Can we have a real discussion about liberal academics?

Over at our place, we've been pretty preoccupied with the "liberal academy" topic for about a week now...I'm not satisfied with the single-phrase explanations for liberal faculties ("We're more open-minded" or "Conservatives like money more"), though perhaps many of these ideas contain bits of truth.  But we need to start working on a more comprehensive explanation. This stuff is important because when you add up all the pieces of this debate—the nature of the political makeup of faculty, the question of hiring biases, the question of whether liberals are “smarter” or whether they think they’re smarter, the “academic freedom” movement, the growth of organizations that help oppressed students stand up to their tyrannical profs when they receive a shitty grade on a shitty essay—what this is all about is the general discrediting of higher learning.  And that, boys and girls, is not good.

Today I bring you a little gem courtesy of my favorite academic crusader and yours, David Horowitz, who apparently found one of his reader’s comments so brilliant, he had to reprint them:

From the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry: Volume 40(12) December 2001 pp 1484-1486:

Imagining the Impossible: Magical, Scientific, and Religious Thinking in Children", the Rosengren and Hickling chapter, Metamorphosis and Magic: The Development of Children's Thinking About Possible Events and Plausiblei Mechanisms, proposes an alternative developmental trajectory of magical reasoning. According to these authors, magical thinking is not an error in logic, but a specific type of causal reasoning that uses specific "supernatural" powers. Magical reasoning represents an alternative form of causal reasoning that is separate from foundational forms of reasoning (e.g., biology, physics, etc.) and from religious explanations. This type of reasoning emerges during the preschool years and shows a rapid decline when children enter the years of formal schooling. [his emphasis] The search for causal explanations, the acquisition of new knowledge, and cultural support shape and determine this timetable.

The "magical reasoning" of people ideologically stuck in the 60's may reflect a stunted maturation of thinking about events and mechanisms.  It did not decline when they entered "formal schooling."  They are stuck in a childish form of illogic.

I have two other explanations: 1) these are religious fanatics, Pelagians and Gnostics; and 2) they are ruthless totatitarians who have purged all dissenting voices from their profession and silenced the rest and so find themselves in a room with no one to keep them honest.

So I guess the theory is that the people who teach at the highest level of “formal schooling” never matured enough enough to take advantage of…um, formal schooling.  Brilliant.

(You might be wondering what the hell a Pelagian is.  Pelagiansim: “a belief that original sin did not taint human nature (which, being created from God, was divine), and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil with no Divine aid whatsoever.”  Sounds pretty crazy.  I hope those people stay out of universities.)

Ya know what’s ironic about Horowitz and his camp--  They themselves are a huge factor in their own “issue” because their bullshit hype must scare young conservatives into thinking they would fail as academics.  If there’s any self-reinforcement in the liberal-ness of faculty,  I think it must happen at the level of choosing to enter grad school and not at the level of hiring (at which time young PhD’s have just spent 4-7 years doing nothing but making themselves hirable).  And now right-leaning undergrads are thinking, oh crap, David Horowitz says that these leftist professors will oppress me with their magical reasoning and I’ll never be able to get a job.  And off the students go to the private sector while Horowitz continues to lament the lack of conservatives in the academy.  Nice self-fulfilling prophecy, Dave.

If more liberals choose to enter academia in the first place, as I’m suggesting, then the question is why.  Some suggest that conservatives are more interested in having profitable careers.  Maybe.  Some say that doctoral-level work requires a kind of open-minded approach to research that liberals are more likely to follow.  As a liberal, I’d love to believe that…but I’ve yet to see truly convincing evidence for it.  (It’s easy to say that someone who believes in a literal interpretation of Genesis may lack the level of skepticism needed to be a good biologist, but that just a convenient and extreme example.  It says nothing of conservatives in general.) 

What I think though, is that before you become an academic, you might need to buy into a few ideas that may both lead you to think an academic career is worthwhile and ultimately push you toward somewhat liberal politics.  For example, it helps if you believe in the value of the general project of the academy, which is (simply put) to increase knowledge…not knowledge that is immediately practical or consumable (except in a few cases), but knowledge that accumulates slowly over time to produce a more enlightened understanding of ourselves and the universe we live in, with tangible benefits emerging here and there along the way.   (Like realizing that exorcisms will not cure epileptic patients and that emotionally distant mothers will not turn their children gay.)  This knowledge isn’t just for a few people who can afford to pay for it (medical research notwithstanding)... It’s for the benefit of whole societies… and with this kind of “benefit society” talk, we’re already leaning leftward.  (Naturally I’m not saying that no conservatives embrace this viewpoint...I’m just saying it fits more comfortably into a contemporary liberal worldview.)

Then you have to come to grips with the fact that although academic study is highly valuable, there’s no private market for most fields.  No one's buying the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience in bulk at Costco, and Filene’s Basement does not have a spring sale on Prada bags and French Lit papers. Academia needs its own special system outside of markets that are driven by profitability.  And if you can accept that, you’ve got just a little lefty in you, even if you’re mostly conservative.

Then you have to accept the method by which the academic system is (at least partially) built in modern society.  There’s a great deal of public funding for both universities and research grants.  And we all know which group is more generous about that sort of funding.  And we also know which other group is less likely to trust academics with handling their funding appropriately and would prefer to have say in what sort of research gets done.  Plus, as I’ve said elsewhere, once you become a faculty member, it’s really in your economic interest to vote for Democrats, who are more likely to see that you and your institution get paid.

All this to say that as a person is making the decision to enter academia, it’s likely that their internal justification for their career choice includes at least some beliefs (or put more weakly, the precursors of beliefs) that are considered liberal in the current political environment.  That's the beginning of my explanation.  Of course, there might be other factors at work.  Liberal undergrads might find the liberal-ness of current faculties appealing. (Again, thank you David Horowitz for perpetuating that stereotype and thereby probably increasing the number of liberals who even apply to grad school, while scaring off conservatives).  Or maybe they find something about the general culture more appealing.

Here’s what we need if we really want to know the truth about this issue: research that focuses on the career decisions of students and not solely on speculations about discriminatory hiring practices in universities.  I bet this stuff starts happening at  the undergrad level.  I want to know what conservative and liberal students think about when deciding on their careers.  Someone tell me. 

Conservative students: you should ignore Horowitz and know you have nothing to be afraid of if they want to enter the academic sphere.  Grad school applications consist of one very, very, very short essay on what you’ve done and what kind of research you’re interested in.  There really isn’t a way for programs to exclude conservatives, even if they wanted to.  Unless you’re a socially conservative undergrad who states the intention of entering sociology with the goal of proving that homosexuality is destroying America.  Then, I’m sorry if I have to get all liberal elite on your ass, but that kind of thing has no place in academia.  Cheer up though, there are places that will hire you.  You'll get paid more with none of that pesky peer review.


[Cross-posted at Here's What's Left]