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Why Is Academia Liberal?

i-710d005c8660d36282911838843a792d-ClockWeb logo2.JPGWhen I posted this originally (here and here) I quoted a much longer excerpt from the cited Chronicle article than what is deemed appropriate, so this time I urge you to actually go and read it first and then come back to read my response.

From Dr.Munger’s blog, an interesting article: Liberal Groupthink Is Anti-Intellectual By MARK BAUERLEIN, The Chronicle Review Volume 51, Issue 12, Page B6 (that link is now dead, but you can find a copy here):

Hmmmm, why was the poll conducted only in social science departments (e.g., sociology, psychology, philosophy, history, anthropology, perhaps English…)? What was the point of the poll? To show that excessive pseudo-liberal post-modern straw-man actually exists? Sure it does, and it is excessive, pseudo-liberal, and post-modern, in other words it is not representative of liberalism in its pure form. Even in these departments, only an occasional member is really that far out.

How about business, accounting, economics and religion departments? Who says there are no conservatives in the academia? Hey, the Head of the political science department at Duke is a conservative – Dr.Munger himself!

So, one can argue that some fields of inquiry attract liberals, and others attract conservatives. Some areas are built on liberal foundations, others on conservatives foundations. So far, so good.

But, let’s look at apolitical departments. How about math, natural sciences, engineering, agriculture, medicine? One’s political views are not aired during the job interview, exposed in faculty meetings, do not show up in classroom teaching, do not get published in peer-reviewed journals. So, how come 90% of those faculty are also liberals/Democrats/Greens? Why are conservatives shunning these areas, or being shunned (if even recognized) by these departments? Is there something deeper going on here?

A couple of years ago I was talking to a post-doc in our department. We were talking about our research in general. I said that only about a quarter of my experiments work. She said: “You are a genius! That is a fantastic record”. I said something about having a good advisor who doesn’t let me do foolish stuff. Still, this shows what kind of person can survive in science: one with very thick skin, able to shrug, wash the dishes, go have a beer, and come back to the lab in the morning.

Academic life is extremely competitive (wouldn’t that make it inherently more attractive to conservatives?). Landing a tenure-track position is very difficult. It is reserved for the best of the best. One has to be the super-expert in one’s field. How does one become such a person?

Success in an academic field, especially in sciences, requires an exceptional clarity of thinking, sharpness of logic, and ability to see through the BS. One needs to be able to swiftly discard one’s most cherished pet hypothesis at moment’s notice when faced by the damned data that disprove it, data of one’s own making at 4am. This happens every day, every week, throughout one’s career, starting in grad school. It takes quite a high dose of honesty and ability for self-criticism to do so on a regular basis without getting frustrated enough to quit. A sense of humor is almost a requirement (as opposed to the common stereotype of a dour professor). Self-deprecation is a great survival tactic in such an endeavor.

So, why do people who survive such a painful training happen to be overwhelmingly liberal? Can it be, perhaps, because they employ the same brutal honesty and sharply-honed skills of critical analysis to politics? Can it be that their well-trained baloney-detection kit detects baloney in conservative ideology? Can it be that conservative thinking is just pure bad? Or at least out-dated? Can it be because conservative worldview is not based on empirical information, but on one’s own bias inherited from one’s parents, molded by one’s early childhood environment? Can it be that liberal model passes these tests?

There is no equivalence between Creationism and Evolutionary biology. So, why is it assumed that there is equivalence between the conservative and liberal outlook? It is the same kind of comparison. One view is out-dated and based on faith, the other is modern and based on empirical information about the way this world works. Perhaps there are very few conservatives in the academia for the same reason there are very few Creationists in the academia. Universities want to teach students the best available scholarship, so why hire the sub-standard thinkers?

As far as diversity of opinion in the clasroom, there is always a bunch of young unthinking loudmouth Republicans among the students. There needs to be someone in the position of authority to put them straight, teach them how to think clearly, and show them the way out of their medieval mindsets. Conservative writings need to be studied at the University in order to understand the anti-elite forces in order to learn how to defeat them (or isolate and leave behind to die out a natural death). People like von Hayek, Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss, Thomas Sowell, Robert Nozick, or Gertrude Himmelfarb need to be read by students in order to learn how to see through the deceptive rhetoric and destroy the argument, just like they need to know how to destroy arguments of Creationists.

How can we make sure that conservatives mis-educating our students in business, poli-sci, and economics departments get replaced by someone more up-to-date? Can the GOP tax-cutting madness, the Enron scandals, and the Bush electoral win be traced to the mis-education going on these departments?

