Jan 21 2010

Why are professors Left?

Category: higher education,leftharmonicminer @ 10:39 am

Here is a post that began as a facebook discussion with my friend Kirsten…  and since I can’t bear to type anything and only use it once, read on.  Warning:  in this discussion, the labels “liberal” and “conservative” must be understood historically.  Modern “conservatives” believe about the same things as 18th- and 19th-century “liberals.”  Modern “liberals” are often somewhere on the spectrum between late 19th-century “progressives” and 19th-century “socialists.”  In the 18th century, “conservatives” were those who wanted to maintain the governing status quo involving royalty, aristocratic privilege, and the like, bearing no resemblance to modern “conservatives.”  So watch your head, or you might bump on on a low hanging ideological pipe.

In a lengthy article that purports to report on sociological research into the indeological predispositions of university faculty and people’s reactions to them, we are reminded that Professor Is a Label That Leans to the Left. (Much more at the link.)

The overwhelmingly liberal tilt of university professors has been explained by everything from outright bias to higher I.Q. scores. Now new research suggests that critics may have been asking the wrong question. Instead of looking at why most professors are liberal, they should ask why so many liberals, and so few conservatives, want to be professors.

A pair of sociologists think they may have an answer: typecasting. Conjure up the classic image of a humanities or social sciences professor, the fields where the imbalance is greatest: tweed jacket, pipe, nerdy, longwinded, secular, and liberal. Even though that may be an outdated stereotype, it influences younger people’s ideas about what they want to be when they grow up.

At least it’s nice that the NYTimes acknowledges that academics are mostly leftists.  Now if only they admitted the same about the mainstream media, and themselves, we’d be in a more honest place.  In any case, the conjecture here only explains (to some extent) why academia remains leftist. It doesn’t explain how it got that way, except with a pretty thin reference to reaction to the New Deal.

As is often the case with attempts at sociological explanation, the central roles of ideas and values are shunted aside in favor of demographics. Ask yourself this: without a Marx or Nietsche in the history of ideas, would the academic establishment have trended left? What if the favorite ideas of the left had not developed in the 19th century? They didn’t HAVE to develop then. They just did.

What if Dewey had not influenced the public educational establishment as he did?  What if progressive politics had not found a home in activist universities? 

Ideas have consequences. The leftist academic establishment, all the while that it derides the notion of “progress” in society, still thinks its ideas are better than the old ones that were replaced… all the while denying that there is a universal standard by which they can be judged “better”…. but nevertheless being quite confident that there really aren’t such things as right and wrong, God and Satan, etc.  Except, of course, in the case of global warming deniers, who clearly are destined for the pit of Hell.

I think the nature of the ideas explains much more than demographic “typing.”  People have always been looking for two things: ways to get power over others, and ways to maximize personal freedom for themselves.  Very, very much of the liberal left is well-described by that.

The case of sociology is especially instructive, given that from the beginning it was a social/political agenda masquerading as an academic discipline.

While some conservative groups have had an anti-education bias since the late 19th/early 20th century, that is itself a REACTION to the trend leftwards in academia that flowed from those ideas I mentioned earlier. This anti-education bias was not always there, and was never a given, until the 19th century ideas produced enough leftists in the academy that some “conservatives” over-reacted.

Some of the more “conservative” people in the 18th century WERE in the academy (“conservative” is in quotes because at the time they were sometimes called liberals). Think Adam Smith, our founding fathers, etc. Note, I did not say the academy was all conservative, even then, but simply that there was lots of representation of “both sides” (really, more than two) in the academy, until this century’s response to 19th-century ideas led to an activist academy, self-consciously so, and that was something fairly new. Woodrow Wilson is just about the perfect example of the academician with an agenda in the early 20th century. Despite his racism, he is much beloved of the Left. They recognize him, correctly, as one of their own, who believed government was the answer to nearly every human problem…  so much so that admiration for Wilson was expressed both by Mussolini and Hitler, especially Wilson’s brand of “war socialism.”

When professors are given guns (and the power of government is the biggest gun of all) they are disinclined to show restraint in using up the ammo.