What Does It Mean to be “Balanced” in Academia?Historians/History
On Sunday January 9, 2005 a panel devoted to the history scandals was held at the American Historical Association's annual meeting. Mr. Hollinger delivered the following paper.
One of the apparent academic scandals recently publicized by the media is the alleged lack of balance in the academic profession, including the discipline of history, but also the other social sciences and humanities, and even the physical and biological sciences. This scandalous lack of balance, often said to follow from a scandalous pattern of discrimination in faculty hiring, is measured in several surveys given wide attention in the New York Times, other mainstream newspapers, and especially on cable news channels. The surveys measure the number of Republicans and Democrats in various academic departments and campuses and they measure the degree of sympathy faculty express for the government of Israel and for the Palestinian opposition to that government. Balance, in the discourse to which I refer, is defined in terms of political orientations in general and party affiliation in particular.
I thought of this putative scandal while reading the highly engaging papers by Ron Robin and Jon Wiener. I want to discuss this additional scandal, which I believe marks an important moment in the relationship of academia to society, by way of extending the scope of the inquiry that Ron and Jon have undertaken.
I note that in all of the cases Ron and Jon analyze, the parties all assume that there is a set of rules that governs the behavior of the scholar, and that the points at issue are exactly what those rules are, how important or trivial the rules are, who sets the rules, who decides what shall count as a violation of the rules, and who actually enforces the rules. Hence a vital element of any perspective on academic scandals, we learn from the two papers before us, is the location and texture of the boundary between a professional community on the one hand, and the larger society on the other. Jon especially explores the power of constituencies outside academia to determine just which violations of academia’s own rules shall be treated as important and how severe or mild the penalties shall be.
This relation between the authority of academic institutions as responsive to the peer review process and the authority of government as responsive to the dispositions of the public is really, really, really up for grabs in the current controversy over “balance” in academia. I want to outline the situation as is has been developing in the last year, provide some examples, clarify the challenge that this controversy presents to historians and other professional scholars, and suggest some ways in which we as scholars, as historians, and as citizens in a democracy, might meet that challenge.
Let’s begin with how this scandal comes before the public through the media. I am going to quote from an article published in the New York Times in late November.
“a national survey of more than 1,000 academics, shows that Democratic professors outnumber Republicans by at least seven to one in the humanities and social sciences. That ratio is more than twice as lopsided as it was three decades ago, and it seems quite likely to keep increasing, because the younger faculty members are more consistently Democratic than the ones nearing retirement,…”
“a separate study of voter registration records, … found a nine-to-one ratio of Democrats to Republicans on the faculties of Berkeley and Stanford. That study, which included professors from the hard sciences, engineering and professional schools as well as the humanities and social sciences, also found the ratio especially lopsided among the younger professors of assistant or associate rank: 183 Democrats versus 6 Republicans. “
“The political imbalance on faculties has inspired a campaign to have state legislatures and Congress approve an "academic bill of rights" protecting students and faculty members from discrimination for their political beliefs. The campaign is being led by Students for Academic Freedom, a group with chapters at Berkeley and more than 135 other campuses.“
Now to this I want to add, by way of relevant information, the fact that at least 19 state legislatures have members who are actively pushing legislation that would enact one version or another of the David Horowitz-drafted “Academic Bill of Rights,” which, whatever their enforceability, establish the principle that faculties themselves cannot be trusted to determine what counts as a balanced classroom presentation of an issue, or as a balanced set of public forums on campus as regards the Middle Eastern question and other comparably controversial matters. These bills generally quote from the classic statements of academic freedom enshrined in the charter documents of the American Association of University Professors, and ask that the ideals of the AAUP be actually enforced. I hold in my hand a copy of the one being discussed in my own state of California. These bills are generally accompanied by a lobbying effort that includes extensive anecdotal evidence to the effect that professors here and there have abused their professional authority by using the classroom to present politically biased versions of their subject matter, and/or that professors have abused in class individual students who express conservative political views or sympathy for Israel.
This state-by-state discussion, which I have been monitoring in my capacity as a current member of the national AAUP’s Academic Freedom Committee, partakes of the rhetoric of scandal that our two papers have explored. The scandal is that the professoriate has become a rotten borough. It is not a place for free and open debate. Rather, the professorate is an institutional complex that has been captured by a particular group of men and women who, while presenting themselves as a universal learned community, are in fact only one of many legitimate voices. The argument is made that we need pluralism, and that American academia today has replaced pluralism with a political monoculture.
In some versions of this argument, the case is made that we need now to extend the analysis developed in the last two generations concerning gender and ethnoracial status. If it is true, as was so often claimed, that the subtle dynamic of a search committee meeting or a tenure meeting is changed if there is woman present, or a black person, then so, too, the argument proceeds, does that dynamic change subtly when there is a Republican present. The case sometimes extends to another level, building, again, upon the recent past. Isn’t all of what goes on in academia political, anyway? Have not the postmodernists established that what used to be called disinterested scholarship is in fact in the service of this or that political interest, often concealed? Wasn’t Foucault correct to direct our attention to power/knowledge as a single formation? If the content of scholarship can be translated into political terms, do we not, in a democratic society, need to bring that scholarship under the supervision of democratic institutions, such as the legislature of the state of Colorado or Wisconsin or wherever?
And if proportional representation was the way to correct non-intentional discrimination against women and ethnoracial minorities, as the EEOC determined, does not proportional representation for Republicans and Christians become justified on the same basis? How do we know there is discrimination against Republicans and Christians? The EEOC got it right: we know on account of employment statistics.
