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Intellectural diversity benefits every student

Bill Rinner | Friday, December 3, 2004

Recent studies on higher education have lent empirical evidence to the familiar notion that university professors tend to be overwhelmingly liberal. One survey of 1,000 professors in the humanities and social sciences found a seven-to-one ratio of Democrats to Republicans, which is twice the ratio as a similar survey indicated nearly thirty years ago. A more specific study of University of California-Berkeley and Stanford University found a 9:1 ratio, and junior faculty (assistant and associate professors) numbers discovered a whopping 183 Democrats and six Republicans, indicating the trend is self-perpetuating. Granted, party affiliation serves merely as a proxy for ideology, but it is a relatively accurate one nonetheless.

The leftward tilt of academia is about as certain as death and taxes, but this column can only begin to address the underlying causes behind the phenomenon. Experienced academics have offered more detailed explanations underlying the trend, ranging from Allan Bloom’s firsthand historical account to snide claims about the intellectual inferiority of conservatives. Duke University’s philosophy department chair Robert Brandon gained notoriety when he claimed conservatives are scarce in academia because stupid people are more likely to be conservative.

While this claim may seem plausible for those who wish to reaffirm their political stance with intellectual snobbery, it hardly scrapes the surface of the root cause. The most likely factor is that the choice between academia and the private sector leads to self-selecting distribution along ideological lines. When brilliant young college graduates decide between entering a market that will likely yield high monetary awards and trudging through five more years of graduate school with limited financial incentives on the horizon, conservatives are likely to follow the former route and liberals the latter. Exceptions certainly exist, as many liberals seek to reap the benefits of capitalism and many conservatives pursue careers as professors, but psychological trends certainly explain part of the distribution.

A more ominous explanation floated by activists bemoaning liberal gridlock is that the academy has developed an institutionalized bias that systematically discourages conservatives from entering their ranks in more than token numbers. Empirical studies will likely never yield conclusive proof that hiring or tenure committees routinely discriminate based on politics, but intolerance of conservative viewpoints or attempts at indoctrination do occur when Ivory Tower insulation creates an unbridgeable gap between students and teachers. When professors are comfortable enough to inject political rants into the classroom that hardly pertain to the course material, one can scarcely imagine what occurs behind closed doors.

Notre Dame is a small-time offender at worst, in my experience. By and large, professors respect viewpoints that conflict with their own and invite healthy disagreement inside and outside the classroom. I can scarcely claim that internal bias persists at the graduate and tenure-track levels due to my own inexperience, but most professors seem to accept the reality that conservative students are not an ignorable minority on campus.

As my undergraduate career winds down, I realize that I have expanded my own mind by seeking challenges to my political views. I can read Hayek, Friedman, and National Review in my spare time, but taking nearly two semesters of Rawlsian philosophy forces me to reconcile my opinions with robust opposition. Many conservative students lament taking classes from professors whose politics squarely diverge from their own, but they do not realize that understanding conflicting ideas gives them an upper hand in intellectual debates.

The strongest argument that professors should balance course materials between conservative and liberal analyses is that every student deserves to read and discuss works that directly conflict with their worldviews. If a student arrives at Notre Dame already revering Howard Zinn as a brilliant and accurate historian, then he or she could benefit from a class that teaches Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville. Put simply, if liberal academics hope for the success of students who share their politics, they should not merely spoon-feed familiar arguments but diversify their syllabus.

Mark Bauerlein recently penned an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Liberal Groupthink is Anti-Intellectual,” helping to facilitate a look in the mirror amongst those willing to view the reflection. He explains that “some fields’ very constitutions rest on progressive politics and make it clear from the start that conservative outlooks will not do.” The institutional atmosphere of many departments almost precludes the inclusion of conservative or libertarian views, so legislative action to balance departments would be entirely counterproductive.

Instead, academics who are serious about increasing the plurality of intellectual and political stances should encourage their counterparts to diversify the curriculum. Not only will conservative students realize that academia welcomes their opinions, but every student will be able to grapple with challenges that allow them to rethink and reaffirm their existing views.

Bill Rinner is a senior economics major. His column appears every other Friday. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.