Here is the latest in the politically-charged debates over whether or not college professors are too liberal. The New York Times reports on a recent study on the subject:
The overwhelmingly liberal tilt of university professors has been explained by everything from outright bias to higher I.Q. scores. Now new research suggests that critics may have been asking the wrong question. Instead of looking at why most professors are liberal, they should ask why so many liberals — and so few conservatives — want to be professors.
The study concludes that liberals go into academia because of typecasting. Much in the same way that nursing is perceived as an occupation for women, the professorate is perceived as an occupation for liberals. As a result, few men pursue nursing careers and few conservatives pursue academia.
“These types of occupational reputations affect people’s career aspirations,” he added in a telephone interview from his office at the University of British Columbia. Mr. Fosse, his co-author, is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard.
The academic profession “has acquired such a strong reputation for liberalism and secularism that over the last 35 years few politically or religiously conservative students, but many liberal and secular ones, have formed the aspiration to become professors,” they write in the paper, “Why Are Professors Liberal?” That is especially true of their own field, sociology, which has become associated with “the study of race, class and gender inequality — a set of concerns especially important to liberals.”
On one level this does seem to make sense, but the study does not address how the liberal majority in the academy manages to preserve a liberal culture. For example, I blogged last week about the prevailing political attitude present at some of the sessions at the recent AHA meeting in San Diego. Following that post, I received personal e-mails from several conference attendees who were disgusted by the general political flavor of the conference and academia as a whole.
Why do conservative or religious students feel the need to hide or downplay their faith when applying for jobs? Why can’t their intellectual commitments–informed by conservative thinkers or theological ideas–be respected in the academy? Don’t liberals want a marketplace of ideas–an academic community in which intellectual pluralism is celebrated?
I do not write this as a conservative or a liberal, but as someone who is concerned about democracy. How can we have a meaningful exchange of ideas on our campuses without true intellectual diversity?
One of my favorite pieces on this theme comes from Syracuse University history professor Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn in an essay entitled “Democracy in the Ivory Tower?: Toward the Restoration of an Intellectual Community.” The essay is not on-line, but you can read it in Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, ed., Reconstructing History.
Here is a taste:
p. 24: Several forces have eaten away at the ideal of an intellectual, continually self-educating community. Recent years have witnessed a heightening of trends, including overspecialization, the drive for intellectual or political conformity, careerism, obsessive gatekeeping, rising concerns for process over substance, the triumph of relativism and subjectivism in scholarship, the bureaucratization of academic life, the cult of professional expertise, the imperialism of schools of education, the shrinkage of job prospects in the classical areas of knowledge, and the commercialization of the university. These and other factors have created a situation in which scholars often shy away from genuine engagement with others in open dialogue, from unpopular conclusions, and from large questions that take them beyond the safe ground of narrowly delimited fields of expertise. The effects have been devastating not only for practicing historians but also for the level of historical understanding and inquiry in public life.
p.25-26: According to radical relativism, the imperative that each individual and group perspective be granted often translates into an assumption that each perspective is equally valid. Enlightened citizens in the relativist world are bound to tolerate different perspectives without actually challenging them, since each speaker, by virtue either of culture or experience, has a kind of unassailable authority…The resulting vague sense that acceptance of diversity has been achieved stands in for democratic engagement. Such expressions pass themselves off as democracy in action, as the logical consequence of movements for social equality. Full visibility–or audibility–supposedly compromises full participation. And full participation must mean democracy at work. The problem with such an arrangement is that tolerance pure and simple not only shows a severe shrinkage of the faculties of hope and imagination, which might demand more of our collective life, but also is precisely undemocratic.
p.26: Democracy demands not the mere airing of feelings but diverse ideas as well, as it must find a way to allow citizens to understand, evaluate, and make decisions based on knowledge. Without a public sphere created by the kind of dialogue made possible, as Jurgen Habermas put it, when individuals put there personal stake in an idea on hold for the purpose of reasoned discussion, democracy devolves into interest group politics, and the notion of the general good–essential to democratic life–vanishes.
Lasch-Quinn describes the kind of exhilarating intellectual community in which I could find a happy home.