Ah Ha! Proof of Liberal Profs!

HT: VB

Everyone knows college professors are a liberal bunch, right? A new study from Harvard University, a school just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, seems to confirm this beloved stereotype. But is it really proof?

First, some background. As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, the notion that the professoriate skews liberal is a deeply held culture-war notion. Conservatives decry it, even pushing through a mandatory conservative chair at Colorado University. Even perspicacious liberal thinkers worry about it. Historian Jonathan Zimmerman of New York University, for example, has suggested that true intellectual diversity requires some sort of affirmative action for conservatives.

It is not a made-up phenomenon. As Neil Gross argued in his new(ish) book, Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, there really does seem to be a tilt toward liberalism in higher-ed faculties. Not because liberals are smarter (sorry, liberals), and not because conservatives suffer from discrimination (sorry, conservatives), but because historical patterns have pushed more liberals into the profession.

An article in the Harvard Crimson describes the political donations of the faculty. Turns out, those faculty members who give money to political parties tend to give almost only to the Democrats. In the Arts & Sciences faculty, the majority tipped a whopping 95.7% in the direction of the Democratic Party, compared to a measly 3.7% who gave to the Republican Party. Things were a little more balanced in the Business School, with 36.7% of donations going to the GOP. In some departments, such as the Graduate School of Education, a Brezhnevian 100% of donations went to the Democrats.

Should we worry?

If we hope for a system of higher education that pushes students to think critically about a range of issues, should these numbers cause us to consider home-colleging our students? Both for us liberals and our conservative colleagues, is it time to think about creating a better sense of real intellectual diversity on college faculties?

I think not, for a couple of reasons. First, as both the Crimson article and Professor Gross’s book insist, a tilt toward the Democratic Party does not equate with a rigid groupthink. From the history of the culture wars, we can see proof that conservatives do very well in schools dominated by liberal faculties.

Leading young-earth creationist Kurt Wise, for example, studied under the vehemently anti-creationist Stephen Jay Gould at Harvard. Both scholars reported a cordial and productive relationship. Dr. Wise is not alone. For generations, leading conservative scholars, intellectuals, and pundits have done just fine in schools with liberal-leaning faculty. From William F. Buckley Jr. at Yale to Dinesh D’Souza at Dartmouth, nerdy conservatives thrive in elite colleges.

Perhaps the explanation can be seen in the work of sociologist Amy Binder. Binder and a colleague studied conservative students at two elite colleges. Binder argued that conservative students are certainly shaped by their environments. But at both a large western public flagship college and an elite eastern one, conservative students honed and shaped their conservatism, rather than being groomed away into liberal ideologies.

More important, perhaps, is the fact that almost nobody actually attends the elite colleges that culture-war punditry focuses on. Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Colorado, Brown, NYU…perhaps the faculties on these schools tip heavily in a liberal direction. But very few students go to these schools. Of the young people who go to college, many more of them go to less-fancy places.

My hunch—and I’d love for someone to get some numbers to back this up or refute it—is that the faculty at less-elite colleges tends to be more politically and culturally conservative. From the field of teacher education, I have heard anecdotes that suggest it’s true.

The Crimson article gives us some proof, but not about higher education. Rather, all we see is that Harvard faculty tip liberal. Harvard may have plenty of influence, but it doesn’t actually do much. Though the alumni might bother people with their smug self-satisfaction, there really aren’t too many of them around.

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Spelling and Vaginas: Have We Lost Higher Education?

Are new culture bullies taking over America’s college campuses? Jonathan Chait argued recently that today’s college campuses are suffering a new, more aggressive bout of political correctness. For those of us interested in higher education and America’s culture wars, Chait’s essay raises different questions: Have colleges and universities become hopelessly monolithic? Can students really learn anymore, or will they only be drilled in leftist platitudes?

Like Chait, I’m not asking this as a conservative, but as a liberal. Like Chait, I want college campuses to include a heady mix of ideas. I want students to see and hear a broad range of philosophies, many of which they will disagree with.

Chait catalogs some of the anti-liberal recent occurrences on elite campuses:

Speakers are cancelled; plays are cancelled; lecturers are shouted down. In many high-profile cases, it seems that leftist students are dedicated to blocking any speech they find distasteful. This kind of neo-Comstockery, Chait argues, is a far greater threat to liberalism than any right-wing speaker or writer could possibly create. It has created, as one professor told Chait, an “environment of fear” on college campuses.

Chait explores the way this sort of destructive cultural politics has ranged far beyond college campuses. Those interested in the strange unspooling of America’s culture wars should certainly read his essay in full. But this morning I’d like to ask a slightly different question: What is the relationship between conservatism and mainstream higher education?