This line of argument is sometimes presented in relation to specific fields, especially Middle Eastern Studies, where the charge is that scholarship and teaching have been taken over by partisans of Edward Said while the ideas of Bernard Lewis are devalued. A congressman in New York state named Wiener, no relation to Jon, I gather, has asked Columbia University to actually dismiss certain Middle Eastern Studies faculty on account of statements they are said to have made about Israel.
In the context of this increasingly animated discussion of “balance,” and the rhetoric of scandal in which it is formulated, it might be time to address directly just what “balance” is in an academic context. I will give it a shot.
I believe that To be balanced is simply to do an academic project professionally. To be imbalanced is to leave out of account something that the academic norms of evidence and reasoning in the interest of truth require you to take into account. These simple propositions demand restatement and elaboration at the present moment, when many academics themselves compete with academia’s critics in casting doubt on the ability of scholars and teachers to master rather than to be victimized by methodological fashions and ideological movements. There is good reason for doubt. Academic communities don’t always take into account everything that they should. Any honest academic with a modicum of experience will know of cases when a group of specialists has “blown it,” sometimes because blinded by ideological and methodological sectarianism. But the standard remains valid even if the performance is often imperfect. And the soundest corrections come about through another round of the application of evidence and reasoning, even if influenced by new and different ideological and methodological atmospheres. At issue, ultimately, is who decides what needs to be taken into account.
This question has been illuminated by my late Berkeley colleague Bernard Williams, in the book he published shortly before his death, Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy. Williams reminds us that the entry fee into a learned discourse includes extensive and rigorous training, and the earning of the attention of one’s professional peers through the acceptance, in argumentation, of certain forms of reasoning and certain kinds of evidence. Cranks can and must be filtered out. “The orderly management of scientific inquiry,” Williams declares, “implies that the vast majority of suggestions which an uninformed person might mistake for a contribution” will quite properly be brushed aside. “Very rarely the cranky view turns out to be right, and then the scientists who ignored it are attacked for dogmatism and prejudice,” but “they can rightly reply, there was no way of telling in advance that this particular cranky idea was to be taken seriously,” and that if every such idea were allowed to command the attention of investigators very little progress in inquiry could be made. In a conclusion that might apply to a great range of the controversies between academics and their non-academic critics over whether this or that academic enterprise is balanced, Williams generalizes as follows: “People cannot come in from outside, speak when they feel like it, make endless, irrelevant, or insulting interventions, and so on; they cannot invoke a right to do so, and no one thinks that things would go better in the direction of truth if they could.”
In keeping with the wisdom of Williams’s formulations, we can observe that when the complaint of lack of balance is invoked in relation to the institutionalized discourse of a scholarly community, the complaining party is often one that has lost the argument within that community, and is trying to unseat a leadership which has won an argument fair and square by the community’s rules. The complaining party appeals to a larger constituency—sometimes even the public as a whole, and their elected political representatives—claiming that the community in question has been biased, and has unfairly discredited ideas that deserve more respect. Complaints that religiously warranted evidence is not taken into account by scholarly communities is a prominent example of this syndrome. “Creation science,” it is said, has been ruled out of serious consideration by secularists who have abandoned the “open mind” that true inquiry demands. Calls for “balance” can thus conceal efforts to revise the structure of plausibility so that types of evidence respected in a pre-secular era can be again treated as relevant.
But complaints of lack of balance are not always so easily set aside. Before we are tempted by the complacent conceits to which Williams’s defense of academic professionalism can all too easily lead— nobody who is not themselves a Ph.D. in a given field has any standing to criticize; within our own academic discourses, whatever is, is right; within our communities whoever wins an argument deserves to have won it— let me hasten to acknowledge that throughout the learned world, and especially in the humanities and social sciences “what needs to be taken into account” can be an issue within professional communities of the utmost integrity, and that the boundaries of the learned communities sometimes blur. Professional inquiry takes place in political and social contexts that inevitably affect the questions asked and the answers sought. Anyone with the slightest familiarity with the history of science and scholarship knows this. The inventory of ideas essential to the discovery of evolution by natural selection came to Darwin through the capitalist political economy of Great Britain, not the Hindu religion or the social system of Manchu China.
These caveats against Williams’s defense of academic professionalism require us to recognize that some journalists and popular writers will master a subject matter thoroughly enough to earn the right to be taken seriously by a professional community, and that the questions and answers that define research and teaching do change from time to time through the critical, self-correcting mechanisms that are central to the academic professions. Also, we need to remember that any particular disciplinary community exists within what we might see as a series of concentric circles of accountability in an informal but vitally important structure of cognitive authority. This structure of cognitive authority is imperfectly understood by many of academia’s critics, yet it is the foundation for “peer-review” throughout the learned world. It demands a summary description here.
In order to maintain its standing in the learned world as a whole, a given community must keep the communities nearest to it persuaded that it is behaving responsibly, and it must also, partly through the support of these neighboring communities, diminish whatever skepticism about its operations might arise in more distant parts of the learned world, and beyond, in the society which scientists and scholars do, after all, serve. So the structure of cognitive authority moves out from particle physics to physics to natural science to science to the learned world as a whole, and then to the most informed members of the public. The farther you get from the technical particulars of the field, the less authority you have to decide what should be going on, but in a democratic society there is some authority distributed all the way out. It is the job of deans and provosts to keep abreast of these trans-disciplinary conversations, and to pressure particular departments and schools to change their way of doing things—to achieve, indeed, balance—if the parts of the learned world most qualified to judge are truly dubious about their research programs and their attendant teaching and public service activities.
