Conservatives in academe

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Blogger Suzanne Fortin treats us to an extended whine today about how she washed out of a Master’s program in English. In a surprisingly unconservative manner, she blames everything and everyone but herself for her lack of success—postmodernism, the readings assigned, you name it.

Perhaps part of the problem was her evident unwillingness to hear arguments that conflicted with her own preconceptions:

So if you wanted to say that Shakespeare promoted cross-dressing or that Thomas More favoured the ordination of women, that was A-OK. Try to root your criticism in some kind of objective philosophy, and that was a fail.

Here’s an argument on Shakespeare and cross-dressing. You might disagree with it, but you can’t simply dismiss it as false: one-fifth of the Bard’s 38 acknowledged plays employ this device. And let’s not make too many rash assumptions about the enlightened and humane Thomas More, either: he proposed precisely that in his Utopia:

The wives of their priests are the most extraordinary women of the whole country; sometimes the women themselves are made priests, though that falls out but seldom, nor are any but ancient widows chosen into that order.

I’m not certain what “objective philosophy” (* wince *) she is referring to (well, I lie), but it would have to be an interesting one indeed to filter out the possibilities suggested above. I doubt that serious Catholic scholars would be so dismissive, although they might offer spirited counter-arguments of their own.

But, her own fruitless travails aside, Fortin offers a link to an interesting article, which we should all read with an open mind. It applies to the US, and other studies I cite below do as well, but we are free to make assumptions about the Canadian academy based upon these findings.

It seems that, at least in certain disciplines, liberals outnumber conservatives by an overwhelming margin. 80% of psychologists at a recent meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology identified themselves as “liberal” in a show of hands, despite polls indicating that only 20% of America as a whole is liberal. At that same meeting, only 0.3% of the audience identified as conservative.

There’s more:

The politics of the professoriate has been studied by the economists Christopher Cardiff and Daniel Klein and the sociologists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons. They’ve independently found that Democrats typically outnumber Republicans at elite universities by at least six to one among the general faculty, and by higher ratios in the humanities and social sciences. In a 2007 study of both elite and non-elite universities, Dr. Gross and Dr. Simmons reported that nearly 80 percent of psychology professors are Democrats, outnumbering Republicans by nearly 12 to 1.

Is it that conservatives are—let me put this delicately—not precisely suited to higher learning? (I mean in aggregate, of course: I’m well aware of individual excellence on that side of the divide.) Is it active and or systemic discrimination against conservatives, to the point that social psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests an affirmative action target of 10%? Or is it, as Fortin and others suggest, self-selection?

Kieran Healy notes that conservatives are the first to dismiss claims of systemic discrimination with respect to other groups, attributing the their varying success rates to differences in innate abilities and learned skills. But somehow the spectre of institutional bias appears in all its horror when conservatives look at their own relative unsuccess in the academic world. As Healy points out:

So if we assume…that conservatives really are significantly underrepresented in academia, it seems to me that conservatives face a simple choice. They can acknowledge the wealth of evidence for durable inequality of different kinds and join the people investigating the many and varied ways that it’s produced and sustained, and maybe even sometimes eliminated. Or they can bite the bullet and accept that the poor market performance of conservatives must reflect their inability to compete on human capital terms with their sharper, more skillful and harder-working liberal competitors. To borrow a recent argument from someone else, if we measure things by revealed preferences, i.e. voting with their feet, it seems conservative academics just prefer to be Resident Scholars at the AEI rather than tenured professors at Wharton, Yale or Chicago. In any event, the least plausible option is to argue that the embedded, political character of markets and the occupational structure is obviously at work in the labor market experiences of conservative academics, but not the life-chances of, say, women or black men.

Another sceptical look at the claim may be found here, with a riposte here. This study of professors’ political orientations from 1969-1984 shows little change over time, and finds that claims of faculty “leftism” have been “exaggerated.”

Finally, here is the very study by Neil Gross and Solon Simmons cited above, which accepts at least some of the conservative critique, but is far more nuanced than the reference suggested:

[W]e show that while conservatives, Republicans, and Republican voters are rare within the faculty ranks, on many issues there are as many professors who hold center/center-left views as there are those who cleave to more liberal positions, while the age distribution indicates that, in terms of their overall political orientation, professors are becoming more moderate over time, and less radical.

