Reforming academia through proliferating variety and mystery?

by John Holbo on December 9, 2004

This is one of those ‘liberal bias/groupthink in academia’ posts. (Oh goody, you say; another for the pile.) Let me launch off from Mark Bauerlein’s Chron piece, which I agree with almost entirely. And away from George Will’s op-ed,
in which he is agreeing with Bauerlein, in the wrongest way. What makes Bauerlein right and Will wrong? (George F. Will? Wrong? Stop the presses! Get that JAPS BOMB PEARL HARBOR type we save for special occasions. DOG BITES MAN should do.)

Brian Leiter pretty says the necessary.
The idea that George F. Will has earned the right to get his
bowtie in a twist about "smelly little orthodoxies" is rich. (Ah, the
exquisitely odoriferous narrowness of the human cranny that is the
Washington punditocracy! The olfactory refinement of sensibility necessary to thrive!) Tom Smith, with whom I have certainly had my
differences on this question, cannot suppress a snicker.
"Washington lecturing academia on intellectual integrity is like
Hollywood lecturing Wall Street on greed." Actually, I would say it’s
more like Wall Street lecturing Hollywood on greed. In a horrible sort
of ‘write what you know’ way, it makes sense.

The thing that makes this obvious point against Will worth scoring is that academia is, in absolute terms, a bit stuffy – although a wide, open-air prairie of
free inquiry compared to Will’s cloistered cocoon. (It would be funny to do a spoof about George F. Will forced out of punditry and into the rigors of academia. Give him Bill Murray’s lines from Ghostbusters: "You don’t know what it’s like out there – they expect results!")

At least sometimes we do. But, sadly, academic work in much of the humanities and soft social sciences (that’s all we’re really sure we’re talking about here) is often
afflicted by what Timothy Burke has well described as "a certain
quality of conformist excellence within the heuristic constraints of
what is considered appropriate disciplinarity." What is common to TV
punditry and academic work is tension between intellectual ends – service to ideas – and a cultural
medium that dilutes perception and pursuit of those ends. Burke made this point well against David Brooks, way back when, in a comment to this CT post. (I like Burke so much I remember his comments from a year ago.) After graciously granting several points he draws the line:

Brooks misses, of course, is that this isn’t just about conservatism.
Virtually anything that departed from a carefully groomed sense of
acceptable innovation, including ideas and positions distinctively to
the left and some that are neither left nor right, could be just as
potentially disastrous. Like a lot of right-wing critics of academia,
he generally thinks too small and parochially, and too evidently simply
seeks to invert what he perceives as a dominant orthodoxy. If they had
their druthers, Horowitz and Pipes and most of the rest of the
victimology types would simply make the academy a conservative redoubt
rather than a liberal one. The real issue here is the way that each
successive academic generation succeeds in installing its own
conventional wisdom as the guardian at the gates, and burns the
principle of academic freedom in subtle, pervasive fires aflame in the
little everyday businesses and gestures of academic life.

difference between academia and the Washington Sunday morning TV
punditocracy is that the former has a carefully groomed sense of
acceptable intellectualism; the latter is carefully groomed.

Getting to the point: what’s right about Bauerlein is his strong Millian line. The flame of academic freedom of which Burke speaks. Good stuff. What’s wrong
with Will is that it is almost impossible to believe he believes this Millian line, in
principle, rather than as a matter of tactics. That goes triple for the fanatic likes of Horowitz. But I’ve said as much before.

The thing that makes the Millian line worth discussing at greater than op-ed length is that it is surprisingly hard to pin down in detail. (Turning the point around, pretty much all that can be said at op-ed length on this subject has now been said. Now we need books or, in a pinch, long blog posts.) The problem is: Mill’s principles are exactly right for governing intellectual life in the academic arena. They are less clear guides for how to construct the arena. But, in an odd sort of way, after breaking down, these principles sort of pick themselves up and march along after all. (I love Mill.)

I think Bauerlein does a fine job covering in relatively short order the relatively smooth, Millian ground. The trouble comes when you try to leverage principles of toleration and non-coercive respect into directives for, say, academic hiring. Here I’ll broaden out a bit from Mill proper, so you see what makes this sticky. In a moral sense, you can pronounce all individuals deserving of respect. (Mill even comes close to hinting, rather implausibly, that every opinion is infinitely valuable, if only as an infinitely valuable punching bag. Otherwise the utilitarian math might not work out right.) You can make a ‘truth will win out in the free market of ideas’ argument for letting everyone into the market free. You can make a more cynical checks-and-balances argument: everyone had better get a say and a vote – even if they are bloody idiots – because otherwise grievances are likely to pool and fester among the silenced and disenfranchised.

But none of these help with academic hiring. One man-one vote is fine. One man-one endowed chair is silly. Everyone can’t be a professor just because they’ve got an opinion. (That’s why there’s blogging.) Similarly, it is fine to respect everyone in the weak sense that you leave them alone to do and think as they please so long as they don’t hurt anyone. But it is absurd to demand that you respect almost everyone in the more robust sense of ‘think that almost everyone is unusually smart’. (Like at Lake Wobegon. Sort of the opposite of Stephen Potter’s writerman E.J. Workman, who is unusually ordinary in his habits, and infects everyone else with unusual ordinariness.) But ‘unusually smart’ is the strong sense of respect that gets you hired. Even the checks-and-balances argument, which you can almost always fall back on in arguing tolerance, doesn’t work here. Dumb people may have legitimate interests that need protecting, by giving them votes. Dumb ideas do not have legitimate interests that need protecting, by the provision of endowed chairs for their study. Refuting wrong ideas is good. Don’t start thinking of wrong ideas as some sort of repressed lumpenproletarian underclass of Plato’s third realm, for heaven sake. Of course, it hurts the feeling of those who hold the wrong ideas to be told their ideas are wrong. But: tough. You’ll just have to wait until ‘everybody’s idea gets a trophy day.’ (Please note. I’m not saying conservative ideas are dumb. I’m setting up for a point about what people who happen to think conservative ideas are very wrong should be committed to, if they are committed to a healthy academe. Obviously there is no problem convincing conservatives that conservatives should be better represented in academe. The trouble is convincing lefties, without converting them to conservativism, that they have some obligation to aid and abet the academic cause of conservatism.)

In short, academia is aristocratic. This sounds elitist, since it is, but it’s also trivially true. If you don’t think some beliefs are better
than others, why would you ever expend time and money to change
anyone’s beliefs by sitting them in a classroom? Why would you think
education was a good thing if you weren’t aristocratic
about it?

This complicates the ‘bias against conservatives’ question, not because it is absurd to suppose that conservatives could ever be part of an intellectual elite. (Obviously conservatives think so. I’ve now said so twice.) But because it is unclear why leftists, who obviously believe that they are right and the righties are wrong, should think so. From behind a veil of ignorance, it might make a certain among of sense to hedge your bets – if you didn’t know your political affiliation. But given that you have your convictions, and given that you are supposed to promote the best ideas, why promote ideas that you think are not the best ideas?

It’s the vast difference between respecting your neighbor’s right to be a Republican, which is a tolerance thing; and respecting your neighbor’s Republicanism so much that you promote his campaign, which is not a tolerance thing but something very much more. Academic promotion is a form of promotion. Why promote that with which we do not agree? (I’ve been misunderstood on this point before. I trust I am clear this time?)

