Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Why the university is dominated by the Left

On Bloggingheads.tv, Todd Gitlin takes up the “interesting question of why there are so few conservatives in the academy, or at least in the social sciences and the humanities. . . . I don’t know that there’s any research on it,” he says, going on to speculate that free-market conservatives are more drawn to commerce than to scholarship.

The more interesting question is why the Left dominates the social sciences and humanities. To answer that question might produce the reason there are so few conservatives in the academy. (Could it possbily be that the Leftists in charge of hiring decisions won’t hire them?) At all events, the radicalization of the university is old news. As George Will wrote four years ago in greeting the finding that 81% of humanities faculty in the U.S. are on the Left, “The great secret is out: Liberals dominate campuses. Coming soon: ‘Moon Implicated in Tides, Studies Find.’ ” Pace Gitlin, though, there is some research on the question why.

In his classic Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942), the economist Joseph A. Schumpeter sketched in a brilliant “Sociology of the Intellectual.” Things have not changed much in sixty odd years. The intellectuals he has in mind are distinguished by “active hostility to the social order.” Their job, as they see it, is “to work up and organize resentment, to nurse it, to voice it and to lead it.” Not everyone who receives a university schooling ends up an intellectual, but a university schooling is nearly universal among intellectuals. The common training provides a common cause. Or, as Schumpeter phrases it, “the fact that their minds are all similarly furnished facilitates understanding between them and constitutes a bond.”

That is why, on the academic Left, “read Foucault” passes for a refutation. It is not merely that all university-trained intellectuals share the same references and citations, but what is more important, they accept the same auctores. Their lives have been changed by the same books. Small wonder that they progress rapidly “from the criticism of the text to the criticism of society,” for as Schumpeter observes, “the way is shorter than it seems.” It is shorter especially for those who read their favorite authors, not as literary critics nor as critics of the philosophical tradition, but as social critics.

Schumpeter traces the history of the intellectual from the monastery, where he was born, to the rise of capitalism, which “let him loose and presented him with the printing press.” Similarly, the patron slowly gave way in the last quarter of the eighteenth century to that “collective patron, the bourgeois public.” Although the intellectual conceived his role to épater the public, he found, much to his delight, that flabbergasting sells; the public would pay for his “nuisance value.”

The major change in the twentieth century was the expansion of the university—the emergence of Clark Kerr’s multiversity. The trend only accelerated in the years following the first edition of Schumpeter’s book. From 1930 to 1957 college enrollments in the U.S. more than doubled, and between 1960 and 1969 they doubled again, rising to over seven million. The faculty expanded along with enrollment.

The trouble is, as Schumpeter notes, the enormous expansion of the university created the conditions of what would now be called underemployment. “The man who has gone through a college or university,” he writes, “easily becomes psychically unemployable in manual occupations without necessarily acquiring employability in, say, professional work.” What is such a man to do? He “drift[s] into the vocations in which standards are least definite,” like journalism, literature, or scholarship, thus “swell[ing] the host of intellectuals. . . .”

The economic conditions breed discontent—the intellectual feels underappreciated and underpaid—and discontent breeds resentment toward the social order which does not recognize the intellectual’s genius and unique value. Add to this the fact that the system of emoluments seems capricious, rewarding some who are no more talented or accomplished than those who are deprived. Fern Kupfer, a four-book novelist who teaches at Iowa State University, fully understands the precariousness of her position:

When one of the graduate students in my [writing] program—looking longingly at my office, my piles of books, the few office hours posted on my door—confessed, “When I graduate, I want to do what you do,” I wanted to tell him: “You can’t. Because I’m already doing it.”Not You can, through hard work and literary achievement, but rather, Back off, boychik, I got here first. What are the chances that such an attitude, such a reality, will breed resentment in the longing student?

Hostility is the product of rationalization from personal experience. “[T]he intellectual’s righteous indignation about the wrongs of capitalism,” Schumpeter concludes, “simply represents the logical inference from outrageous facts,” and such thinking is little different—little better—than “the theory of lovers that their feelings represent nothing but the logical inference from the virtues of the beloved.”

The analogy is exact. Love is not a rational choice, although should you ask any lover why he favors his beloved he will reply with a long list of “reasons.” If I love you because you are beautiful and brilliant, though, what becomes of my love when you lose your looks or perhaps your mind? So too with the modern university intellectual’s pose of social hostility. It does not arise from a rational analysis of the American order, but as a distortion of one’s own personal circumstances. I should make better money; I should get the social recognition of a doctor or lawyer (my education is equal to or greater than theirs). To conceal the neurosis of this resentment from myself, I generalize it, transforming it into a social ideal. Why should a businessman make more than a teacher? (If a plumber thinks he can earn $250,000, however, he’s a joke.)

