Friday, November 12, 2004

Mark Bauerlein and the Liberal Academy

Mark Bauerlein has written a rather courageous article in the November 12th edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Liberal Groupthink is Anti-Intellectual." (Available online at aldaily.com, in the opinion column.)

He argues quite rightly that the academy is unfortunately and unfairly dominated by Democrats, something everyone has known for some time, but which was only recently statistically confirmed by an American Enterprise Institute poll.

The poll results indicated that at the time of the canvass several years ago, 9 out of 10 professors belonged to the Democratic or the Green party. Bauerlein is right to infer from this (although he is not explicit about it being an inference) that Democratic thinking influences many of the course syllabi and affects classroom atmosphere. The result is that college classrooms and scholarly research programs are missing some of the intellectual diversity that university representatives have rightly argued is a requisite for successful education and university function.

(It should not be overlooked that, in addition, having 9 out of 10 professors be of one political persuasion makes for an unpleasant atmosphere for anyone toeing anything other than the offical party line.)

And although Bauerlein doesn't mention it, those in academics should reject superficial pledges from professors and Deans that their politics won't enter into teaching and research-- just as we should reject pledges from judges and other appointed officials that they will be fair despite a history of extreme partisanship.

But in many ways Bauerlein's essay misses its mark. For it doesn't occur to Bauerlein to reflect that there is a difference between the presence of Republicans in the academy and, say, the presence of blacks. You can choose your political party. You cannot, on the other hand, choose your skin color or (in most cases) your income bracket or your sexual preference. So if you want to know why there aren't many Republicans in the academy, you should ask: is there any reason someone in the academy would've wanted to vote Republican on November 2nd?

Consider the following:

1. A central strategy of the Bush team during the campaign was to paint Kerry as an obscurantist and a flip-flopper. Just to pick one example, during the debates Bush often scoffed in response to Kerry and suggested that he didn't understand the distinctions Kerry was drawing. Recall in particular Kerry's answer in the second debate to an objection from an audience member to the funding of abortion with tax revenues. In response Kerry distinguished between having personal religious commitments and legislating those commitments on others who didn't share them. Bush responded, "I'm trying to decipher that." (http://www.debates.org/pages/trans2004c.html)

The careers of many academics are made and destroyed on subtleties far finer than that or any Kerry articulated (or tried to) during the campaign.

I think it is fair to say that Bush spent much of his 2004 campaign mobilizing implicit prejudices many people have against the well-educated. As a result of their efforts Kerry eventually came to embody a synergy of the worst features of an intellectual: he was out of touch, pedantic, boring, cold, European, and amoral. (Thus the now-departing Secretary of Commerce, Don Evans, who remarked at one point that John Kerry looked "French.")

For these reasons, listening to Bush often felt like a personal character attack to academics. Would many evangelicals have voted Republican if Bush had, at every chance he got, ridiculed home-schooling, or prayer, or the notion of "revelation"?

2. In the same edition of the Chronicle, sources report that we can expect in the federal budgets to come for the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities to receive either the same funding or a modest increase. (This is certainly reasonable during a time of tight budgets; but it's not as if Bush isn't proposing to increase the budget anywhere, or to cut taxes.) Scientists receiving government money further expect Congress to push for oversight so that watchdogs can monitor what some in the Congress consider to be morally objectionable research. Finally, the direct-loan program, which is extremely profitable for universities, is being "ignored" while private loan companies are being deregulated to encourage their growth.

Are professors supposed to vote for a party that doesn't prioritize their needs in the federal budget? Are Deans and Presidents of public universities supposed to vote for a party that has passed educational stewardship on to the states, who in turn cannot afford it? This would be expecting something of academics that no one expects of any other group of citizens: to vote against their own interests.


It is true that the academy has more Democrats than Republicans. But it is not the case that the academy lacks "conservative" voices. It all depends on how you understand 'conservative'. In political theory, for example, it is patently false that Republicanism, here understood as a particular view about "rights" in a democracy, is not taught. There are leading Republican scholars on the syllabus each term at every major university in the country. Or, if you understand 'conservative' to mean a certain view in economics about the optimal structure of the tax system, then again it simply isn't true that there aren't prominent conservative voices in the academy. Gregory Mankiw, the head of Bush's Council of Economic Advisors, who suggested that outsourcing was good for the American economy, will return to his post at Harvard when he finishes his position as a civil servant.

Bauerlein is understandably frustrated about the experience of being vastly outnumbered by Democratic colleagues (or very sensitive to it, if he is not himself a Republican). But he may not be sufficiently sensitive to just how politically "conservative" some of what he suggests is. For example, take his diagnosis of the OSU librarian who suggested that a goal of college education was to open the minds of white students to the privileges they've received because they're white. According to Bauerlein, the librarian doesn't realize how "extreme" her words sound to some. Not being sensitive to this is supposed to be evidence of the damaging effect of liberal group-think.

We can examine privilege in a society by looking at the distribution of various races in institutions like the university. For the university is, as is often noted, the gateway to success. And it is sad, but true, that only 11% of college students today are black. Furthermore, at prestigous universities like Bauerlein's, only 3.6% of full-time faculty are black. (Journal of Blacks in Higher Education)

How is it that Bauerlein finds it fair to say that Democrats dominate the academy when only 1 in 10 of his colleagues is Republican, but "extreme" to say that whites are privileged when only 1 in 10 of his students is black? Is it the mark of the politically conservative to be sensitive to Democratic dominance of the academy but not to the fact that less than 1 in 25 of professors at top universities are black?

Bauerlein is insightful and brave for pointing out what he has. But surely if we need diversity in the academy, we need it all around.

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