Now at this point someone is going to object that I am just making trouble where there is really none. It isn’t unusual, after all, for folks to respect – in a strong, positive sense – their staunch intellectual adversaries. Yes, of course. I’m just asking what makes them do that. More to the point: why, even if they don’t natively feel such strong respect, they might feel duty-bound to muster a certain amount of prosthetic ersatz respect, out of a sense of intellectual duty. What principles would demand that? I think it is quite crucial that the answer is, indeed: a commitment to diversity. But why should you think diversity is good, if you are an aristocrat, as everyone who thinks schools are a good idea is? One funny fact is that the friends of diversity are almost all fair-weather, just like friends of federalism. (Think about it.) More to the present point, diversity tends to a sort of relativistic leveling, no? How does that help us aristos?

Diversity serves aristocracy if diversity has appropriate instrumental value (although you might think it was also something more). As Mill rather vaguely puts it, it may ‘promote the general interests of Man as a progressive being.’ Something like that. But whatever can that mean?

Why should diversity do that? Three reasons.

First, intellectual. Here all the standard Millian considerations pile on, as per Bauerlein’s piece. You always need lots of possible theories, ideas, views and perspectives, wedging everyone’s mind open against the native tendency to snap shut. You need vigorous opponents attacking your theory, keeping it fit and strong. The difficulty, however, is that some version of the toleration-promotion problem remains. You can tolerate nearly everyone, but you can only promote a few. As Burke puts it in his latest post: "If tomorrow I persuaded my colleagues that the next job that opened in the humanities in Swarthmore should not be dedicated to any particular discipline or research specialization, but thrown open to the most interesting, fertile intellect we could recruit, I would be persuading my colleagues to join in an impractical catastrophe that would involve trying to winnow a field of 25,000 applicants down to a single person." To avoid the catastrophe you fall back on those old unreliable heuristics of disciplinarity. It is hard to see that just saying ‘keep the flame of freedom alive’, even in a true Millian spirit, does much to brighten everyone up. That’s the challenge. Finally, regarding the political question, given that you can only promote a few – you cannot cast the net too widely – it is not self-evident why people should feel intellectually duty-bound to promote (as opposed to tolerating) their political opponents, whom they truly do believe to be mistaken in their beliefs.

Second, constituent service The University should look like America. Professors owe a duty to those who pay their salaries – the public – to not wander too far away from the public’s beliefs. The public is paying to have their ideas developed and defended, not mocked and criticized. This is an important part of the university’s public duty. I trust the potential epistemological downside of this ‘every idea that can afford a lobbyist gets a professor’ model is obvious, even if it were flexibly implemented. Nevertheless, there is a minimal, recoverable core of plausibility to the idea that a higher education system that is not sensitive to – sympathetic to – the values of the public is going to generate those pools of toxic grievance mentioned above. You give people votes, even if they are stupid, to avoid certain predictable (and very real) problems. Why not give them professors, even if they are stupid, to avoid them becoming aggrieved or unduly abused (even beyond what their stupidity inherently warrants)? I leave it to others to develop this hint in a way that does not fall foul of the looming epistemological absurdities. (You might begin with the conclusion of my post on Nathanael West: "the right of every American boy to go into the world and there receive
fair play and a chance to make his fortune by industry and probity
without being laughed at or conspired against by sophisticated aliens." No, seriously. I don’t think the sociological argument is totally absurd.) And, in case it isn’t bloody obvious, I’m not saying the public is stupid. I’m saying: what if the public were stupid. If the public is smart, there’s no interesting problem.

Third, pluralistic. Speaking of values, you could just come out and say that there is a mysterious, irreducible plurality of values in the universe. Perhaps they are inscribed in the firmament, perhaps in our hearts. But they aren’t going away, so we’d better deal with it. Furthermore, some of these values are progressive, and vote Democrat, some conservative and vote Republican. And so we need progressive professors, and also conservative ones, to speak for these diverse values. No one sort of professor can contain within him or her all values. They’d explode, plainly. Way back the last time I had a go-round at all this I quoted a favorite passage from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio A vignette in which a rather grotesque old man write
a book about grotesque people:

In the beginning when the world was young there were a
great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths
himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts.
All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful. The
old man had listed hundreds of the truths in his book. I will not try
to tell you of all of them. There was the truth of virginity and the
truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of
profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the
truths and they were all beautiful. And then the people came along.
Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were
quite strong snatched up a dozen of them. It was the truths that made
the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory
concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the
people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and
tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he
embraced became a falsehood.

So you say the professoriate is grotesque unless, collectively, it reflects all these different values. Is that clear enough? Obviously it is not. Needs development.

So far, so repetitive. I’ve said this before if you’ve been reading carefully. But now that I’ve got some old pieces in place, a few new steps. I want to ask, in a Left2right sort of way. What do conservatives think about all this? Do conservatives have any account of why, if they were in the academic catbird’s seat, they would be obliged to promote a smattering of liberals just to brighten the place up – even though they think liberals are wrong-headed? (Dont’ say ‘simple tolerance’, that’s not enough.)

My suspicion is that the answer is: no. What we’ve got in place of reasons are some fairly evergreen rhetorical devices.

Exhibit A. The Diversity Petard Hoist
Conservatives enjoy the petard hoist of advocating diversity – i.e. affirmative action for conservatives – because it is a sort of reductio ad absurdum on sloppy left rhetoric. By all means, have your fun, hoist away. All’s fair in war. But poetic justice as fairness isn’t justice, as I’ve said before. At the end of the day you’ve got to have a positive conception of how the university should be populated with profs of different kinds. Something that flows from your conservative philosopy, thank you very much. Otherwise advocating diversity is just hypocrisy.

Exhibit B. Play the Populism Card
Way back in olden days, when I was arguing with Tom Smith about all
this (I truly do not wish to reheat all that old cabbage we
slung at each other), he got indignant
about the suggestion that higher education is aristocratic, especially
when it was further suggested that this fact complicates attempts to
mitigate the sufferings of conservatives trying to land jobs in the
humanities and soft social sciences. Now I don’t fault him for failing to see (at least when he was arguing with me) that the aristocracy point is per se trivial (which isn’t the same as inconsequential). He read it as substantive and ancien regime-grade absurd, mistook the direction of thrust of the sword, parried fiercely that just because
education is elitist, doesn’t mean the educational elite should be a liberal elite. Fair enough. Touché, even, if that were where the thing was really going. (And all this is truly ancient history and I don’t want to pick a fight with Smith today. I’m just using him as an example.) But, recovering the triviality of the aristocracy point: when you complain about liberal education elites, make sure to keep the accent on liberal if you are feeling honest.
There is a very well-worn groove along which conservatives do so like to slide. (Oh, I see Jonah is in rare
sans-culotte form
. Well faked, sir. Or feinted, as we aristocrats say.) Railing against liberal elites. Accent on elite. Put the accent on elite and it sounds like you have some democratic or populist way to run the university (or media) which would be different than the elite way. I guess you can work on the sociological conception outlined above and even make this come true, but you’d have a pretty weird, Harrison Bergeron-style university. Pending that happy day, griping about elites remains a pure debater’s trick. (The media case is a little more complicated, but not much.)

OK, having removed the jokers from the deck: if conservatives are made to play fair, what chance have they got? Specifically, can conservatives think of any reason – consistent with their philosophy – why the vigorous Millian ideal Bauerlein sketches out should be upheld. I take it: not. They aren’t Millians. They cannot advocate Millian liberalism without ceasing to be conservatives.