That is what the University is for – the focal point of societal progress, the place where outdated ideas of the parent generation are replaced by modern fact-supported ideas of the intellectual elites. The modern University is the engine of progress. If it was not liberal, we might as well just have seminaries and take the country back to the Middle Ages and keep it there for centuries.

Am I an elitist to think this way? Sure I am, and proud of it. Elites are the avante-garde of society, the cutting edge of progress – why should one be ashamed of belonging to the elite or even of trying to join the elite? Why is this country so anti-elitist and anti-intellectual? It does not seem to be that way in Europe. What can we do to change that here? Perhaps the tragedy of the second Bush term will be a rude awakening for the country and the cause of final disgraceful downfall of the so-called “conservative” ideology.


  1. #1 puzzled
    July 6, 2006

    My personal impression is that most economists are liberal. (But maybe my experiences in grad school have brainwashed me enough not to recognize conservatism.)

  2. #2 Guitar Eddie
    July 6, 2006

    I have always had the impression that Neo-conservatives are basically a kind of Latter Day Peter Pans. I.e. they are kind of frozen in an idealized yesteryear that they don’t want to let go of. They are in effect refusing to grow up.


  3. #3 coturnix
    July 6, 2006

    There are other ways to say that, e.g., “immature”, or “developmentally stunted”….

  4. #4 Davis
    July 6, 2006

    I suspect that American conservatism drove out most intellectual adherents when religious conservatives started gaining power in the movement. Most academics probably recognize the insanity of the religious right (and the abandonment of traditional conservatism in favor of neo-conservatism). I would think that, even if one is inclined toward conservatism, it’s difficult to support modern conservatives without a high degree of cognitive dissonance.

    And proper academic training should flush out the ability to maintain that kind of dissonance.

  5. #5 Ahcuah
    July 6, 2006

    Or, maybe it is just that the conservative mind is more interested in making money, so they take a well-paying job immediately without having to go through all the post-docs, professorships, and tenure attempts.

  6. #6 David Boxenhorn
    July 7, 2006

    Wow! You sure are smart! Obviously you have “a high dose of honesty and ability for self-criticism” – there can’t be any other explanation for such a non-self-serving conclusion!

    Really, what’s going on is this. (I wonder if you have the “exceptional clarity of thinking, sharpness of logic” to figure it out… I expect to see an hand-waving dismissal rather than an honest effort to engage an opposing point of view.)

  7. #7 coturnix
    July 7, 2006

    Stalinism is conservative – it is a hierarchical organization.

  8. #8 David Boxenhorn
    July 7, 2006

    Stalinism is conservative – it is a hierarchical organization.

    In the US, at least, “conservative” means hatred of hierarchy. It’s the “liberals” who love hierarchies, such as you have in universities, because they know how to dominate them.

  9. #9 coturnix
    July 7, 2006

    I do not have any idea where you get your stereotypes about liberals (and conservatism for that matter), but psychologically, liberalism is an interactionist worldview, while conservatism is a hierarchical worldview. See more and more about it.

    The Right is winning in this country because they completely turned political ideology upside down: black is white, conservative is liberal and vice versa. Most people in this country are liberal, yet think they are conservative and erroneously vote for the GOP which is coneservative.

  10. #10 Deep Thought
    July 7, 2006

    Do you ever get a sore arm from patting yourself on the back so very much? You place lines such as
    “is always a bunch of young unthinking loudmouth Republicans among the students. There needs to be someone in the position of authority to put them straight, teach them how to think clearly, and show them the way out of their medieval mindsets.”
    in the same posting as
    “[academics are liberals because liberals need]…brutal honesty and sharply-honed skills of critical analysis…”

    And you argue that Stalinism is conservative because it is hierarchical! My God, man! Your describing a *Communist* socio-economic/political system and you insist it must be conservative because your paradigm demands that hierarchies be conservative and vice-versa!

    Here’s a quick question – does your department and the community college its in have a hierarchy? Since I know the answer is an emphatic ‘yes’, does that make it conservative? And does your ‘participation’ in said hierarchy make *you* conservative?

    And the argument that tenure is based on neing the ‘best of the best’ is awfully funny to someone with a background in academia, like me. I’ve seen the lecturers with Ph.D’s and 20 pubs sweating about getting an associate professorship while a ‘I’m working on my master’s’ full professor get’s waved through the tenure comittee – because of that high-selling political book outside of his discipline. Or the highly-qialified, Ph.D. with 3 years of research lab experience, post-doc co-authorships on ground-breaking work, and excellent references who comes in second for that key spot he was a White male and the competition was a lesser-qualified person who met the criteria for diversity.

