Books September 2016
When Right is wrong
A review of Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University by Jon A. Shields.
It is among the baffling and paradoxical developments of the last few decades that the huge volume of rhetoric about the great benefits of “diversity” has been compatible with, indeed conducive to, the rise of narrow, dogmatic, and self-righteous views of the social world. These politically correct conceptions of “diversity” have been limited to demands for the proportional representation, in all walks of life, of certain racial and ethnic groups and women. The institutionalization of these notions of diversity resulted in the predominance of remarkably homogenized and standardized views of the social world and freely expressed intolerance of those outside the boundaries of the prevailing tenets of moral rectitude.
Support for these stunted and stultifying conceptions of “diversity” has been especially enthusiastic in academic communities earlier thought to be bastions of tolerance and free expression, upheld by academics many of whom look upon the Sixties as the golden age of revolutionary idealism, sometimes of their own idealistic youth.
The number of conservative faculty members in the humanities and social sciences has dwindled.
Not surprisingly, in the same period, the number of conservative faculty members in the humanities and social sciences has dwindled as they have became an isolated minority. Passing on the Right seeks to shed light on the disposition and prospects of this minority. It is the first empirical study I know of that aims at providing specific, data-based information about conservative academics in departments of economics, political science, sociology, history, philosophy, and literature. In addition to interviewing 153 conservative professors, the authors made good use of existing studies of the political attitudes of American academics. It is notable that the authors, and most of those they interviewed, do not favor affirmative action for conservatives in departments where they have been so obviously under-represented.
The major objective of this study was to find out why there are so few conservatives in the humanities and social sciences, as well as to address the educational, intellectual, and political consequences of this state of affairs. Most striking about these disparities is that they emerged and persist at a time when it has been the endlessly repeated conventional wisdom (embraced even by the highest judicial authorities) that the type of “diversity” advocated is essential for the life of the mind and integral to fruitful learning experiences.
Correspondingly, it has been the reigning hypocrisy of the prevailing academic-intellectual discourse that “diversity” in the racial, ethnic, and gender composition of students and faculties assures diversity of outlook, belief, and cultural disposition. As one of the conservative academics interviewed for this study summed it up: “all too often faculty and administrators want people of different races, ethnicity and gender thinking the same things.”
This study provides some answers to the question of why and how political correctness came to be a major determinant of academic life. Self-selection has been a major factor: those on the left (including numerous former Sixties activists) gravitated to the humanities and social sciences, while conservatives avoided such positions, increasingly aware that they were not welcome. The discipline of sociology spearheaded these trends, attracting those seeking far-reaching social transformations, “even revolutionary change” rather than “a disinterested understanding of the social world.” This spirit was captured by the 2012 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, organized around the theme “Real Utopias.” On the same occasion, “the lead plenary session on ‘Equality’ featured a ‘thirty-minute spoken word performance on social justice’ by performers from the First Wave Hip Hop and Urban Arts community from the University of Wisconsin.” It was a fitting symbol of blending entertainment with political instruction—an orientation bequeathed by the Sixties. Anthropology has been similarly radicalized, its practitioners perhaps even more profoundly alienated from insufficiently communitarian, capitalist mass societies. Yet, as this study shows, economics and political science have tolerated greater diversity of outlooks and theoretical orientations.
“All too often faculty and administrators want people of different races, ethnicity and gender thinking the same things.”
Somewhat unexpectedly, this judicious and fair-minded study also found that discrimination against conservatives already in academic institutions has not been as widespread and intense as many critics of political correctness outside academic institutions believe.
Even so, about a third of those sampled “tended to conceal their politics prior to tenure.” Of further significance is the fact that, as Stanley Rothman and Robert Lichter found, “social conservatives teach at less prestigious colleges and universities than their publication record would predict”—a finding that suggests discrimination.
The authors believe that the major justification of the academic under-representation of conservatives is the dubious idea that conservatives lack the appropriate cognitive and psychological traits academic work requires, and are less open-minded than liberals.
But few academic liberals or leftists would admit that conservatives are discriminated against for any reason, either in hiring or promotion. Thus the anti-conservative bias resembles other, earlier prevalent racial, ethnic, or sexist biases, which too were always vehemently denied.
For their initial list of conservative academics the authors used an online directory of libertarian professors, former fellows at Princeton University’s James Madison Program, and those who published in conservative academic journals such as the Intercollegiate Review and the Claremont Review of Books. It is far from clear why they did not use for the same purpose Academic Questions, the flagship publication of the National Association of Scholars, or for that matter a sample of members of that association, which has been the major and most active organization of conservative and libertarian academics over the past three decades.
The central problem of this study is that it is often not clear to what extent the findings and generalizations based on the small sample apply to conservative academics in general. While the authors discuss at some length how they went about identifying conservative academics and chose particular academic disciplines, they do not explain why they ended up with such a small sample, or how many subjects would have been required for a more representative sample. At the same time the sample seems representative in its choice of academic institutions which include Ivy League and major state universities, as well as small private colleges and community colleges, a total of eighty-five institutions.
While this is an informative and well-written study, the key question remains why, over a long period of time, the majority of academic intellectuals (in the humanities and social sciences) have been irresistibly drawn to left-wing ideas and causes.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 1, on page 110
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