Thursday, December 13, 2007

Who's Right? What's Left?

An interesting debate about campus politics has erupted in the pages on the Washington Post. First, Rob Maranto of Villanova University contended that there was a subtle liberal bias on hiring committees - not enough to rise to the level of conscious awareness, but a common enough phenomenon by which academics, like anyone else, like to surround themselves with people who are like-minded. Yesterday his mentor - Eric Uslaner of University of Maryland - acknowledged that studies show that faculty tilt to the Left, but that there is no conspiracy or even unconscious bias among liberal faculty. Hell, he tells us, it's fun to have conservatives around! Instead, he contended, conservatives are drawn to money-making careers while liberals seek to do good and are drawn to the noble professions like teaching.

Uslaner is a political scientist and his first response is to accuse Maranto of providing "no systematic evidence that liberal academics either consciously or unconsiously seek to replicate their own ideology in hiring." While he helpfully suggests that a better question might be why there are more liberals in academia, he then states "I have no data about this question. But my own life story, and those of others I know, suggest an alternative explanation: People choose academic careers because they care more about intellectual pursuits than about making lots of money." So much for "systematic evidence."

As a political scientist, Uslaner might have at least considered the following piece of counter-evidence: why is it that so many academically-trained conservatives (one thinks especially of political scientists and political theorists in particular) end up working for Republican administrations? It seems just yesterday that liberals like Uslaner were calling down anathemas on the Straussian cabal that had planned the war in Iraq at their nefarious master's bidding from beyond the grave. Two explanations come to mind: first, that they weren't able to get jobs in academia (often the case, if I may offer my own anecdotal evidence. I know many talented conservative PhDs who have been effectively shut out of academe, and I think the bias is real); but, second, that they followed a calling for public service, hardly the locus of money-making that Uslaner suggests is the main motivator of conservatives. Indeed, if we were to poll many doctors and attorneys and other "money makers" of our country, would we really find that they are all conservative? Paging Dr. Howard Dean!

However, I think a better explanation is in order, and one that is out of reach of Uslaner's narrow understanding of partisan forms of liberal and conservative. The dominance of a liberal - or better put, progressive - worldview among university faculty has more to do with the transformation of the University from a conservative institution to an "agent of progressive change" in our culture. Universities until relatively recently were conservative or better put "conservators," particularly inasmuch as they were charged with transmitting knowledge and collective wisdom of the past to future generations. Universities were the repositories of the past and conveyors of tradition to the future. More often than not colleges and universities were religious institutions and its professors were just that - men and women who professed faith to the young. If there were sophisticated surveys that measured worldviews and dispositions (and not mere party affiliation, since then - as is often the case now - Republicans were apt to be the more progressive of the two parties), one would find that faculty at most colleges and universities even just a few decades ago would likely have been "conservative" as a matter of disposition, valuing above all the transmission of knowledge and liberal learning among their charges. The contemporary agendas of "research," "originality," and "problem-solving" were not a part of the college agenda.

A slow but steady change took place in our institutions of higher learning starting in the late-19th century with the rise of the natural sciences to a place of prominence. At first the scientific enterprise was largely restricted to the natural sciences and even to a few institutions that had been influenced by the German research model (Johns Hopkins was in the forefront of this movement, and John Dewey was one of the first graduate students to be trained according to this model). Overall, the natural sciences remained firmly embedded within the liberal arts model - one avenue of knowledge, but not solely or exclusively the accepted mode of analysis. However, inexorably the scientific model came to dominate more and more fields, at first the natural sciences and then the social sciences and then finally the humanities, where now "original research" dominates activities of humanities faculty as much as those in the natural sciences. The infiltration of the canons of scientific research into the humanities has been the root cause for the decimation of the very idea of the humanities on our campuses. In their efforts to prove their "originality" and progressiveness faculty glommed onto post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-colonialism, and post- everything in order to prove that they were "with it," and indeed, that they were anything but "conservative" - that is, the one thing that made the humanities defensible inasmuch one of its main reasons for existence is to be a "conservatory." By demonstrating their hostility to the authors and books they studied or even the very idea of "humanity" (what is now fashionably called "the subject"), professors in the humanities at once made themselves "relevant" and destroyed themselves from within.

It's amusing to me to see debates like this one, which pit a "liberal" against a so-called "conservative" who is actually a libertarian. This is actually the span of the ideological debate on our campuses today - whether there is space for people who are more "liberal" than the liberals (notice that Uslaner's piece of evidence is the existence of a libertarian - oops, conservative? - at Harvard!). This "debate" doesn't take cognizance of actual conservatism because it does not have a place or grounds for existence on today's college campuses. Genuine conservatives do encounter systematic bias because they fundamentally reject the modern research model and hence are neither drawn to institutions that operate on such a model nor - if they can swallow that bitter pill - tend not to do well operating in a model that they abhor. One is most likely to find them tucked away at liberal arts institutions or at schools with serious religious affiliations.

The problem is that it is our "research universities" that credential future professors, and those institutions are now dominated by scientism. There are fewer and fewer faculty of a traditionalist or "humanistic" orientation in any departments in these major universities, and their expulsion has been methodical, systematic and thorough. The irony is that professors today are trained as narrow technicians and as such have no capacity to understand what is actually happening in their own institutions. As is true of so much of the social sciences especially, its practitioners can't offer an actual explanation of any phenomenon that can't be measured, and which, by definition, is most often actually the relevant "data." When called upon to give an explanation for an unmeasurable phenomenon, faculty like Professor Uslaner feebly tells a story that conservatives are money-grubbing materialists and happily votes for the next technician to teach our children and the future teachers of our children.

