Left-wing college professors

From yesterday’s New York Times:

First paragraph:

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.

Last paragraph:

To Mr. Gross, accusations by conservatives of bias and student brainwashing are self-defeating. “The irony is that the more conservatives complain about academia’s liberalism,” he said, “the more likely it’s going to remain a bastion of liberalism.”

As someone who’s spent the last 25 years on and around US college campuses, what strikes me about the political views of American professors is not their leftward tilt, but their fundamental unseriousness.  Their opinions are consistent only in their conformity to campus fashions.  So if a shop near the school starts selling Fair Trade coffee, it can count on good business from faculty who want to show their support for the rights of coffee growers in Latin America.  Meanwhile, graduate assistants who want to unionize will get a chilly reception from every quarter, and faculty members who express an interest in organizing their colleagues into unions and demanding the right of collective bargaining will invariably be branded as kooks and malcontents.  It’s simply impossible for me to listen to a left-wing rant from a colleague and not translate it into the right-wing rant that same colleague would be delivering in a setting where the fashions were reversed. 

Depressing as this conformism is, I wouldn’t really expect anything different.  The average tenure-track faculty member in the USA puts in something like 70 hours a week working at a job that involves little or no contact with the political system.  In the years between entering grad school and receiving tenure, an American academic walks a tightrope that might at any point send all of that work down the drain and him or her out to start a new career from scratch.  So it would be strange if a large percentage of US professors found time to form and voice their own, possibly unfashionable, political opinions.  Academics are much likelier to collect the reward of their labors if they reliably voice agreement with the prevailing opinions, perhaps vying with each other to be the one who expresses those opinions in the most memorable words. 

Something similar may explain why surveys report that up to 94% of US Army officers are registered Republicans.  Army officers too are busy, career-oriented people who often don’t have time to keep up with the news outside their specialties.  Many officers who form doubts about the favored party form them when they are well into their careers, just a few years away from an important promotion or a generous pension that can be theirs if they simply spend a few more years fitting in with people whom they like and keeping focused on work in which they know they can excel.  For someone in that position to join a group that includes only 6% of his or her colleagues would require courage, and a different sort of courage than that which enables a person to dismantle IEDs in Afghanistan or Iraq.

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  1. cymast

     /  January 19, 2010

    I remember my college professors as being very Christian, which would be expected, as it was the “Church of God College.” One of my psychology professors gave fascinating, engaging, brilliant lectures, but interjected them with examples of his Christian faith. This vexed me. I couldn’t wrap my brain around somebody being so scientifically brilliant and so religious at the same time. I still can’t- perhaps this is a philosophical limitation of mine. I wanted to ask him about (what I perceived as) the dichotomy, but I couldn’t think of a way to word it without it sounding like I was insulting him. So I didn’t.

  2. acilius

     /  January 19, 2010

    Well, as a scientist he was required to pay close attention to views that contradicted his own within his discipline. So anything he wound up believing about psychology was likely to be well-founded. But he was under no such obligation in matters outside his professional competence. Indeed, as an employee of a Bible college it would have been rather odd if he had gone looking for reasons not to accept Christianity. Likewise with a mainstream college. If you’re inclined to be secular and most people around you are secular, you need a special incentive to make it likely that you will go looking for reasons to accept a particular religious doctrine.

    As for his brilliance, that may have promoted conformity. If you’re in a roomful of people whom you know to be very bright, each of them an expert on some topic or other, and they all agree on a particular point, then it will seem unlikely that they could all be wrong. It will seem that way even if none of them has any special qualifications with regard to that point.

  3. mar

     /  January 20, 2010

    Government Research / Funding Scandal

    CAMH / Brock University


    Medicine Gone Bad



  4. cymast

     /  January 20, 2010

    My point is I find it incredible that he could compartmentalize his faith, yet still integrate it into his fact-based lecture. It was like someone explaining the intricacies of quantum field theory, and right in the middle saying “So then God formulated field operators to create or destroy a particle at a unique point in space, much like Christian field operators go out into the field to save souls for Jesus. Hallelujah.”

    If that wouldn’t give you pause, congratulations.

  5. acilius

     /  January 20, 2010

    I don’t find that at all unusual. When I give a lecture about a subject in which I have a professional background, I always invite the students to make comparisons with other topics with which they may be familiar. So yesterday I gave a lecture about hoplite warfare in Greece during the Archaic period. At one point I compared hoplite warfare to football, and led them into a 2-3 minute discussion of that comparison. I don’t have any professional expertise in football, in fact I’ve never read so much as one journal article about it. But I can see some superficial similarities between football and hoplite warfare, and I can take it for granted that most of my students are quite familiar with football. I’ve learned from experience that spending a couple of minutes on that point can help them get a sense of hoplite warfare as something real.

    If I were teaching at a Bible college, I could take it for granted that my students were familiar with various doctrines and practices of whatever sect sponsored the college. So I’d be passing up a rich source of analogies if I didn’t mention those doctrines and practices in the way you’ve described. If I believed in them, I’d have no reason not to bring them up in such a classroom.

  6. cymast

     /  January 20, 2010

    Yeah, I guess I find it hard to take people who believe in leprechauns seriously.

  7. acilius

     /  January 20, 2010

    Well, that’s a good reason not to go to Lucky Charms University.

  8. cymast

     /  January 20, 2010

    Well, yeah, I did go to Lucky Charms U. Never did see a leprechaun, though. But supposedly they were running around all over campus, handing out pots o’ gold.

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