I’ve been reading Russell Kirk pretty seriously and carefully of late, The Conservative Mind. Now I realize the book is half a century old, yet an acknowledged classic. Conservatives speak well of it, don’t repudiate it. Given what the book says, it seems there is plenty of room for hanging conservatives up on its awkward contents. (They can, of course, choose to respond by explaining that they don’t believe that stuff. They believe some totally other stuff.) Kirk is incredibly, unapologetically elitist. This makes the populist card a double-cheat, if you are a smirking Kirkian. Furthermore Kirk is not elitist in a way that would help make sense of, say, the tolerant, open elitism of the university. Free inquiry, the market of ideas. That stuff. He is expressly in favor of groupthink, although of course he doesn’t call it that. Following Burke, he  speaks approvingly of the ‘sureties of prejudice’ and compares the ideal populace to contented cattle, huddling together under English oaks – i.e. expansive orthodoxies – deaf to the buzzing of any strange new ideas. It is hard to see why the worst abuses Bauerlein exposes should not be tranformed into the finest Kirkian virtues, if only the players are changed.

Finally – and this is what really struck and surprised me most – Kirk has nothing useful to say about diversity or pluralism. I’m not kidding about the surprise. This isn’t some Potteresque ‘I’m Surprisedmanship’ gambit, (although that is a wonderful writership trick, well played.) Russell Kirk says that conservativism needs  "affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and equalitarianism and utilitarian aims of most radical systems." After I heard this well-known Kirk tag, before I read the book, I always figured this would eventually be levered into a critique of, say, Bentham, in terms of an alleged incommensurable plurality of values that cannot be cranked through the clattering calculus of etc, etc. But no. As it turns out, it’s a get out of philosophy jail free card for conservatives, pure and simple. If anyone catches you in a contradiction, and you are conservative, you say about the variety and mystery and you walk! Like ‘open sesame’. Wonderful stuff.

A case in point. I was struck not so long ago by Prof. Bainbridge’s truly indignant screed against liberal elites,
while out of the other side of his mouth he smugly self-identified as a
follower of Russell Kirk against the chirping sectaries of libertarianism
. Kirk, it is worth noting, identifies anti-egalitarianism, i.e. elitism, as
one of the truly essential pillars of conservative philosophy. Kirk
defines proper freedom, more or less, as the privilege of the true
elite to do and dictate as it sees fit, the privilege of the rest
to do as they are told. No, really. That’s what he says. He isn’t normally one to talk rights. But he is willing to acknowledge the "natural right" of those less elite than himself "to be restrained from meddling with political authority in a fashion for which they are unqualified." Yet professor Bainbridge is fierce against ‘elitism’. How unaccountable. Ah, well. Proliferating variety and mystery must explain it.

The one sentence version of this post is: conservatives cannot advocate the proper reform of the academy without turning Millian. But if they turn Millian they are not conservatives.

Obviously libertarians and those Republicans who are only in it for the money can sit this one out on the sidelines and watch the conservatives, if any care to play. This is part 1 of a series (unless I don’t write the rest). I need to talk about how the phrase ‘liberal bias’ almost invariably has the same effect on conservatives as does Mr. Myxlplyk saying his name backwards: banishment from our dimension for a significant period of time. This is not to say that liberal bias does not exist, merely that there are at present no conservative media critics with whom you can raise the subject. (That I know of.) We also need to solve the whole framing problem. Man, I don’t like that Lakoff guy’s ideas. Ballot box poison.



Chris Martin 12.09.04 at 4:00 pm

Excellent post. You’ve clearly articulated something I’ve been mulling over for a while.

One small problem, though, is that there are absurd and theories on the left similar to Kirk’s that don’t get rejected in academia. If academia were aristocratic enough to reject those books as well, then we’d have an even stronger case to make against conservatives.

By absurd theories, I’m thinking about Judith Butler for example.


SamChevre 12.09.04 at 4:23 pm

There is one relatively obvious argument; money given to an institution ought to be used as the donor intended. If money was given “to train men to be preachers of the Gospel,” it ought to be used for this purpose. Similarly, if the money was given “to endow a chair for the study of indigenous resistance movements,” it ought to be used for that purpose. Given the variety of donations that make up the endowment of an Ivy League school, this motive alone would encourage significant diversity of both subjects and approaches.


Steve 12.09.04 at 4:29 pm

Good post. As a conservative, I’ll respond to a few points-but you’ve described the situation pretty well.
You are basically right about the whole tension of an ‘aristocracy’ promoting ideas that it doesn’t like-why bother? Why bother as a liberal, and why bother as a conservative? Not many people will come out and say so (left or right), but I really think you’ve nailed it. And yet…

In many (most?) of our societies structures, we have built a system with a separation of powers because, subconsciously, we aren’t confident that concentrated power is good at getting to the truth. Our governmental system (judiciary, executive, legislative) is not built on the premise that it is the best system at getting at ‘truth.’ Its built on the premise that with power separated in this way, there will be less abuse of power, and thus the ‘truth’ (or some semi-coherent facsimile thereof) will emerge from the mess.
Similarly with the judicial system: everyone with a brain questions why a lawyer is devoted to defending a guy he knows is guilty, and another lawyer is devoted to imprisoning a guy whether he thinks guilt is there or not. We don’t think either is doing ‘right.’ We think the system, with counterbalancing motives, will at least approximate a ‘right’ solution to the question. And so on with federalism vs state rights, senate vs congress, CIA/FBI/DOD rather than one centralized intelligence agency (?)…
Frankly, I don’t see how a similar system could or should be set up in academia-two different academias? Ideology quotas to go along with the gender and race quotas? Very Stalinesque. So I don’t see a solution. I really believe the problem is that ideas have no measurable solution, so one can’t ever ‘lose’ and make real progress. As a politician, is your political viewpoint unpopular? You probably won’t last very long. As a lawyer, do you lose more cases than you win? If so, you won’t stay a lawyer very long. Businessman with idiotic products or marketing ideas? Not for long. But professor with viewpoints that are ‘wrong’? How do you know? And who’s going to punish you for it?-your fellows who agree with you?
But that being the case, academia is going to face a problem-that of being irrelevant. Because if the intellectual conflicts of the day (what to do in Iraq, how to vote in 2008, Patriot Act good or bad, etc etc) aren’t being addressed in academia, then academia is irrelevant. And students will treat academia, well, about they way they treat academia (indifference). I personally have no problem with that-I’m not an academic (I have long maintained on this topic that when we care about how professors vote the same as we care about how plumbers vote, we understand the system-and that day is coming). But I assume you do.



catfish 12.09.04 at 4:59 pm

Great post. Yes, conservatives must and do abandon Kirk in order to participate in most public debates. My guess is that many conservatives respect Kirk and traditionalism in some vague sense, but would find themselves liberals if anyone seriously tried to implement his philosophy.


Russell Arben Fox 12.09.04 at 5:07 pm

Damn. I wish I could write as well as you.

So very much to think about in this post. Again, as always, the restless question at the heart of these disputes is how self-identified conservatives understand themselves, and their relationship to plurality and modernity. The academy, in so many ways, is the archetypical “conservative”–meaning, as you observe, aristocratic–institution; how do we understand what has become of the place when it is no longer, really, a socio-economic aristrocracy, but another component in the pluralistic (read: liberal) order of knowledge-production and legitimation…and indeed, a component that conservatives themselves feel excluded from, one that needs to be opened up to them in the name of diversity? Bizarre.

