Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Liberal Professors, Class Envy, and Caring


Yesterday’s Inside Higher Ed reported on a new study that purports to explain why professors are liberal. According to the authors, a big chunk (43 percent) of the ideological disparity can be explained because professors are more likely:

  • To have high levels of educational attainment.
  • To experience a disparity between their levels of educational attainment and income.
  • To be either Jewish, non-religious, or a member of a faith that is not theologically conservative Protestant.
  • To have a high tolerance for controversial ideas.
  • The first factor is fairly well-documented. After all, it stands to reason that if professors are liberal, then extended exposure (winding through the sometimes decade-long grad-school process) to their ideas would have a liberalizing effect. The third factor is mirrored in the broader society — the more secular one is, the more likely they are to be leftist. The fourth factor is just laugh-out-loud hilarious. Professors have a high tolerance for controversial ideas? In the home of the speech code? I would say they have a high tolerance for “controversy” from the left, but not from the right.

    I’m actually most interested in the second factor, the idea that disparity between educational achievement and income pushes a person leftwards. The Inside Higher Ed article explains it this way:

    On the question of the education/income gap, Gross and Fosse say that their findings are consistent with the work of Pierre Bourdieu. “For Bourdieu, intellectuals are defined structurally by their possession of high levels of cultural capital and moderate levels of economic capital,” they write. “This structural position, Bourdieu asserts, shapes their politics. . . . Deprived of economic success relative to those in the world of commerce, intellectuals are less likely to be invested in preserving the socioeconomic order, may turn toward redistributionist policies in hopes of reducing perceived status inconsistency, and may embrace unconventional social or political views in order to distinguish themselves culturally from the business classes.”

    Based purely on my own anecdotal experience, not just teaching in law school but also working in the nonprofit world, I think the researchers are on to something. Human beings are status-conscious. We just are. And if we have been labeled (or thought of ourselves) as high-achievers, then it is simply natural for us to want to maintain that level of regard and self-respect.

    And yet, we live in a culture where success is often empirically measured by the size of one’s bank account, stock holdings, or (until recently) real-estate portfolio. English professors tend to do poorly in this race. So do activists. Quite naturally, they don’t feel an attachment to a culture or a system that (they feel) devalues their contributions or rewards those who (they think) are less capable.  

    This scorn for money is most disconcerting in the nonprofit world, where individuals are simultaneously dependent on the economic success of others yet constantly (incessantly) reminding anyone who will listen that they “could be making so much money” but chose not to because, doggone it, they just care so much.  

    It is this sharp divide between “those who care” (professors, activists, and any other class of smart middle-class folks) and those who “sold out” that often seems to underlie many of the more visceral responses to policy and political disputes.  

    Yet as someone who’s spent considerable time amongst the greedy capitalists (as a partner in a large law firm) and amongst the professors and activists in the sacrificial class, I’ve found the day-to-day reality to be exactly opposite of the stereotype. Capitalists routinely deploy vast resources to help the “least of these” in our culture, while the activists often can’t get past their own monumental self-regard to actually effectively assist and care for other human beings.


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