Everybody must get cloned

February 24, 2010

R.R Reno had an interesting essay yesterday at First Things about the  political consequences of the ideological uniformity of faculties of higher education.   That university faculties are overwhelmingly liberal is sometimes contested (always, in my experience, by liberals), but as Reno points out the evidence is unequivocal.   The fact that the political views of faculty tilt so heavily in one direction makes it difficult for the ideal of the university as a forum for reasoned debate of important (political) questions to be realized: there is nobody to defend the other side.  And since our political system depends, at least in theory, on such debate taking place, the contemporary university is, in Reno’s words, “a civic failure”.

It’s not good for America to have a major political party and important elite institutions dominated by people trained to ignore—or worse, sneer at—the conservative ways of thinking that motivate most Americans. The civic failure of higher education has contributed to this sad state of affairs, and, unfortunately, there are no signs that it will change.

Read the whole thing. I know there are a few graduate students who occasionally read this blog and I would be interested to hear what they think of Reno’s arguments.

More than once Reno remarks that faculties of science are exceptions to the kind of ideological homogeneity he is describing.  I think that is true, although in my experience conservatives are still a significant minority.  Of course, the political views of faculty do not matter nearly as much in science, so nobody much cares.

9 Responses to “Everybody must get cloned”

  1. Matthew Says:

    I read about a study a few years ago that showed that liberalism increases with education. Unfortunately, I can’t find it; however, I can say that it reflects my own experience and the experience of many people I know. I grew up with conservative views in a small town and held many of those views well into my undergraduate work and afterwards.

    There was another study a few years ago that concluded that liberals have a higher tolerance for ambiguity than conservatives. Here’s the link to a news item on it. The article itself appeared in the journal Nature Neuroscience.


    To tie the two studies together, I can say that in my own experience, the more education I got, the more ambiguity I saw in the world, but also the more I was able to deal with that ambiguity. However, it was the arts degree that I did for personal interest, not the science degrees that I did for my profession, that made the biggest difference. Like Craig, I know more scientists and especially engineers who are conservative. Having studied both arts and sciences, I would suggest that the reason there are more conservative scientists and engineers is a lack of introspection about the consequences and purposes of their work, the “why” part. I say that because that’s the big difference I see in myself and my own work from before and after my arts degree.

    As for whether there should be more conservative views in the academy, I can’t see how you can do it. You might think there is some conspiracy to keep out anybody who doesn’t swear by the liberal orthodox view, but seeing it from an insider’s view (my wife is an arts professor) that’s just not the case. The fact is that anyone can get a degree if they do their work based on evidence, based on reality. Unfortunately, as that conservative icon Stephen Colbert pointed out, “Reality has a well known liberal bias.” 🙂

  2. Adam Hincks Says:

    Thanks for the link Craig. I think he’s for the most part right, but the unsatisfying thing is that he does not provide convincing reasons why post-secondary academic institutions are predominantly liberal in their thinking. (At least, in their social thinking. I would guess that, for example, economics departments have much more diversity.)

    In Canada the situation is a bit different because we are a much more liberal society as a whole.

  3. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for your comments, gentleman. I am still hoping that the grad students to whom I made fleeting reference above will chime in, but until they do I will warble a few off-key notes in response.

    If it’s a matter of dueling anecdotes, Matthew, I can say that my experience has been the opposite of yours: when I began my undergraduate studies I would have described myself as “liberal”. With the passing of years I slowly migrated away from those positions, and today I am more likely to describe myself as “conservative”. In between, I have voted, at one time or another, for every major political party in our country. But the general trend has been toward what is called, fittingly enough, “the right”.

    If it’s a matter of dueling aphorisms, I can quote Irving Kristol (admittedly not a great political philosopher like Stephen Colbert) who defined a conservative as “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.”

    The fact that people with more education tend to be more liberal in their views is easily accounted for: they have spent a longer time in the overwhelmingly liberal university environment, and are therefore more likely to have absorbed the views of their friends and colleagues. This is quite natural.

    You say that there is no liberal orthodoxy test for prospective academics, and of course there is no formal test, but there is plenty of opportunity for various kinds of pressure to be brought to bear. I myself know several graduate students who have been advised, quietly, by their supervisors that they had best keep their “conservative” views to themselves if they don’t want to destroy their chances of getting an academic job. That doesn’t happen in every department, of course, and perhaps your wife’s department is a happy exception. Or perhaps, as can easily happen, liberals who are surrounded by liberals don’t see their own prejudices. Meanwhile conservatives step lightly and keep their heads down.

