Politics & Policy

Blockhead

Higher education's imbalancing act.

I have the original cardboard box, barely held together by Scotch™ tape that looks like it might date back to the days of the highland clans. And inside the box is every piece of my childhood Blockhead™ set. Blockhead is a game in which you add sundry-shaped wooden blocks one at a time to an increasingly wobbly tower. Players take turns, and whoever topples the structure, loses the round. Lose three rounds, you are a blockhead. The game does not teach sound architecture, since the advantage goes to the player whose addition to the tower is so precariously placed that the next player is almost certain to knock the whole thing over.

Blockhead, I ‘m happy to report, remains on the market though it seems temporarily out of stock. There is no doubt a Cultural Studies Ph.D. dissertation waiting to be written on the generational shifts in the packaging and the shapes of some of the blocks.

I was reminded of Blockhead today by reading a couple of stories about the scarcity of conservatives and the similar rarity of Republicans on college campuses. Robert Maranto, writing in The Washington Post, reviews the most recent statistical studies about the disparities. Upon hearing that conservatives and libertarians are outnumbered 20 to 1 by liberals and radicals in my discipline, anthropology, I was faintly cheered. Most days it feels more like 100 to 1. Maranto doesn’t believe that “leftist professors have set out to purge academia of Republican dissenters.” Rather, in his view, professors tend to hire people like themselves, and higher education has reached a kind of tipping point of “unsubtle effects on the ideological makeup of the professoriate.” The unfortunate results, he says, are that universities, wearing their ideological blinders, are less adept at addressing domestic and foreign challenges. The campus “monoculture” also makes universities “intellectually dull places.”

Brian Morelli writing in the Iowa City Press-Citizen offers a punchier view of the scarcity of Republicans at one institution, the University of Iowa. The 2,527 member faculty there is 46.4-percent registered Democrats and 8.1-percent registered Republicans. Morelli found 18 University of Iowa departments in which 80-percent or more of the faculty were registered Democrats and 21 departments with one or fewer Republicans. So what? Morelli, unlike Maranto, doesn’t offer an opinion on whether this disparity has any important consequences. He quotes a Republican political science professor who says it is a disservice to students and a Democratic history professor (the University of Iowa has no Republican historians) who has “great faith in the integrity of faculty members to not put political views on students.”

The Iowa City Press-Citizen presumably took up this topic because of the recent case of Mark Moyar, a chaired professor of history at the U.S. Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Professor Moyar’s academic credentials far above average: summa cum laude from Harvard, Ph.D. from Cambridge, two books from Cambridge University press, numerous article in the popular press. If academe were a meritocracy, Professor Moyar would be a star. But when he applied for an open position in the history department of the University of Iowa, he was turned down in favor of a substantially less qualified candidate. Then Professor Moyar did some really unusual. He filed a formal complaint that the University discriminated against him because he is an acknowledged conservative and registered Republican. Of course, universities being universities, the University of Iowa has surrounded the case with a thick fog of obfuscation and denials. Proving discrimination in such matters is well nigh impossible. Still the public is intrigued by the history department stats: 27 registered Democrats, 0 registered Republicans.

Morelli’s article is posted online and has attracted some comments including one from “HK” that is a pretty typical left-of-center response to the phenomenon: “What a bunch of crybabies! Boo hoo…It is so hard being a conservative in America! Such as persecuted minority!” This what-a-bunch-of-crybabies response is so common that I have abbreviated it, and write WABOC in the margins when it turns up, as always it does, when the academic left is momentarily faced with the evidence of its exclusionary hiring policies. WABOC is a bit rich coming from folks whose cri de coeur has been the unfairness of America’s majorities to America’s minorities. The ruinous thought that they themselves are a self-satisfied majority heedless of minority rights must be banished the instant it occurs. Hence WABOC becomes the rally cry, and the smug sense of having done with that bit of impertinence.

There are, however, more sophisticated responses from the academic left. In September two Harvard researchers, Neil Gross and Solon Simmons, issued a report that was headlined in several places as showing that the nation’s faculty are more “moderate” than “liberal.” Gross and Simmons reached this conclusion by way of some elastic definitions of moderation, and they quickly came under criticism from, among others, the president of the National Association of Scholars, Steve Balch. Apart from the creative effort to re-label political categories by moving the Left to the Center, Gross and Simmons turned up statistical results that match the half-dozen other formal studies of political alignment in academe. That’s to say, in the usual parlance of “conservative” vs. “liberal” in the United States, about 80-percent of academics are liberal, and about ten percent are conservative.

Gross and Simmons also attempted to expand the ranks of conservatives by including community-college faculty members in their statistics. This was especially interesting because they inadvertently added to the growing body of evidence that those conservatives who do stick it out in academic careers end up in disproportionate numbers in the lowest paying and least prestigious institutions. Monato catches another piece of this when he points to the recent study by Stanley Rothman of Smith College and S. Robert Lichter of George Mason University, which shows that conservatives have to publish substantially more to get the same benefits that liberals get by publishing substantially less: “Among professors who have published a book, 73 percent of Democrats are in high-prestige colleges and universities, compared with only 56 percent of Republicans.”

