Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Academia’s "Liberal Group-Think"

Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University and director of research for the National Endowment for the Arts, has an outstanding op-ed in the latest issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Alas, only subscribers can access the on-line version, but it’s worth trying to track down a paper copy just to have a look at it. Entitled "Liberal Group-Think is Anti-Intellectual," it is a stinging critique of the culture of left-wing orthodoxy that exists at most college campuses today. There are just too many good passages for me to list here, at least without running afoul of copyright laws, but here are a couple of gems:

Liberal orthodoxy is not just a political outlook; it’s a professional one. Rarely is its content discussed. The ordinary evolution of opinion -- expounding your beliefs in conversation, testing them in debate, reading books that confirm or refute them -- is lacking, and what should remain arguable settles into surety. With so many in harmony, and with those who agree joined also in a guild membership, liberal beliefs become academic manners. It’s social life in a professional world, and its patterns are worth describing.

The problem is that the simple trappings of deliberation make academics think that they’ve reached an opinion through reasoned debate -- instead of, in part, through an irrational social dynamic. The opinion takes on the status of a norm. Extreme views appear to be logical extensions of principles that everyone more or less shares, and extremists gain a larger influence than their numbers merit. If participants left the enclave, their beliefs would moderate, and they would be more open to the beliefs of others. But with the conferences, quarterlies, and committee meetings suffused with extreme positions, they’re stuck with abiding by the convictions of their most passionate brethren.

As I say, do try to get hold of a copy of the Chronicle and read the whole thing. I don’t make a habit of doling out mugs in my posts, but this is an exception well worth making:     

Discussions - 8 Comments

Each herd has its pastures. Liberals have their universities, conservatives have their think tanks. As a member of neither but a "consumer" (ie. reader) of the products of both, I find they come to their conclusions in much the same way--through a selective marshalling (and stretching) of empirical evidence to support their pre-existing worldviews. Both suffer from limited Roledexes and too much pride ("no left turns" indeed!). Gibbon was right: "The voice of history is often little more than the organ of hatred or flattery."

Are you seriously suggesting that conservatives dominate the world of think tanks in the way that liberals dominate academia? In fact, there are plenty of such organizations from all parts of the political spectrum, and they do not hesitate to criticize each others’ work. The same may be said of the blogosphere, which is why it’s becoming a more popular source of news than the mainstream media. The point of the article is that one-party control of any institution will lead to its decay. The Catholic Church of the Counter-Reformation controlled the universities of the 16th-18th centuries, and as a result academia became a backwater, untouched by the currents of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. Left-wing control of the universities today is rapidly making academia equally irrelevant.

Dr. Moser,

So, are you suggesting that, much like the universities of the 16th-18th centuries that you referred to, our academia will become a "backwater"? While I agree that one party controlling an institution will eventually lead to its demise, I’m not sure I can be so confident as to say that this could happen to higher education today. There is no way that any political ideology can ever be completely wiped out from academia. Even if one political view controls an institution, there will always be a confrontational, minority opinion. Such opinions will promote discussion and debate. How can this lead to academia’s irrelevance? Maybe I’m totally missing your point . . . I’m gonna try to find this paper . . .

Matt, I’m not predicting that the universities are going to disappear. They will continue to attract students, who after all still need university degrees as credentials for their careers. What I predict will happen--and which demonstrably is happening already--is that the most exciting scientific and intellectual developments will not come out of university departments, but rather private foundations. This is essentially what occurred in Europe in the 16th-18th centuries; the universities continued to exist, and to attract students, but they remained stuck in what was essentially the curriculum of the late Middle Ages. The faculty was a self-selecting elite that didn’t have anything to say that was of any interest to the rest of the world. Intellectual life went on--indeed, this was one of the most intellectually fruitful periods in history--but it did so in spite of the universities, not because of them.

Matt, I would suggest that your perspective on this would be different if you attended Ohio State or any other public university, let alone the Ivy League. Here at Ashland liberals AND conservatives have a visible presence on campus, among students and faculty alike. They listen to one another because they have to deal with one another on a regular basis. They cannot simply talk to themselves; they must advance their ideas and defend them publicly. That is what creates a healthy intellectual climate. At most other universities conservative faculty members, if they exist at all, remain quiet about their views for fear of being ostracized, or even dismissed from their positions.

Dr. Moser, I understand now! Thanks for clearing that up. I thought I must have misunderstood.

Bauerlein’s article is generally available here. If that link becomes unusable, I have quoted from the heart of the article here.

Matt, I have to take issue with your assumption in Comment 3 that "there will always be a confrontational, minority opinion." In many educational institutions today, that is simply not the case. For example, I attended a prestigious coastal law school where there were approximately 45-50 professors. Would you care to guess how many of those were Republican? Exactly two. One was a libertarian, not a "conservative" within the general meaning of the term. You can rest assured neither was able to teach constitutional law.

This is admittedly an extreme example, but it is not uncommon, even in the professional schools like law and business, to have a ratio of 10-to-1 or even 20-to-1 in favor of the left, with a large number of the leftists being significantly detached from the mainstream of society.

Here is an analysis from the Wall Street Journal a few years back that should bother everyone who reads it. As a poster on a Yale blog noted at the time, "For those who are wondering, 5% of the donating Yale Law faculty is roughly 1 person."

Conservatives Need Not Apply

By John O. McGinnis & Matthew Schwartz


From the claims of supporters of Uiversity one might think that law schools are sparing no effort to make sure that campuses ring with contentious voices. . . . But professors even more than students set the intellectual tone in university life. Generating ideas is their job. These same law schools almost uniformly lack a "critical mass" of conservatives to offer an alternative to the reigning liberal orthodoxy.

We have conducted a study that provides evidence of the ideological imbalance at elite law schools -- of which we have heard no plans to rectify. We reviewed all federal campaign contributions over $200 by professors at the top 22 law schools from 1994 to 2000. During that time, close to a quarter of these law professors contributed to campaigns -- a proportion far greater than the average citizen. The proof is stark: as the Anglican church was once described as the Tory Party at prayer, the legal academy today is best seen as the Democratic Party at the lectern. America splits evenly between the GOP and Democrats, but 74% of the professors contribute primarily to Democrats. Only 16% do so to Republicans.

These overall percentages substantially understate the effect of the partisan imbalance at most schools. Republican-contributing law professors are very disproportionately concentrated at two schools -- the University of Virginia and Northwestern. In contrast, many other elite schools have few or no politically active Republicans. At Yale, where almost 50% of the faculty donate, almost 95% give predominantly to Democrats. At Michigan itself the ratio is eight to one. Sometimes the amounts donated can be instructive: in the last six years Georgetown law professors have donated approximately $180,000 to the Democratic Party, $2,000 to the GOP and $1,500 to the Green party.

Conclusion? Mainstream conservative ideas are no better represented than those on the leftist fringe. The overall ratio also understates the skewed debate on issues of public concern: our study finds that professors teaching economics-based subjects like antitrust and corporations are more conservative than their public-law counterparts. This leaves such subjects as constitutional law and international law -- the subjects that set the agenda for debate on the hot-button issues of our time -- with scarcely a conservative voice. . . . [U]niversities have sacrificed their higher calling to truth. Instead, they have become just another political faction, all too willing to dissemble.

Mr. Szyslak, I had no idea the problem was so extensive or so intense. Thanks for the article. I have definitely had to rethink my argument . . .

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