Once this structure of cognitive authority is kept in mind, some of the most widely reported complaints of “imbalance” in academia are unpersuasive on their face. In the absence of more than statistical evidence that an English department has actually discriminated against applicants on the basis of their proclaimed political views, the mere fact that 90 percent of the department’s faculty are found to be registered Democrats provides no legitimacy whatsoever for changing the hiring practices and priorities of that department. The same goes for religious orientation. If the professoriate as a whole, or the discipline of sociology, or a given department of biology, is found to be less Christian than the population of the United States at large, that is not necessarily a lack of balance. What does matter, and greatly, is, first, the fidelity of the department to the broad contours of the learned discipline it is charged with representing on a given campus and second, the assurance that those contours are determined by the distinctive aims and methods of the relevant scientific and scholarly communities.
Now, I hope we can agree that there is nothing illegitimate about asking for professional accountability as long as it is, indeed, professional. Demanding this accountability need not be the serving as a cat’s paw for some external and nefarious authority, “doing their dirty work for them.” The learned community owes it to itself, as well as to the society which it serves, to make sure things are done professionally. That community must not neglect this responsibility, as it is sometimes tempted to do, for fear of being seen as someone else’s agents. No doubt this is a question the Katz Committee asked itself when investigating Bellesiles at Emory.
Our colleagues in Middle Eastern Studies do have to be prepared to explain what they are doing and why. In the event that Bernard Lewis is ignored and Edward Said is crowned king of the field— a claim that I am not for a moment declaring to be true or false, nor making a judgment about how the ideas of either of these giants should be evaluated— our Middle Eastern specialists can be expected to have reasons for this intellectual emphasis capable of persuading colleagues in neighboring fields, in keeping with the “concentric circles” to which I alluded above. But we have to be willing to listen carefully to what our colleagues say back to us. They may have the right balance already on Said and Lewis, and on Israel and the Palestinians. If they don’t, they are more likely to find it if they can count on the rest us for an honest, professional conversation.
How conversations of that kind can shield academics from extra-academic pressures is shown by the remarkable cases of economics and philosophy, two communities that, like Middle Eastern Studies, address a range of issues on which many members of the public have strong opinions. President Bush is far from the only American who, when asked to name his or her favorite philosopher, would respond as he did: “Christ.” Popular taste is not the standard for a professional community, and the ideas of Jesus of Nazareth do not dominate our philosophy departments. But Economics and philosophy invite attention here because these two cases can prompt us to wonder if academic professionalism sometimes errs too much on the side of disciplinary autonomy, and not enough on the side of cross-disciplinary accountability. Leading philosophy departments might be on sound footing when they decline to offer courses on the philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, but whether they pay as much attention as they should to the sub-field of philosophy of religion is a more difficult question.
Economics and philosophy are potentially among the most broadly ranging of all the humanistic and social scientific disciplines, dealing with issues of truly enormous cultural and political significance. Each is ostensibly responsible for a much greater range of phenomena than English literature, Art history, astronomy, geology, or psychology, yet both, paradoxically, have developed and maintained in the United States during the last several generations two of the most tightly bounded professional communities in all of academia. Philosophers, especially, are quick to say, “Oh, but that’s not philosophy,” when asked about a host of kinds of theoretical work being carried out in the humanistic and social scientific disciplines. Economics and philosophy are among the disciplines which resist the most successfully the pressures from deans and provosts, and from colleagues in other departments, to address questions that end up, partly by default, finding their way into the scholarly writings and teaching of professors of English, French, anthropology, history, political science, rhetoric, religious studies, business, and law.
Are departments of economics in the elite universities of the United States balanced in the choice of topics their faculties address in their scholarly work and in issues around which their curricula is organized? Do these departments have enough specialists in area studies (in the economy of China or of India or of Russia or of the United States), and do they devote enough attention to the study of economic institutions and to Marxist theories? Are departments of philosophy in the elite universities of the United States balanced in the choice of topics their faculties address in their scholarly work and in the issues around which their curricula is organized? Do these departments have enough specialists in applied ethics, in theory of culture, philosophy of religion, and in the study of the great Asian philosophers? A scientifically oriented philosophy department on a prominent West Coast campus was asked by a dean a few years ago to expand its scope in order to connect more fully with the theoretical issues of concern to humanists in general, but to this impertinence the philosophers responded by asking to be transferred to the natural sciences division of that campus on the grounds that what they did had much more in common with the theoretical physicists and the mathematical biologists than with what was going on in English and History and Classics. The request was denied, an example, perhaps, of provostial courage, but the department was also allowed to continue in its old ways, an example, perhaps, of provostial cowardice?
I raise these questions not to offer my own answers to them, but to insist that the questions themselves are fully appropriate, and to remind us that these questions are answered routinely, if implicitly, whenever provosts, deans, and faculty oversight committees approve of the allocation of institutional resources. The cases of economics and philosophy can remind us how academia really can protect its disciplinary communities from outside interference if it really wants to, and one wonders if our colleagues in Middle Eastern Studies are any less balanced than our colleagues in economics and philosophy?
I stress uncertainty here because the structure of cognitive authority in academic institutions, while the right frame of reference for discussing the case Middle Eastern Studies, does not provide a fortress into which scholars in that field can retreat from the balance debates. Those debates can be responsibly engaged, but they take place on a contingent surface. Professionalism is an imperfect apparatus, but it is better than the alternatives available in our time. For us to complacently shrink from the obligation to defend academic professionalism at this time would be, in my opinion, a GENUINE scandal.
comments powered by Disqus
Patrick M Ebbitt - 9/24/2006
So sorry that I have not been able to join the discussion on this topic until now. I was on vacation in Jackson Hole, WY for some great skiing and have been catching up on HNN between last night and today. No wonder Mr. Cheney lives in JH as it is so stunningly beautiful. All the locals I spoke to love Mr. Cheney and state that he is such a friendly, easy going man who remembers names and talks to all. They also say he is a great skier.
