succumbing to peer pressure

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Political bias in higher education?

This is a topic Amelia deals with a lot, and I've mostly avoided as I don't have much experience in the area and honestly, haven't given it enough careful thought to pose a very coherent arguement. But this Times article got me going again, so here goes: First, a disclaimer - for two reasons, I come to this debate from a very different side. 1) I attended Case Western, which is predominantly conservative (at least, among the students, perhaps not the professors) and 2) I'm in a math field, where it is significantly more difficult for professors to insert their own personal social and political views into a lecture. That said, I'm very skeptical of the allegation that there is a strong liberal bias in higher education and that conservative view points, from both students and teachers, result in discrimination. I won't dispute that a majority of college professors appear to be/are liberal/democrats. But that doesn't necessarily translate into discrimination. Sure, it sucks to be the minority viewpoint. But that doesn't necessarily mean that you are being disciminated against. And mandating quotas of how many conservatives and how many liberals a university must employ seems fruitless to me. The article states:

Last year the Center for the Study of Popular Culture surveyed the political opinions of professors in the humanities and social sciences at 32 top universities and concluded that Democratic views vastly outnumbered Republican ones at each of them. To many of Mr. Horowitz's supporters, that is strong evidence.

Again, simply being outnumbered does not immediately imply discrimination. In fact, in my mind, the answer might lie in the very next paragraph:

"We have 60 members in the department of government," said Harvey Mansfield, a well-known Harvard professor. "Maybe three are Republicans. How could that be just by chance? How could that be fair? How could it be that the smartest people are all liberals? Many liberals simply don't care for the kind of work conservatives do."

I agree that an unbalanced representation of views is not fair, but turn around that last sentence - what if many conservatives simply don't care for the kind of work liberals do? What if there are an overwhelming number of liberals in education because it's an underpaid and often unrewarding job and many conservatives don't really want it? I know I'm jumping to all sorts of generalizations here, but what if the skewed distribution doesn't imply that "all the smartest people are liberals" but simply that similarly educated conservatives choose to work in other fields? Rather than bemoaning the distribution of political beliefs of professors, why not deal with the curriculum? Because a teacher who is honestly doing his or her job will present differing viewpoints. A student is quoted later in the article complaining that he's been assigned Marx four times and never Adam Smith. Ok, that seems like a potentially legitimate complaint. But that's in the quality of the teaching, which I don't think needs to be tied to the proportion of conservative vs. liberal professors. Anecdotally, I took intro. philosophy from a professor who openly admitted her feminist perspective. But my impression was always that she was very careful in lecture to avoid her own personal opinion, even when asked for it. She would always return to, well, Descarte says this, and nietzsche says this and what do you make of that? Then again, I am both a feminist and a liberal, so perhaps I'm just not sensitive enough to these sorts of biases.


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