  11. #11 David Boxenhorn
    July 7, 2006

    I do not have any idea where you get your stereotypes about liberals (and conservatism for that matter), but psychologically, liberalism is an interactionist worldview, while conservatism is a hierarchical worldview.

    Well, I don’t know where you get your stereotypes, but I don’t want to debate terminology. Let’s just say Democrats and Republicans. The Democrats are the party of hierarchy (big government, universities, welfare, unions, etc. etc.) and the Republicans are the party of individualists, non-conformists, and freedom (small business, libertarians, conservative Christians) who want government to leave them alone so they can form the horizontal relationships, both personal (e.g. schools) and economic, that they want. Pick almost any issue, and you’ll find that the Democratic position is the one that gives people less freedom and more hierarchy.

  12. #12 coturnix
    July 7, 2006

    Deep Thought: I see you have followed me here from my old blog. I was hoping you have abandoned my comment threads. We will never agree. Yes, academia is, unfortunately, hierarchical – but not in a psychological/ideological way I am discussing here, just a matter of organization. Even in the most liberal families/groups, someone is elected a leader, and the experts do what they are experts for. That does not mean that the leaders have MORAL superiority over others or that they can bark orders on underlings – that is a conservative idea of hierarchy.

    David: You have learned your politics from Frank Luntz and Rightwing bloggers. You want another link? Here.

  13. #13 Deep Thought
    July 7, 2006

    I have a question for you that I hope you will answer. Above you wrote this:
    “One’s political views are not aired during the job interview, exposed in faculty meetings, do not show up in classroom teaching, do not get published in peer-reviewed journals.”

    and just a few paragraphs later, you wrote this:
    “…there is always a bunch of young unthinking loudmouth Republicans among the students. There needs to be someone in the position of authority to put them straight, teach them how to think clearly, and show them the way out of their medieval mindsets.”

    How do you justify using your position of authority (as a part of a hierarchical organization with power over the lives/grades of your subordinate students) to influence their political and social views to conform to your opinion of what is Right and Good in light of the fact that you A) earlier claimed that there is no airing of such opinions in the classroom, B) are undermining your own argument that their is no liberal bias in academia, C) Are expressing extreme stereotypes about conservative and liberal thought/persons after repeatedly decrying this in others, D) are acting in a manner that you described indirectly as inherently conservative while self-identifying as a progressive, and E) are stating that you actively follow the model of behavior described by Lakoff as “Strict Father” in the classroom to impose your outlook on young adults?

    I’ll be frank – I expect you to once again refuse to answer me. But I persist because I really want to understand how you can hold such contradictory views while calling those you disagree with close-minded

  14. #14 Deep Thought
    July 7, 2006

    Oh, and one more thing – what are you doing molding their socio-economic views in a biology classroom?

  15. #15 coturnix
    July 7, 2006

    Teaching critical skills and performing analysis of the logical inconsistencies in the comments by the “loudmouth Republicans” is sufficent – no need to talk politics or ideology in the classroom. If they learn how to think with their own heads they’ll turn liberal by definition. And I teach biology, so it would be absolutely wrong to bring in politics into the classroom. You see – no logical inconsistencies there!

  16. #16 Deep Thought
    July 7, 2006

    Well, except for the fact that you continue to stereotype thinking and logic as being exclusively liberal traits.

    You are in a bad spot, Bora, much more akin to a poor evangelist than a political or social commentator. You tell those you disagree with that they cannot possibly be experiencing the things they are, in fact, experiencing and cannot have the skills that htey do, in fact, have and use. Then you wonder why ‘they’ disagree with you….

    For example, you and a number of your fellow progressive science bloggers are very explicit in your conviction that ‘liberals use logic, conservatives don’t', etc., etc. You are obviously outspoken and politically active. you assume that those you see/believe to have poor skills at argument, logic, etc. are conservatives (after all, you just insisted that you do not discuss politics in the classroom after describing those you find lacking in logic as ‘loudmouth Republicans’; meaning either you assume that all of them are Republicans without proof [very naughty] or you are lying about politics in your classroom).