Back to the post. I do not believe that anyone is truly to the right or to the left. I know your post is only an example yet some actually classify left leaning people in the various categories you cover, in the manner you defined... Capitalism, USA, International Community, Globalization, Racism and Israel... this is as stereotypical as stating that all Irish are drunkards or all Italians are mobsters (I am of Irish/ Italian descent)... This is very unfair... I believe most people are a mixed bag based on life experiences, the issue at hand and other factors therefore, they move along the Political Spectrum quite freely... How can you explain the move of neo-cons/ Straussians from communists in the 60's to wing nuts in the 90's... Nothing is ever static... As a Libertarian I am a strong fiscal conservative yet a social liberal... I lean to the strong right on some issues... abortion/ homeland security/ death penalty/ national defense... To the center on others... taxation/ education/ immigration/ social security reform... To the left on gun control/ drug legalization/secular government/ right to die/ welfare for the poor... As you can see I am a mixed bag as no true Libertarian supports welfare for the poor or gun control of any kind...
I think we are doing the nation a great disfavor by grouping people as either right or left... Most folks I know are centrists who value a mix of opinion and thought... If you look at the Political Spectrum as taught when I was in college Communism is to the far left and Fascism is to the far right... This would mean that the current Bush administration leans to the Fascist right... As we know, they are not... Classifying Republicans as Nazi's is not a fair analogy nor is classifying Democrats as Marxists... Grouping people as right or left does not make any sense... I believe we are all a mix across the political spectrum with some leaning to one side or the other based on the issue... Only Fox News (the Nazi Network) pushes the right/ left corundum... Let's not let our HNN forum degenerate into another Fox News "fair and balanced" type site... These last two sentences are in jest...
Gregory Dehler - 3/7/2005
I just read in the Boulder Daily Camera this morning (Monday: 03/07/05) the story of a history professor named Phil Mithcell who is being fired from CU. His crime: being a conservative. He did not even warrant a review board.
Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 3/6/2005
It is good to have you back in the discussion. I appreciate your comments, and I think they are intelligent and certainly valid. I agree, no one can fit into some label perfectly, particularly the traditional left/right divide. The neo-cons are a perfect example of this: ultra conservative on economic and social issues, and yet extremely liberal and idealistic in their foreign policies.
Nevertheless, although people do not fall easily into one group or another, ideologies can be identified and generally defined. For example, although it would be wrong to assume that all social conservatives are against abortion, it would be fair to say I think, that being against abortion is one of the tenets of modern social conservatism.
Because we have no precise term or measure to describe this political group known only as the “far left,” I have taken on the task of trying to identify some core philosophical beliefs. Perhaps it would have been better for me to label those things “ideologies” rather than label the people themselves who happen to share some of them.
Michael Barnes Thomin - 3/6/2005
Thanks for clearing it up!
Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 3/5/2005
Although your question was addressed to Mr. Friedman, I hope that neither of you mind if I respond to it as well, as I concurred with Mr. Friedman’s claim.
It is unfortunate that in the modern political lexicon, we have no word to accurately describe the people that Mr. Friedman and I are talking about. Calling them “liberals” or “the left” is an offense to me, since I do not believe that the terms can accurately be used to describe them, however unlike other political movements (such as xenophobic ideologies or neo-Nazis) the group of which I speak has no unifying theme, only a collection of ad-hoc political beliefs. Calling them the “extreme left,” is, in my view, the most appropriate given the lack of concise terminology to use. They are a diverse group, yet share some common values, certainly enough and cohesive enough to rightly be called a political movement.
I am going to use this post to attempt to map out the beliefs of this group, as I see them.
The group of “far left” people that I am referring to generally share in the following characteristics. Please note that I am not trying to put a normative judgment on these people, although I do not support them. Right now, I am simply trying to articulate who they are in the following modest and admittedly simplistic list:
- Capitalism: They believe that capitalism is inherently wrong and should be opposed. Some once looked to Communism for the solution, but most are divided between Socialism and some sort of non-Communist communal economic system. Although most economists and political scientists know that “pure” capitalism is no longer practiced in the industrialized world, this group holds the concept in particular disdain.
- USA: They believe that most of the problems in the world, from hunger, to AIDS, to conflicts, to authoritarian regimes, have been or are being caused by the United States. The US, in this view is a hypocritical bully, whose every action is motivated by greed, lust for power and influence, imperial ambitions, or some other nefarious purpose, and to the extent that we do something “good,” it is not nearly enough, and probably contained some hidden motive. This belief often invites an extremely negative view of American history, which is essentially a history of one racist and imperial policy after another, from the Native Americans to the Iraqis.
- The “international community”: The answer to stopping this massive juggernaut of the US lies in international law and non-economic international organizations, which are essentially the ying to our yang. The UN, EU, AU, AL, etc. are everything that we are not: benevolent, caring towards their citizens, and have a far more humane welfare state than we do. The only problem with these organizations is that they are prevented from reaching their full potential because of the American veto.
- Globalization: This group opposes globalization at all cost, seeing it as a tool of wealthy nations to exploit and enslave poor nations. Thus the WTO, and other economic agreements should be completely redesigned to allow greater say of Third World Nations. Indeed, it was the protests at the WTO meetings in Seattle, Washington, etc. that really brought this group into the homes of most Americans.
- Racism: Generally speaking, all things being equal, if 2 or more parties are involved in a conflict, the Western party is always and completely at fault. If there is no Western nation involved, then the “white” country is at fault over the “non-white” country. In the event that neither party in the conflict is white, then no one is at fault, and the conflict, regardless of how brutal or large-scale, must be ignored from sight and not interfered with by Western or white countries, so as not so impose our own morality on another culture (NOTE: If we do get involved, it is because the US has stuck its nose where it doesn’t belong and only because of greed, oil, etc.) This extreme sympathy for the non-white world often leads to a reverse-relativism, whereby any action that we do is seen as terrorism or worse, but even the attacks of 9/11 are viewed through the prism of poetic justice.