I’m probably going to pick up on some narrow strands of all this, specifically as regards elitism in education, in a post over at my blog. But overall, once more, bravo!


abb1 12.09.04 at 6:07 pm

Furthermore, some of these values are progressive, and vote Democrat, some conservative and vote Republican.

Republicans aren’t ‘conservatives’, they are nuts. The idea that Republican=conservative is an absurd spin.

Conservatives vote Democrat. Progressives and the lefties have no viable party, so they also vote Democrat. Republican=wingnut. Simple as that.

There are few of them in academia, because it would require at least some critical thinking, so naturally they avoid it and gravitate towards the military.


Strange Doctrines 12.09.04 at 6:58 pm

Really superb. I wonder though whether you pay too little attention to the possibility that fallibilism (which is ideology-neutral epistemic value) demands just what you think is unrealistic–that in some cases we are indeed “intellectually duty-bound to promote [our] political opponents, whom [we] truly do believe to be mistaken in their beliefs.” I don’t think the “heuristics of disciplinarity” are sufficient to dispose of that possibility.

I anticipate expansive treatment of this question in Part Two of the series.


Giles 12.09.04 at 7:08 pm

Interesting but the post seems wrong footed on a number of heads; the Wall Street analogy is interesting, but wrong. In my experience there are a large number of lefties working in the city, and I’d even go so far as to say that lefties are generally more successful in finance. Why? Well lefties are more likely to believe that markets are not perfect (and thus not fair) and so generally have a better understanding of how they can be exploited for profit. In other words there’s nothing exceptional about Soros. So the Wall Street comparison, while neat, is wrong. More importantly you misunderstand why market institutions like Wall Street never achieve the degree of homogeneity that a sociology department does – they can’t afford to.

That is why the “diversity” idea – which John seems to take seriously – is more satirical than a serious proposal. It is meant, I understand, as an idea that mocks the whole thesis of diversity – that you can demonstrate your “tolerance” by hiring people of a different color and sex than yourself. Of course in reality tolerance (and diversity) means no such thing and in fact may harms peoples tolerance – if you think that you’ve achieved tolerance just by hiring the right people then you may end up being intolerant in other areas –and so increase your intolerance of people of other political persuasions.

Secondly the diversity proposal just isn’t going to work – the evidence seems to be saying that 95% of sociology departments were leftwing. If the average career length is 40 years then even if every department only hired people with solid right wing credentials, it’d still take 20 years to have parity!

This matter was discussed over at Samizdata and the conclusion, that I agree with, was the type of Education systems – which can be essentially either Roman or Anglo-Saxon – as in the court system. In Roman systems the teaching is teacher led while in the Anglo Saxon, adversarial i.e. the teacher just judges but doesn’t direct or presents opposing points of view . I think that only the Anglo Saxon system works in the social sciences and the Roman system, because it gives the teacher more power and respect creates the danger of creating people like John who perceive themselves as belonging to some sort of “aristocracy”. In reality most people and most students do not and have never formed their opinions on the basis of the openly expressed ideas of their teachers, indeed they’re more likely to have an adverse effect. Adopting the Anglo Saxon approach is therefore I think safer for the social sciences (thought not necessarily the sciences) and this is the approach that has generally been adopted in the oldest social scinence – economics where most courses and textbooks stress the Keynesian-classcial controversy or whatever. And might this not be the reason that they have the same diversity problems?


Sebastian Holsclaw 12.09.04 at 7:18 pm

This is an excellent post with all together too much to think about.

I’m not going to try to respond to all of it yet, but I will try to respond to at least some of it.

OK, having removed the jokers from the deck: if conservatives are made to play fair, what chance have they got? Specifically, can conservatives think of any reason – consistent with their philosophy – why the vigorous Millian ideal Bauerlein sketches out should be upheld. I take it: not. They aren’t Millians. They cannot advocate Millian liberalism without ceasing to be conservatives.

I think we are in a huge terminology morass by this point. You precisely define Millian liberalism and imprecisely talk about conservatives as adhering to its definitional opposite. Terminologically they may be opposite. Ideologically you aren’t labelling correctly. US conservatives have a strong ideological bent which would have been called liberalism at the time of Mills. One of the key insights from Hayek (whom I take it you would categorize under ‘conservative’) is that the world is more complicated than one person can comprehend, AND that the market sorts things on a whole better than individual decision makers. But, contra the beliefs of religous-level market adherents, it does so not because of some magical properties invoked by the word market, but because well formed ‘market’ processes help to aggregate the abilities and specialized knowledge of individual human beings. The ideal of intellectual discourse works precisely as a good market should work–hundreds or thousands of people with different specialized knowledge and different abilities hashing things out to get answers which no one person could have gotten to (and perhaps which no one person can wholly comprehend). The actuality of how intellectual discourse takes place in the academic world is like a serious market failure.

Hmm, this was supposed to be a short comment so I’ll try to bring it back into focus The current problems Bauerlein identifies are of the academic world cutting itself off from the abilities and specialized knowledge available through using conservatives. But you are correct that if conservatives ruled the academic world they would tend to that direction. Except, except, except it should be noted that they did once rule the academic world and that didn’t happen.

Why? I’m not at all sure. But surely that is worth investigating?

I’m not sure that the academic world requires restructuring anyway. I don’t personally care if the ‘academic’ world gets things right all the time so long as the larger world gets things right as often as possible.

That is where the conservative foundation structure gets involved. If academics and the conservative foundations engage each other deeply in intellectual discourse, the society as a whole gets the benefit of hashed out wisdom without having to rely on either. It might be better to have it all take place in one institutional setting (like the university) but it is hardly essential. As far as I’m concerned revealing liberal bias in the university is about demystifying the idea that one person, or group, or institution has all the answers.

This leads to the question of infallibility. Being aware of your own potential for being wrong is an important part of healthy intellectualism. That is why there is a difference between dismissing your opponents as mere idiots not worthy of refuting, and deeply engaging them to test your hypotheses and theirs. The problem from any side is that once you are firmly placed in a friendly environment, it takes much less work to be dismissive than it does to engage in tough argumentation.

And after all that, I only answered a really small part of your question.


Ophelia Benson 12.09.04 at 7:43 pm

“He is expressly in favor of groupthink, although of course he doesn’t call it that. Following Burke, he speaks approvingly of the ‘sureties of prejudice'”

Now, I bet you meant that other Burke, right? Not the one you talked about at the beginning? The sublime Burke as opposed to the easily distracted one?


catfish 12.09.04 at 7:54 pm

Sebastian makes an interesting point:

“But you are correct that if conservatives ruled the academic world they would tend to that direction. Except, except, except it should be noted that they did once rule the academic world and that didn’t happen.”

However, I am not sure that in the United States that conservatives ever really dominated the academy, at least not since the advent of the idea that Univerisities should produce new knowledge rather than simply conserve tradition. Does anyone know of a good history of ideology in academia?


aeon skoble 12.09.04 at 8:13 pm

“conservatives cannot advocate the proper reform of the academy without turning Millian. But if they turn Millian they are not conservatives.”

Part of the problem is that for the politicized academic left, Millianism _is_ a conservativism. (That’s also why you can’t really have the libertarians “sit this one out.”) For too many, a “free market of ideas” isn’t necessarily a good thing, partly because of the residue of the Marxist notion of false consciousness. There’s been a trickle-down effect to the effect that even non-Marxist leftists are implicitly invoking Marxist categories. Given a false-consciousness premise, the free market of ideas becomes as undesirable as other free markets. So why bother with intellectual diversity? I took (part of) Lukacs’ point to be that old-school (Millian) liberals are now _regarded_ as conservatives by the non-Millian left.