    Finally, I am having a difficult time wrapping my head around your claim that liberals are those who are more comfortable with “ambiguity”. I would say that this is nearly the opposite of the truth. The whole liberal project (in the largest sense, going back to the Enlightenment) was to make reality (that is, social and political reality) conformable with reason. Reason is notoriously unambiguous, since it insists on consistency. As far as I can tell, liberals have two principal values: freedom and equality, and these two sweep all before them, exalting the valleys and making low every mountain and hill. This may be praiseworthy and beneficial for us all (although I do not think so), but it hardly exemplifies a devotion to ambiguity. Put another way, the revolutionary spirit is not noted for its cultivation of ambiguity (unless, of course, ambiguity about certain matters serves its larger purposes).

    Liberals, it seems to me, value consistency, and therefore they tend to promote conformity. The whole phenomenon of political correctness, which is nowhere as prevalent and powerful as on university campuses, is an excellent example of this.

    On the other hand, conservatism, as I understand it, is a commitment to a haphazard defence of tradition, custom, reason, and the common good. It has to contend with all the ambiguities and conflicting claims of history. It accepts the fact that human society is one big mess, but believes that more harm is likely to be done by trying to “fix” it. Instead, we’ll do our best to deal with the problems we have, and hope for the best. This requires that one make peace with ambiguity.

    I don’t know how well that describes our political “conservative” parties — after all, we’re all liberals now, especially in Canada — but it is what I mean by the term.

    Adam, you are right that Reno doesn’t say how this state of affairs came about. Maybe, as Matthew suggests, it really is true that conservatism was eroded simply because people got educated and saw the error of their ways, and the preponderance of liberals in faculty lounges accurately reflects the preponderance of good arguments on their side. I have my doubts.

    I have seen it suggested that the radical student politics of the 1960s “boiled over”, in the course of time, to faculty lounges, as those students graduated and were hired. I don’t know if there is any data to support that claim. In The Closing of the American Mind Allan Bloom argues that it happened earlier, in the 1930s and 1940s, when American universities were flooded with European academics fleeing the troubles, and that they brought the liberal ethos with them. However it happened, once established it can perpetuate itself by various means, some of which Reno mentions.

    • Matthew Says:

      Perhaps I don’t know the conservatism and liberalism of which you speak. I only know the face of liberalism and conservatism put forward by Canadian and American political parties and movements, where conservatives are known for keeping their word despite the consequences (which aren’t their fault because it should have worked) and liberals are known for choosing a course based on the information they have despite their word (which isn’t their fault because they didn’t know how bad it was). One approach deals in black and white. “I said I would do it and I did” is often the refrain of the conservative politician. A liberal would look at this and say that the politician was merely applying his or her ideology regardless of consequence. While the other approach deals in ambiguity. “I know I said I would do x but I had to do y given the circumstances” is often the refrain of the liberal politician. A conservative would look at this and say that the politician lied to them or dithered.

      As for the grand liberal project from the Enlightenment until now being based on inviolable reason, you of all people should know that while that was true at the beginning of the Englightenment the philosophy of the last century or century and a half has thrown the idea that you can know anything with absolute certainty completely out the window. There is truth but, outside of religion, determining what it is depends very much on the point of view of the observer and how much information is available.

      There may be contributing factors to your shift from liberal to conservative. You are what I would describe as a devout Catholic and the church’s positions are best described as conservative. You are also from Alberta, the homeland of Canadian conservatism, so no matter how liberal you were, you probably weren’t as liberal as you think you were. 😉

  4. cburrell Says:

    Well, at any rate I’m less liberal now than I used to be. 😎 My family is Albertan, but my parents are from Saskatchewan, a province with a much more ambiguous political complexion. As it is, I don’t really think of myself as politically conservative; I probably agree with about 20% of the conservative party’s policies, disagree with about 20%, and am more or less indifferent to the rest. The reason I’ve migrated away from calling myself “liberal” or “left-wing” if chiefly because, though I continue to agree with some of their policies, there are others (mostly related to killing babies) that I cannot abide, and I repent me that I ever cast my vote in that direction.

    It is interesting that you characterize the Church as conservative. In the broadest sense, this is true, since the Church is a very traditional society. But, as I’m sure you know, most Catholics vote on the left. This used to be more true than it is today (chiefly, again, because the left is so comfortable with dead babies), but it remains true that a majority of Catholics vote left.

