If ad nauseam recitation is enough to transform fiction into fact, if, in effect, “thinking makes it so,” then readers of most conservative publications can be forgiven for concluding the American university is an institution dominated by liberal professors whose only goal is to inculcate unsuspecting students with their liberal values and politics.
According to a poll in David Horowitz’s most recent polemic regarding the academic left — the venomous tone of which leaves me wondering how President Bush could have neglected to include this pernicious institution among his “axis of evil” — some 57 percent of liberal arts professors at Ivy League universities identify themselves as Democrats. To Horowitz, this supposed lack of intellectual diversity is cause for alarm.
“It’s time for these universities,” he whines, “to examine their own injustices and to take seriously their commitment to look like America in all its diverse communities — political, social and religious, as well as ethnic and racial.”
What surprises me is not the results of the poll. I think most of us probably could have guessed the majority of university professors are liberals. No, what surprises me is the logical leap of faith Horowitz — and so many other like-minded conservatives — makes without ever bothering to address it, namely that the mere presence of liberal professors at universities results in a biased educational experience.
According to a recent poll commissioned by UCLA, 29.9 percent of college freshmen describe themselves as “liberal” or “far left,” the highest percentage since the 1970s. To conservatives, this is proof positive of what they perceive (without any evidence, mind you) to be a causal link between liberal professors and students.
It goes something like this: good conservative students come to college, eager to learn, only to encounter malevolent liberal professors, eager to indoctrinate. Soon previously docile students find themselves questioning their government’s actions, wondering — aloud, no less! — about the erosion of civil liberties through the U.S.A. Patriot Act or a woman’s right to an abortion through Tommy Thompson’s rhetorical sleight-of-hand in the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
I asked Mark Beissinger, the chair of UW-Madison’s political science department, what he thought of the notion that a student’s education at UW (an institution certainly comparable with the Ivies) is somehow biased by the predominance of liberal professors, specifically in the political science department. First of all, he told me his department is composed mostly of moderates (left-leaning moderates, but moderates nonetheless). It is also home to a number of civil libertarians as well as social — even, gasp, pro-life — conservatives.
And does this moderate majority, if you will, impose its politics on students?
“Mainly,” Beissinger told me, “[the political science faculty] have been trying to teach students how to think systematically about issues and how to make a reasoned argument. So I don’t think that presumes any particular outcome.” He went on to say, “If I’m trying to teach students anything, it’s more to think than it is to ‘be a liberal’ or to take a particular stance on a particular issue.”
Moreover, he raised the point that many political science classes deal with conceptual and analytical dimensions in which “there are no clear-cut ideological divides.” In other words, in most classes there isn’t even an opportunity for a professor to exhibit any bias. In those classes which do deal directly with political issues, he said professors are mindful to structure their readings and lectures to include a diversity of thought and opinion (this has always, in my own personal experience, been the case).
This is certainly not to say some professors don’t, on occasion, make an aside during class or (sub?)consciously slant a lecture one way or another. We’ve all seen it happen. But this is only a problem if you’re willing to embrace the paternalism inherent in conservatives’ arguments decrying the predominance of liberal professors on college campuses. That is, in order to buy into their argument, you have to believe we are incapable of independent, critical thought. You have to believe we unquestioningly absorb everything our professors choose to spoon-feed us. That’s a rather dismal — and patently false — assessment of the student body, if you ask me.
What I think is really happening is that conservatives are concerned not so much with liberal professors as they are with liberal students. What bothers conservatives is that professors — regardless of their political ideology — are providing us with the intellectual tools we need to sift and winnow on our own, and more and more of us are rejecting conservatism. If conservatives are so concerned about their shrinking numbers on college campuses, then instead of attributing this decline to a supposed lack of intellectual diversity in academe, perhaps they should ask themselves if it isn’t due to the nature of conservatism itself.
Chris McCall ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in German and political science.