Our universities are so much a part of the problem now that the situation may be beyond repair. The sad thing is, these are the institutions that annually are the cause of a frenzy of anxiety and massive expenditures as the point of entry into Ameria's meritocratic sweepstakes. These places are run by people who, in most instances, have lost the capacity for self-understanding. In the name of progress, I'm willing to bet these are folks who would vote to sandblast off the motto above the Delphic oracle and not a few institutions of higher education - "gnothi seauton" - "know thyself." No one ever got tenure doing that. Instead, they would
replace it with the motto "publish in refereed journals or perish."


Unknown said...

An excellent analysis - at the heart of the problem is the reduction of all rational thinking into the scientific method. With this way of thinking, what doesn't fit the scientific method must be disposed of.

Although you are certainly right that libertarianism is no true offset to progressivism, I am reluctant to accept that Hayek's views are given fair weight among current day libertarians. In particular, In Law, Legislation & Liberty, Vol. 3, Hayek says " What has made men is neither nature nor reason, but tradition."

Caution in making common cause with libertarianism is appropriate, but as Hayek's quote demonstrates, a clear thinking libertarian can embrace tradition. A true progressive cannot.

Anonymous said...

I think your analysis is basically correct. It does seem like there is a kind of liberal bias in hiring, probably connected to what topics hiring committees think are important, etc. I've had a somewhat conservative educational career, and I've see the flip side of it at the places I've been. A professor in college once boasted that when he was on an NEH funding committee he voted against every project that had to do with Foucault that he ever got to vote on. Not that he actually know much about Foucault, he just knew it was left-wing and silly.

As you'll probably admit, the argument you give about "progressive" bias, which includes a vision of what the academy should be (i.e. it should be *conservative* in a sense), is not typical in conservative critiques of academia. Indeed, most right-wing critiques of academia use the same language of diversity that conservatives dislike in other contexts. Universities don't "look like America". Or it uses an adversarial model drawns from the judicial system and modern democratic politics (the "one-party state") which aren't very appropriate to the academic world where evaluations of scholars and scholarship are not performed by partisans on either side but by supposedly impartial or objective experts (if I'm asked to referee an article as the "Democratic", "liberal" or "Christian" referee, I'll be offended. I'm a political theorist). I.e the rhetoric of conservative critique of academia, as un-conservative as it may be, does however serve the political purpose of fostering a sense of victimization among conservatives, including those who know nothing of academia and never intend to have a career in it. An argument that universities should in fact be conservative of a received body of knowledge is more honest and directed at a more fundamental question, but it reveals that the battle about ideological conformity is really a dispute about the ultimate purpose of academia, not really about equal opportunity and Millian openness. But it also fails to support the horrified shock that the academy's party ID numbers don't look like America.

It does seem that conservatives in government are some kind of evidence of people being pushed out of academia, but Straussians seems to be an odd case in point. The Straussians in government I know of could almost definitely find work outside of DC if they wanted it (humanities and social science PhDs--left and right--working outside of academia are actually very numerous. They don't all have nice think tank or administration jobs), in Straussian enclaves or other departments which are friendly to Straussians. You won the "Strauss award" for heaven's sake. Political theory in general is not quite the place to find the worst examples of left-wing bias.

But maybe it is, so the thought goes, it's just that the conservative stuff is better-than-advertised while the left wing stuff is bad but praised anyway! That's just the troubling thing about accusations of bias in this context (well-confirmed by our experience as they may be): they have the effect of moving the chains as it were in every discussion about merit and dragging every debate about scholarship into the "political" debate about bias. Suddenly if left scholarship is well regarded, it must be only because it's left-wing. So Maranto just *knows* that the errors of criminology (obvious to us ordinary folk who have common sense) must be rooted in left-wing bias. He doesn't want to argue with them in a scholarly way, so he attacks their partisan motives. If conservatives aren't getting published, aren't getting tenure, it must be because they're right-wing. If conservatives are getting published by Rowman and Littlefield, it should be Cambridge. If it is Cambridge, it should be two books at Cambridge. If 7 of the top 20 universites have courses about Leo Strauss, it should be 15 or 20 out of 20. David Horowitz would have an endowed chair at an Ivy League, if only he weren't conservative. We get to assign merit without actually addressing the merit. This line of thinking, rooted in a truth about bias, has the potential to seriously poison the water in every academic debate about merit and quality of scholarship, not to mention collegiality in the discipline. Perhaps that's fine with some people, because they feel they've been wronged and want war, or because they don't respect the discipline they're in anyway and would love to see it burn. But I do respect and love my discipline, warts and all, and having been at places where mutual respect among conservative and liberal scholars was the norm, it's not pleasant for me to imagine what WaPo published pieces like Maranto's (addressing themselves to the public and to elected officials rather than the academy) can lead to. Probably more conservative enclaves and balkanized departments.

Jeremiah J.

Black Sea said...

I've little to add, but I do think your analysis is right on the mark. And the argument you make is one that I hope people working in universities, and those selecting schools for their offspring, will begin to consider more seriously.

One difficulty in this discussion is that, in contemporary usage, the word "conservative" has come to mean almost anything that its proponents or detractors choose. For some people, conservative is simply a synonym for rapacious capitalist, for others, a mindless bigot. At the opposite end of the spectrum, conservative is treated as a synonym for anyone trying to avert societal collapse. These conflicting and highly-charged definitions offer little in the way of light.

In the context of education, I'd like to introduce William Buckley's definition (useful, I think) of a conservative as "someone with something to conserve." It seems to me that this is particularly relevant in the humanities, where a great many teachers do not really view that which they teach as worthy of conservation. Having crossed that intellectual threshold, they really have very little left to offer their students. And the brighter students know it.