Giles 12.09.04 at 8:30 pm

I agree with Sebastian that the misuse of words is a problem in this debate – Unions for instance are typically “conservative” but they tend to vote for the left. The problem the report identified was the disproportionate number of Democrats, not “liberals” in Academia. And people who vote left can come in a whole variety of forms – from social democrats to Marxists. And this is where the interesting thing comes in – the New York Liberal Party was origionally the Labor Party – it just changed its name because “Labor had bad connotations. Similarly the British liberal Democrats dropped the Social in favor of Liberal because they perceived that “Social Democrat” had negative Sweedish connotations. And if you look around the world Liberal parties can of the left or right – but what they all normally are is relatively close to the centre

So the bias in Academia may not just be a bias in favor of “liberals”– it may also tied up with a bias against sociologists identifying themselves with other forms of leftism – like Marxism or Social Democracy – you can get tenure if you call yourself a “liberal” but not a Social Democrat or Laborite or whatever. In other words the problem is tied up as much with “extreme” centerism as it is with leftism.


Matt McGrattan 12.09.04 at 9:05 pm

Giles wrote:

“Similarly the British liberal Democrats dropped the Social in favor of Liberal because they perceived that “Social Democrat” had negative Sweedish connotations.”

Giles, that’s not historically correct. The Liberals were (more or less) always called the Liberals. They didn’t change their name.

However, in the early 80s they entered into a political alliance with the SDP (Social Democrats) which was a splinter party that split off from the Labour party. For a while they fought elections as an alliance and then briefly a merged form of the two parties took the name Social and Liberal Democrat Party. That only lasted a few years before they reverted back to the Liberal name (but they did retain the ‘Democrats’ part of the name from their brief merger).

I do think the point you made about the adverserial nature of what you describe as the Anglo-Saxon system is interesting but I’m not sure how well it holds up.

My discipline, philosophy, for example, is, or can be, spectacularly adverserial. Non-philosophers are sometimes shocked at how savage philosophy seminars and papers can get.

However, despite the adverserial nature of the subject I’m not sure if that leads to any huge difference in left-right representation within the discipline, as compared to sociology, for example.


Jackmormon 12.09.04 at 9:31 pm

Sebastian wrote:
well formed ‘market’ processes help to aggregate the abilities and specialized knowledge of individual human beings.

What is the difference between aggregation and groupthink? On a departmental level, a lot of people interested in similar problems might look like aggregation. To a person opposed to the study of those problems, the department would look like groupthink.

Problems that might be subject to this kind of double vision would include the disciplines of post-colonial studies or gender studies. If you’re interested in gender studies, it would be great to find a department with a strong stable of professors and grad students working together to study these problems. If you think gender studies aren’t all that important, you might see the common interest in them at any given department an instance of ideological rigidity.

Maybe I don’t quite understand what you were getting at with your post. The concept of aggregation, however, seems to describe pretty well how departments try to gather scholars who can work together. (And how departments recruit and attract grad students…)


baa 12.09.04 at 9:39 pm

Three brief points:
1. The elitism of the academy is uncontroversial, that’s not the conservative critique
2. American conservatives aren’t anti-Millian in the sense you mean
3. Every if they were, you could do a hell of a lot of academic reforming without signing on to Millian principles

Let me elaborate. Everyone who understands the purpose of the academy thinks it should be elitist. Conservatives who advocate ideological quotas via a populism/diversity argument are just mocking the left. To advance it seriously is the mark of a goofus.

What isn’t goofy, however, is to wonder if the level of ideological uniformity seen in certain departments is the result of a breakdown of good intellectual practice (note: this is not the same as ideological uniformity constituting bad intellectual practice. As you note some ideologies are just wrong). If evidence of poor intellectual practice emerges, then calls for reform follow. It seems obvious (to me) that this reform should take the form of redressing the bad intellectual practice, not randomly installing professors who voted for Bush.

On the larger point, John says: “Conservatives cannot advocate the proper reform of the academy without turning Millian. But if they turn Millian they are not conservatives.”

I think this is just false. In the American context, almost every conservative is Millian to a large extent (if Millian = let many ideas/products compete, and let the winner emerge). The right often wants to delimit the extent of Millian action, but so does the left; the disagreement consists in the how and where to limit the Millian spehere. That said, thoroughgoing anti-Millians are rare, and exist largely at the ideological extremes of left and right.

Last, even if one admits, which I don’t, that conservatives are anti-Millian, it’s not clear that “the proper reform of the academy” involves a Millian commitment.

The proper reform of the academy could mean several things. Here are a couple of candidates:

a) Eliminating politicized crap courses in the humanities
b) Consulting the shade of Allan Bloom on the redesign of the curriculum
c) Firing 80% of the grad students, eliminating 50% of publications, and making more professors teach undergraduates
d) Preventing tacit ideological discrimination by making the tenure review process more transparent and accountable
e) Globally increasing the variety of viewpoints represented by putting a premium on heterodox viewpoints in tenure review

I don’t know that I’d support any of these proposals, but all have a “conservative reform” feel to them, and I could see any/all making it as a National Review cover story. Yet only the last requires any kind of commitment to Millian principles, and that at such a level of generality that almost anyone could support it.


harry 12.09.04 at 10:05 pm

bq. For too many, a “free market of ideas” isn’t necessarily a good thing, partly because of the residue of the Marxist notion of false consciousness. There’s been a trickle-down effect to the effect that even non-Marxist leftists are implicitly invoking Marxist categories.

What pisses me off is that the non-Marxist so-called leftists in the academy have adopted this stupid idea, giving the Marxists, most of whom gave it up long ago, a bad name.

Well, I exaggerate, but I’ve never met an actual academic Marxist who wasn’t thoroughly liberal on these issues; the illiberals I meet are all non-marxists who pretened to be left-wing to suite whatever ends they have in mind.


Giles 12.09.04 at 10:06 pm

Matt on the question of the names the SDLP could have become the SDP or the LD – although LD was perhaps chooses as the easier compromise, I still think that the party itself is and was more of a Social Democratic party than a liberal party so I think that there must have been some sort of “social” pressure to choose a more appealing name and the word “social democrat” is associated in the British electoral mind with the European soft left.

the “adversarial” isn’t meant to be taken as literally meaning there are argumentative – the bitterest and hardest arguments are often between people who agree on everything but the details. By contrast people with fundamental differences don’t often argue at all.

The idea is mainly tied up with the idea does the system embed adversarial;

One mechanism that has induced Romanism in the system is through grade inflation. In ye olden days people got “A”s for above 70 % – now its 90% and most get A’s. This creates 2 problems; from my perspective it means that any verbal question has to have a relatively easy and orthodox answer – otherwise its hard to give many people above 90. From the students perspective, a 90% A grade creates the impression that the answer must be very good and for something to be 90% right the marker probably needs to agree with it. Secondly the tendency for large numbers of people to have very high GPA’s now means that there is pressure not to get any B’s and this creates a risk aversion against righting anything your teacher disagrees with.

Now obviously this mainly applies at undergraduate level, but enjoying undergraduate education is a strong selector for whether they go on to take a PhD and become faculty – at which point they can argue to their hearts content. So for instance if 55% of Philosophy teachers were at some point right wing, and the students picked this up and were incentivised not to disagree with them by the grading procedure, perhaps only the right wingers would go to grad school and over time the faculty, though argumentative with itself, would gradually become overwhelmingly right wing, even if the right wingers didn’t discriminate in their hiring process.

