Sunday, April 26, 2009

Are college professors teaching liberal ideology?

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 26 April 2009

Several years ago I wrote an essay addressing liberal bias in the (mainstream) media. That essay reviewed a scholarly article by a sociologist who did a careful content analysis of leading newspapers. What I didn’t realize at the time was how many people take such statements as “the [mainstream]0 media is (liberally) biased” as an article of faith. The article concluded that the content examined didn’t show much liberal bias, indeed, more conservative bias than many are even willing to consider.

Sociologists are good at this kind of thing: debunking myths and taken-for-granted “truths.” It is never a good idea to try to suggest things may not be what they seem to the faithful. Nevertheless, I am going to do it again — call it the “sociological impulse.”

Another article of faith among some Americans is that our colleges and universities are “indoctrinating” students in liberal ideology. Evidence for this claim include anecdotes from current and former students, former faculty who claim liberal bias is why they failed to earn tenure, and selective course titles as well as selective faculty whose words are either poorly spoken or taken out of context. There are few systematic and careful studies of the claim. It is true that faculty in the humanities and social sciences are more likely to identify both as Democrat and liberal (as do professional journalists) but does that translate necessarily into bias in the classroom?

A University of British Columbia sociologist, Neil Gross, surveyed 1,471 American college and university faculty and conducted in-depth interviews with a sub-sample across five disciplines that represent a continuum of political views (literature, sociology, economics, biology, and engineering).

Gross lists three main findings from the in-depth interviews. I examine two of them below (the third focuses on differing understandings of academic freedom).

First, “… there is significant variation across disciplines in the degree to which notions like objectivity and politically value-free knowledge are seen as unproblematic and desirable.” In other words, faculty vary by discipline in how much they embrace the idea that facts are facts and that facts speak for themselves. For the engineer, the discipline where the faculty viewed value-free knowledge as the only real knowledge and a desirable outcome, the “meaning” of a reduction in electrical resistance due to a change in materials is limited to the outcome of the “test.” The professors of literature were the most skeptical of any claim to value-free knowledge. They held that all knowledge is influenced by a person’s experiences and views, from the choice of topic to the position taken on the “facts” regarding knowledge.

Think about your own work; how important is the idea of objectivity?

Gross’ second finding is “… norms remain in place in all five disciplines against overt partisanship in the classroom, and champions of ‘critical pedagogy,’ the view that education should alert students to instances of what the left sees as social injustice, are rare.”

Overwhelmingly the faculty Gross interviewed saw the goal of teaching as instructing students in the subject matter of their fields or training them in various skills. Some subjects, however, happen, at this particular time, to fit with left-liberal political agendas due to their subject matter. The core of sociology is the study of social inequality. Questions about social inequality or its effects on society are not high on conservative agendas; it happens to be central in liberal-left political agendas.

So, even “conservative” sociologists who teach “social stratification” raise the political hackles of conservatives.

Faculty disagree whether they should reveal their own political views when addressing politically controversial topics in class. Faculties’ views on this, Gross claims, cross-cut the disciplines. In my read of his work, what varies is how “secure” the individual faculty member feels in their position at the university. White male tenured full professors are the most secure in sharing their political views in class while untenured, female, minority, professors are more guarded. My perception of this differs, but I’ve never conducted a systematic study, either.

Think about your work; do you use your position to indoctrinate your customers/clients in your political views?

In short, this research suggests most faculty follow disciplinary norms regarding the “knowledge-politics” intersection, keep their classroom focus on the subject matter and skills to be taught, and reject overt politicization of their own or of the classroom in general.

There are, however, exceptions, and those exceptions appear to be much of the basis for the conservative claim of liberal indoctrination of college students.

ADDENDUM: There is only so much you can put in a 750 word essay. Some additional thoughts: 1) are all disciplinary ideas first fit to current political alignments? I mean was Adam Smith a conservative republican before he wrote Wealth of Nations or did conservatives, over time, use his ideas as part of their political ideology? Same with Keynes. Karl Marx (boo, hiss) even said that he was not a marxist as leftist political organizations adopted his ideas and put them to political agendas. In my discipline, Max Weber, was a farily conservative fellow in his native Germany, but his ideas in contemporary America seem kind of leftish (unless you realize he was, in many respects arguing with lefties for a more conservative view). The "radical" sociologist, C. Wright Mills, of the 1950s, seems passe and common sensical today. How about Darwin? republican, democrat, or other? Of course the political agendas of the day don't fit well with the agendas or alignments of yore.

Were the founders of the USA apolitical? Who were the cons and libs then? How did the 2nd amendment become conservative, and the first (parts of it) become liberal?

Politics doesn't drive academia as much, at least historically, as do academic ideas become ideas embraced by politicians.

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