    I agree with you that these words — “conservative”, “liberal”, “right” , “left”, “progressive” — are slippery. Their meanings change with time and from one context to another. I wish we didn’t have to use them, but it seems were stuck. In what I wrote above I may have inadvertently equivocated once or twice. How is that for ambiguity?

    It is true that skepticism overtook and is presently devouring the Enlightenment project, but it is not dead yet. The left still champions freedom and equality, and is busy remaking society in its image. In fact, since so much of the liberal project involves collapsing differences, it is actually served by a certain amount of skeptical relativism.

    None of this, however, really addresses the main point that was being made in the essay, which is that the relative deficit of conservative representation among university faculty causes harm to our political process. I gather that you do not think this is true, on the grounds that airing bad arguments doesn’t help anything.

  5. KathyB Says:

    I too grew more conservative as I grew more educated, and as the product of CBC-watching, Globe and Mail-reading Ontario parents, I have none of your “handicaps”, Craig.

    In terms of my education, I found that religion was actively ridiculed by the professor and TA in my first year biology class, and there were a few multiple choice questions where for me, the choice was between rejecting my own beliefs (ie. that God is involved in creation AT ALL, not merely in the literal 7 day account), and getting a lower grade.

    I switched fields and did an MA in art history, where politics did not matter at all. In fact, one of the things which used to bother some of the professors was that first year students were so hostile towards religion that they would not even make an effort to try to understand the motives a medieval artist might have when illuminating a crucifixion scene. It wasn’t a matter of needing to be a Christian, it was merely the idea of respecting an artist’s beliefs enough to have a rational discussion about how those beliefs informed artistic practice.

  6. cburrell Says:

    I took a course in medieval art when I was an undergraduate, but I don’t remember the other students being particularly hostile to the subject matter. Of course, I didn’t talk to anyone. 8)

    The professor, I remember, was really good. On the first day he showed a long sequence of icons of the Blessed Virgin, each one pretty much the same as the last in composition, “perspective”, and coloring, right down to details like the way her head covering folded. He said, “Clearly, the goal of medieval art is not originality, so you must get those expectations out of your head if you’re to understand it.” I thought, “Right on. I like this.”

    I never realized before that I am handicapped! I feel empowered.

  7. Jim Says:

    Maybe I can chime in as someone on the softer side of one of the social sciences, where the liberal bent of the academy is perhaps most notable. I’m always a little hesitant to endorse readings of the situation like Reno’s — certainly I’d feel more at home if there were more conservatives in the academy, but in some ways I feel that the call for more conservatives or, as in some US schools, for the establishment of departments of conservative studies, is not profoundly misguided.

    1) To simply call for ideological balance is to subsume the academy into electoral politics. In part this is naive — it ignores what academics really fight about — and in part it is giving up on the idea of an objective truth I think folks like Reno want to defend.

    2) Where liberal bias shows up in my field is more in the questions we ask than the conclusions we arrive at. For example, answering the question “what should the government do about poverty” almost always means extending the involvement of government in society and the economy. If the question was “how do we encourage charity”, the answer would be different, but not I’m not sure any better. I’d hate to see a divide between people answering ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ questions.

    3) Some of the bias, even in fields not so intimately tied to politics as mine, could simply be the result of most faculty being effectively state employees. It’s natural, and in our day and age called ‘liberal’, to see more resources dedicated to state agencies. In early 20th century Germany, the desire for a strong state was ‘conservative’ and, not surprisingly (though for other reasons as well) the universities were deeply conservative places.

    4) As a final footnote on definition, I think one aspect of it is that a good part of American conservatism (a lesser amount of the Canadian version) is really populism — a movement of the little man against elites. To the considerable degree that academics consider themselves elite, we shouldn’t be surprised that the react against this. On the problem of differentiating liberalism and conservatism more generally, I’ve always found F. A. Hayek’s essay “Why I am not a Conservative” very helpful.

  8. cburrell Says:

    Thanks, Jim. It is refreshing to hear a voice of reason (as opposed to my voice). Did you intend the “not” in “…not profoundly misguided”?

    I agree that the situation, if it is to be changed, should not be changed by “quota systems” or any sort of legislation. It would have to be more organic.

    The point about state employees is one I hadn’t thought of, and it could well be a contributing factor. On the other hand, I work in a place where everyone is a state employee, but the mix of political views is quite wide. Of course, the particular part of government in which I work is unlikely to be “downsized” by a conservative government, so the situation is perhaps not the same.

    I am going to look at that Hayek essay. I thought he was a conservative.

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