This study, by , is well worth the time it takes to read it. The questions it raises are fascinating, e.g.:

Although we will not pursue the point here, preliminary regression analyses suggest that it is the lower average levels of educational attainment, and lower social class origins, of conservative and Republican academics that may do the most to account for their underrepresentation in elite research institutions. (38)

Lots of correlations here, but causation is a different matter. Does less education make you conservative, or does conservatism make you less educable? Does the liberal dominance of the academy prevent conservatives from acquiring equal educational credentials in the first place? Do lower class origins make you conservative, (exclusive, by the way, of Blacks and Hispanics, who are much more likely to vote Democratic than Republican)?

On social issues, the study provides some survey interesting results, some a little counter-intuitive:

Consistent with our findings on political orientation and voting, on sex and gender professors of computer science and engineering, health, and business are the most conservative, while social scientists are the most liberal. On these questions natural and physical scientists are actually slightly more liberal than humanists. [emphasis added] (50)

And: “In the Middle East situation, are your sympathies more with the Israelis or more with the Palestinians?” 20.9% answer Israelis, 10.7% say Palestinians, 51.3% sympathize equally with both, and 17.1% sympathize with neither. (55)

In fact, the more one delves into this topic, the more complex it becomes, as is of course true of any topic. The one thing the study demonstrates conclusively is “that there is more heterogeneity of political opinion among the professoriate” than has been recognized by its critics.

Although we would not contest the claim that professors are one of the most liberal occupational groups in American society, or that the professoriate is a Democratic stronghold, we have shown that there is a sizable, and often ignored, center/center-left contingent within the faculty; that on several important attitude domains - and in terms of overall political orientation - moderatism appears to be on the upswing; that, according to several measures, it is liberal arts colleges, and not elite, PhD granting institutions that house the most liberal faculty; and that there is much disagreement among professors about the role that politics should play in teaching and research.

Clearly there is enough data to support a shallow description of the academy as “liberal” —as opposed to stridently conservative in the manner of Ezra Levant. for example, or David Horowitz. The subject, however, proves to be a big one, and it would be risky to state the following as anything other than suggestions and hypotheses. I offer them only in the spirit of inquiry (and I realize that conservatives are no more a monolith than liberal academics, so am using a bit of a broad brush here). Reader comment is invited as always:

1) Self-selection is key. Social scientists have abandoned the vulgar functionalism that once sought to explain by an analysis of its elements why society had to be the way it was, and now in the main look at social structures as contingent. Gender, “race” and class are considered appropriate ways in to the social analysis of specific institutions and practices. This kind of investigation, however, is obviously inimical to conservatives. Ditto a critical examination of literature through the lens of textual theory, anti-canonical theory and so on. Conservatives are not big on theory, and adore canons.

2) Lack of education plays a role, as polls on social issues consistently show. The difficulty here is getting past correlation. Are conservatives simply stupid, or does the educational system weed them out, at least at the higher levels, or is conservatism caused by poverty? The fact is that we don’t know. What we do know is that a myriad of factors are clearly involved: note, for example, that in the last study quoted, Blacks and Hispanics, who have relatively disadvantaged backgrounds generally speaking, overwhelmingly vote Democrat. Disadvantaged whites do not.

3) Conservatives look for absolutes, hold on to Truth, embrace tradition in the ossified Burkean sense, can’t let go of grand narratives. Nearly one-half of the conservative academics in the last study cited described themselves as “born-again Christians.” None of this is particularly conducive to intellectual inquiry. Conservatives, therefore, prefer to find more satisfying occupations elsewhere.

I hasten to add that you can indeed find intolerance on the part of the left in the academy and elsewhere, so that point doesn’t have to be made. But it doesn’t explain the absence of conservatives even in fields where politics don’t come immediately to the fore—e.g., engineering, business and science. To make their critique valid, conservative critics of the academy need to explain why this is so. I would suggest in all humility that my preliminary suggestions might provide the basis of just such an explanation.

[H/t Marie Ève, b/c]

ADDENDUM: Paul Krugman has some insights on the topic. Why are liberals underrepresented in the military?

[H/t reader “nitangae”]

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This page contains a single entry by Dr.Dawg published on February 11, 2011 8:48 PM.

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