Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum recently caused a stir by calling President Obama a “snob” for saying that he wanted all Americans to go to college (it’s actually not what the president wants, but that’s beside the point). “There are good decent men and women who go out and work hard every day,” Sen. Santorum explained indignantly, “that [sic] aren’t taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate them.”
Gathering momentum, he later claimed in a radio interview that when he was in college, his professors deliberately gave him lower grades because he was a conservative.
Santorum’s lament reiterates a familiar complaint from those on the political right in America, who have long charged that university and college faculties are loaded with left-wingers, and that these academics bring their political opinions into the classroom, where millions of impressionable young minds await reprogramming.
No one with any grasp on reality can deny that academia does have a liberal accent. Numerous studies and polls have shown that an overwhelming majority of higher education faculty members hold left-of-center political views. As Dr Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, has noted, this cannot be down to chance, since the percentage of the general public who self-identify as conservative is 40 percent, double the percentage who identify as liberal.
Numerous theories have been put forward for why this phenomenon exists. Those on the right charge, and say they have the documentation to prove it, that conservatives are systematically frozen out of academia. College students aspiring to be educators, they say, are discouraged by their professors if they have conservative views; faculty members tend to hide conservative beliefs for fear of ridicule by their peers; and conservative academics have a harder time getting published because the peer review process is controlled by their liberal colleagues.
Meanwhile, on the left, some have claimed that the reason most academics are left-wing is that liberals are smarter than conservatives. It’s a simple step from there to claim that liberals are, plainly and simply, right: or, as Stephen Colbert famously quipped, “Reality has a liberal bias.” But these folks are stepping on fallacious ground, because they disregard the obvious truth that there is more than one kind of smarts. No, I would not expect my car mechanic to be able to explain quantum theory; but on the other hand, there exist tenured college professors of many years’ standing who are incapable of finding their way from A to B with the help of a map.
A more refined (though hardly less emotive) view is espoused by science writer Chris Mooney, whose forthcoming book The Republican Brain promises to enlarge on the theory that it’s all just biology. People with a certain genetic makeup, he says, are predisposed to be “threat identifiers”, which aligns with the ideological conviction that characterizes political conservatism but is less well suited to the analysis of different possibilities that is integral to effective academic work.
All of these ideas have some truth to them. Anyone who’s spent any time at college knows that liberalism is highly visible on campus, and that by contrast, right-wing views and opinions have a very low profile. I have myself known many conservative students who’ve been uncomfortable about expressing their views in class. The difficulty with the charges made by the right is that they constitute a self-fulfilling prophecy; if academia is overwhelmingly liberal, naturally it is going to harbor hostility towards conservatism. This does nothing to explain why colleges are liberal in the first place.
And it does nothing at all to bolster Santorum’s claims about universities being left-wing indoctrination factories. I’ve yet to see any studies proving that millions of young people enter college as conservatives and emerge after four years as devoted liberals. There is, on the contrary, plenty of research to suggest that higher education simply has the effect of reinforcing students’ preexisting political views, whatever they happen to be.
So what is it then, really? Why are the faculty common rooms and lecture halls of America stuffed with legions of welfare-loving, leather-elbow-patch-wearing, tofu-munching, deodorant-eschewing, Marx-reading ideologues?
An answer, ironically, is suggested by an academic paper published last year by a group of American and Canadian social scientists. As with a lot of questions surrounded by sound and fury, the answer they put forward turns out to be simple and blindingly obvious: self-selection. Liberals, it seems, gravitate to academia because the scholarly environment (not to mention universities’ preexisting liberal reputation) is appealing to them. Conservatives, on the other hand, can’t be having with all that pinko navel-gazing and would rather venture out into the world, start businesses, become CEOs, get elected to Congress, and generally run the place.
The theory that liberals are attracted to the liberal environment of academia while conservatives are put off by it still doesn’t explain how it got that way to begin with. It might just be one of those curious historical accidents; one of those odd traditions that makes no objective sense. Or Mooney might be onto something with his idea that the groves of academe are a natural outgrowth of a specific type of brain structure that has the side effect of making you politically liberal.
What’s certain, and hugely ironic, is that this is an academic question which isn’t likely to be settled as long as the Santorums of this world don’t trust academics in the first place, and the academics themselves don’t trust an answer that comes from the outside.