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.

Again on the leftward tilt of universities

Chris just commented on this extensively, but this topic seems to be all over the place (and I mentioned it earlier this week, however briefly). The Economist has an article as well by their “Lexington” on this issue of ideological bias in the universities. A quote:

This is profoundly unhealthy per se. Debating chambers are becoming echo chambers. Students hear only one side of the story on everything from abortion (good) to the rise of the West (bad). It is notable that the surveys show far more conservatives in the more rigorous disciplines such as economics than in the vaguer 1960s “ologies”. Yet, as George Will pointed out in the Washington Post this week, this monotheism is also limiting universities’ ability to influence the wider intellectual culture. In John Kennedy’s day, there were so many profs in Washington that it was said the waters of the Charles flowed into the Potomac. These days, academia is marginalised in the capital—unless, of course, you count all the Straussian conservative intellectuals in think-tanks who left academia because they thought it was rigged against them.

Bias in universities is hard to correct because it is usually not overt: it has to do with prejudice about which topics are worth studying and what values are worth holding. Stephen Balch, the president of the conservative National Association of Scholars, argues that university faculties suffer from the same political problems as the “small republics” described in Federalist 10: a motivated majority within the faculty finds it easy to monopolise decision-making and squeeze out minorities.

The more indeterminate the discipline, the more it tilts left.

Of course, I like the quote because it adds to one of my own pet theories: the more indeterminate the discipline, the more it tilts left.

There are some on the right that rather loudly oppose affirmative action in all its forms, except in academia, where they want some form of preferences for the right. This seems like a bad idea to me, and Chris said it better than I can below: “Replacing liberal ideologues who can’t keep their lectures and their leftism separate with right-wingers with similar faults is no solution.”

It’s not as much of a threat in my discipline, economics, as it is in other fields. As my Thought professor has pointed out at great length, the economic discipline has created a “little box” which it defines as theory. The box is supposedly used as a means of keeping ideas that aren’t fully explainable out of the body of theory. There’s also a nearly complete positive correlation in favor of those ideas that can be expressed using math. Again leading to my theory about how indeterminate a discipline is sets its leftward tilt.