- And this bring us to Israel. Israel has become a poster child for these people. It is a racist, Nazi, genocidal, Apartheid, empire whose goal is the total annihilation of the Palestinian people, whose land they violently invaded in 1948. Israel is the cause of most of the ills of the world, including hatred for the US, all conflicts arising in that region and perhaps elsewhere, and above all, it is the cause of Muslim terrorism. The only thing that this group cannot agree on is whether Israel is our creation, our Frankenstein’s monster, so to speak, or whether it is WE who are controlled by Israel (in others words, which of us id Darth Vader, and which is the Emperor). Although not EVERYONE in this group is anti-Semitic, indeed many of its mot prominent leaders (Noam Chomsky in particular) are themselves Jews, most believe that our unholy alliance with Israel is due, in part or in whole, with the disproportionate and presumably disloyal influence of American Jews, whose first loyalty is to Israel and “their own kind.” Start a protest against the Iraq war, launch a march against globalization, a conference against racism or a peace rally for human rights, and you will see signs of the star if David next to a swastika, images of goblin looking Jews eating Palestinian children, and other such signs. In the land of this group, all roads lead to Israel.
The above points pretty much describes the ideology of this group which I have called “the far left.” I welcome any disagreements with my observations or addendums, particularly from Mr. Friedman, whose opinion I have grown to greatly respect.
(PS: Everything that I have posted here is documented and I would be more than happy to supply the source of my information for anyone who wants them)
Michael Barnes Thomin - 3/5/2005
Do you truly believe that those on the "far left" of the political scale all hate Israel and the United States?
Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 3/5/2005
You make an excellent distinction. Liberals do not bother me at all, since I identify myself as a liberal.
However, the "far left," that is, those who engage in moral relativism or worse, moral hypocracy, bear no ideological relation to people such as myself who believe in individual liberty and responsibility. It is a pity that the proud tradition of liberalism in America has been hijacked by people who show up at rallies with images of Hitler and hate in their hearts. Liberals dare not even call themselves that anymore, now they are "progressives," a word that signifies that among some liberal circles, the lunatics have truely taken over the asylum.
N. Friedman - 3/3/2005
I do not know what makes things the way they are. However, I suspect that factions grabbed onto the hiring process and, for the moment, the faction is liberal.
Liberals do not worry me. People on the far left do. They hate America and Israel, among other things I care about.
Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 3/3/2005
An excellent post and a very interesting hypothesis. I had not considered the academic paradigm shift as a potential cause for conservative rejection of academia, but I think it is a good one, and quite plausible in fact. I will definitely give this some more thought.
Gonzalo Rodriguez - 3/3/2005
You make an eloquent, lucid, and fair assessment. I would like to suggest another reason why conservatives might not feel as inclined toward academia.
In the 1960s, the social sciences took a huge turn toward identity politics. Underlining this shift was the (postmodern?) conviction that "truth" was really a social construction by and for the powerful within society. Think Gramsci, Foucault, and Derrida. Society was redefined as a battleground between various reified social groupings du jour, each with specific grievances and concerns. As a result, humanities departments redefined their objects of inquiry and altered their methodology to fit their new concerns.
At the heart of conservativism is a universalist view of humanity -- that all humans are created fundamentally the same, and thus have the same essential desires, concerns, needs, and purposes. Thus the conservative focus on individual responsibility rather than group solidarity and obligation, or the fairness of competition between self-interested individuals in the free market. Identity politics directly opposes this notion. Conservative undergraduates, then, spend four years in history classes hearing stories of class conflict at the expense of the older paradigm of great individuals and individual agency. In art history, artists are praised not for their artistic expertise, but for the ways they challenged authorities. In literature, the text mattered less than the race or gender of the author.
This paradigm shift, by itself, is apolitical. But put in context with wider society, its focus on social conflict becomes "leftist." To make a short story long, social scientists, and the entire tilt of their departments, speak a language foreign to conservativism. This is, certainly, not the case in the hard sciences -- and of course, political orientation doesn't matter there.
Another thing has occured to me: stories of great men and women overcoming challenges are innately appealing to people. Social history and postmodern literary criticism, though scientific, are (let's face it) extremely boring to non-experts. The academy engages in an esoteric conversation with itself, and has little effect outside its true believers. Richard Rorty's book "Achieving Our Country" laments this trend. Could this explain the increasing resonance of history produced in the think-tanks in the wider discourse?
Jasper P. Johns - 3/3/2005
Churchill's degrees were from, I believe, Sangamon State. This "college" was one of those little alternative schools of the 1960s. It had no academic standards. At the time Churchill attended, it was a stretch to call this school a college.
Churchill was hired precisely because he posed as an Indian. He was hired for his radical political posturing.
The Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Colorado doesn't study anything. It's a fraud. It is a little disguised lunatic bin for the left.
Churchill is the proof of the corruption of the academy. Those who are defending him, are simply fighting for their own jobs, which they also acquired through radical posturing and toeing the party line.
The fight is coming to you, Mr. Luker. You'd better circle the wagons. This whole house of cards is about to fall.
Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 3/3/2005
All excellent points. Perhaps there is another alternative that would explain the disproportion, since the evidence does indicate that such a "slant" does indeed exist in academia in general.
