Notes & Comments October 2002
On the politics of our professorate.
What quality above all others do college administrations and teachers strive to nurture on campus these days? Intellectual rigor? Not likely. That presupposes maintaining high standards, and, as we have been repeatedly told, high standards are invidious. Houston Baker, a former president of the Modern Language Association, spoke for many in his profession when he said that choosing between Shakespeare and Jacqueline Susann (for instance) is “no different from choosing between a hoagy and a pizza.” Professor Baker added, “I am one whose career is dedicated to the day when we have a disappearance of those standards.” Michael Harris, a professor of religious studies at the University of Tennessee, put it this way: “when you see the word ‘qualifications’ used, remember that this is the new code word for whites.”
If not intellectual rigor, then what? How about the patient habit of disinterested inquiry? You know, the effort to appreciate works of literature for their intrinsic value, not their political appeal, to judge arguments on the basis of their merits, not their ideological provenance? Again, not likely. The literary theorist Stanley Fish summed up the reigning attitude about such matters when he declared that “there is no such thing as intrinsic merit.” The philosopher Richard Rorty concurred: “I do not,” he has written, “have much use for notions like ‘objective value’ and ‘objective truth.’” It’s a common attitude, susceptible to many variations. Hence the radical feminist law professor Catharine MacKinnon who endorses feminism’s “critique of the objective standpoint” or “science” as “a specifically male approach to knowledge.”
No, it is not intellectual rigor or the habit of scholarly disinterestedness or a commitment to objective truth that is inculcated most fiercely in the academy today. The mantra, the watchword on today’s campuses is diversity—or, to put it more accurately, “diversity.” The scare quotes are necessary. Why? Because diversity means “variety,” and while there is a lot of talk about variety, difference, and diversity on campuses, what is actually encouraged is strict conformity on all contentious issues.
Over the years, we have often had occasion to report on this phenomenon: the case of campus A, which champions “diversity” but looks the other way when a conservative student newspaper is confiscated and destroyed; or campus B, where the women’s studies program refuses to welcome women who are pro-life; or campus C, where administrators and many prominent faculty members mount a campaign to prevent the establishment of a local chapter of the National Association of Scholars, a tradition-minded group of teachers whose motto is “For Reasoned Scholarship in a Free Society.”
Of course, these examples are anecdotal. Is that a deficiency? Not really. How could such examples be anything but anecdotal? Yet whenever we present such evidence, we often encounter the objection that they are “merely anecdotal,” i.e., that they are exceptions, unrepresentative cases adduced to “prove a (tendentious) point.”
Our own feeling is that if something looks like a rat, walks like a rat, and acts like a rat, then there are good grounds for believing that it is, in fact, a rat. In other words, an accumulation of “anecdotal evidence” can tell us a lot. Nevertheless, it is always reassuring to have some hard data to offer the sceptics. And on the issue of diversity—that is, “diversity”—on campus, the September number of American Enterprise magazine has provided us with an revealing picture of the political diversity of college faculties. Entitled “The Shame of America’s One-Party Campuses,” the article notes that “in most sectors of American life … you will find ample numbers of both conservatives and liberals.” The great exception is in American colleges and universities, “where the Left/ Right balance is grossly skewed.” It almost goes without saying that the skewing is firmly in the direction of the Left:
Today’s colleges and universities are not, to use the current buzzword, “diverse” places. Quite the opposite: they are virtual one-party states, ideological monopolies, badly unbalanced ecosystems. … They do not, when it comes to political and cultural ideas, look like America.
To support this claim, American Enterprise (with some help from the California-based Center for the Study of Popular Culture) visited local Boards of Elections in the neighborhoods of more than twenty major colleges and university. They then cross-referenced public voter-registration records with faculty rosters for several major departments. Results for some Women’s Studies programs and departments are reported, but otherwise the survey stayed away from pseudo-disciplines and concentrated on mainstream departments such as anthropology, economics, engineering, English, history, political science, psychology, and sociology. Those faculty members who were registered as Republicans or Libertarians were coded as members of the Right. Those who registered themselves in the Democratic, Green, or Working Families Party, were designated as members of the Left. (Some faculty members were not registered at all, or were registered in a party that could not be classed ideologically.)
The results of this survey are hardly surprising. But they are, we think, instructive. At Brown University, for example, there are five professors of economics registered in a party of the Left, but only one in a party of the right. In engineering, it’s seven on the Left and two on the right. How’s that for “diversity”? At Brown, anyway, it’s pretty good, because in English it is ten on the Left and zero on the Right. How about history? There it is seventeen on the Left and … zero on the Right. Political science? Seven to zero. Sociology? Eight to zero.
Of course, Brown is well-known as a left-leaning institution. Consider, as an alternative, the State University of New York. There we find fifteen faculty members in sociology registered in a part of the Left and … zero in a party of the Right. Fortunately, things are more balanced in political science, where the ratio is only twenty to one. At the University of Colorado at Boulder, it’s thirty-seven to zero in English. Twenty-eight to one in history, fourteen to zero in journalism, seventeen to two in political science, etc., etc. The pattern is the same at Harvard, at Davidson College, at Penn State University; it is the same at the University of California at Berkeley, at Syracuse University, at Pomona College, and the University of Maryland. Ditto at Stanford, UCLA, and the University of California at Santa Barbara. At Williams College, out of a faculty of more than 200, only four are registered Republicans. The American Enterprise survey also reports on a poll of 151 Ivy League professors conducted by Frank Luntz Research in 2001. Three percent of those surveyed identified themselves as Republican (none identified himself as “conservative”; 6 percent checked “somewhat conservative”). As for voting, the Luntz survey reported that 84 percent of Ivy League professors voted for Al Gore, 6 percent for Ralph Nader, and 9 percent for George W. Bush. The electorate at large was split about evenly between the major candidates, with 48 percent each for Gore and Bush.
What do these surveys tell us? For one thing, as American Enterprise notes, they tell us that although “colleges like to characterize themselves as wide-open places … where all ideals and principles may be pursued freely,” in reality “you will find a much wider—and freer—cross-section of human reasoning and conviction in the aisles of any grocery store or city bus.” But there is more. It is not simply that our colleges and universities have institutionalized a sort of Orwellian parody of diversity. There is also the issue of educational responsibility. That is to say, the rejection of conservatism on campus is not only a political gesture—though it is certainly that. It is also an intellectual rebellion and, we would argue, a violation of pedagogical trust. The political philosopher Hannah Arendt was certainly no conservative when it came to politics. But she understood that any education worthy of the name had to be conservative. “Conservatism,” she wrote in 1958, “in the sense of conservation, is of the essence of the educational activity, whose task is always to cherish and protect something.” Today, many—perhaps most—of those who are entrusted by society with cherishing and protecting our cultural heritage are in fact the despoilers of that heritage.
The wildly skewed political complexion of college faculties is grounds for concern. Among other things, it shows what a travesty the touted ideal of diversity is on many campuses. But there is more at stake than a spurious ideal of diversity. In a deeper sense, the political commitments of the American professoriate are the coefficient of a radical rejection: the rejection of those allegiances to the past—to “cherish and protect something”—without which education is no more than ideological indoctrination. In other words, what we are facing is not merely a failure, but an active repudiation, of education as traditionally conceived.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 2, on page 1
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