Acedemia in Trouble
November 11, 2004 9:59 AM   Subscribe

Liberal Groupthink Is Anti-Intellectual is the catchy title of a thoughtful piece in the Chronicle Review, an offshoot of the Chronicle of Higher Education. While it may be an op/ed piece, it's interesting to hear Mark Bauerlein, an English Professor and Director at the NEA discussing the False Consensus effect and the Group Polarization Effect in the context of academia in America (and likely elsewhere). His wish? "An intellectual climate in which the worst tendencies of group psychology are neutralized."
posted by loquax (41 comments total)
Groupthink of any stripe is anti intellectual.
posted by rks404 at 10:03 AM on November 11, 2004

"Why does liberalism cluster in highly intelligent, highly educated people all over the country and all over the world?" obviously couldn't be because they're right...I know! Groupthink!

Man, you'd think that academics never argued with one another over anything. What a crock.
posted by dyaseen at 10:24 AM on November 11, 2004

For the past 4 years, Conservatives have controlled all 3 branches of government, all the major news media, and have gotten half of the popular vote. Defense of marriage amendments passed in 11 states. How are you still in danger from liberals? Christ, you can stop being "fair and balanced" now, it's not necessary to keep the pretense up after you've won.
posted by RylandDotNet at 10:29 AM on November 11, 2004

Professors cannot conceive that any person trained in critical thinking could listen to George W. Bush speak and still vote Republican.
posted by Stuart_R at 10:32 AM on November 11, 2004 obviously couldn't be because they're right...I know! Groupthink!

If you haven't recently spent time on a college campus, it's difficult to appreciate how entrenched liberal ideology is. The overwhelming liberal bias is bad for creativity and rational discourse. I consider myself a left leaning liberal but I personally would find it refreshing to have even a few rightists speak up in the academic environment without fear of a lynching from the liberal mob. Most keep quiet after their first shout down.
posted by sid at 10:42 AM on November 11, 2004

Conservatives and liberals square off in public, but on campuses, conservative opinion doesn't qualify as respectable inquiry.

He needs to brace that initial assertion with something, because as far as I can see in the public sphere the reverse situation obtains. I can't remember the last time I saw a liberal on television; nowadays the term is daubed onto anyone to the right of Ralph Reed; but an infosphere in which Alan Colmes is held up as some kind of leading progressive and Dan Rather can be called a pinko with a straight face is skewed so radically right it can only go in tight circles.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:45 AM on November 11, 2004

(er, make that "...left of Ralph Reed..." obviously.)
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:46 AM on November 11, 2004

From the article:
Hence, references to "right-wing think tanks" are always accompanied by the qualifier "well-funded."

Point of interest:

A quick search of Google, Left Index, and LexisNexis indicates that statement is bullshit, and that the supposed pejorative "well-funded" is used almost as often in reference to liberal think tanks as it is to conservative.

This was just a comparison of search hits, mind you, not an analysis of the texts. But, still, I feel confident in saying that was a bullshit overgeneralization. Wouldn't hold up on a "liberal" campus worth its salt, at any rate.
posted by Hildago at 10:51 AM on November 11, 2004

More than nine out of 10 professors belonged to the Democratic or Green party, an imbalance that contradicted many liberal academics' protestations that diversity and pluralism abound in higher education.

Liberal, of course, meaning a doctrine that embraces diversity and pluralism. Close minded segregationist, individualist professors are underrepresented!
posted by iamck at 10:51 AM on November 11, 2004

but on campuses, conservative opinion doesn't qualify as respectable inquiry.

You clearly have spent no time on the University of Chicago's campus. I got my bachelor's degree there, and believe me, while there were certainly a few liberals on faculty there, they were nowhere near as entrenched as the Straussians, and the cult of Allan Bloom. I know that this experience is not typical of an American university, but every time I see comments about "entrenched liberalism" amoung university faculty, it makes me laugh reflexively, as I remember my own experience in Hyde Park.
posted by psmealey at 10:54 AM on November 11, 2004

Sorry, I meant "he" and not "you" on that one.
posted by psmealey at 10:59 AM on November 11, 2004

More than nine out of 10 professors belonged to the Democratic or Green party, an imbalance that contradicted many liberal academics' protestations that diversity and pluralism abound in higher education.