It is not as simple as it might seem. Though many conservative intellectuals continue to insist that Chait’s Red-Guardism has squeezed out thoughtful conservatism at many colleges, the truth is more complex. It’s not true that college students these days can’t be conservative. Ironically, the campus climate Chait deplores seems to strengthen some students’ identification as conservative. It does seem, though, that students less committed to a conservative ideology will feel pressured to avoid provoking the wrath of the campus left.

First, there is ample evidence that conservative students are made MORE conservative in college. Sociologists Amy Binder and Kate Wood recently released their findings of conservative students at two elite universities. In each case, they found that conservative students tended to become more conservative at these purportedly leftist universities.

Beyond that, for students who identify as conservatives, there have long been prestigious schools outside of the mainstream that welcome and nurture conservative cultural values. As I’m finding in the research for my new book, conservative evangelicals have a wide choice of colleges that serve as comfortable intellectual homes for conservatives. Often, these schools also embrace political conservatism.

Finally, we have piles of anecdotal evidence that conservatives are often made more conservative by leftist campus environments. Most famously, William F. Buckley Jr. launched his career with an angry memoir about his student days at Yale. Dinesh D’Souza similarly served first as a conspicuous college conservative at Dartmouth. Less famous conservative students have shared similar experiences.

Given all this evidence, it’s not fair to say that conservative students aren’t allowed to be themselves. In spite of what conservative leaders say, conservatism has not been shouted out of American higher education. There is another problem, though. What about students who are not committed to conservatism? Is the climate on campuses today conducive to a true intellectual experimentation among earnest but undecided young people?

This is a much harder question to answer. In some famous cases, colleges have made efforts to include conservative intellectual role models for young people. The most extraordinary case has been that of the University of Colorado at Boulder, where Steven Hayward and Bradley Birzer have worked as visiting conservatives. At that school, students in the middle are guaranteed to have at least one committed conservative academic voice on campus.

In other cases, it seems as if conservatives really have been given the squeeze. The best example is the recent treatment of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. Intervarsity has been derecognized at leading campuses nationwide. For committed Christian students, it will not be difficult to find a comfortable conservative church near school. But for those who aren’t committed, the exclusion of conservative organizations such as Intervarsity seems to limit students’ opportunities to hear and experience a real range of intellectual and religious ideas.

Chait raises important questions about the goals and limitations of speech-policing on campuses. We need to remember, however, that high-profile cases of neo-PC thuggery do not mean that all universities have been taken over by the leftist thought police. The real situation is more complex. Conservative students and professors seem to thrive. However, those on the fence might be robbed of opportunities to hear more than leftist platitudes.

Do campuses today encourage a real mix of ideas?  What have been your experiences?  Those of your children?  Your students?

Summer Reading List

Summer is here…or close enough.  What are people planning to read?  Seems like everyone and their brother are publishing their summer reading lists.  Hoping to beat Oprah’s 2013 list to the punch, here are a few from ILYBYGTH’s idiosyncratic dream library:

1.)    Jason Rosenhouse, Among the Creationists.

This is one I’ve been excited about for a long time.  Rosenhouse is an atheist mathematician with a familiar hobby.  For years he has traveled to creationist conferences and interacted with creationists and their ideas.  From the publisher’s description:

After ten years of attending events like the giant Creation Mega-Conference in Lynchburg, Virginia, and visiting sites like the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, and after hundreds of surprisingly friendly conversations with creationists of varying stripes, he has emerged with a story to tell, a story that goes well beyond the usual stereotypes of Bible-thumping fanatics railing against coldly rational scientists. Through anecdotes, personal reflections, and scientific and philosophical discussion, Rosenhouse presents a more down-to-earth picture of modern creationism and the people who espouse it. He is neither polemical nor insulting, but he does not pull punches when he spots an error in the logical or scientific reasoning of creationists, especially when they wander into his own field, mathematics.

Right up my alley.  I’ve got the book on my table, top of my list.

2.)    Amy Binder and Kate Wood, Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives.

As we noted here earlier, this book suggests that higher education is a more ideologically complicated place than many pundits suggest.  Many self-identified conservative intellectuals have panned the book as “patronizing.”  Bruce Bawer at Minding the Campus skewered the title as an example of “the insularity and obtuseness of the academic left.”  I’m looking forward to reading the book more carefully myself.  Do these criticisms hold water?

3.)    Charles J. Holden, The New Southern University: Academic Freedom and Liberalism at UNC .

For my next book project, I’m considering a look at conservative Protestant higher education through the twentieth century.  Holden’s new book examines the flagship “Southern” university in Chapel Hill during the formative decades between the World Wars.  As reviewer Wayne Urban noted in an H-Net review, Holden focuses on the ways UNC served as a bastion of “liberal” thinking and culture during these decades.  In my study of conservative evangelical Protestantism in the 1920s, I found that UNC did indeed often lead the charge for a politicized vision of what it meant to be both “intellectual” and “Southern.”  As I think about diving deeper into the world of “fundamentalist” university life, I hope Holden’s work will help broaden my understandings of the meanings of higher education in this period.

