One of the explanations that frequently pops up in questions of leftist bias in academe turns on a self-selection distinction. Liberals go into academia because they wish to help others and improve society. Conservatives don’t because they are individualistic or, worse, greedy.
The second part can pass, but the first part deserves an answer. First of all, it contains an immoderate self-compliment. To think that a post in higher education enables you to change the world both aggrandizes the teacher’s impact and ennobles the teacher’s motives. Second, it diminishes the labor outside academe, especially the business world, implying that it has no benevolent social consequences. To believe that you have to claim that the literary scholar writing a book about deconstruction does more for society than does an entrepreneur who creates a business, employs dozens, and produces a good for a better price.
Third, it overlooks the massive amount of labor and resources that go into professorial work that has no appreciable value except to promote the professor. In the humanities, most articles and books that are published go into the journals and the libraries and are never heard from again. Years of effort have gone into these projects, students have been shortchanged of a fully-engaged teacher, and serious problems such as the poor writing skills and reading habits of graduating seniors go unnoticed.
This brings up the final problem with the “social improvement” claim. That is, too many professors actually spend a fair amount of their time reducing their obligations to students and to society. They covet grants that get them a semester off, they push for smaller classes and lighter teaching loads, they avoid the basic classes in composition, foreign languages, history, and the like. Yes, many teachers care deeply about their charges, and they are conscientious and attentive in the classroom. But too many others look differently upon the system, and they game it to their best advantage.
We shouldn’t criticize the tendency. It’s human nature. But the self-idealization has to stop. People who go into education to improve society work in inner city high schools, not in flagship English departments. They study demographic patterns, not Marxist theory (the former is done in think tanks and foundations as much as in academe). Academia is like any other large institution in that ambition, envy, disappointment, and cupidity are part of the social terrain. The only human difference is that, in moral terms, academics think more highly of themselves.