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Conservative Republicans in Wisconsin are attacking the university again. This time they are dressing it up as promoting “intellectual” or “ideological diversity.” They believe Wisconsin’s state universities are dominated by liberal professors who stifle alternative views and deny students a “balanced” education. They are threatening to cut funding unless campuses meet certain, undefined “metrics” about the number of conservative faculty and guest speakers.
This debate is another example of a conservative solution looking for a problem. Yes, universities have more politically liberal than conservative faculty. But this is not because of some nefarious plot to subvert the minds of our innocent youth. Life is much more complicated than the simplistic us vs them, faith based beliefs of the far right. There are many reasons why there are a more “liberals” in academia. There are many reasons why educated people tend to be more liberal. There are many reasons why today’s conservative dogma doesn’t compete well in the “marketplace of ideas” and thus does not get “taught.”
The sociologist Neil Gross provides the numbers in his book Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? He says 50 percent of professors describe themselves as being “left or liberal.” There are more liberals in academia than the general public. On the right, Gross estimates that economic conservatives comprise just 4 percent of academia, and that 23 percent of academics are social and pro-military conservatives. Conservatives are more common in engineering, economics, or business related fields. But according to Gross, conservatives are wrong about the causes of these numbers. His research indicates the primary reason for more liberals is “self selection.” People with more education tend to be more liberal. Academia is attractive to people with more liberal views. People with conservative views tend to go into other occupations like business, or the military, which have high percentages of conservatives.
There is little evidence of liberal indoctrination. Political ideology has little to do with most university courses. The political philosophy of the professor is simply not relevant. How do you inject “liberal bias” into mathematics, computer science, foreign language, physics, engineering, accounting, or many other university degrees? Obviously you don’t. There are only a few fields, like sociology and history, where a professor’s politics are likely to become apparent in the classroom. Even in these the professionalism of the professors mitigates against indoctrination. Conservative “concern” is not based in reality.
In those fields that are more subjective, involve interpretation, or political issues there is room for differences of opinion. But this does not imply indoctrination on the part of “liberal” professors. I know this from my experience as a student with a conservative, religious background. I engaged in many discussions with professors defending my beliefs. As I grew older, learned more, and experienced more of the world, I became more liberal. Knowledge tends to dispel dogma and mythology. For example, it is hard to maintain a belief in the good-guys-promoting-democracy interpretation of American history if you read beyond the text book. The facts about our many wars and what actually happened to Native Americans, slaves, women, workers and immigrants simply doesn’t support the conservative interpretation.
Many simplistic conservative dogmas are not factual and are dispelled by education. Professors of biology are not going to teach intelligent design or creationism because these beliefs are not accurate science. Genetics has refuted the far right religious positions on homosexuality. The world is not 6000 years old. Gene change over time though adaptation to environmental changes (evolution) is the driving force behind life on earth. It would be a disservice to students to teach these beliefs as fact. “Balance” is not the same as education. Unsubstantiated opinion, or religious belief, is not equally valid with factual knowledge.
The conservative concern for “diversity” is, of course, bogus. The advocates of “ideological diversity” on campus are the same reactionaries who have historically opposed equal access (that is diversity) for women and minorities. Conservatives as a group have opposed school integration and affirmative action. They have engaged in witch hunts to root out communists and “subversives” in academia, government, and Hollywood. Conservatives’ actions speak louder than words. Having already cut academic tenure and pay, “diversity” is another excuse for cutting the budget, especially for the liberal arts and social sciences, which conservatives oppose as not “job“ related.
Business oriented conservatives have long advocated for vocational training as the primary goal of education. They want education to provide the math, reading, and technical proficiency for workers to meet the needs of business. They do not want workers with the critical thinking skills, historical perspective, or independence to challenge the system.
All this is a part of the long standing anti-intellectual tradition in America. Higher education is seen as a threat to traditional values and main street virtues. But the debate over “real America” vs academia is a great campaign issue. It is guaranteed to fire up the religious right and the under educated jobless of the rust belt to vote Republican.
It is ironic that the conservatives who rant against “political correctness” now insist on injecting politics into education. We do not need indoctrination in education regardless of its political orientation. The people of Wisconsin need knowledge, skills, and critical thinking to prepare them for the challenges of the 21st century. They don’t need “ideological diversity.”