    Somehow, however, you think that your students are too dim and/or you are too clever for the students not to pick up on your oh-so-strong prejudices. Perhaps in a single undergrad class, but over time, this strong anti-conservative prejudice will be detected by even the dimmest of us midevalist thinkers. Also, your own prejudice will cause you to be strongly biased against anyone *you* perceive to be conservative, either through their words, actions, etc., etc.

    Over time this will lead to conservatives being made uncomfortable. It will also lead to the liberals within the power structure to, consciously or not, hold back conservatives through inherent bias on the liberal’s part. Eventually, it will become clear that conservatives are not welcome in the liberal halls of whatever the particular discipline happens to be.

    Doubt this? I suggest you look up some of the rhetoric of the 1930′s, 40′s, 50′, 60′s and 70′s about the Civil Rights Act and affirmative action. You will find a whole lot of people who sound shockingly like this very post as they argue that there are no Jews in Harvard because, well, they don’t do as well. Or that Blacks just aren’t intellectually capable of performing well enough in these rarified halls.

    That was all self-congradulatory bunk then, and the fact that you are using essentially the same arguments now is not a kind reflection on your self-satisfied certainty that you are just plain *better* than the people you don’t like.

    You like to parrot the idea that conservatives don’t disagree with you – they are actually mentally ill. How many people who disagreed with Communism went to ‘mental institutions’ in the Soviet Union, Bora? Were they crazy, or was the Communist hierarchy afraid of intellectual debate? Why do you repeat again and again in tiresome variation the assertion that anyone who doesn’t agree with you is incapable of logical thought while all those who do are – that’s an argument, I suppose, but only an ad hominem argument.

    You wanna’ show me that you really are willing to “…swiftly discard one’s most cherished pet hypothesis at moment’s notice…”? Then why don’t you stop assuming that dissent with Bora=stupidity and actually engage in some debate? I’m more than willing to let you pick the topic; if we disagree, why don’t we discuss it?

  17. #17 coturnix
    July 7, 2006

    You are set in your ways. YOu actually believe that communism = liberalism.

    Look everyone. I re-post here five days a week in order to move my archives form the old blogs to the new. I do not even read them before posting. They are ancient. I am not interested in those topics any more. I am NOT interested in comments. You feel free to comment among yourselves, but I will not take out of my time to go back and re-read my ancient posts just so I could respond to people who will never agree with me in the first place. It is a fruitless excercise. It’s my sandbox and you can play in it, but I will not join you in your play, OK?

  18. #18 Deep Thought
    July 7, 2006

    1) You wouldn’t respond when the posts are new
    2) You have no idea if anyone will change their minds – you haven’t tried

    As I mentioned above, I expected you to continue to refuse to respond intellectually to anyone who disagrees with you. I am saddened, but not shocked.

  19. #19 coturnix
    July 7, 2006

    I provided endless links. You do not follow them. If you do, you do not “get the message”. You are too biased to start understanding what I am talking about. And it is not 2004 any more. Election is over. Electoral passions are gone (for me at least). I do not care that much about the topic any more. Move on. I did.

  20. #20 OptimusPrime
    July 8, 2006

    So, why do people who survive such a painful training happen to be overwhelmingly liberal?

    Can it be that academia is overwhelmingly liberal not because of the �exceptional clarity of thinking, sharpness of logic, and ability to see through the BS� instilled in its members, but rather due to the fact that liberals favor higher taxes, and tax money (in the form of grant money) is the lifeblood of academia? An academic voting for a liberal may due so under the guise of upholding empirical principals, but the vote is cast in a completely self interested manner. Higher taxes � unlike the majority of the working population — benefit academics. Somehow I find this a more likely explanation than a culling of the “substandard” minds in hiring academic positions…

  21. #21 coturnix
    July 8, 2006

    Unlike conservatives, liberals rarely even think about taxes. Whil conservatives are obsessed with pinching every dollar, liberal do not think in terms of economic self-interest that much. We are in it for the excitmement of discovery. We’ll do it for food – forget millions, there’s more money elsewhere.

  22. #22 Paul
    July 9, 2006

    Its really doing a disservice to the conservative tradition to continue to consider “neo-conservatives” as conservatives at all. In fact they’re quite radical in belief and behavior. The real conservatives today are the liberals, while the “neo-cons” are redefining American policy to fit their own failed ideology.

  23. #23 coturnix
    July 9, 2006

    Well, it all depends on how one defines “conservative”. I have argued in several places that old-style Rockefeller conservatives were not conservative, while current mix of neocons and religious Right are finally showing the true face of conservatism and the face is scary.