The cause-and-effect of statements like this always confused me. Personally, I believe it takes a certain kind of person (charitable, munificent, uninterested in making money and other capitalist pursuits, desirous to help those less fortunate, etc) to want to become a teacher, and that kind of personality has a high correlation with liberalism.

Every University strives for intellectual freedom and ideological diversity, and I find it difficult to believe that department chairs would refuse to hire an otherwise qualified candidate simply because of their politics. Statements like the one above make it seem like there is a phalanx of conservative professors out there banging on the door to the ivory tower while liberal profs dump blood on them from the balcony and shout "meat is murder!" I don't think that's the case; I think the applicant pool self-selects for liberalism, and the fact that 9 out of 10 professors are liberal merely reflects the fact that 9 out of 10 aspiring professors are liberal.
posted by ChasFile at 11:11 AM on November 11, 2004

At a school typically considered to be as liberal as they come, conservatives are no doubt a minority — but they're a vocal one. I have never taken any class without at least a conservative or two who were more than willing to speak their mind. The opinions columns in the school paper have been dominated by conservative ideologies, particuarly the issue of "academic diversity" (i.e. hiring more conservatives).

It really makes me wonder, though. If 9 out of 10 humanities professors are liberal (which I accept), what does the hiring field look like? I would imagine that probably 90% of the potential hirees would self-identify as liberal. Doesn't the argument essentially call for affirmative action for conservatives, then?

And what dyaseen said. Surely, level of education and liberalism correlate not because liberalism is an enlightened view, but because universities are just brainwashing centers for the liberal agenda. Definitely the most obvious explanation.
posted by rafter at 11:16 AM on November 11, 2004

On post, what Chasfile said.
posted by rafter at 11:17 AM on November 11, 2004

Rule #1: never trust anyone who considers themselves "enlightened."
posted by jonmc at 11:19 AM on November 11, 2004

If you can't be right, you can at least be loud.
posted by rushmc at 11:20 AM on November 11, 2004

Rule #2: Never trust anyone who denies the potential for "enlightenment."
posted by rushmc at 11:21 AM on November 11, 2004

What a stupid article! And from so prestigous a magazine/journal!!
note this:"...among humanities and social-science faculty "..why not poll all discipliesn? Because those in Engineering, Business, physical Education, Administration, Nursing Science would make utter nonsense of the entire claim! Those in the Arts and those in the humanities are generally more outspoken, write to papers etc--but there are as many faculty in those disciplines NOT polled that are very conservative...I know this from some three faculty strikes I have witnessed or been part of at a university.
posted by Postroad at 11:23 AM on November 11, 2004

Actually, a good friend of mine served as the Departmental Student Representative here, which meant that when Queen's wanted to hire a new prof, he was responsible for representing the student voice.

There were a lot of petty reasons people were rejected - so-and-so once had an argument with them, their research was considered a dead end, etc. One of the big issues was how well they would "gel" with the rest of the department politically and socially. You don't want screaming matches between professors or bitter feuds that split the department, after all.

I'm personally inclined to believe that academia is to the left of the mainstream, and that this is not because of their "superior intellects" or whatever. I also don't much care. Conservatives run the US government, and a bunch of intellectuals speaking ill of them shouldn't be a major issue. Conservatism should give up this "We're under siege from all sides!" mentality and be more gracious to the other side.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 11:27 AM on November 11, 2004

rushmc, your distaste for me has overwhelmed your logic. I don't deny the possiblity of enlightenment, merely posited the idea that if you consider yourself enlightened, you probably aren't.
posted by jonmc at 11:29 AM on November 11, 2004

What Postroad's cherrypicking to only look at humanities and social sciences.

