Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Conservatives and the university

Stanley Fish examines the research of several conservative scholars, who asked why it is that “the vast majority of academics in the humanities and social sciences self-identify as left-of-center (as they surely do),” and he summarizes their conclusions: “conservatives are not being kept out of the academy by a liberal power structure.” The American university’s ideological imbalance is probably intractable, because it is the result of “many factors not under conscious control.”

Fish is so well satisfied by this answer that he goes on to suggest that arguments for “intellectual diversity”—the scare quotes are his—are “less philosophical than strategic.” The only reason that anyone on the Right calls for a diversity of sources, ideas, theorems, concerns, inclinations, methods, and approaches is to hoist the Left on its own petard. Peter Wood, to whom Fish attributes this view, has already corrected its shallowness.

Even so, the question is a challenging one. Why should the American university be more ideologically balanced than it is now? The answer is not immediately obvious.

David Bernstein offers one reply. Namely: even though a Gallup survey in late October found that forty percent of the American people identify themselves as conservative, American academics are so ignorant of basic conservatism that they are unable to spot the phoniness of racist remarks ascribed to a famous conservative. Bernstein might have added that an even larger portion of the Western intellectual and literary tradition is soaked with conservative thought and expression. It is bad enough to assume without further inquiry that Rush Limbaugh praised slavery and Martin Luther King’s assassin. It is far worse to treat Milton, Dryden, Swift, Austen, Coleridge, Charlotte Brontë, Thackeray, Newman, James, Yeats, and Conrad—to name only a few English writers—as standing on the Left alongside thee and me.

Fish is right, though, that such an answer conceives the university as a representational institution, which it is not. In criticizing my mentor Gerald Graff’s ideas on education many years ago, I abused this conception, pointing out that ‘genuine arguments do not occur between representatives of a ‘view’ or ‘side.’ ”

But right there is the real point. Intellectual diversity—without the scare quotes—is a necessary precondition to genuine arguments. Lack of resistance and disagreement is a grave warning in scholarship, suggesting that conclusions are no longer the product of rational inquiry but have become merely common opinion, taken for granted as what “everyone knows.” (That’s an allusion to the first chapter of The Human Stain, by the way—the best dissection of political correctness in academe yet written.) Leftist academics should know their Kuhn well enough to recognize a paradigm when they see one, but when it comes to their own academic departments, they prefer to be surrounded by those who are bounded by the same tradition that binds them. When I was being considered for an appointment at Texas A&M, I submitted a paper on the New Historicism as a writing sample—precisely because the A&M department was known as a hotbed of the “new movement in Anglo-American literary scholarship.” Instead of welcoming the disagreement, however, many in the department opposed my appointment on the grounds of my opposition to their ideas. “Why should we hire someone who is against us?” a historicist asked one of my champions.

Perhaps it is true that conservatives are not being kept out of the academy by a liberal power structure. But it is equally true that their intellectual habits lead academic liberals to resist the resistance of conservatives, and to be careless with truth and satisfied with error to at least that degree.


R. T. said...

Your hiring experience goes a long way to explain the phenomenon of leftists in academia. Let me use a simple-minded saying to make a not so simple-minded point based on my observations: "Birds of a feather flock together." Now, expand on that metaphorical observation and concede that a cohesive (xenophobic) flock does not warmly welcome outsiders (birds of a different feather) because of territorial imperatives--i.e., the nest must be protected from alien species so that similarly feathered progeny can be produced from within that nest. So, you see, it is all rather simple when you get right down to it. It is basic animal behavior. By the way, the similarly feathered birds (leftists) at my university are quite comfortable with birds of the same feather; however, I am not included as a part of the nest but rest tenuously (for now) on an adjacent but brittle branch that is grudgingly tolerated by the flock.

Guy Pursey said...

I'm still not entirely sure what you mean by "leftists" - are the majority of American academics genuinely in favour of socialism, communism, plain old social democracy? Or do you mean to say they side with the Democrats? Perhaps this a transatlantic language issue and such terms need no elaboration in the U.S. But it's also not clear whether you're talking about social or economic "leftism". Or perhaps the two neatly coincide, even among American intellectuals.

In any case, the picture you paint of academia seems bleak. I had been intending to do some postgraduate study in the U.S. when I can afford it (or find time to apply for funding). If, however, the American university is so hostile to different ideas and to people of different persuasions, perhaps it's not the place for me!

(In other words, say it isn't so!)