Amongst the social sciences Economics probably has an advantage in that it knows how to embed adversarial. Historically it seems that people who prefer Keynesian tend to be left wing and Classical economist tend to be right wing (although this is by no means certain) – therefore as long as the text books openly teach both at undergraduate level a bit of the non selection by political affiliation problem can be over come.

I think the problem with sociology is that it doesn’t have enough history to know which schools of thought have a tendency to attract which types of people. Its therefore harder to embed a selection mechanism against political bias. This I think explains why the S ratio is 30:1 in sociology as opposed to 3:1 in Economics.


Michael Blowhard 12.09.04 at 10:19 pm

Good to see you grappling with all of this, as well as going to the trouble of reading Kirk. I find him amazingly boring to read myself, if awfully smart.

But I fear you’re coming dreadfully close to saying something like, “Since the academic elite are Truly Smart People, they all agree on all the major points, because Truly Smart People must!And hey, in a practical sense, that means they’re all lefties! So why shouldn’t the left own academia?”

A few points?

First, if you think George Will is stupid or unschooled, let alone unfamiliar with lefties and leftie arguments, you’re kidding yourself. I’m no fan, I’m happy to make fun of his arguments when they deserve it, and he may often be wrong. But — sorry — he’s brilliant, he’s tough, and he’s worldly. I’d try to slyly suggest that your airy dismissal of Will is yet more evidence of the kind of arrogance that helps give academia a bad name, only I know you’d catch me out on that one.

Second, you seem to be saying that what gets someone hired as a prof is that he/she is “unusually smart.” Trust me, that may not be how it looks from the outside. (What it tends to look like from the outside is that what gets one hired as a prof is that the person is able to play the academic game effectively. Which admittedly takes some smarts. But more smarts than it takes to play … oh, say, the media game that Will plays? As for whether a given applicant has some spare thoughts and some real depth after he/she is done playing his/her field’s game — well, that always remains to be seen, no?) Your assertion could also be taken — though certainly not by me! — as further evidence that academics really do think they’re smarter than everyone else.

Third, even accepting the “unusually smart” thing, which I’m loathe to do, if you combine it with your “elitist” thing, it seems like the conclusion has to be that you think there’s only one way to be smart. What world are you living in? One where smart people can’t disagree? So, you’ve never been to the movies with smart friends, who had different reactions to the movie? Lordy, that’s not a world (or a set of friends) I’d want any part of.

Fourth, you seem to be assuming that any person worthy of taking part in an academic elite would necessarily be preoccupied with advancing the interests of his own political team. Why should this be so? (And, forgive me for saying this, but this tendency to automatically conclude that, since politics is inevitable, then let’s play it and play it hard seems to me to be far more widespread on the left than among conservatives, many of whom just wish politics would go away.) There are people who aren’t primarily political, for one thing. For another: why shouldn’t it be permissable for, say, a departmental chair to have this kind of attitude towards his/her job: “Well, we’ll have a radical, and a stuffy old traditionalist, and someone who’s really good at teaching the basics, and someone who’s fabulous at the new ideas, even if he’s a bit flakey, and we’ll keep the visiting profs from other cultures circulating just to bring some fresh stuff in from overseas …” Such an attitude would reflect a conviction on such a person’s part that maybe it’s through nurturing that kind of open-ended jumble and diversity that a department, a field, and maybe even students are most likely to flourish. It could also be taken to reflect a sub-conviction that looking out for the wellbeing of your field and the interests of your students is more important than playing politics.

Fifth: and I may be misunderstanding you here, and if so, apologies. But you seem to be asking conservatives to demonstrate some consistent way to deduce their way from their own principles to the conclusion that faculties ought to be more diverse. Happy to be corrected here (as everywhere) if I’m understanding wrong. But if I’m understanding you right, I think you’ve gone off the rails a bit in your understanding of conservatism. The whole deducing-your-way-to-policies-from-abstract-principles thing? … That’s not, or not often anyway, conservative. After all, it’s part of the conservative critique of liberalism and leftism that leftists and liberals are forever deducing conclusions and actions from abstract principles and then imposing them on a life that, reasonably, often reacts badly.

I suspect that a genuinely conservative response to your question would be to half-dodge it, and say something like, “Well, why wouldn’t you want a more intellectually diverse faculty, especially in the softer fields? It’ll promote vitality and health. It’ll probably serve the students better too.” Where are the principles? Where’s the deduction? There’s a general feeling expressed in such a statement that vitality and health beat non-health and non-vitality, and there’s a feeling that one has a sense of obligation to the people whose interests you’re presumably employed to serve. And if you’re determined to, you could make some abstract program out of it. (And wouldn’t that be just like a lefty to do such a thing?) But why would you? Why not leave it a little rickety and open-ended instead?

In any case, I suspect that a conservative response to your question would be a raise of the eyebrows, followed by a quick sidestep, all the while thinking something like: “Oh, there he goes, trying to reason his way to action again. Not that we don’t need to check in with reason from time to time. But, lordy, these academic lefties sure are overly infatuated with their reasoning skills, aren’t they? Not reliable, not reliable …”

Thus, when you ask, “Do conservatives have any account of why, if they were in the academic catbird’s seat, they would be obliged to promote a smattering of liberals just to brighten the place up – even though they think liberals are wrong-headed?”, I just think you’re off. I think the conservative answer might be something like “Why wouldn’t any responsible person want to do what seems best for the health of their field?”


bob mcmanus 12.09.04 at 10:22 pm

“However, I am not sure that in the United States that conservatives ever really dominated the academy”

They may not have dominated the best schools, tho Chicago could looked at. But there is a subset of academia, religious schools and seminaries that could be examined for diversity in faculty and curriculum.

As far as Holsclaw and some others, it will not do for “Conservatives” to say we are all liberatarians now, except when we aren’t. It is useful and easy to conflate conservatism, “old” liberalism, and libertarianism, but it makes discussion difficult.


Matt McGrattan 12.09.04 at 10:28 pm

” the SDLP could have become the SDP or the LD – although LD was perhaps chooses as the easier compromise, I still think that the party itself is and was more of a Social Democratic party than a liberal party so I think that there must have been some sort of “social” pressure to choose a more appealing name and the word “social democrat” is associated in the British electoral mind with the European soft left.”

The real reason the Liberal party retained its name as the Liberal party may have rather more to do with the fact that it had been called the Liberal party for almost 150 years.

I suspect that has rather a lot more to do with it than anything else. Adopting the SDP name which was the name for a historically separate, much smaller, and short-lived party with which it had been in a temporary alliance for less than 10 years would have been extremely unlikely and I’d be surprised if it had little or anything to do with the British electorate’s opinion of continental European parties with the Social Democrat label.

The fundamental source of your mistake is to assume that ‘liberal’ in the British political context means anything like ‘liberal’ in the US political context. Which it does not.


Giles 12.09.04 at 11:05 pm

I apologize for my over reading of history Matt – but at the time I was an avid SDP supporter and I voted for them because I believed in a European Social Democratic system. I therefore remember being annoyed when they dropped the S part for what I saw as the weaker Liberal epithet. I agree the Liberals would never have agreed to drop the L word from the party name, but I could never see why SDLP wasn’t acceptable then and I now read this as because SD didn’t have enough positive vibes. I may be the only one who thinks this though.

“The fundamental source of your mistake is to assume that ‘liberal’ in the British political context means anything like ‘liberal’ in the US political context. Which it does not.”

