Phi Beta Cons

In Defense of Liberal Bias

This past weekend, I had the fortune of being able to attend a conference at Yale on the legacy of William F. Buckley Jr and his seminal work God and Man at Yale. Among those present were the publisher and editor-in-chief of this very magazine, as well as several luminaries in the fight against liberal academic bias (Roger Kimball, for one). These gentlemen had clear reasons for believing that the influence of liberal bias still exists, and articulated them ably.

However, while many found the attacks on academic bias edifying, they left me feeling somewhat hollow — in fact, almost inclined to defend the enterprise of academic liberal bias. This is odd, because defenses of liberal bias on college campuses are frequently the province of liberal professors trying to excuse their own intellectual laziness, or of postmodern pseudo-academics who want to deconstruct everything and leave nothing but an educational landfill behind for students. On some level, this is fortunate, because while these defenses persuade those in the academy, they also keep conservative students vigilant against the hostility of their so-called superiors. 

I do not claim that intellectual bias is unavoidable, nor that it is desirable from the perspective of the liberal arts, and certainly not that it is preferable for the propagation of social justice. However, it’s good for one very specific, very small group — namely, conservative students.

Cardinal John Henry Newman, in The Idea of the University (for those not in the know, this was basically God and Man at Yale Episode I: The Phantom Menace), wrote that some of the most pious bishops are educated in pagan universities while listening to pagan lecturers. This is more or less the case with conservative students who survive four years in especially liberal environments. While the quantity of conservative graduates of universities suffers as a result of this phenomenon, I believe the increase in quality more than compensates. Moreover, I believe the numbers can be made up later, for two reasons below.

First, there’s the oft-cited point that conservative students at liberal universities are constantly obliged to defend their positions. This is true enough, not just because there are so many people for one to argue with of one’s own age, but also because there is no junior varsity for conservatives in campus discourse. If, as a freshman just out of high school, you cannot argue with the senior who majored in queer studies for four years, you had best sit down and do your homework, because no charity will be forthcoming from such people. Not two weeks into my freshman year, I had the misfortune of being harassed by an entire group of seniors over Facebook, one of whom told me I was “ugly” and that my “writing sucked” simply because I’d had the audacity to quote Langston Hughes in support of my position. For the sake of irritating similar people, I reproduce the quote below:

They send me to sit in the kitchen when company comes

But I laugh and eat well and grow strong

Tomorrow I’ll be at the table when company comes

Nobody’ll dare say to me, “eat in the kitchen,” then.

Besides, they’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed.

My rude interlocutor notwithstanding, this quote’s prediction was correct.

Second, liberal bias forces intellectual curiosity and irreverence upon conservative students — not just about their own ideas (though I am sure these are read with hunger), but also about the other side’s. One needs to know both what they are affirming and what they are negating, and this sort of independent research makes one less naturally predisposed to accept a professor’s argument on faith. This, too, reduces the effectiveness of indoctrination, especially if the professor in question lets themselves appear rattled by the one contrarian in the classroom, which too will raise questions in the minds of undecided students. Thus the conservative student becomes not merely a gadfly, but a missionary, in conditions where he must fight to be heard. Bias is dramatically more likely to produce these conditions.

Third, liberal bias hobbles the academic growth of the very students whose prejudices it seeks to reinforce. A conservative student in a liberal-dominated class must read and engage with the arguments of liberals in order to survive. Liberal students, on the other hand, need not read any of the material so long as their emotional intuitions conform to the intended message. This means that while conservatives learn what the other side is saying and how to counteract it, liberals are only trapped in an endless solipsistic exercise. Their ideas are neither reinforced nor challenged, since they have no incentive to take the initiative to reinforce them, nor will anyone but a rare conservative challenge them.

This may make the professor’s job easier, but it means that the biased ideas pushed by that professor are less likely to stick. A conservative who has once refuted his professor’s argument for Communism will not forget the experience. A liberal who has merely regurgitated that same argument for Communism will be more susceptible to ideas that refute such an argument in the future, because he has never had to make a principled commitment one way or the other. Were both sides forced into emotional and intellectual engagement with the material, education might get better, but it would also solidify both sides’ political convictions and make everyone more intractable.

In short, in its own way, pervasive liberal bias produces small numbers of highly informed, intellectually pugnacious, and iconoclastic conservatives, and armies of unthinking, easily refuted exponents of liberalism with no connection to their convictions other than mere caprice. The end result is that liberal bias in the academy is the worst enemy of a thoughtful, educated American Left. And for that reason alone, we may bless its existence.

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