Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Liberalism, Conservatism, and the Academy

Over at Professor Mondo's blog, the subject of Dr. Ted Gup's piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on liberal bias and intellectual diversity in the academy was given some play. In this article, Dr. Gup, a self-identified left-leaning academic, laments the lack of ideological diversity within the academy and calls for ways to create a more comfortable environment for conservative students at college/university. Of course, I've discussed this before, but I left a comment on this blog that I think is worth repeating here. I wrote:

I’ve engaged this topic here before, but I’ll only say the following now: yes, it is true the academics in the academy lean left; but it is also true that more and more conservative high school students, and their parents, are bringing a hardened and defensive spirit into college that makes any realization of Dr. Gup’s recommendations nigh to impossible. What does it mean when a conservative student, already expecting to be uncomfortable and subject to attack simply because of holding a different belief system, is (1) either unable to articulate a reasoned defense of a position or (2) is confronted with a fellow classmate who respectfully refuses to buy into his arguments and doesn’t back down in defending a differing position, but who automatically interprets the frustration of either outcome as de facto evidence of liberal bias and ideological persecution? Just because a student spouts off a conservative or liberal position doesn’t mean that challenging that position is evidence of hostility to the ideological basis of that position — but more and more conservative students are reading into the critical thinking process evidence of ideological bias. Challenging students to think critically can be uncomfortable, regardless of political ideology. I’ve called out many liberal students for making uncritical ideological claims and challenged such students to articulate a reasoned defense of their claims, and these students never respond by thinking I’ve attacked their core belief systems; but if I do the same to a conservative student, the reaction I get more and more from them is less an openness towards developing a critical capacity regarding defending their claims and more a confirmation of Horowitz’s own brainwashing crusade that they are being persecuted because they are conservative. I’ve said before that my own experience leads me to believe that though the academics in the academy are disproportionately left-leaning, that does not necessarily translate into a left-leaning propagandistic pedagogy. If it were truly as conservatives believe it is, then a much greater percentage of college-educated students would be liberal mind-bots upon graduation. Do conservative academics really think that they are the only members of the profession who can teach a course without proselytizing their political ideology and without respecting the different ideological inclinations of their students? If they don’t hold this view, that I would ask conservative academics to give their liberal colleagues the same courtesy and benefit of the doubt that they themselves would want.
And I'll leave it at that.


Eric said...

Huck, I think you bring up valid points, but you are really talking about a different issue than the one Gup is discussing. Even if it is true, as you you say, that many conservative students have a hard time logically defending their positions, and even if it is true that they see questions on these positions as ideological attacks, the fact is that there is an overwhelming assumption of the intellectual and cultural credibility of liberal sociopolitical artifacts in academia, and as Gup puts it,
"multiplied across a faculty, it can produce an institutional hostility akin to bigotry."

I remember in 1994 sitting in an economics class with a professor who often and viciously made cruel jokes about Ronald Reagan, just after it was released that Reagan was suffering from Alzheimers. Reagan was a personal hero of mine (at that time I was more conservative than libertarian)... I was already struggling with the culture shock of moving from a small rural town to a campus environment, and I was self conscious about my Okie accent and country mannerisms that stood apart from my peers. From a standpoint of how comfortable I felt expressing myself in that classroom, it couldn't have been much different than if a black guy was in a class where a white professor repeatedly talked about how good it was that "we" finally "got" Martin Luther King, or how a Muslim would feel in a religious studies class if his professor repeatedly employed the term 'raghead'. I wasn't about to cross swords with the guy, because it seemed like nothing but potential downside. I learned to say the things he expected me to say in order to get a good grade in his class, and in spite of the fact that he was always personally congenial and accomodating to me, I have a seething resentment of the entire experience to this day. And that is a very common feeling for conseravites in campus environments.

You are correct that conservative (and liberal) students need to do better at engaging critical thinking skills to make an argument. Lack of those skills is a huge problem in our society right now, and one does not magically posess them simply because they ascribe to a certain set of political beliefs.

But it is very hard to develop critical thinking skills in an environment where one fears persecution for exploring divergent ideas, and educators should take great pains to make sure such an evironment does not exist in their classroom. This might require a degree of self-editing that many professors are not used to and almost existentially uncomfortable with.

Huck said...

First off, Eric, that econ professor you had was a cad. Yes, they exist, but they are not as numerous as many conservatives make the situation out to be. And if that person behaved that way in the classroom, I would bet that this professor was also considered an unsufferable blowhard by his colleagues, liberal and conservative alike. That's just bad teaching, and all of us get bad teachers every now and then.

You write: But it is very hard to develop critical thinking skills in an environment where one fears persecution for exploring divergent ideas, and educators should take great pains to make sure such an evironment does not exist in their classroom. This might require a degree of self-editing that many professors are not used to and almost existentially uncomfortable with.

I think what you are getting at is very important. I very much agree with you. I have to say, though, that many professors do go through great pains to make sure a safe and comfortable environment exists in their classrooms. I know I do. I disagree with you that professors are existentially uncomfortable with what you call self-editing. We are painfully aware of trying to maintain objectivity, if not to maintain ideological balance, then at the very least to recognize the value of objectivity in the simple pursuit of truth. And it is simply impossible to self-censor completely such that a professor's leanings are indeterminable. But we can try to acknowledge bias and make sure that it doesn't get too much in the way of creating a comfortable environment for difference in perspective. As to your first sentence, it makes a lot of sense. But I would contend that the fear of persecution is not just cultivated by us liberal professors, but by many conservative forces outside of the academy. More and more conservatives are coming to college fearful not because of what they actually experience, but what they are told ahead of time what they will experience. No amount of "self-editing" can affect this. And "self-editing" is one thing, but coddling a student because he or she comes in already fearful is another. The problem here is not just located in the liberal academy.

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