That is entirely the point matt – America is (was) about the only country in the world where Liberal means “far left” as opposed to centre right/left. But with the current trajectory of the Liberal Democrats, that may be about to change. That’s the analogy I was, perhaps clumsily, aiming at – both the US liberal party and current UK liberal parties adopted the word liberal in order to be more electable but then also changed its meaning. And the result has been that these sort of clumsy discussions where no one really knows what “liberal” is refereeing to, confused words = confused thinking etc..


baa 12.09.04 at 11:14 pm

Michael blowhard,

I am loving your comments, particularly #4 about the encroaching Politicization of All Things. This postion did, I believe originate on the left (the personal is political, etc….), but now I fear it is obtains ubiquitously. This desire to politicize, and to seek final political ends in all daily activity, is evidence that deonotology is dying, and helps, I would argue, to explain the current level of partisan vehemence

I’m also loving the Oakeshottian aspects of your critique. But I wonder if you aren’t also bringing more firepower to bear than what this case requires. Yes, conservatives may be less prone to seek capital “P” principles for action than progressives, but they needn’t be adverse to rules of thumb. In this case, conservatives need only point to evidence of academic rot, note the rule that “rot should typically be addressed,” and suggest it be redressed. John H is right that a 9:1 ratio left to right doesn’t constitute rot. But it does seem like prima facie evidence.


Michael Blowhard 12.09.04 at 11:42 pm

Baa — Sorry, you’re right, too much caffeine. And great line about evidence, and how that’s all that’s needed …


aj 12.09.04 at 11:59 pm

“More precisely, while criticism has expanded in political and personal directions, can political or personal criteria serve hiring committees, dissertation directors, and other professional judges in their decision making? Few academics would agree to have their works and careers decided by the political or personal preferences of their colleagues. Scholarly ideals and academic freedom demand a more objective review, a judgment based on methodological standards, guidelines of evidence and interpretation, consistency of terms, clarity of thesis—in a word, on epistemological grounds. Only these argumentative criteria can provide a discipline with open and consistent evaluations of students’ and professors’ work, for unlike political and personal standards, evidentiary and inferential norms allow for a diversity of opinions (as long as they are carefully argued). This is not to say that politics and personality can be entirely removed from judgment, but only that there is a rough distinction to be observed and that judges can make valuations without linking them necessarily to particular political or personal interests.”

“For better or worse, however, these ideas about the objectivity of judgment count for little in the academy today. Instead, scholars take the pathway of asserting the political/personal character of all decisions. But although epistemological issues occupy few critics these days, that does not mean academics have no answer to the question, What is the purpose of inquiry in the humanities? Encouraged by editors who are sensitive to hot institutional topics and by administrators who are eager to launch interdisciplinary initiatives, academics do not hesitate to opine today about the purpose of the humanities and to offer suggestions about the way the humanities should be funded, taught, and disciplined. No ambitious theoretical, historiographical, or cultural studies statement is complete without an argument for disciplinary redefinition. No savvy job candidate walks into an interview unprepared to declare his or her disciplinary commitments and skepticisms. What departmental decision about admissions, hirings, or curriculum proceeds without a discussion of the institutional and political implications of the choices? The age demands that academics take a position on the profession…

“Anybody who makes the objection that colleagues in a discipline share biases and politics and that their collective judgment merely reinforces rather than neutralizes interest has little acquaintance with research in America today. Every discipline in the academy includes individuals of diverse politics and competing interests. Indeed, some have a consummate interest in discrediting the conclusions of others. And because political and personal still count as accusatory terms, some will always examine a study for intrusions of interest and bias, fabrication of evidence, premises that narrowly predetermine outcomes, exclusion of counterevidence, and excessive personal involvement. Of course, such objectivity standards are stricter in the sciences than in the humanities, but they still prevail whenever scholars compile evidence and draw inferences. They may not apply to speculative and theoretical aspects of criticism, but they do to its empirical and logical aspects, and they should be activated whenever scholarship is evaluated for its truth and method. Bearing on facts and conclusions, not “eternal verities,” “transcendent values,” “uninterpreted texts,” or other metaphysical bogeymen, objectivity standards rest on epistemological criteria shared by members of a discipline (who may share little else). In turn, the criteria distinguish good scholarship from bad scholarship, sound teaching from unsound teaching.”

From Mark Bauerlein, “Political Dreams, Economic Woes, and Inquiry in the Humanities”, _boundary_ 2 27.1 (2000): 197-216

Quite a contrast to his recent _Chronicle_ article, which substitutes an appeal to diversity for appeals to objectivity and epistemological standards, and takes the conformity of the academy as a given rather than a proposition to be debated.

Meanwhile, the big questions, What is the purpose of inquiry in the humanities and social sciences? and What is the purpose of the university? now go largely unaddressed. But if we continue the intellectual diversity debate in the way it is most often framed today the answer to both questions will soon become clear: to further and refine the positions of partisan politics.

But the ideal of the University as a place for research and the development of expertise largely insulated from the forces of politics? – well that ideal isn’t so much progressive (in contemporary terms) as it is Progressive (in historical ones): rooted in the reforms of the late 19th and early 20th century. It is an ideal – though under attack from both sides of the political spectrum today – that still deserves consideration. It may even offer a way out of the seemingly endless circle of this politicized debate.


BenA 12.10.04 at 1:55 am

It’s worth taking a look at the evidence regarding political views of college and university faculty. Bauerlein leads with the alarming 9-1 Green-or-Democrat (not the same thing, of course) to GOP registration among humanists and social scientists. This from an AEI study (and of course AEI has a dog in this game). At any rate, as has been noted above, party is, at the least in the US, a very poor surrogate for ideology.

More interesting is the second study he cites, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute. You can find a summary of it on HERI’s website here.

Here are the breakdowns for 2001-2002 (the last year for which they have numbers on their site):

Conservative or Far Right 18%
Middle-of-the-Road 34%
Liberal or Far Left 48%

Now let’s compare this to national figures. I tried to find national polls that indicated political philsophy. I came across Harris Poll data from the same year:

Conservative 36%

Moderate 40%

Liberal 19%

A few things to note about these figures:

Now, clearly academics are much more liberal than the general population. But only a minority of us consider ourselves liberal or left. And the difference between academics and the general population, while dramatic, is a good deal less dramatic than AEI’s party registration figures would suggest.

Secondly, with nearly a fifth of academics self-identifying as conservative or far right, conservatives are hardly absent from our universities. In fact, they appear in roughly the same proportion as liberals do in the general population.

Finally, it would be interesting to see the national figures if you were to control for education or other potentially relevant variables. There seems to be a general acceptance that the academy is, broadly speaking, an elitist institution. Nobody, I think, expects academics views simply to reflect those of the population at large.


BenA 12.10.04 at 2:03 am

Regarding the naming of Britain’s LDP…

I believe another reason that the name “Social Democratic and Liberal Party” was unavailable was that the acronym SDLP is already used by a fairly major British party, Ulster’s Social Democratic and Labour Party.


Matt 12.10.04 at 3:23 am

Some while back Giles (I think) said:
“Secondly the tendency for large numbers of people to have very high GPA’s now means that there is pressure not to get any B’s and this creates a risk aversion against righting anything your teacher disagrees with.”

