Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Give them what they (say they don't) want

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article on that perennial favourite: liberal bias in academia. (Via)

In my own experiences in the academic worlds of three different countries (the US, Britain and Germany) I have indeed found more 'liberals' amongst university teachers and researchers than there are 'conservatives'. However, those inverted commas should suggest to you that I think these are far from precise labels, especially across three different countries. (And I'm using 'liberal' to mean left(ish) of centre rather than talking about, say, 'classical liberals'.)

On the other hand, this general observation is more limited than it sounds.

First, by the faculties I've tended to be in -- humanities, languages -- which tend, I think, to be more liberal than, say, law, business and -- maybe -- science.

Second, by the fact that 'liberal' doesn't often mean that much these days and if you poke a liberal's opinions on many topics you may find that they're often what I would call quite 'conservative' about certain issues. Similarly, 'conservative' can mean anything from bug-eyed creationist wacko to moderate quasi-libertarian.

Third, by the fact that I think that whole discussion is often a very silly one: sure, the numbers might be skewed, but it has always been easy enough for me to find conservative scholars in any academic context I've been in. (They're usually pretty easy to identify, as they're the ones complaining loudly about how there aren't any conservative scholars). I'm not convinced that professorial indoctrination -- outside of some unfortunately very high profile exceptions -- is remotely as big a problem as is often made out.

In any case, the article at the Chronicle describes research by a husband and wife team of acadmics (he's conservative, she's liberal...I bet you can just feel the scorching Carville-Matalinesque frisson crackling away simply by reading the titles of their articles...).

Now, there are a few further points to note. First, their research seems to confirm what we might call common sense:

What they found was that students who believed their professors had the same politics they did rated a course more highly than students who didn't. The Woessners also found that students were less interested in a course when they believed their professors' political views clashed with their own.

Yep, m'kay. Then, called before the Pennsylvania legislature to testify about their findings, they gave some startling advice:

Since their research showed that students were turned off when professors expressed views that were contrary to their own, the Woessners told lawmakers that professors should do their best to present both sides of a political argument and tread lightly when it comes to expressing their own views.

Mmmmm...hhmmmm. Ok, I hope we've all learned something new today.

I'm not saying, of course, that having hard research that backs up common sense positions is a bad thing. It just seems to be rolled out with such fanfare by the Chronicle that I found myself a bit underwhelmed.

But I think my favourite little nugget of information doesn't get enough attention. Buried in there somewhere toward the end we find:

The research led the Woessners to conclude that if higher education wants to attract more conservatives to the professoriate, it should smooth the way financially, offering subsidized health insurance and housing for graduate students, and adopting family-friendly policies for professors.

Yes: to attract conservatives to academia offer them subsidies and liberal family leave policies.


Somehow I don't imagine that would make paranoid loon David Horowitz (sadly not a rare breed) quietly disappear.

Though it would be worth a shot.

And while all those conservative graduates are dazzled by the cheap housing and free child care, liberals can finally implement their long-term dream of taking over Wall Street.

[Cue maniacal, echoing laughter.]

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