, Bauerlein adds that “despite the rank hypocrisy” of liberal objections,
we should stick to the point. We don’t ask for quotas, or even proportional representation, and we certainly limit campus discourse to ideas and beliefs that meet scholarly and humane standards. All we ask is that the university be a full marketplace of ideas, with all respectable viewpoints represented.
I like that bit about liberals being “soundbite-friendly”, and fitted to “talking-head formats”. Those sneaky liberals! Conservatives would never stoop to such tactics… But never mind. Bauerlein starts off the piece, as can be seen, with a modest plea for “intellectual diversity”. Then things get interesting.
[…] academic freedom isn’t a right; it’s a privilege, an extraordinary one. And it isn’t granted by God; it’s granted by the larger social polity. Professors speak of the university as separate from the society it inhabits, with its own rules and protocols. They’re right. In a democratic society, universities occupy a special place, namely, the place in which inquiry is to be unfettered by politics, money, and power. But in return comes an obligation for professors to safeguard the principles of free exchange. It’s a social contract: society grants faculty space protected from power politics and business models, and faculty members pledge to uphold the ideals that differentiate the campus from the rest of society.
If university faculty do not observe and protect the principles of free exchange, then the social polity, the other party to the contract, can exact sanctions for non-fulfillment.
To be sure, academic Leftists will perceive outside pressure as an infringement of academic freedom. They think that the university is an independent enclave accountable only to itself, and that any incursions from beyond by definition threaten the integrity of higher education. But, in truth, outside pressure arises precisely in order to do the opposite. It is the faculty who have abandoned the ideal, who stifle dissent no matter how learned, who under the guise of a rearguard, adversarial, protest posture rule the campus intellectual world and apportion its many comforts and securities to a slim ideological spectrum.
[…] Academic freedom isn’t the property of the faculty. It is the responsibility of campus dwellers, yes, but the property of all citizens. When faculty members trample on intellectual diversity, they abuse the privileges of the cloister.
The penalties (for now) nevertheless remain light:
Left-wing faculty and Left-wing ideas should not be discriminated against, nor should punitive measures of any kind be imposed. Instead, leaders should discuss in the media, in the legislature, and in the schools the meaning and purview of academic freedom. A simple rededication to pluralism, dissent, and debate will put bigotry and bias on the defensive.
Academic freedom belongs, as a sort of property, to all citizens (is Bauerlein implying that noncitizens are not part of the contract? or is he just being careless?). That property is given to members of the university on condition that they “safeguard the principles of free exchange”. In short: you’re allowed to inquire freely so long as you preserve the conditions under which free inquiry can take place.
As a history of rules governing teaching and research in universities, this is worthless. But the stories told in contract theories aren’t intended to be history. They are narrativized justifications. The claim to be justified here is: “Academics shall be free to pursue their research and publish their results as they see fit without interference from political or business interests” (this is a first go, but sufficient for present purposes). The justification is that society or its citizens have in effect agreed that academics shall be free, etc. so long as academics themselves agree that academics—i.e. other academics—shall be free etc. What follows is that whatever obligation to respect academic freedom has been undertaken by society lapses if the condition is not satisfied.
What one expects here is that some purpose or interest be attributed to society in doing so. Bauerlein doesn’t offer any, which gives to academic freedom a purely positive status. Hence if society were to cease to agree that academics shall be free, etc., there is no further argument to be made on behalf of that claim. It’s not even clear that adherence to the condition of the contract on the part of academics would be grounds on which to argue that the agreement on the part of society should be maintained. (Suppose that you and I agree that I will do the dishes so long as you do the laundry. If I am deciding whether or not to terminate the agreement in toto, the fact that so far you have always done the laundry is irrelevant.) Bauerlein’s argument would seem to give the state, or its legislators, a free hand in determining under what conditions universities will operate.
I myself would treat academic freedom as (i) a special case of the First Amendment right to free speech, with (ii) extensions concerning the obligations of universities to protect that right. Those extensions concern, notably, tenure. Tenure amounts to a restriction on the conditions under which an academic can be fired. It shifts the burden of proof to the institution. Businesses and think tanks are under no such obligations; the burden of proof, generally speaking, is on the employee to show that he or she was fired for the wrong reasons (e.g. because of age). It is reasonable that since hiring and tenure decisions are usually left to faculty themselves (once funds have been allocated), faculty members inherit the obligations to protect academic freedom. If someone is denied tenure solely on the basis of their political views, that is a violation of those obligations.
