Why Is Academia Liberal?
Liberal Groupthink Is Anti-Intellectual
(permanent link: http://www.duke.edu/~munger/bc.htm )
By MARK BAUERLEIN
Conservatives on college campuses scored a tactical hit when the
American Enterprise Institute's magazine published a survey of voter
registration among humanities and social-science faculty members several years
ago. More than nine out of 10 professors belonged to the Democratic or Green
party, an imbalance that contradicted many liberal academics' protestations that
diversity and pluralism abound in higher education. Further investigations by
people like David Horowitz, president of the Center for the Study of Popular
Culture, coupled with well-publicized cases of discrimination against
conservative professors, reinforced the findings and set "intellectual
diversity" on the agenda of state legislators and members of Congress.
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. 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."
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
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.
No active or noisy
elimination need occur, and no explicit queries about political orientation need
be posed. Political orientation has been embedded into the disciplines, and so
what is indeed a political judgment may be expressed in disciplinary terms. As
an Americanist said in a committee meeting that I attended, "We can't hire
anyone who doesn't do race," an assertion that had all the force of a scholastic
dictum. Stanley Fish, professor and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts
and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, advises, "The question
you should ask professors is whether your work has influence or relevance" --
and while he raised it to argue that no liberal conspiracy in higher education
exists, the question is bound to keep conservatives off the short list. For
while studies of scholars like Michel Foucault, Michael Hardt, and Antonio Negri
seem central in the graduate seminar, studies of Friedrich A. von Hayek and
Francis Fukuyama, whose names rarely appear on cultural-studies syllabi despite
their influence on world affairs, seem irrelevant.
Academics may quibble
over the hiring process, but voter registration shows that liberal orthodoxy now
has a professional import. Conservatives and liberals square off in public, but
on campuses, conservative opinion doesn't qualify as respectable inquiry. You
won't often find vouchers discussed in education schools or patriotism argued in
American studies. Historically, the boundaries of scholarly fields were created
by the objects studied and by norms of research and peer review. Today, a
political variable has been added, whereby conservative assumptions expel their
holders from the academic market. A wall insulates the academic left from ideas
and writings on the right.
One can see that phenomenon in how insiders,
reacting to Horowitz's polls, displayed little evidence that they had ever read
conservative texts or met a conservative thinker. Weblogs had entries
conjecturing why conservatives avoid academe -- while never actually bothering
to find one and ask -- as if they were some exotic breed whose absence lay
rooted in an inscrutable mind-set. Professors offered caricatures of the
conservative intelligentsia, selecting Ann H. Coulter and Rush Limbaugh as
representatives, not von Hayek, Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss, Thomas Sowell, Robert
Nozick, or Gertrude Himmelfarb. One of them wrote that "conservatives of
Horowitz's ilk want to unleash the most ignorant forces of the right in hounding
liberal academics to death."
Such parochialism and alarm are the outcome of
a course of socialization that aligns liberalism with disciplinary standards and
collegial mores. 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
The Common Assumption usually pans out and passes unnoticed --
except for those who don't share it, to whom it is an overt fact of professional
life. Yet usually even they remain quiet in the face of the Common Assumption.
There is no joy in breaking up fellow feeling, and the awkward pause that
accompanies the moment when someone comes out of the conservative closet marks a
quarantine that only the institutionally secure are willing to endure.
Sometimes, however, the Assumption steps over the line into arrogance, as
when at a dinner a job candidate volunteered her description of a certain
"racist, sexist, and homophobic" organization, and I admitted that I belonged to
it. Or when two postdocs from Germany at a nearby university stopped by my
office to talk about American literature. As they sat down and I commented on
how quiet things were on the day before Thanksgiving, one muttered, "Yes, we
call it American Genocide Day."
Such episodes reveal the argumentative
hazards of the Assumption. Apart from the ill-mannered righteousness, academics
with too much confidence in their audience utter debatable propositions as
received wisdom. 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
After Nixon crushed McGovern in the 1972 election, the film
critic Pauline Kael made a remark that has become a touchstone among
conservatives. "I don't know how Richard Nixon could have won," she marveled. "I
don't know anybody who voted for him." While the second sentence indicates the
sheltered habitat of the Manhattan intellectual, the first signifies what social
scientists call the False Consensus Effect. 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 happensnamely, the think
tanksbut 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."
