Friday, 3 December 2004

Back to the academic bias well

Greg Ransom and Glenn Reynolds are among those linking to Jeff Jacoby’s Boston Globe column on a survey conducted on behalf of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni that indicates that students perceive bias in the classroom environment at elite liberal arts colleges and universities; a similar perspective appears today at

Is political bias a problem in American college classrooms? If so, am I part of the problem?

Among the findings of the ACTA survey:

* 48% report campus presentations on political issues that “seem totally one-sided.”
* 46% say professors “use the classroom to present their personal political views.”
* 42% of students fault reading assignments for presenting only one side of a controversial issue.

The survey also indicates that political comments are consistently partisan. The survey, which was conducted just before and after the American presidential election, found that 68% of the students reported negative remarks in class about Pres. George Bush while 62% said professors praised Sen. John Kerry. ...

74% of students said professors made positive remarks about liberals while 47% reported negative comments about conservatives.

One wonders, somewhat, about issues of question wording (for example, if we invite a third-party presidential candidate to speak on campus, does that constitute a “totally one-sided” presentation?) and selection (what percentage of students said professors made negative remarks about Kerry or praise of Bush?). The lack of a straightforward report on the survey on the website is troublesome, to say the least, and I’m not sure you can infer much based on an average of 12 or 13 interviews per college, particularly without knowing the mode of interview or how interviewees were selected.

Nonetheless, there are a few noteworthy issues here worth discussing; first, course readers like the one I use for my introductory American government class rarely include articles supporting both sides of a particular issue, and I can’t assign a “conservative” reading on campaign finance reform if the only one in the book is from The Nation. Nor, for that matter, can I assign a “liberal” reading on homeland security, since the ones in the book are both from The Economist. Should I include a reading from David Duke to offset the pro-civil rights articles? At some point, balance becomes silly.

Second, the perception that the “job” of the liberal arts college professor is to indoctrinate students in political liberalism, rather than guiding students to knowledge through justified true belief and promoting the ability to think critically about conflicting ideas and values, is distressingly common on college and university campuses. A friend (and fellow Ph.D. student) and I once talked about the problem inherent when people who teach political science don’t even consider the political views of one of the two major parties to be legitimate.

All that said, I’m damned if I know what the solution is. Replacing liberal ideologues who can’t keep their lectures and their leftism separate with right-wingers with similar faults is no solution. Nor is a witch hunt against professors who, after all, are human and—over the course of 100+ hours of lecturing a semester—are probably going to say at least a couple of things that reflect something other than the objective material of the class. I like to think I do a good job balancing these things (one of the best compliments I’ve ever received teaching was from a bright student who “couldn’t figure out” what I was), but I also know I don’t always succeed.


Any views expressed in these comments are solely those of their authors; they do not reflect the views of the authors of Signifying Nothing, unless attributed to one of us.

re: one of the best compliments….

That is the best compliment you could receive, and also a mark of professionalism.

Although I’m a Republiscum, I don’t take offense easily and can put up with a lot of left-wing cant. But I returned to college as an adult and was frankly shocked at more than a few well-regarded profs who seemed to view the lecturn as their personal campaign platform.

One history prof consistently gave 10 extra points on exams if students attended a left-wing lecture of his choice. I pointed out to him that I rather resented this for two reasons:

1. the older students (who were more likely to be conservative) also (overwhelmingly) had jobs and children and could not attend these lectures, even had they wanted to

2. I studied hard for my grade and did not appreciate his literally giving away grades to students who hadn’t worked as hard, but were willing to toady to his political preferences. Even had I been able/inclined to go to the lecture, the “grade-selling” was more than I could stomach.

Personally I see absolutely no reason for a prof to introduce his/her personal beliefs into a classroom discussion – it’s just plain unprofessional. I have taught and would never dream of doing this. By the same token, I don’t think we need to get overly twitchy if someone occasionally slips up.

On the other hand, the overwhelming predominance of liberal profs lends a ‘herd mentality’ to many interactions where many profs seem to feel that theirs is the only legitimate POV. As an adult student, I served on many academic and college committees and ended up being friends with several of my profs (after having completed the class, of course), so I saw both sides.

Several times, profs were visibly shocked to find I was a conservative – they had an almost visceral reaction that I found profoundly disturbing: finding that they had actually enjoyed interacting with a conservative (albeit unknowingly) it was as though all their cherished assumptions about conservatives had been turned upside down.

It made me happy I wasn’t still in the classroom with them, and I can’t say I ever viewed them in quite the same way. After all, I had known they were liberals all along, yet had enjoyed their company, regardless. My best and oldest friend is a quite liberal Democrat for Pete’s sake. It seemed an astonishingly parochial perspective for a teacher.

Robert’s observation about the more touchy-feely – my word, not his – the discipline, the more left-wing the profs, definitely held true in my llimited experience.


Successfully hiding your political orientation is an achievement, and a good sign, but it’s not the only way. I had a poli-sci prof at MIT who was a very liberal Democrat, and very open about it. He was also very fair. Conservatives were by encouraged to speak, along with everyone else; papers seemed to me to be graded fairly. When I’ve mentioned him at MIT College Republican meetings, others have reported the same impression. If every poli-sci professor were like him, I think that would be acceptable.

That said, I suspect that if a department has almost no conservatives, it’s easier for a professor to simply forget to take conservative positions seriously.

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