State funding for institutions that respect academic freedom is presumably justified partly on the basis of the interest of the state and its people in having a well-educated population, centers of research, and a thriving culture, and partly on the basis that subsidizing educational institutions (and thus lowering the cost of education to students and their parents) makes the opportunity to become well-educated less dependent on wealth. (The second would justify state funding even if private institutions served the interests of the state just as well.) The First Amendment aspect of academic freedom is, it seems to me, quite independent of state interest. What remains is the special protection extended to faculty in their teaching and research.
The ultimate goal to be achieved by that protection (which carries with it, as both Bauerlein and the AAUP observe, correlative duties) is, according to the AAUP 1940 Statement of Principles, the “common good”; subordinate to that goal is the “free search for truth and its free exposition”. Proponents of the Bill of Academic Rights and its analogues generally agree that freedom in research and publication serves the common good (though I think some of them are not as friendly to that principle as they wish to appear). The special protections, then, are in service to the common good. If they do serve it, then they are justified independently of any supposed contract between universities and society or the state. They remain justified even if faculty themselves do not respect their own obligations to protect academic freedom.
Universities already have procedures by which grievances may be filed against professors who violate the terms of the 1940 AAUP Statement or its equivalents. Since outside intervention is itself a prima facie violation of academic freedom, and since (as the history of academic freedom shows) legislatures and other governing bodies are only too prone to intervene, the burden of proof is very much on those who would advocate such intervention. I don’t think Bauerlein has made his case.
(↑1) The quoted words come from a summary of the results (Jeffrey Seling, “U.S. Public's Confidence in Colleges Remains High/Chronicle poll also finds concern over costs, sports, and ‘legacy’ admissions”, 7 May 2004). The poll item was, as Bauerlein says, “Colleges and universities improperly introduce a liberal bias in what they teach”. 14% strongly agreed, 37% agreed, 31% disagreed, and 8% strongly disagreed; 11% said they didn’t know, a noticeably higher number than for any of the other questions in this section of the poll. Without further data on the bases for people’s opinions, it’s hard to know what to make of the result. Two things are worth mentioning.
The first is Newt Gingrich’s “Language: a Key Mechanism of Control”. Opinion-makers on the right have worked hard to create assocations between words like “professor” and “liberal”. To the extent that responses to polling items are like responses to word-association tests, what we learn is that Gingrich’s strategy has been successful here too.
The second is that the right is in a bit of a bind. Since the Reagan years, the right has pursued a strategy of “de-funding the left” As the Chronicle summary notes, confidence in higher education is high. People think that costs could be cut; at the same time they want more access. If de-funding the left on campus requires cutting back higher education, it will not be popular—not, at least, without explanation or obfuscation. No doubt some funding could be redirected from “liberal” to “conservative” institutions. But public universities cannot be “de-funded” without political costs—nor, for that mattter, can the “elite ” institutions surveyed by Horowitz, since their prestige still counts for more than their ideological character. The practicable strategies would seem to be: (i) diminishing the influence, if not the funding, of liberals on campus by the threat of lawsuits or censure based on the Academic Bill of Rights (whose supporters often take the public political stances of professors to be prima facie evidence of bias in the classroom); and (ii) establishing new programs with an explicit or implicit conservative agenda, with the intent of draining funds away from existing “liberal” departments. The second is among the proposals of Stephen Balch (“The Antidote to Academic Orthodoxy”, Chronicle 50, no. 33 (23 April 2004) p. B7).
On de-funding the Left, see Bill Berkowitz, “Defunding the Left”, Alternet.org, 19 Feb 2001; Bruce J. Cameron, “Defunding the Left […] and other Pleasant Pursuits”, National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a lecture delivered on 3 Jul 1997 to the Christian Educators’ Association; Stanley Kurtz, The Faith-Based Left, National Review Online 5 Feb 2001; Defunding the Left at Sourcewatch.
(↑2) The story is by Jennifer Jacobson. Jacobson has also written on the Middle East Institute at Columbia (archived at Campus Watch (6 Feb 2004) and on Oneida Meranto case in Colorado (26 Nov 2004).