I’ve seen this sort of thing said a lot lately, but I really wonder if it’s true. I say this as someone who’s both spent a lot of time in school as a student and has graded quite a lot of papers for political philosophy undergrad courses. Some of my best students, who got top grades, disagreed w/ my political views and those of, say, Rawls very strongly- but if they showed they’d read and tried to understand the texts and made plausible arguments, they got good grades. People who didn’t do these things, whether they agreed w/ me or not, got less good or bad grades. I rather strongly doubt I’m such a paragon of virtue here that I’m much different from other teachers. I know I’ve disagreed w/ my professors quite strongly but still managed to get good grades when I could make a good argument. That’s been so in all sorts of classes at universities both eliete and far, far from eliete. So, I just doubt this claim is general true. I suspect it’s much more of a paranoid fantasy or excuese.


aj 12.10.04 at 4:53 am

To add to Matt’s example: I once had a professor who, concerned that class participation in his small freshman/sophmore seminar was lacking because people were afraid of being wrong, simply announced halfway through the semester that he would give everyone an A.

Unfortunately, it did not enhance participation; his tendency to casually dismiss objections to his arguments was the real reason for the many silences. But for my final paper I outlined in no uncertain terms why I thought his course perspective was fundamentally flawed. I would never have done so had I been writing for a “legitimate” grade.

Incidentally, the next time he offered the course I looked up the description in the catalog and saw that he had made substantive changes. I think he honestly wanted to hear real debate, but his in-class personality worked against it.

So let’s hear it for grade inflation! The real problem is that we still give B’s at all.

(Just kidding, of course. As a TA I have strong objections to inflating poor work. But the story is true.)


Thomas 12.10.04 at 5:30 am

I wouldn’t think that a professor should be stripped of tenure if she changed her mind.

And I don’t think a conservative is bound to believe she should.

But that’s certainly the understanding of the university that John H offers. What else could this mean:

“In short, academia is aristocratic. This sounds elitist, since it is, but it’s also trivially true. If you don’t think some beliefs are better than others, why would you ever expend time and money to change anyone’s beliefs by sitting them in a classroom? Why would you think education was a good thing if you weren’t aristocratic about it?”

I think some people are better at the things that scholars do. That’s true whether I agree with their beliefs are not. And education can be valuable without leading every student to agree with his teacher.

It isn’t the elitism that’s the problem, but the substitution of irrelevant criteria–what the person believes–for the relevant criteria–what the person is capable of. That position suggests that a scholar who changes her mind on important issues has changed her qualifications for the job.

Conservatives are aware of what goes on, despite the denials. See the Boston Globe’s coverage of Jack Goldsmith’s appointment to the HLS. Sure, he got the appointment, after having had appointments at Chicago and UVA. But there was–and is–a sizeable portion of the faculty that voted against him because they disagreed with him. No suggestion that he’s not one of the most distinguished scholars in his field. Just plain politics.

One needn’t take a Millian line to think that the votes against his appointment were wrong. One need only believe that excellence is the proper critiera for appointment. That seems to be the proper conservative position.


jholbo 12.10.04 at 7:41 am

OK, I’ve thought about it and I give up, Thomas. You write:

I wouldn’t think that a professor should be stripped of tenure if she changed her mind. And I don’t think a conservative is bound to believe she should. But that’s certainly the understanding of the university that John H offers. What else could this mean:

“In short, academia is aristocratic. This sounds elitist, since it is, but it’s also trivially true. If you don’t think some beliefs are better than others, why would you ever expend time and money to change anyone’s beliefs by sitting them in a classroom? Why would you think education was a good thing if you weren’t aristocratic about it?”

What’s the secret passage leading from what I said to folks getting fired for changing their minds?


BenA 12.10.04 at 1:30 pm

One other important fact about the HERI study that Bauerlein relies on: it suggests that these ideological attitudes are surprisingly malleable.

Whle the percentage of faculty holding “conservative” or “far right” views stayed stable at 18%, between 1989 and 2002, “middle-of-the-road” faculty decreased from 40 to 34 %, while “liberal” or “far left” increased from 42 to 48%.

What do these changes suggest?

Well, perhaps these categories are less stable than we might think, i.e. some faculty who identified themselves as centrist in 1989, now identify themselves as liberal.

But perhaps, too, hiring practices can move these numbers dramatically. That would suggest that the view that the ideological balance in universities cannot be easily changed is wrongheaded.

It’s also worth pointing out that while the largest culture may throw terms like “far right” and “far left” around as epithets, I think most academics do not simply use these as synonyms for “conservative” and “liberal,” that is folks who identify themselves as “left,” let alone “far left,” would reject the label “liberal.” So I wish that HERI had provided a breakdown between “liberal” and “far left,” and between “conservative” and “far right.”

Arguments about the ideological views of faculty are, at least in principle, quite separate from accusations of indoctrination taking place in the classroom. While my politics are well to the left, I think I’m able to recognize and reward the many excellent conservative students I have. I certainly don’t demand that my students toe any sort of ideological line in my classroom, though I’m sure my courses would look different were my politics more conservative.


BillG 12.10.04 at 4:10 pm

I was interested in a point that others have not commented on:

‘…academic work in much of the humanities and soft social sciences (that’s all we’re really sure we’re talking about here) is often afflicted by what Timothy Burke has well described as “a certain quality of conformist excellence within the heuristic constraints of what is considered appropriate disciplinarity.”‘

Interestingly, a similar problem afflicts the biomedical sciences. The key peer review process for us are the NIH study sections that review our grant proposals. The problem isn’t ‘soft science’. In this world method & data are everything — sometimes, many of us feel, at the expense of scientific innovation. To be funded, you should stay *one* step, no more, ahead of your field.


Thomas 12.10.04 at 6:06 pm

Well, John, you suggest that the professor’s beliefs are what makes her suitable for the job, not her academic virtues. So, if her beliefs change substantively, obviously the question of whether she is qualified for the position is at least an open one.


Michael Friedman 12.12.04 at 4:21 am

Simple explanation:

“Hi. We control all three branches of government. We think this is a problem even if you don’t. Therefore it is a problem.

Solve it or be defunded. Then we can find out whether a PhD in Women’s Studies qualifies you to ask ‘Would you like fries with that?'”


Michael Friedman 12.12.04 at 5:15 am

BTW, I know that this is going to get some outraged squawks, so let me point out:

Academic promotion is a form of promotion. Why promote that with which we do not agree?

I think the same is obviously true of funding.

There is an obvious qualification that since everyone pays taxes there should be reasonable evenhandedness in how funds are handed out. If, however, academia has become a bastion of one side of the political spectrum then this qualification provides additional support for defunding academia, or at least the liberal arts. After all, how many English majors do we need?


M. Turyn 12.13.04 at 3:22 am

By sheer coincidence:
this cartoon


Ray Davis 12.13.04 at 5:01 am

Diversity is more than pleasurable. It’s necessary.

The excellent philosophy department of my school contained a Jewish Marxist, a Catholic Platonist, an Aristotelian Buddhist, and (alas, only the sanctified memory of) an acid-tongued atheist (who’d left to become a private dick), and they all seemed to have a jolly time together.

That was diversity of opinion, however — not diversity of tolerance, skill, intellect, or loudly shouted orthodoxies, whether academic “left” or academic “right”. As I understand it, the problem at problematic humanities departments (whether Yale or Brigham Young) is not rule by leftists, but rule by ego-mad mob-clingers who detest challenges no matter what the politics of the challenger. Plenty of liberal students have been bullied by faculty, just as plenty of conservative students have. That issue is institutional, not political — except insofar as smart right-wingers have used selected institutional anecdotes as political propaganda.

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