N. Friedman - 3/2/2005
As always, a very, very good post. I am not, for what it is worth, sure that # 2 answers the question either. I think one needs to consider the case so-called think tanks which, I suspect, hire more conservatives. That may perhaps be because liberals find it more difficult to obtain positions on campus, because the think tanks perhaps pay better, because more money poors into creating think tanks intended to promote conservative view or for a dozen other reasons.
In any event, I do not think you can look at the disparity as relating to mere career choice since, for practical purposes, think tanks attract the type of person who becomes a professor. In fact, in many cases, they are filled with former and future professors.
Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 3/2/2005
Aside from the media, Washington, and something called “the establishment,” conservatives favorite target seems to be academia. This, despite the fact that clearly academia has been producing so many conservatives.
I would like to take this opportunity to give my own thoughts on the subject.
There are really 3 explanations that I can see for why liberals are overrepresented in the Humanities (I welcome any additional hypotheses):
1) Conservatives are actively discriminated against,
2) The type of people that tend to be drawn into that professional discipline happen to be liberal, or
3) Something happens that propels academics of either ideology to drift towards the left
Let us address these, shall we.
Mr. Dehler believes that the culprit is #1. I disagree. While I am normally loath to use antidotal evidence, my college political science faculty is mostly liberal, and yet the chair of the department, and the man responsible for making hiring decisions, is a conservative republican. In the school I attended before that, both the chair, and the majority of the professors, are conservative.
Furthermore, the nature of academic study stresses the importance of analysis, evidence evaluation, and above all fairness. It seems that the very doctrine of evidence evaluation that is so indoctrinated in graduate education would also predispose professors from discriminating simply for political viewpoint. This is an idealistic image, of course, and I do not mean to naively attribute this to all, or even most professors. But if active discrimination were the cause, it would seem necessary to take on an almost conspiratorial dimension.
Another reason why I reject this is that, if we assume that the number of liberals is roughly equal (more or less) to the number of conservatives who get a Ph.D. and wish to enter academia, we would expect, based on the evidence, for there to be a massively disproportionate number of unemployed conservative Ph.D.’s. I have seen no study trying to verify the ideology of unemployed college teachers, but conventional wisdom does not seem to support such a massive number of people who could be used to verify such discrimination, perhaps in a class action lawsuit.
The final reason why I reject this idea is that many times, the partisan position of a candidate is simply unknown. Another antidote: Someone recently applying for a tenure track position at my school gave his interview presentation on recent economic trends in South East Asia, and how that has effected the political climate. Was his presentation “liberal” or “conservative,” Democrat or Republican? I honestly have no idea, but I know it was good. If conservatives truly feel discriminated against, it is likely that they would hide their party ID during an interview (not that it would ever come up anyway). Thus, we should see more conservatives in these positions by virtue of the fact that their ideologies would remain unknown when they are hired, and potentially when they are teaching.
Let us now look at another theory that I disagree with, theory #3, which says that something happens that propels academics of either ideology to drift towards the left. I disagree with this for the following reasons:
For one thing, it hold an incredibly cynical view of conservatives, suggesting that their belief system entering graduate school or academia, is so insecure and unfounded that mere exposure to a scholarly environment causes them to change their minds.
Secondly, this view presupposes that conservative are, if not naive, not secure in their beliefs enough to maintain them in the face of a supposedly hostile environment. Remember, the issue is not that conservative hide their identity, according to polls, they are not conservatives at all.
Finally, this view assumes that conservatives are simply wrong in their beliefs, and that gaining more knowledge simply corrects their flawed belief system. As a liberal, I may not agree with many conservative positions, but I would never be so self-righteous as to assume that I am necessarily correct and all who disagree are simply wrong. Academic writings are similar to news reports: conservatives and liberals can look at the same thing and yet come to very different conclusions about their implications.
This leaves me with theory 2, which I believe is the real culprit here. Academia is simply more attractive to people who are already liberal. Why is this so? I propose a couple of possibilities, none of which I fully subscribe to and all of which reveal my own biases. I welcome any additional ones or dismissal of the following:
- It is possible that the stigma of anti-conservatism turns conservatives off to academia. In this case, it becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophesy
- It could also be the case that since conservative tend to have a greater faith in free markets, they are more likely to be drawn to business than are liberals
- Academics is not a very profitable discipline. I hope it will not be unfair to either side to suggest that perhaps liberals are more amenable to seeking an employment that can pay very poorly
- Graduate school, unlike law school or medical school, is often free thanks to tuition wavers, GA’s, and stipends. Thus students who pursue graduate studies may do so because they cannot afford other forms of furthering their education, and if they cannot afford it, they are more likely to come from households that have less money, and are thus more likely liberal
This post has attempted to address the causes of the imbalance, because the effects of it seem pretty clear: Either this slant has no effect on student ideology or (perhaps out of a backlash?) it produces more CONSERVATIVE graduates. Polls show that young people today are more conservative than they were a generation ago and the trend shows no danger of slowing down.
Charles Edward Heisler - 3/1/2005
"what does "genetically fouled" mean? Is this just an extension of the "inbreeding" metaphor, or is there something else there?"
Another thing about modern academics, they have such good noses for birddogging out the whiff of Political Correctness violations! Hate to ruin your day and automatic outrage responses--"genetically fouled" relates to the metaphor.
The types of people that are successful graduate students that ascend to the higher ranks of academia are carefully nurtured and selected for their roles--especially their political stances. It does not surprise me that we have the voting preferences so solidly entrenched in the Humanities--after all where would a scholar that was conservative in expressed opinions find a job?
As I have stated, it makes no difference because the political opinions of the average Humanities professor has, considering recent history, absolutely no influence on politics. Best that can be said is that academic liberalism is a tired conceit that students tolerate to get their education before they get on with life--similar to the wretched parking on campuses--something that simply must be endured.
