Sunday, September 17, 2006

So what if college faculties skew liberal?

....asks Michael Berube in a New York Times article.

After all, he argues, students should expect to feel uncomfortable about their beliefs as a matter of course. So what if liberals are disproportionately represented among the professors?

For starters, because it cheats the students. We all have biases. If we spend most of our time with colleagues that share our views, we get intellectually flabby. Berube cites a study in which in which there are only three times as many self declared liberals as conservatives among college professors.

Now, if he knew any Republicans in his department, they might ask him: Aren't self-declared liberals rarer than self declared conservatives these days? Don't they represent approximately the leftmost 20% of the American political spectrum, while self-declared conservatives represent the rightmost 30% of the political spectrum? And what about the professors who happily describe themselves not as Liberal, but "far left?". Eyeballing the chart they look like about 5% or more of professors, while I expect the number of Americans that describe themselves that way is somewhat less than sampling error.

If he had that advantage, he would need, if intellectually honest, to come up with some reasonable answer to those objections. And his arguments would be the stronger for it.

If you haven't had much exposure to the best arguments of the other side, you have a tendency to depend on being right for the wrong reasons. "Oh poohpoohpooh. Higher marginal tax rates decreasing growth? That's just silly. I just don't see how that could be true."

There are good reasons to argue for more progressive taxation, but this isn't one of them. Someone that rubbed elbows with people from the other end of the ideological spectrum a little more often would know that.

And there are probably good reasons why people from the leftish side of the political spectrum would prefer to work in the closest thing America offers to a government subsidized Worker's Collective with excellent job security, and why aspiring capitalists would rather do something else. That doesn't explain why the liberal tilt in universities is increasing over time.

Berube argues that there's no evidence that liberals are "actively conspiring to keep dissenting voices off the faculty roster". Surely that's a rather low bar. "Well, we didn't have a formal conspiracy to keep out people that thought differently from us. It just mysteriously sort of happened that way, and more and more each year. We didn't keep minutes or anything. It was just obvious that anyone 50 degrees to the left or right of us was an unreasonable person that didn't deserve tenure. That's fair isn't it? Because we're where the center of gravity in American politics would be if Americans weren't temporarily deluded. Surely every reasonable person agrees. Or at least every one I know."

4 comments:

Retired Tourneyer said...

I agree with most of this, except:

"And there are probably good reasons why people from the leftish side of the political spectrum would prefer to work in the closest thing America offers to a government subsidized Worker's Collective with excellent job security, and why aspiring capitalists would rather do something else. That doesn't explain why the liberal tilt in universities is increasing over time."

Why not?

In any case, I'm more interested in other questions: Are the students graduating from these liberal bastions with built-in liberal biases? If so, why does America seem to be getting more conservative as the proportion of college-educated voters increases?

Will McLean said...

Is America getting more conservative? I don't see it, myself. The proportion of self-described liberals to conservatives has been surprisingly steady since the late sixties.

Some trends, like marginal tax rates, have gone towards the conservative position. Others, like acceptable sexual behavior and sex roles, have gone the other way.

The Republicans have been doing well lately, but that isn't the same thing. Bush supports a major new entitlement program? How conservative is that?

Steve Muhlberger said...

More on this:

http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2006/09/kai_kassai_beru.html

Will McLean said...

And more here:

http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2006/09/whats_liberal_a.html