4.)    Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age .

This title is not particularly new, nor is it focused tightly on the areas I usually read about. That’s why I think it will make good summer reading.  According to a gushing review in the New York Times, Dreyfus and Kelly begin with the assumption that “The gods have not withdrawn or abandoned us.  We have kicked them out.”  Since I spend so much of my time reading arguments for the continuing centrality of ferocious, doctrinal monotheism, this argument looks like an intriguing counterweight.

What else are people planning to read this summer?  Books from outside your usual “work” fare?  Books recommended long ago but put on the ever-growing “to be read” pile?

Liberal Education or Left-Wing Indoctrination?

What is college for?  Should students stretch their minds by considering all sorts of competing, even conflicting ideas?  Or should young adults learn to intone the hackneyed, ideologically purified phrases of a single viewpoint?

Many conservative pundits these days insist that too many colleges have become left-wing reeducation camps.  But does that match our experience?

In a recent review of Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty for the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas, Bruce Thornton heartily agrees that too many institutions of higher education have slid into the heavy mire of politically correct intellectual conformity.

unlearning_libertyA self-proclaimed “liberal,” Lukianoff’s Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has led a campaign to open college campuses to true intellectual controversy.

As Thornton notes, Lukianoff’s book chronicles example after example of over-eager campus authorities cracking down on students’ free speech rights.  For instance, one Yale student was punished in 2009 for wearing a t-shirt that quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The offending shirt proclaimed—in the run-up to a big football game—that “all Harvard men are sissies.”

These and a host of other speech clampdowns are led by an army of humorless, vindictive student enforcers, whom Thornton calls “sensitivity commissars.”  The problem, as Thornton relates, is that “in orientation programs, only one point of view, the progressive-leftist one, is allowed a hearing, and students who resist it are subjected to sanctions and shaming exercises worthy of religious cults.”

The pattern of repression, Thornton insists, is not applied equally.  “Christians,” Thornton writes, “are particularly singled out for censorship, as are Republican organizations and other conservative groups, especially pro-Israel ones, whose publications are often vandalized, campus events attacked, and speakers shouted down.”

These notions of an oppressive left-wing campus Red-Guardism seem widely shared among conservative writers.  But do they match our experience?

I teach at a large public university in the northeast.  Perhaps I’m not sensitive enough to it, but our sprawling campus seems to welcome a real variety of speech, student and otherwise.  We have student groups for a variety of religious viewpoints, some of them resolutely conservative.  Self-identified “conservative” students with whom I talk report that they do not feel particularly shut out or victimized.  The campus is peppered with outside speakers who promote a kaleidoscope of ideas, from Biblical literalism to aggressive atheism.

Colleagues report similar experiences.  One science-education academic from a large public university in the Southeast tells me his education colleagues repeatedly indoctrinate their pre-service teachers with a message of Christian religiosity.

These are admittedly sketchy and anecdotal reports, but some more careful research seems to back it up.  David Long’s ethnography revealed a host of creationist students and faculty at public, pluralistic colleges.  Amy Binder’s and Kate Wood’s study of two leading schools revealed plenty of opportunity for conservative students at such schools, even if some students reported feeling victimized or shut out of campus life.

Perhaps the answer lies in broadening the lens.  Elite schools such as Yale might have rigid thought-police regimes.  However, we must remember two important facts: not many college students go to Yale, and even Yale produced William F. Buckley.

Binder on “Becoming Right” at College

Since long before William F. Buckley published his enfant-terrible critique of rampant secularism and slouching liberalism at Yale, conservative intellectuals and activists have attacked the culture of American higher education.  As I argued in my 1920s book, such critiques have always been a central part of the educational culture wars.

A review of Amy Binder’s new book at Inside Higher Ed suggests that conservative worries about campus leftism may be misplaced, or at least oversimplified.

Binder, whose first book was a must-read study of creationism and afrocentrism, told the reviewer,  “I was really surprised at how university context makes a difference in how  students experience being conservative.”

Binder argues in her new book Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives (Princeton University Press, 2013) that the type of school may have a bigger effect on young conservatives than most people have recognized.  Along with co-author Kate Wood, Binder studied conservative students at an “Eastern elite” university and a “Western flagship” school.  In the Eastern school, conservative students tended to adopt a conversational style of activism.  In the West, young conservatives got more combative.

In addition to the differences a campus can make, Binder & Wood find a much broader spectrum of student experience on “liberal” campuses than the traditional story suggests.  Some students even find themselves converted to conservatism by the liberal atmosphere.

One wonders what William F. Buckley would say.