A much more interesting research study would be why this academic liberalism has so little impact on students after they leave the University. There may have been a time when the opinions of Academics was important for the public but after the 60's and 70's, that willing ear has gone. The whole absurdity of the concept that someone has been annoited with political insight because they wrote a tome parsing Anglo-Saxon verbs should be evident to all of us. I am of the opinion that the political beliefs of most academics are best taken with a grain of salt--I rarely find insight there. Generally one finds automatic and predictable responses--Democrats good, Republicans bad, sort of mantras.
Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 3/1/2005
I agree with Mr. Friedman.
Aside from the fact that everything I have read tells me that it has been impossible for almost anyone to collect even moderately accurate guesses at the number of Iraqis killed since the start of the conflict, almost every number that I have read includes those Iraqis killed by the insurgents themselves, who have been far more active in murdering innocent Iraqis than they have military personnel. Furthermore, without knowing the actual circumstances of their deaths, it is difficult to say whether any of them were "murdered" in "cold blood" rather than a tragic miscalculation in an air bombing.
The reality is that in any modern war, you will have civilian casualties. This is regrettable, but really unavoidable. I don't think anyone on this post or elsewhere WANTS to see even a single Iraqi civilian die, but posting exceptionally high casualties numbers and than attributing them all to murder and atrocities is simply unfair.
Gregory Dehler - 3/1/2005
I assume that the answer to your questions are no and yes respectively. I have not read the Schweiker or Woods (and have no idea if they are under review or not) books and know of them only from reading comments posted on this website. I think it would be better to compare them to Howard Zinn than Ward Churchill. I don't think that the the fact that two right wing authors wrote books from their perspective (in the last couple of years)in any way disproves that the humanities sector of academy as whole is tilted sharply to the left.
Ralph E. Luker - 3/1/2005
I see no problem with Churchill's original hiring in the 1970s. He had two degrees and was hired into a staff position to mentor students. He did that for 12 years. He had no serious supervised research experience, but was offered a tenure track faculty line at CU after one year as a visiting professor at Alfred University in NY state. He also apparently led CU officials to believe that he was about to be offered such a faculty line position at a Cal State campus. He never got the Cal State offer. So CU officials had plenty of experience with Churchill as a staff member before they hired him into a faculty position. But it's unclear whether they knew fully how little experience he had at real research before they hired him into a faculty line position at a major research university.
N. Friedman - 3/1/2005
He wrote that book at, I think, age 90. Not bad for an elderly gentleman. As I mentioned, his early and middle work is rather brilliant.
As for What Went Wrong, it is a popularization of his thoughts, not a scholarly book. With its flaws, it is leaps and bounds better than what anyone who looks to Said for scholarship could possibly come up with becuase, in fact, at least Lewis' book is based on scholarship about the Muslim regions and not a cultural critique of the attitudes of historians.
Oscar Chamberlain - 3/1/2005
If "What Went Wrong" is indicative of the quality of Bernard Lewis's work, then he is not much of a historian either. It is sloppy from beginning to end.
Jonathan Dresner - 3/1/2005
I think Heisler would say that Churchill's hire rather than his academic lineage was the evidence of inbreeding.
I think Mr. Heisler needs to be a bit more careful with his language, though: what does "genetically fouled" mean? Is this just an extension of the "inbreeding" metaphor, or is there something else there?
N. Friedman - 3/1/2005
In the field I have some familarity, Middle Eastern studies, I note that the work of an English professor - and nothing against English professors -, Prof. Said, is not history. It is, perhaps, a cultural critique about why historians might examine history with certain questions in mind, Said simply does not write history. And if there are history professors who adopt his approach to history, as opposed to the very careful and scholarly work that, in his early and middle years, Bernard Lewis wrote, then pseudo-scholarship is being passed off as history.
If the scholarly mechanism of universities cannot distinguish the great work of Bernard Lewis from the chic of Prof. Said, academia is in a lot of trouble.
N. Friedman - 3/1/2005
I am no fan of the Iraq war. However, the 100,000 figure is bogus propaganda. I am sorry. I think you are mistaken.
Bryan Murphy - 3/1/2005
the US is corrupt and responsible for atrocities, like the 100,000 dead innocents murdered in Iraq in cold blood.
N. Friedman - 3/1/2005
Is the US in a corrupt and atrocious position today, Chris? I think the US has plenty of problems but it is certainly no corrupt and attrocious. That is ideological nonsense of the type you are infamous for.
Ralph E. Luker - 3/1/2005
Mr. Dehler, Answer me this: Are Schweiker or Woods under review with the possibility that they will be separated from their faculty positions? Is Churchill under review with the possibility that he will be separated from his faculty position?
Gregory Dehler - 2/28/2005
Early in the essay Hollinger writes, "Cranks can and must be filtered out." Yes, but the groups outside academia see this as the problem, ie the definition of the term "crank." For many it seems that the large disparity in Republican/Democrats comes down to Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians falling under the "crank" category to too many of the tenured faculty. Churchill remains inside the ivory tower (and well paid) while cranks appear to be anyone who questions the moral authority of universities or questions their values.
Ralph E. Luker - 2/28/2005
Mr. Rodriquez, You haven't read Professor Hollinger's article carefully. He argues _for_ the free market of ideas, with the note that concentric circles of informed authority exercise the rooting out function that you seem to think he missed. Moreover, misguided as I think they are, the two currently popular conservative texts that survey American history -- Schweiker's Patriot's History and Woods's Politically Incorrect Guide -- are both by historians employed -- not at right wing think tanks -- but in departments of history in regular academic communities.