The dangers of aligning
liberalism with higher thought are obvious. When a Duke University philosophy
professor implied last February that conservatives tend toward stupidity, he
confirmed the public opinion of academics as a self-regarding elite --
regardless of whether or not he was joking, as he later said that he was. When
laymen scan course syllabi or search the shelves of college bookstores and find
only a few volumes of traditionalist argument amid the thickets of leftist
critique, they wonder whether students ever enjoy a fruitful encounter with
conservative thought. When a conference panel is convened or a collection is
published on a controversial subject, and all the participants and contributors
stand on one side of the issue, the tendentiousness is striking to everyone
except those involved. The False Consensus does its work, but has an opposite
effect. Instead of uniting academics with a broader public, it isolates them as
a ritualized club.
The final social pattern is the Law of Group
Polarization. That lawas Cass R. Sunstein, a professor of political science and
of jurisprudence at the University of Chicago, has describedpredicts that when
like-minded people deliberate as an organized group, the general opinion shifts
toward extreme versions of their common beliefs. In a product-liability trial,
for example, if nine jurors believe the manufacturer is somewhat guilty and
three believe it is entirely guilty, the latter will draw the former toward a
larger award than the nine would allow on their own. If people who object in
varying degrees to the war in Iraq convene to debate methods of protest, all
will emerge from the discussion more resolved against the war.
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) seems to have no idea how
extreme his vision sounds to many ears. Deliberations among groups are just as
prone to tone deafness. The annual resolutions of the Modern Language
Association's Delegate Assembly, for example, ring with indignation over
practices that enjoy popular acceptance. Last year, charging that in wartime,
governments use language to "misrepresent policies" and "stigmatize dissent,"
one resolution urged faculty members to conduct "critical analysis of war talk
... as appropriate, in classrooms." However high-minded the delegates felt as
they tallied the vote, which passed 122 to 8 without discussion, to outsiders
the resolution seemed merely a license for more proselytizing.
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. The solution is an intellectual
climate in which the worst tendencies of group psychology are neutralized.
That doesn't mean establishing affirmative action for conservative scholars
or encouraging greater market forces in education -- which violate conservative
values as much as they do liberal values. Rather, it calls for academics to
recognize that a one-party campus is bad for the intellectual health of
everyone. Groupthink is an anti-intellectual condition, ironically seductive in
that the more one feels at ease with compatriots, the more one's mind narrows.
The great liberal John Stuart Mill identified its insulating effect as a failure
of imagination: "They have never thrown themselves into the mental condition of
those who think differently from them." With adversaries so few and opposing
ideas so disposable, a reverse advantage sets in. The majority expands its power
throughout the institution, but its thinking grows routine and parochial. The
minority is excluded, but its thinking is tested and toughened. Being the lone
dissenter in a colloquy, one learns to acquire sure facts, crisp arguments, and
a thick skin.
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.
Mark Bauerlein is a
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. Panels on issues like Iraq, racism,
imperialism, and terrorism that stack the dais provide lots of passion, but
little excitement. Syllabi that include the same roster of voices make learning
ever more desultory. Add a few rightists, and the debate picks up. Perhaps that
is the most persuasive internal case for infusing conservatism into academic
discourse and activities. Without genuine dissent in the classroom and the
committee room, academic life is simply boring.
professor of English at Emory University and director of research at the
National Endowment for the Arts.
Chronicle ReviewVolume 51, Issue 12, Page B6
Hmmmm, why was the poll conducted only in social science departments (e.g., sociology, psychology, philosophy, history, anthropology, perhaps English...)? What was the point of the poll? To show that excessive pseudo-liberal post-modern straw-man actually exists? Sure it does, and it is excessive, pseudo-liberal, and post-modern, in other words it is not representative of liberalism in its pure form. Even in these departments, only an occasional member is really that far out ( http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2004/10/why-are-post-modernistsdeconstructioni.html ).
How about business, accounting, economics and religion departments? Who says there are no conservatives in the academia? Hey, the Head of the political science department at Duke is a conservative - Dr.Munger himself!
So, one can argue that some fields of inquiry attract liberals, and others attract conservatives. Some areas are built on liberal foundations, others on conservatives foundations. So far, so good.