There's also a network of Conservative Foundations and Thinktanks that disseminate their views very widely, much more so than if they were in academia.
posted by amberglow at 11:30 AM on November 11, 2004

I think he is very right that the structure of humanities and social science is predicated on certain interests. At my university, for instance, there is more support in the history department for social history, cultural history, race history and gender history than for political history or economic history - actually, it's less about being liberal vs conservative than being old fashioned vs ground breaking. Non-European political history, for instance, is well respected; European, especially British, is overdone. Notably, there is a (yes, well-funded) centre for international and area studies which supports very traditional political science, and political history, while the economics department supports traditonal economic (as opposed to social economic) history. And I don't know whether the economics department would support any left-wing economics research. (I don't know the department well, but there are certain assumptions that are very strong in the field.)

However, I think it is unfair to say that this means the work is automatically biased. The questions are not what a conservative might ask, but the answers can be just as true. I know this is how my work relates to that of more conservative economic history. They ask "how does national economic growth happen through modernisation" - I ask "what effect does economic modernisation have on quality of life among the poor, as well as among the middling and upper classes." I don't disagree with their work, but I feel like it only tells part of the story - just as mine only tells part; both are equally valid, but you have to be aware of the interests in each.

Bias is when you falsify the truth to suit what you want. This is (in my mind) an academic crime. But, after attending two different liberal universities, I have never seen this. I would be appalled if I did. I have met conservative students who held beliefs that were factually incorrect - such as that the US has a higher rate of social mobility than other places in the developed world. I have met a conservative professor whose work I respected for pointing out the lacunae and certain assumptions in left-wing research on charity and poverty, but whose own understanding of state based social welfare was based on his limited experience of being a rich American, with no research to support it.

I think that it is important for left wing intellectuals to take on criticisms of their research - but that does not mean they have to agree. Sometimes they are right. There are no two equal sides to the debate on global warming - there is the one supported by the majority of scientists, and there is one supported by economic interests. When social psychologsts study sterotypes, they have statistical data to show that stereotypes of race do affect how people perceive others and themselves. Sociologists can show with rigour the effect of race or poverty, etc on your access to opportunity - that the Western world is not a fully functioning meritocracy. Also - there is a damn good reason most academics don't read someone like Fukuyama - the man is wrong about the way history works - maybe you noticed that history didn't stop when communism fell, and funny enough, history predates the cold war too. I don't reald leftist crackpots either.

But with social issues, it largely depends on the questions asked - often neither side is completely right or wrong, but they ask completely different questions, and, because studying society always brings in an element of morality or ideals on how to improve, they have very different ideas of what is moral or a better society.
posted by jb at 11:36 AM on November 11, 2004

I don't think the point of the article is to say that universities are "Liberal brainwashing centres" or that conservatives are actively denied a voice. In fact he even says:

No active or noisy elimination need occur, and no explicit queries about political orientation need be posed. Political orientation has been embedded into the disciplines, and so what is indeed a political judgment may be expressed in disciplinary terms.

The point is not even the evils of the "Liberal agenda", or that conservatives are under attack, just the danger of intellectual insulation from those that disagree, whether it's purposeful or a slow, steady psychological process, which is what he is arguing. He's not saying that higher learning is a threat to conservatism, but that universities run the risk of becoming irrelevant and completely out of touch with demographic and political realities. Again, not out of "bias" but out of the psychology of the group and the constant positive reinforcement of a certain set of values, no matter what side of the spectrum they happen to be on. You could easily make the same argument about the media or the administration or the NRA, if you wish.

At the same time, he doesn't call for quotas or mass layoffs:

we can't open the university to conservative ideas and persons by outside command. That would poison the atmosphere and jeopardize the ideals of free inquiry

Instead he puts forward that by surrounding academia in agreement on common assumptions, chances for constructive engagement, learning and debate are missed.

The crux of the argument is this:

There are no administrative or professional reasons to bring conservatism into academe, to be sure, but there are good intellectual and social reasons for doing so.

Those reasons are, in brief: One, a wider spectrum of opinion accords with the claims of diversity. Two, facing real antagonists strengthens one's own position. Three, to earn a public role in American society, professors must engage the full range of public opinion.

I find it difficult to argue with any of those three points.