Let me save some readers the trouble: WABOC.

Is there anything really to be concerned about in the Left’s preponderance in faculty positions at prestigious public and private universities, ordinary colleges, and so on down the line? Is it useful to bear in mind Gross and Simmons’ point that the hard left, the real radicals, are in the minority, and the mainstream of higher education is just somewhere in the vicinity of Al Gore, Ralph Nader, and perhaps John Edwards? Does it matter that, although the Left predominates in virtually all areas of the university (including, contrary to the stereotype, most business schools), the super-concentration is limited to the social sciences and the humanities? (Gross and Simmons found that 25.5 percent of American sociologists who have academic appointments consider themselves Marxists.)

Moranto, I think, has a pretty compelling point in suggesting that the scarcity of conservative views on campus injures students. If one spends four years (now, more often, five or six years) in an environment where the pieties of the Left are treated as plain commonsense; where disdain for America’s history, our key institutions, and our foreign policies is normative; where the invocation of “diversity” trumps any argument on any subject, one isn’t much prepared to find one’s way in actual American life.

This isn’t a hypothetical circumstance. If you talk to recent college graduates, many of them seem in a state of resentful befuddlement. They have been taught that America is bad. They carry around their disdain for this unworthy nation along with their tattered editions of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. Some seem to have arrived from another country — as though they had spent their years in Kazakhstan and knew America via poorly translated comic books. Mostly they do not see themselves as aligned with the political Left. That’s because the category of “Left” is meaningless without a contrasting term, and all they know about conservatives is that they are heartless, exploitative, money-grubbing, hate-mongering hoarders of class, race, and gender privilege.

They may have a cause or two they uphold. AIDS prevention. Abortion. But most often it is the fight against global warning — a fight for which they lack any hint of “critical thought,” despite their four, five, or six-year immersion in pedagogy that ostensibly values “critical thinking” above any other intellectual endeavor.

This portrait of our college grads is, as I intend it, exaggerated, but I have run into the genuine article often enough to let it stand. Sending students off to college to hear what Leftist professors have to say about the world is not the problem; the problem is that, if that’s all they hear, they end up with a shallow education, and very little grip on the reality of American life. A diet of ideology is like a diet of candy bars; and we have filled up our universities with candy bar salesmen.

Moranto also suggests that the ideological one-sidedness of our university faculties is bad for the nation’s capacity to think its way through its domestic and international problems. Well, yes. Surely reasoned debate among advocates of various principles views would be more promising. The complication, however, is that a substantial chunk of the academic Left has now taken a “principled” stand against reason itself. We name this stand in different ways — post-modernism, identity politics, anti-foundationalism — but it amounts to the view that the yearning for power and authenticity counts more than old-fashioned “reason” and “argument.” This new view elevates “studies” over the traditional “disciplines,” e.g. Women’s studies, Africa-American studies, post-colonial studies, area studies, cultural studies, queer studies, and so on. This isn’t just nomenclature. “Studies” as opposed to “disciplines” have vague and transient standards of what counts as “scholarship.” They have an affinity for ideological formulation and, characteristically, diminish or even discard the distinctions between fact and opinion, and between evidence and assertion.

Thus, I am not as confident as Moranto that restoring some semblance of ideological balance among faculty members would restore to our universities the opportunity for reasoned debate on important issues. Restoring ideological balance is necessary, but not sufficient. We need to restore as well some basic principles of intellectual inquiry and fair play — and it is not at all clear how that might be done. Do we wait out the decline of post-modernism? But all those “studies” have been busy institutionalizing themselves since the 1980s.

And this is what makes me think of the precarious towers of Blockhead. In a crucial way, the dynamic of higher education in the United States today consists not in building lasting foundations, but in improvising artful imbalance. The faculty at the University of Iowa and many other institutions isn’t conspiring to keep Republicans or conservatives out of academic appointments, but on the other hand they are not attracted to having people around who don’t play the same ideological game. In many fields in the humanities today, it is the highest praise to say that someone has “destabilized” the meaning of a text, or “subverted” a tradition. To “transgress” means to undermine the stale, old, and (in this view) inevitably oppressive order. Those departments caught up in this brave new construction of intellectual towers are not about to appoint, or even seriously consider appointing, colleagues who would speak for value of the very traditions that the departments are attempting to sunder. Practically speaking, there is much less room for a political scientist who thinks the Cold War was an appropriate response to Soviet aggression; a historian who thinks that the U.S. was right to fight the Vietnam War and could have been prevailed; or a professor of English who thinks that there are works of literature the greatness of which lies in the intrinsic power of the writing.

In the game of Blockhead, of course, the tower sooner or later comes crashing down, as its accumulation of instabilities tips over into chaos. The catastrophes, however, are incidental. Out of the rubble rises a new tower, just as wobbly as the last. The game, after all, is about courting catastrophe, and the players are all eventually Blockheads.

Peter Wood is author of a Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now.

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