D. G. Myers said...


My concept of the Left derives from the late Leszek Kolakowski, who argued that the Left is distinguished by two characteristics:

(1.) It is a “movement of negation” toward the existing social system.

(2.) It is utopian; that is, it enunciates ultimate goals—goals that are unattainable for the time being, but that “impart meaning to social changes.”

In Kolakowski’s words, “It is a total negation of the existing system and, therefore, also a total program [for the reconstruction of social reality].”

D. G. Myers said...

P.S. It is so. Oh, could I tell you stories! But they would be dismissed as mere anecdotal evidence.

Guy Pursey said...

Ha! I'm sure such stories would be worth telling anyway, if told in the style with which you blog.

Many thanks for the clarification, re: "Leftism". I shall read over old posts and comments with renewed interest. I had never heard of Kolakowski but a quick Google search shows up some interesting things.

Art Durkee said...

Yet how is this not sour grapes?

Does one see similar commentaries about how leftists (whatever one means by that) denied entry to conservative think-tanks? Not hardly. Think-tanks desire to be of unitary consciousness, as they have an agenda and often they have political goals.

One of the few conservative thinkers that I'm aware of, who over the past few decades has actually sought discussion and would have been happy to engage with diverse viewpoints, was Michael Novak, a genuine intellectual if every there was one. I'm sure other examples could be found.

The key problem, which you identify correctly, I believe, is unitary thinking within an institution: the refusal to hire dissenters among the ranks. My response to the accusation that this is rife in academia is to say, So what? How is that different from any other institution? It's rife everywhere, in these ideologically polarized times. What's the saying? Oh yeah: "Do not criticize the more in your brother's eye until you have removed the log from your own."

Stefanie C Peters said...

I have been trying to put my finger on just what bothers me about academia for some time now, but hadn't considered this angle before; it clears up a few things for me. Personally, I don't sit too far to the right--probably just right of center--but I can remember as a university student being frustrated by the way I was often expected to interpret Bronte, Milton, Shakespeare from a perspective I had no interest in and doubted the value of. I had thought that it was mostly what I saw as the politicizing of the English departments that drove me to the UK for my master's degree and (so far) has given me pause in considering whether to continue for a PhD, but I wonder if I sensed some of what you're talking about, and if that was another factor. I wonder if there are more students who have disagreed with the leftist bent of their professors and have been discouraged from pursuing further degrees for that reason.

D. G. Myers said...

So what?

In as far as a university receives federal funding—and except for Grove City College and Hillsdale College, every university in the country receives federal funding—“the refusal to hire dissenters among the ranks” is illegal discrimination in employment.

Universities differ from think-tanks in several ways, one being that it is expressly not founded to promote “unitary thinking,” but is founded—as is all intellectual pursuit—upon dissent.

Sour grapes? Hardly. If the university were a representational institution then control of it could be won or lost, like the U.S. House of Representatives, and the minority’s complaints about its minority status would indeed be sour grapes.

But the university, as Stanley Fish correctly said, is not a representational institution. Arguments for a more adequate representation of conservatives on university faculties are as broken-backed as arguments that conservatives should just accept their exclusion because “We won, you lost.”

The purpose of a university is to promote human learning, not the power of one party.

patrick said...

It sounds as though you'd like to negate the existing system, but your ultimate goal is unattainable for the time being. You filthy commie.

D. G. Myers said...

Well, I am a self-declared Leftist, after all.

On the contrary, however. I do not wish to negate the existing system, but merely to restore it to its original idea.

Since the university is founded upon this idea, it is readily attainable. No practical or bureaucratic changes would be necessary. All that is needed is for scholars to reconceive their role in culture and society.

Guy Pursey said...

I've been drawn back to this post by the above comments. And I was intrigued by the 'Only Permitted Kind' post you linked to. You say that '[a]ll that is needed is for scholars to reconceive their role in culture and society', although this sounds like no simple task...

Don't culture, society, and even technology pressure scholars, individually or as a group with a particular culture, into certain conceptions of themselves and their role within that culture or society?

As ever, I can only draw on my own experience in the UK as I still know comparatively very little of the U.S. education system — here we have something called the Research Assessment Exercise which has, it's claimed, adversely affected the culture within universities because of its focus on targets, specifically regarding numbers of publications.

I think there's much to admire in the idea of an institution based on dissent, on disagreement, and on civility in its fullest sense — but I'd like to know, if it's not too dangerous a question, how that's to be encouraged. (The passive voice is used at the end of this last sentence so as to avoid accusations of Leftism.)