But, let's look at apolitical departments. How about math, natural sciences, engineering, agriculture, medicine? One's political views are not aired during the job interview, exposed in faculty meetings, do not show up in classroom teaching, do not get published in peer-reviewed journals. So, how come 90% of those faculty are also liberals/Democrats/Greens? Why are conservatives shunning these areas, or being shunned (if even recognized) by these departments? Is there something deeper going on here?
A couple of years ago I was talking to a post-doc in our department. We were talking about our research in general. I said that only about a quarter of my experiments work. She said: "You are a genius! That is a fantastic record". I said something about having a good advisor who doesn't let me do foolish stuff. Still, this shows what kind of person can survive in science: one with very thick skin, able to shrug, wash the dishes, go have a beer, and come back to the lab in the morning.
Academic life is extremely competitive (wouldn't that make it inherently more attractive to conservatives?). Landing a tenure-track position is very difficult. It is reserved for the best of the best. One has to be the super-expert in one's field. How does one become such a person?
Success in an academic field, especially in sciences, requires an exceptional clarity of thinking, sharpness of logic, and ability to see through the BS. One needs to be able to swiftly discard one's most cherished pet hypothesis at moment's notice when faced by the damned data that disprove it, data of one's own making at 4am. This happens every day, every week, throughout one's career, starting in grad school. It takes quite a high dose of honesty and ability for self-criticism to do so on a regular basis without getting frustrated enough to quit. A sense of humor is almost a requirement (as opposed to the common stereotype of a dour professor). Self-deprecation is a great survival tactic in such an endeavor.
So, why do people who survive such a painful training happen to be overwhelmingly liberal? Can it be, perhaps, because they employ the same brutal honesty and sharply-honed skills of critical analysis to politics? Can it be that their well-trained baloney-detection kit detects baloney in conservative ideology? Can it be that conservative thinking is just pure bad? Or at least out-dated? Can it be because conservative worldview is not based on empirical information, but on one's own bias inherited from one's parents, molded by one's early childhood environment? Can it be that liberal model passes these tests?
There is no equivalence between Creationism and Evolutionary biology. So, why is it assumed that there is equivalence between the conservative and liberal outlook? It is the same kind of comparison. One view is out-dated and based on faith, the other is modern and based on empirical information about the way this world works. Perhaps there are very few conservatives in the academia for the same reason there are very few Creationists in the academia ( http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2004/08/three-rs.html ). Universities want to teach students the best available scholarship, so why hire the sub-standard thinkers?
As far as diversity of opinion in the clasroom, there is always a bunch of young unthinking loudmouth Republicans among the students. There needs to be someone in the position of authority to put them straight, teach them how to think clearly, and show them the way out of their medieval mindsets. Conservative writings need to be studied at the University in order to understand the anti-elite forces in order to learn how to defeat them (or isolate and leave behind to die out a natural death). People like von Hayek, Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss, Thomas Sowell, Robert Nozick, or Gertrude Himmelfarb need to be read by students in order to learn how to see through the deceptive rhetoric and destroy the argument, just like they need to know how to destroy arguments of Creationists.
How can we make sure that conservatives mis-educating our students in business, poli-sci, and economics departments get replaced by someone more up-to-date? Can the GOP tax-cutting madness, the Enron scandals, and the Bush electoral win be traced to the mis-education going on these departments?
That is what the University is for - the focal point of societal progress, the place where outdated ideas of the parent generation are replaced by modern fact-supported ideas of the intellectual elites ( http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2004/10/assault-on-higher-education-lakoffian.html ). The modern University is the engine of progress. If it was not liberal, we might as well just have seminaries ( http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2004/10/empire-empiricism-empowerment.html ) and take the country back to the Middle Ages and keep it there for centuries.
Am I an elitist to think this way? Sure I am, and proud of it. Elites are the avante-garde of society, the cutting edge of progress - why should one be ashamed of belonging to the elite or even of trying to join the elite? Why is this country so anti-elitist and anti-intellectual? It does not seem to be that way in Europe ( http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2004/08/hearts-brains-or-both.html ). What can we do to change that here? Perhaps the tragedy of the second Bush term will be a rude awakening for the country and the cause of final disgraceful downfall of the so-called "conservative" ideology.
Cross-posted at Science and Politics
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