Tag Archives: academia

Liberals On Campus

A few days ago, the editorial page editor of the Indianapolis Star wrote an article in which he counseled a “young conservative” on how to navigate Indiana University’s “left-wing” campus in Bloomington.

There are so many things wrong with the consistent right wing trope about “lefty” professors, the perceived persecution of their conservative colleagues, and the imagined “indoctrination” of their students–where to begin?

For one thing, these critics are painting with a very broad brush. The so-called “elite” colleges–Harvard, Yale, etc.–probably do have faculties that are disproportionately politically liberal, but there are thousands of colleges and universities in the U.S. that most definitely do not fit that stereotype. Many of them are religious, and others are small and medium-sized institutions reflective of the communities in which they are located; very few of them are bastions of liberal brainwashing.

What this characterization of the “liberal” professorate actually reveals is the unacknowledged (and often unconscious) extremism of those who employ it. As “conservatives” have become more radical and doctrinaire, they have applied the term “liberal” more and more broadly. Today, “liberal” describes anyone who accepts the theory of evolution and the scientific consensus on climate change, anyone who believes  (along with some 80% of NRA members) that we need more rigorous background checks for gun buyers, anyone who supports (along with numerous faith groups and a majority of Americans) a woman’s right to control her own reproduction; and (again with a majority of Americans) anyone who condemns racism and other forms of bigotry.

Positions that used to be considered mainstream and uncontroversial–positions that were held by Republicans as well as Democrats–have become markers of political liberalism.

I’ve taught at the university level for the past twenty years, and if I had to identify one “ideology” that virtually all my colleagues have in common, it wouldn’t be a political “ism” at all; it would be a belief in the importance of data and evidence. What distinguishes academia –what makes its denizens “liberal” in the original sense of that word–is willingness to examine one’s own preconceptions and change positions when credible research proves those preconceptions wrong.

One of the enduring contributions of the period we call the Enlightenment was the scientific method, and what the early American colonists called “the new learning.” Before the emergence of science and empiricism, education began with “biblical truth,” and consisted of studying how “learned men” had explained and justified that truth. You began with the answer and learned how to confirm it. When science came along, it flipped the process: first, you asked  questions, and then, through repeated rigorous experimentation and observation of the world around you, you tried to find answers that others could replicate.

Today, political liberals and conservatives are both prone to start with the answers, and to become angry when data and fact don’t support those answers. The mission of the academy is inconsistent with political ideologies of all kinds; that mission is to ask questions, evaluate data, and follow the evidence to whatever conclusion it requires.

If the contemporary definition of a liberal is someone who accepts the scientific method and the importance of verifiable fact, then I suppose most of us are liberal. If teaching our students to follow the evidence is indoctrination, then we plead guilty.



Mitch’s VERY Bad Day

Let’s talk about censorship and academic freedom and Mitch Daniels‘ desire to use the power of government to protect unsuspecting students from “wrong” ideas being foisted on them by books with which he disagreed.

There is no principle more basic to the academy and to the American constitutional system than the principle that forbids such behavior.

The Founders did not minimize the danger of bad ideas; they believed, however, that empowering government to suppress “dangerous” or “offensive” ideas would be far more dangerous than the expression of those ideas—that once we hand over to the state the authority to decide which ideas have value, no ideas are safe.

As Justice Jackson so eloquently opined in Barnette v. West Virginia Board of Education, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion…”

In these United States, We the People get to decide for ourselves what books we read, what websites we visit, what videos we watch, what ideas we entertain, free of government interference. Your mother can censor you, and in certain situations your boss can censor you–but not your Governor.

Academic freedom is the application of that foundational principle to institutions of higher education.Free intellectual inquiry is an absolutely essential ingredient of genuine education (albeit not so central to job training, with which Mitch often seems to confuse it). Education  requires the freedom to examine any and all ideas, to determine which are good and which not so good. It also requires that we protect scholars who come to unpopular conclusions or hold unpopular views from reprisals (that protection is the purpose of tenure).

Some citizens will make poor choices of reading materials or ideologies. Some Professors will embrace perspectives that disturb or offend students and Governors. Despite hysterical rhetoric from the Right, the percentage of college professors who use their classrooms to propagandize is vanishingly small, but just as putting up with Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and their clones is the price liberals pay for free speech, and putting up with the likes of me is the price conservatives pay, putting up with the occasional academic ideologue is a small price to pay for intellectual freedom.

The search for truth requires that we examine contending ideas, but it does not require the sort of artificial “balance” that ignores scholarly integrity in order to teach creationism in a science class, or that the holocaust never happened in a history class.  As a statement from the AAU put it some years back,

Self-appointed political critics of the academy have presented equal representation for conservative and progressive points of views as the key to quality. But the college classroom is not a talk show.  Rather, it is a dedicated context in which students and teachers seriously engage difficult and contested questions with the goal of reaching beyond differing viewpoints to a critical evaluation of the relative claims of different positions. Central to the educational aims and spirit of academic freedom, diversity of perspectives is a means to an end in higher education, not an end in itself. Including diversity is a step in the larger quest for new understanding and insight. But an overemphasis on diversity of perspectives as an end in itself threatens to distort the larger responsibilitiesof intellectual work in the academy.

So what are we to make of the disclosure that, while Governor, Mitch Daniels tried to use the power of that position to ensure that teachers and professors did not use a book of which he disapproved, and that he tried to cut funding for a professor who had criticized  his policies?

The emails display a breathtaking arrogance, ruthless partisanship, and an autocratic mindset. But most of all–and most troubling, given his current position–they display an absolute ignorance of, and disregard for, the essential purpose  and nature of the academy.

Howard Zinn was a reputable if controversial historian. Much of what he wrote was a valuable corrective to the histories of his era; some was oversimplified twaddle. But opinions about the value of his–or any–book are beside the point.  The question is “who decides what books are used in the classroom,” and the answer is not “the governor”. Government functionaries do not get to decide what scholarship is acceptable for classroom use or debate, and elected officials absolutely and emphatically do not get to retaliate against critics by cutting their funding or getting them fired.

I think I was most struck by the unintended irony of Daniels’ emails. He rants about indoctrination while trying to control what students read and see. (I guess it’s only propaganda when its done by someone with whom you disagree.) A Governor who talked endlessly about “limited government” and “freedom” when he was pushing his economic agenda evidently had a very different approach to the marketplace of ideas. (It’s sort of like those “family values” guys who frequent prostitutes and play footsie in airport restrooms.)

Bottom line: the politician as hypocrite and wanna-be autocrat are one thing.

Allowing someone who is so clearly contemptuous of the very purpose of education to lead a great university is an absolute travesty.