Thus personal resentment and feelings of superiority are translated into an idealized image of social concern and responsibility. The humanities or social science professor, hating society, sees himself as the better man. And only wishes to associate with those who share his ideals—that is, those with equally idealized images of themselves.

Update: The last paragraphs above are not as clear as I would like them. What I am trying to say is that the Leftist professor’s idealized image of a more perfect social order (the Serpent’s “I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’ ”) is really his idealized image of himself. In Schumpeter’s phrase, it “represents the logical inference” from his feelings of superiority to the capitalist order.

Update, II: In the comments section, Novalis asks a hard question. Although I make a good case, “[i]s i[t] really that simple? Couldn’t it also be the case that academics really do hunger for more meaningful work than is commonly available under a capitalist system?” But are these an either/or? Mightn’t it be possible that the hunger for more meaningful work is a rationalization of academics’ resentment at their social and economic position? On this view, “meaning” becomes a substitute for status, riches, and real political influence or what Schumpeter calls “the absence of direct responsibility for practical affairs.”


Novalis said...

I'm not an academic, but rather a psychiatrist (with literary interests, which is how I found your blog). I found this post very interesting, not least because psychotherapists (whether inside or outside of academia) comprise another predominantly liberal group.

You make a compelling case, but to me it is reminiscent of a Nietzschean critique of resentment (literary liberals can't compete on capitalism's playing field and so resort to carping about it). Is is really that simple? Couldn't it also be the case that academics really do hunger for more meaningful work than is commonly available under a capitalist system? Is that wrong?

Novalis said...

Well, life obviously brings practical responsibilities. Yes, but the liberal critic of contemporary capitalism can argue, with Thoreau, that society generates a lot of unnecessary "practical" affairs that then "must" be taken care of.

For instance, how hard should my wife and I have to work to provide our children with all the latest gadgets, the 3000 SF house, etc. that their peers may have? Are these things "practical" and necessary?

As it happens, as doctors (and capitalist "winners" I suppose) we have no trouble providing these things, but I can also imagine people "opting out" of the rat race for reasons other than sheer inability to keep up.

At any rate, I enjoy reading your blog and hope you keep it going.

Anonymous said...

To Novalis:

Doctors and Capitalist "winners" are presumeably doing things that their patients or customers value; hence the material rewards that accrue to them.


David R. Graham said...

I don't know. But here's a thought: there are some -- at least one, this one -- who had every opportunity to pursue an academic career and every promise of achieving a tenured one and chose, quite deliberately and with knowledge of the suffering ahead (no training for anything else that could be life-sustaining), to walk away from it.

Reason: modern academe routinely attenuates inquiry and has been doing that since the 1940s, that I know of. A scholar could be supported in academe in 18th Century Scotland, then the most educated and vital country on earth. Academe of the USA, where I live, has not supported scholarship anytime during my life, which is finishing out now. By that I mean, it does not support open inquiry, inquiry free to pursue its own inner necessity, supported with resources for doing that and accepting to consider, not necessarily to adopt but fairly to consider, the results thereof.

The cause of that diminishment, as I saw and still see it, is something simple: jealousy. Jealousy is an impulse, in this case a deformation of spirit in the Nietzschean/German sense of the word spirit, namely, the unity of power and meaning, the dimension of life animals do not share with humans.

Education is refinement of the impulses, it is a fiery crucible. Its end is love. A scholar walks away from conditions which are neither refining nor productive of love, is it not?

Anyhow, that's just my 2c. Thanks for this blog and I hope you keep it up! You have compassion.

said Hoyst-Petard said...

It's because they get paid with tax dollars. Everything warps around that, especially their politics, which can summed up as "more tax dollars." The justification is usually a "moral" one. They are morally superior to the market, they are anti-racist (in institutions that admit based on IQ), etc., etc. My father was a professor, and the stomach-churning fear that his entire life, self-esteem, reputation, and years of effort could be rendered moot by the politics of "less tax dollars" made him a reflexive liberal.

Anonymous said...

This is a fairly specious account that relies heavily on the personal psychology of persons. In any event, it can largely refuted by counter trends such as the "de-radicalizing" of faculty that give into petite bourgeois trappings, lose their politics and take up pottery or bird watching. If you need any reason to explain why so many faculty are of the "left" then perhaps you should just look at the conditions of your own contemporary society... Increasing social inequality, disgraceful campaign financing, undermined democratic institutions, resource wars, and a gutted middle class should be enough to keep alive many politically left critiques.