College: Why isn't it Fair and Balanced?

It's a well-known fact that academics tend to be much more liberal than the average professional. I remember reading a poll that the highest proportion of faculty campaign contributions to Republicans of any Ivy League school was at Princeton, where the faculty gave something like 17 percent (how's that for reliable fact reporting). The question that's gone unanswered is why.

Intellectuals on the whole, including writers, artists, thinkers, tend to be liberal. This has led many to infer that the more intelligent or intellectually engaged one is, the more likely one will be liberal, and hence that liberalism is somehow a more correct or thoughtful stance. But this is based on a faulty premise. The problem with this is that intellectuals are by no means necessarily smarter than their professional counterparts. Speak to someone who goes to an Ivy-League or equivalent school and you'll hear time and time again that the brightest people were routinely going into competitive high-paying competitive careers in business and finance. More discussion on the relationship between intelligence and intellectualism on Oren Cass's blog, here.

We could take the Arnold Schwarzenegger approach and say that intellectuals as a class don't do manly things, like build things, or make vital decisions, that they are "girlie men" who fear war, want to nurture the sick and needy, prefer peace and negotiation to conflict and aggression etc. - and hence become Democrats. But there are some better answers I think.

For one, take the free market. Intellectuals (the definition of which seems to me to be a worker whose product is not produced for the market) don't participate to the same extent as their professional counterparts in the market economy, and aren't rewarded as much when they do. Works of art, scholarly ideas, purely intellectual products don't command nearly as high a price in the free market as products that were specifically designed for the market. But the work that goes into producing a great painting or doing thorough research isn't any easier than the work it takes to produce something marketable. So it could be that intellectuals tend to be liberal as a matter of self-interest, because liberalism tends to de-emphasize the market, in which their efforts are rewarded less.

Another explanation is more psychological in nature, but I think it might have some credibility. Everyone's job affects their way of thinking, and hence to some extent their perspective on life. If you're an academic, your job is to constantly learn new things, and to think of new ways to categorize what we do know or explain what we don't know. If an academic is constantly required to learn new facts and new advancements in the field, they're going to naturally benefit from having as open and accepting an approach to new ideas as possible. It's possible that this approach is translated into openness and acceptance on the political front as well, which amounts to pluralism, multi-culturalism, multilaterism - all views that you would find in liberalism. The identification with liberalism in this case would be in some way due to force of habit.

Whatever the liberalism of academics is due to, it is not some kind of superior intellectual contemplation. As I wrote in a previous post, professors now, humanities included, are specializing in narrower and narrower areas of scholarship. Within the boundaries of their fields, they may be serving a very practical end, but when it comes to global pragmatism nothing much is required of them. I would not say someone with a PhD. who spends his or her life studying the literature of the Southern Caribbean is any more qualified to assess this country's political situation than someone who didn't end up thinking for a living, but went to college, did well, and pays attention to the what's going on in the world. In fact I'd say that the second person is probably more in touch with the whole range of issues that politics involves and thus can be expected to take the more thoughtful, intelligent position when it comes to politics.

(Note: this is not to say whether or not liberalism originates in deep thinking, just that the liberalism we see associated with professors does not originate from their qualities of thoughtfulness and learnedness.)

(Counterpoint: But political science professors surely are better equipped to assess political causes and effects than the layperson or the obscure academic specialist, and even political science departments are heavily left-leaning. Perhaps the other two factors are still at play here. Also, perhaps the schemes and dreams of the left have up until this point provided much more fodder for idealism. After all, if you're not going to actually be implementing any of your ideas isn't it more interesting to spend your time meddling in the possible, rather than the practical?)

1 comment:

Grobstein said...

I actually think political science professors and their ilk are especially poorly qualified to comment on and make decisions about current events. Research has shown that even hard scientists tend to become irrationally attached to theories that they came up with or were trained in (cf. Kuhn, right?). If practitioners of real science, a field we're (rightly) taught to revere for the strict empiricism of its "scientific method," can sometimes be distracted by fossilized ideology, what can be said for students of the fake sciences? Theories in political science and political theory are rarely truly falsifiable, and many (though not all) political scientists never do rigorous empirical research (you can think of them as dumb versions of String theorists). Therefore, it seems reasonable to expect that poli-sci types's takes on political events will be unduly inflected by unsubstantiated theory.

Take the war in Iraq: where you or I see a complicated, fairly unique problem balancing narrow security interests against our reputation abroad against whatever, etc., the poli-sci professor sees (maybe) The Wretched of the Earth or, if he's more up to date, The Clash of Civilizations or one of its faddish triplet brothers (McWorld, The End of History).