Gonzalo Rodriguez - 2/28/2005
There is one thing that Hollinger completely ignores, and which, once acknowledged, would help us circumvent the need for such obscure and time-consuming self-justifications by the academy. In my department, a majority see their role as a professor to be, at least partially, political. Hollinger says, "Have not the postmodernists established that what used to be called disinterested scholarship is in fact in the service of this or that political interest, often concealed?" Yes, they have. And so many faculty today simply believe their duty to be as a political interventionist, "educating" students to a certain political perspective by means of the topics and sources chosen, the perspective offered, and their position of power over the students; indeed, in my experience, when asked, many cite political reasons for even pursuing their PhDs. This will not surprise anyone familiar with the university, but it is strangely absent from the discourse.
Thus, the death of "disinterested scholarship" is caused, not by the postmodernists, but by academics for whom the scientific method (and its corollary, "balanced" academic inquiry) is an inconvenient obstacle in their proselytizing. This has happened before; in the 16th and 18th centuries the state and commercial sector looked away from the ossified scholastics of the university for inspiration. Today, also, many are weary of the moralizing political indoctrination served to them as education, and turning instead to alternative sources of information, or at least considering both of them for a more "balanced" perspective.
Indeed, history teaches us that the academy can often become one of the most reactionary sectors of society. While Hegel forged his justification of Western hegemony, Marx worked as a pauper in the British Library. While Heidegger defended the Third Reich, Hayek was sneered at by his colleagues. Regardless of how Hollinger wants to frame it, today's universities speak the language of the 1960s, are fiercely resistant to any change in the national discourse, and are thus incapable of adaquately addressing many of today's most pressing issues. Religiously comparing Iraq to Vietnam comes immediately to mind, as if all non-white peoples of the world and their plights suddenly becomes the same as soon as the US intervenes.
However, I agree with you that it matters little in the long-term "balance" of politics in the country. If anything, American youth tend to question all forms of authority they come across. That statistics and polls show that the current student generation is far more conservative (in the neocon/libertarian sense) than their Boomer parents and teachers merely underlines this point. In 30 years, their kids will probably move back to the Left. This is how new ideas are born.
Charles Edward Heisler - 2/28/2005
Exactly my point. This inbreeding is the result of "automatic" assumptions and tolerance of behaviors that create these mutants. So long as we continue to only tolerate folks that are like ourselves and think like ourselves, we run the risk of Churchills.
Ralph E. Luker - 2/28/2005
"... it is all a case of Academic inbreeding that has left us with genetically fouled Churchill types."
This strikes me as almost exactly wrong. It wasn't that Churchill had too _much_ intercourse with academic mentors, but that he had too little -- and was then admitted, without proper vetting, to the tenured professorate.
Gonzalo Rodriguez - 2/28/2005
The article is actually a long-winded elitist rationalization for the status quo that desperately seeks to present itself as the opposite.
He writes: "Once this structure of cognitive authority is kept in mind, some of the most widely reported complaints of “imbalance” in academia are unpersuasive on their face..."
1) In an atmosphere of true academic freedom, there should be no such thing as "cognitive authority," as Socrates, Galileo, or Darwin would have told you, and as Thomas Kuhn demonstrated decades ago. A free marketplace of ideas will constantly root out those that are bad and uninformed. Only someone who is attached to indefensible ideas would argue against that marketplace.
He says: "To be balanced is simply to do an academic project professionally. To be imbalanced is to leave out of account something that the academic norms of evidence and reasoning in the interest of truth require you to take into account..."
2) I agree in part, but there's more. The best work done by historians in the "right-wing think tanks" can be held alongside the best work of the universities with regards to the scholarly professionalism by which they were produced. But they often come to opposing conclusions. Internally, then, according to this definition, both are "balanced." But the university as a whole is doing its students and its society a grave disservice if it refuses to present two or more opposing, yet equally (internally) "balanced" perspectives within its faculty and curriculum. Why not teach Ricardo alongside Marx? Why not Hayek together with Gramsci? Why not MacIntyre alongside Derrida? To imply, as Hollinger does, that giving voice to challenges to academic consensus necessarily implies an attack on "academic professionalism" is myopic and elitist in the worst way.
Charles Edward Heisler - 2/28/2005
Alas, it is all a case of Academic inbreeding that has left us with genetically fouled Churchill types. It is a harmless practice, unless and until, legislatures try to legislate "balance", whatever that is.
If academics know one thing, they should realize just how irrrelevant they are to politics as practically practiced--not enough folks listen to them. All the elections since the early 70's should calm anyone that think professors are "polluting" youth. It has occured to me that we pollute few--they come, they listen, they ape, they pass, they graduate, and then they go on to lead generally useful lives with varied political opinions.
That makes me happy and positive about this whole matter.
Robert KC Johnson - 2/28/2005
My sentiments exactly.
chris l pettit - 2/28/2005
"the objective media are the reason that the US is in the corrupt and atrocious position it is in today" - or something close to that.
the same can be said of academia...
John H. Lederer - 2/28/2005
"To be balanced is simply to do an academic project professionally. To be imbalanced is to leave out of account something that the academic norms of evidence and reasoning in the interest of truth require you to take into account."
Seems to me that one must also consider balance in the academic projects undertaken. A plethora of historical studies, professionally done, on discrimination against women not tell us much about the War of 1812.
My sense, unsupported, of how the absurrd ratios of Democrats to Republicans are created by hiring committees is that this choice of what should be taught, what areas covered, is a key one.
- Historian James Harris says Russian archives show we’ve misunderstood Stalin
- The Invisible Labor of Women’s Studies
- Lincoln University historian mourns decision to abolish the history major
- Hamilton College conservative historian questions diversity requirement
- Historians on Donald Trump: A Huge Hit on Facebook