(↑3) Bauerlein doesn’t inquire into the history of political affiliations among academics. Nakhale and Brym, in the article cited above, write that “in North America and Europe before World War II, technocracy and radicalism converged. The political left was committed to science and progress, which the reactionary right often mocked”. Quoting Eric Hobsbawm, they point out that scientists before World War II tended to be anti-Fascist; after the war, when Fascism had been defeated, and big science came to be more and more dependent on government funding, political radicalism decreased among scientists. Even so, professors in the sciences now are not much less liberal than their counterparts in the humanities. Conservatives mostly ignore the “liberal bias” of scientists. It suggests, among other things, that bias in the humanities is not a matter of tenured radicals taking over after the sixties.
Universities and the “university districts” adjacent to them are a socially distinct sort of place, tending mostly to be more liberal than their surroundings. For one example, see Gumprecht, “Campus Corners and Aggievilles”, on Kansas State and Manhattan, Kansas (pdf).
(↑4) William F. Buckley’s advice on the treatment of socialist professors comes to mind:
For William F. Buckley Jr., author of the 1951 polemic “God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom’” and a founder of modern American conservatism, the solution to this scandal was straightforward: Fire the wanton professors. No freedom would be abridged. The socialist professor could “seek employment at a college that was interested in propagating socialism.” None around? No problem. The market has spoken. The good professor can retool or move on (Russell Jacoby, Crybaby Conservatives, CBS 21 Mar 2005; see also “So Universities Hire Liberal Faculty—This Is News?”, History News Network 28 Mar 2005).
Have things changed since 1951? Oh wait—I know: socialists are bad, and should be fired; conservatives are good, and should be hired. It’s not the same at all!
(↑5) References:
Martin, Brian. Tied knowledge. Online, 1998.
Nakhale, Reza, & Robert Brym. “The political attitudes of Canadian professors”, Canadian Journal of Sociology 24.3 (1999): 329–353.
Rothman, Stanley, S. Robert Lichter, Neil Nevitte. “Politics and professional achievement among college faculty”. Stats (Statistical Assessment Service, George Mason University); see the abstract; also in The Forum, Mar 2005.
Townsley, Eleanor. “Myth of liberal influence”, Ivan Szelényi Festschrift (at Rutgers, 1998).
All these authors refer to
Ladd, Everett Carll, Jr. & Seymour Martin Lipset. The divided academy: professors and politics. New York: McGraw Hill, 1975.
(↑6) The Wikipedia entry gives references back to 1969. See Cass Sunstein, “The law of group polarization”, Social Science Research Network #199668 = University of Chicago Law School, John M. Olin Law & Economics Working Paper No. 91 (Dec 1999).
(↑7) If I were to speculate, I would say that people allocate their thinking resources in proportion to the practical importance of the questions facing them (where “practical” can mean simply that one has decided it’s important to have a reasoned view), and sometimes in relation to their sense of agency—if my judgment, hence my decision, affects an outcome in which I have an interest, I’m more likely to think it over than if I have no say in what happens. Some people treat having an unconsidered judgment as a kind of intellectual sin, no matter what the domain; others are less stringent.
(↑8) Horowitz, to his credit, balks when Coulter equivocates on the question whether John F. Kennedy was a traitor (“The trouble with Treason”, Frontpage 8 July 2003). His piece is well worth reading for its understanding of the dynamics of defamation.
(↑9) Call it what you will. Here is what Bauerlein concludes from the exchange:
An assertion of the genocidal motives of early English settlers is put forward not for discussion but for approval. If the audience shares the belief, all is well and good. But a lone dissenter disrupts the process and, merely by posing a question, can show just how cheap such a pat consensus actually is.
The grain of truth in this is that most consensus is “cheap”, in the sense that most of us hold most of our opinions on the basis of their having been expressed by people we regard as reliable. We don’t have time to research every issue. It may well be that the students Bauerlein refers to had just “picked up” the designation (whether they were referring only to early English settlers is not clear).
But suppose there were a discussion. How would it go? On the one side: massacres, starvation, forced removal from native lands, forcible integration of culturally distinct tribes… On the other?
See, for example, Lee Sultzman, “Pequot History” on the actions of certain early English settlers; for the histories of other tribes, see First Nations Histories. See also David C. Wynecoop, Children of the sun, Chapter 3: The fortunes of war, Wellpinit (Wash.) School District #49 (orig. publ. 1969); Richard L. Carrico, San Diego Indians and the Federal Government: Years of Neglect, 1850-1865, The Journal of San Diego History 26.3 (Summer 1980).

LinkMay 7, 2005 in Academic Affairs · Current Affairs · Society


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