Leftist Bias in the Academy?

Conservatives have long complained that American higher education faculty displayed an intellectually crippling ideological bias.  This has been called “anti-intellectualism,” but a more precise term would be something like “anti-professoriate.”  In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the non-conservative sociologist Christian Smith of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Research argues that conservatives may be right.

The accusation of academic bias has been so durable in the intellectual world of Fundamentalist America that one is tempted to dismiss it as sour grapes.  For instance, in the 1920s, Presbyterian orthodox leader J. Gresham Machen finally left his beloved Princeton Seminary to start his own school, driven out, he claimed, by his colleagues’ growing intolerance of Machen’s Biblical orthodoxy.  Less intellectually gifted 1920s fundamentalists made similar charges, in more colorful language.  For example, Texas fundamentalist minister J. Frank Norris insisted in 1921 that the problem with America all started when some influential young Americans studied “in Chicago University where they got the forty-second echo of some beer-guzzling German Professor of Rationalism.”

Around the time of the Scopes Trial, a cartoon in the Wall Street Journal captured this anti-professoriate feeling among fundamentalists:


Education in the Higher Branches

More recently, in the early 1960s, conservative California State Superintendent of Education Max Rafferty found the main culprit of America’s decline in the progressive, leftist orthodoxy promulgated in America’s institutions of higher education.  Rafferty insisted that colleges had created a new landscape of “temples . . . great universities which marble the land.”  These temples no longer pursued true intellectual endeavor, Rafferty claimed, but only passed along a deadened orthodoxy, “turning out swarms of neophytes each year to preach the gospel of Group Adaptation.  Their secret crypts and inner sanctums are the graduate schools.”

In the twenty-first century, small-f fundamentalist blockbust author Tim LaHaye agreed.  University faculties, LaHaye argued, had placed themselves hopelessly in thrall to the false idols of the cultural Left.  After his huge publishing success with the Left Behind series, LaHaye set out to create a new biblical hero.  In Babylon Rising (2003), LaHaye described the adventures of biblical archeologist Michael Murphy.  In Murphy, LaHaye hoped to create a “true hero for our times,” one who united unwavering biblical faith with scholarly acumen and a dose of two-fisted machismo.  In one telling scene, Murphy is confronted by his smarmy secular dean.  This little episode tells us a lot about continuing fundamentalist attitudes toward the professoriate.

“Hold it, Murphy!”

A bony hand grabbed Murphy by his backpack as he left the hall. “Dean Fallworth.  What a fine example you set for the students by monitoring my lecture.”

“Can it, Professor Murphy.”  Fallworth was as tall as Murphy but cursed with a library-stack pallor that would make some mummies look healthy by comparison.  “You call that a lecture?  I call it a disgrace.  Why, the only thing separating you from a Sunday tent preacher is the fact that you didn’t pass the plate for a collection.” 

“I will gratefully accept any donation you wish to make, Dean.  Did you need a syllabus, by the way?”

“No, Mr. Murphy, I have everything I need to get the university board to begin accreditation hearings for this evangelical clambake you’re calling a class.”

“Temper,” Murphy mumbled to himself.  “Dean, if you feel my work is unprofessional in any way, then please help me to improve my teaching skills, but if you want to bash Christians, I don’t have to stand here for that.”

“Do you know what they’re already calling this silly circus around the campus?  Bible for Bubbleheads, Jesus for Jocks, and the Gut from Galilee.”

Murphy couldn’t help but laugh.  “I like that last one.  I’m intending this to be a quite intellectually stimulating course, Dean, but I confess I did not post an I.Q. requirement for taking it.  The knowledge will be there, I promise you, but I will likely fall short of your apparent requirement that the only acceptable instructional method is to bore your students to an early ossuary.”

“Mark my words, Murphy.  Your hopes of this course surviving and your hopes of tenure at this university are as dead as whatever was in that bone box of yours.”

“Ossuary, Dean.  Ossuary.  We’re at a university, let’s try to use multisyllabic words.  If it doesn’t turn out to be legitimate, maybe I can get it for you cheap and you can keep your buttons in it.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a new artifact to begin work on.”

In this vision of the world of higher education, only fundamentalists have remained true to the original mission.  Fundamentalist intellectuals, this line of reasoning goes, have retained their sense of inquiry and intellectual honesty.  They have not been seduced by the showy appeals of false science, such as evolution.  They have not been lulled by a peaceful-sounding pluralism that in practice degrades human dignity.  And they have not been willing to accept the hidebound leftist, secularist, evolutionist orthodoxy required of the mainstream academic.

Christian Smith’s recent article argues that this leftist orthodoxy is not merely a figment of conservatives’ imaginations.  His article bemoans the attacks on sociologist Mark Regnerus.  Regnerus published an academic article in which he concluded that children raised by same-sex parents have more emotional disorders as adults.  According to Smith, Regnerus followed the guidelines of academic research and publishing.  His conclusions may or may not be correct, but his work followed the traditions of peer review and editing.  Regnerus’ conclusions may be disagreeable to some, but his research methods stand above reproach.

Yet, according to Smith, the attacks on Regnerus demonstrate the problems with today’s left-leaning academy.  As Smith argues,

“The temptation to use academe to advance a political agenda is too often indulged in sociology, especially by activist faculty in certain fields, like marriage, family, sex, and gender. The crucial line between broadening education and indoctrinating propaganda can grow very thin, sometimes nonexistent. Research programs that advance narrow agendas compatible with particular ideologies are privileged. Survey textbooks in some fields routinely frame their arguments in a way that validates any form of intimate relationship as a family, when the larger social discussion of what a family is and should be is still continuing and worth having. Reviewers for peer-reviewed journals identify “problems” with papers whose findings do not comport with their own beliefs. Job candidates and faculty up for tenure whose political and social views are not ‘correct’ are sometimes weeded out through a subtle (or obvious), ideologically governed process of evaluation, which is publicly justified on more-legitimate grounds—’scholarly weaknesses’ or ‘not fitting in well’ with the department.” 

As we have argued elsewhere, this bias is often wrapped in a near-total ignorance about life in Fundamentalist America.  One of the main reasons for this blog has been to introduce the ideas and culture of Fundamentalist America to outsiders who don’t know much about it.  Like Smith, we do not have to actively defend conservative ideas in order to protest against this sort of myopic academic bias.  Rather, we can promote a true diversity of ideas in higher education.  We can push for a true university, one in which the universe of ideas can be discussed calmly, without fear of the vindictive witch-hunts Smith describes.

In order to do so, we need to actively separate the jumble of issues.  The question is not whether children of same-sex parents have a tougher time in life.  The question is whether we will allow that conclusion to be reached in academic journals.  The question is whether researchers will be free to follow their data wherever it may lead, or whether, as Smith concludes, academic life will be governed by a crippling and unnecessary Stalin-lite motto: “Play it politically safe, avoid controversial questions, publish the right conclusions.”