Tilting Left
Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, by Neil Gross (Harvard, 400 pp., $35)


A more likely explanation, in Gross’s view, is that academia has become politically “typed”: The general population has developed a notion that professors are liberal, largely thanks to long-ago historical developments — in particular the secularization of the academy in the late 19th century followed by the high-profile roles academics took in the Progressive movement. Once academic work was seen as a liberal thing to do, conservatives opted not to do it, and the status quo perpetuated itself, even when the conditions that had created it disappeared. This theory is plausible enough — the academy really did shift leftward decades ago, people really did notice, and to this day there really is a stereotype that professors are liberal — though of course it’s difficult to test.

But it’s not merely a case of a self-perpetuating stereotype. Many academics have assiduously worked to maintain the liberal “imprint” on their profession, openly presenting themselves as left-wing to students. In Gross’s surveys, few academics admitted practicing “critical pedagogy” (jargon for aggressive Marxist indoctrination), and some said their fields were inherently apolitical (say, engineering); but professors in many fields said they were at least open about their own politics: 86 percent of sociologists, 79 percent of literature professors, and 63 percent of economists.

These are similar to the survey results reported in Closed Minds?, a 2008 book that sought to disprove the notion that colleges indoctrinate students: Forty-five percent of professors (in all fields) said their students could “probably guess who I voted for in 2004”; 57 percent said they did not “try to keep students guessing about my opinions about most issues.” Further, as Gross writes, a fair amount of material in the humanities and social sciences is openly left-wing. (A class called “Feminism and Sociological Theory” is unlikely to attract conservative students.) Putting aside the question of whether this style of teaching is appropriate, it certainly does not send a signal that conservatives are welcome in academia.

Unfortunately, as empirically oriented as Gross is, he often cannot resist the subtle jab at conservatives, especially once he wraps up his discussion of why professors are liberal and moves on to the question of why conservatives care. One could fill an entire review with examples — conservative English professor Mary Grabar did just that in her write-up for the Selous Foundation (a right-leaning think tank). But this one is enough to convey the undercurrent of hostility here: “While [civil-rights efforts in the 1960s] placed academic activists on the right side of history, to conservatives who opposed the civil-rights movement they represented an abomination.”

Of course, the question of why conservatives care isn’t even mildly interesting. Academia is a powerful liberal force, and 60 percent of high-school graduates at least enter a four-year college; conservatives would be insane not to care. Gross does provide an overview of the conservative critique of academia, but between the lack of insight and the occasional barbs thrown rightward, it’s not a worthwhile investment of reading time.

Gross is at his best when he’s explaining his surveys and experiments and using them to evaluate competing theories of professors’ liberalism — and fortunately, he spends a lot of time doing that. Readers will gain a nuanced understanding of the subject, and conservative readers in particular will find many interesting nuggets here. The condescension is unfortunate, but a price worth paying.

May 6, 2013    |     Volume LXV, No. 8

Special Defense Section
Books, Arts & Manners
  • Jay Nordlinger reviews Roger Ailes: Off Camera, by Zev Chafets.
  • Richard Brookhiser reviews The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues: A History of Greenwich Village, by John Strausbaugh.
  • Abigail Thernstrom reviews Intellectuals and Race, by Thomas Sowell.
  • Robert VerBruggen reviews Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, by Neil Gross.
  • John Daniel Davidson reviews Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right: What America Can Learn From the Strange Genius of Texas, by Erica Grieder.
  • Ross Douthat reviews Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder.
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .