Phi Beta Cons

What’s Liberal about Liberal Ed?

Daniel Drezner has a very fine review of Michael Berube’s What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts on The Valve. He begins with a fine point about debates over political leanings in academia:

About the only thing I like about this debate is how it forces both sides of the political spectrum to subvert their traditional arguments and appropriate the other side’s rhetoric.  Conservatives wind up arguing that the bias problem is a structural one – and therefore the way to fix it is through some kind of ideological affirmative action program.  Liberals, when confronted with the numbers, nevertheless insist that the academy is a strict meritocracy with no old-boy networks whatsoever – and that aspiring conservative academics should quit whining and pick themselves up by their bootstraps.

His sense of the liberal perspective is highly accurate, but the conservative view is a simplification. How many serious conservative critics advocate some sort of “ideological affirmative action program”? I’ve not seen too many.  Otherwise, he’s quite correct. Conservatives have, in the past, perhaps been overly dismissive of claims of structural discouragement or obstacles to women and minorities in academia. Liberals have, in turn, been both nobly and excessively solicitous of such claims – they’re ever eager to scrutinize themselves to make sure they’ve not forgotten any possible psychological barrier to minorities (see the recent Diversity in Academic Careers issue of The Chronicle for example).  For a college to look at its faculty and realize that it lacks proportionate minority representation would prove directly self-incriminating and would be met with calls for immediate remedies. A comparable lack of conservatives would likely be met with a bemused shrug, and statement that there’s nothing to be done. Most colleges are not engaged in conscious discrimination against minorities or conservatives, but regardless of intention, a lack of the former is cause for severe self-examination while the latter is cause for… I don’t know, maybe another look at the Harper’s Index. Berube is not entirely untroubled by this. Drezner continues:

As for the effects of liberal bias, Bérubé admits that this is not a good thing within his own discipline.  The absence of traditional conservative scholarship creates the Millian problem of “dead dogma” – without being challenged, some tenets become accepted as given when they shouldn’t be.  The other problem, which Bérubé does not discuss in detail, is one of power.  In almost every social setting, those with less power tend to exaggerate the extent to which they need to please the more powerful to advance in life.  So it is in the academy.  Bérubé maintains that undergrads do not read his essays in Dissent or The Nation.  That’s probably true – but I bet they read his blog, and I have to wonder if some potential English Ph.D.’s fear the ideological gap between them and their instructor, and choose to take a pass?  This problem is not Bérubé’s fault, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Exactly – which relates directly to another liberal cause – of self-perpetuating homogeneity. Look to recent piece on search committees by Caroline Sotello Viernes-Turner in The Chronicle.

Many committees create a job description that would attract faculty members much like themselves. They advertise the position in publications that people mostly like themselves read. They evaluate résumés of people who often resemble themselves, invite three to five candidates for campus interviews who — again — are similar to themselves, and then make an offer to the person with whom they are most comfortable. Over time that process has inevitably resulted in campuses that are more homogeneous than not.

Of course she was speaking about race. Could academics consider, for a moment, that comparable processes might have something to do with the academy’s political composition?
Read Drezner’s review for a fine analysis, as well as the site’s larger Liberalpalooza discussion of the volume.

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