Incidentally, I agree that some of his assertions may be exaggerated or lacking in foundation, at least in this piece, but this isn't a research paper, and I think the main thrust of the argument is not lost.
posted by loquax at 11:46 AM on November 11, 2004

Holy crap! Those goddamn niggers want me to call them "African-Americans" instead of "Black people." MY FREEDOM OF SPEECH IS BEING OPPRESSED - MY CREATIVITY IS BEING STUNTED. OH, WOE IS ME!
posted by Veritron at 11:56 AM on November 11, 2004

Veritron, mommy and daddy didn't show you enough attention, did they?
posted by jonmc at 11:58 AM on November 11, 2004

Yet while the lack of conservative minds on college campuses is increasingly indisputable, the question remains: Why?

My good sir, you have just answered your own question.
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 12:04 PM on November 11, 2004

loquax has it spot-on.

This is sort of a separate but similar case of what, IMO, goes on in a great deal of newspapers and local newsrooms. I mean, sure, the guys at the top of the corporate ladder for NBC, CBS, etc are probably going to be conservatives. But the rank and file reporters and editors tend to be:
1. College educated people and,
2. People that selected their career because they felt a need or a calling to change the world for the better
Feeling called to change things is, by definition, the opposite of conservatism. And in America today, that tends to result in leaning to the left. So there's no systematic "liberal control" of the media (just as there's no systematic conservative control), but the average individual working in the news media is substantially more likely to be liberal in outlook than the average American. I'm not saying this is good or bad, I just think it's how things happen.

On an anecdotal level, my brother in law is a producer for a Minneapolis local TV station and is fiercely liberal.

Is groupthink a necessary result of this situation? Of course not. But the dangers of it are going to be something that academics should be cautious of. Especially if, as several of you would seem to agree, intellectuals tend to self-select towards the left. And even if this only holds true in the humanities, then it's still something the humanities should be cautious of. And yes, going "look, intellectuals are liberals because liberalism is an enlightened view and intellectuals are enlightened" is, uh. Sort of a groupthinky sort of thing to say.

Finally, something only tangentially relevant, but funny: my history prof today related a story in class. He told us about meeting with Harry Truman for an interview when said prof. was an undergrad, mentioning the word "republican," and having Truman stand up, pound the desk, and say "Republicans! Every last Republican is a fucking god damn liar!" Which made me (and everyone else in the lecture hall) laugh.
posted by kavasa at 12:12 PM on November 11, 2004

All that said - there's a sort of sense in his essay that this wasn't the case before doesn't hold any water for me. Go back 50 or 100 years and the prestigious universities were, I would say, staffed in large part by conservatives. Clearly, this isn't a permanent situation, and it's quite probably not as dire as he paints. But to deny that its even an issue or a danger is just putting on blinders.
posted by kavasa at 12:20 PM on November 11, 2004

kavasa, the conservatives of 100 years ago were more liberal than most of the liberals you could meet today in a lot of ways (if not w/r/t race and gender.)

In my mind the situation is that the GOP is *not* a conservative party at all. GOP rhetoric is specifically anti-intellectual. GOP foriegn policy is very, very radical. GOP domestic policy may or may not exist. The GOP does not debate, it says 'Shut up.' If the GOP was still a 1950s-60s era "conservative" party, there would be a lot of Republicans on campus. As it happens the GOP is the party that is most notable for it's inability to allow dissent. Or homosexual rights, or equal protection under law and a lot of other things. Many people that I know vote for the GOP specifically because they do not like the intellectual nature of the Dems. They do not get farther than that.

The Dems are not a liberal party anymore, either, but they do know how to listen. They do try to be transparent. They are intellectual and they don't try to hide it. Their domestic and foreign policies are a result of a lot of thought and debate. They have a lot of very, very smart people working for them. They do not ever say "Shut up." As noted above they are the big tent party. They want 'perfect' justice. They strive for a good life for as many people as possible. This is why professors like them. They feel that if the Dems are given the power then we will have the best minds on our biggest problems and so they vote for the Dems.
posted by n9 at 12:54 PM on November 11, 2004

Absolutely fantastic article. Forget just for a nano-second all you liberal/conservative obsessive people, and see how well this article articulates human behaviour:-

the False Consensus Effect. That effect occurs when people think that the collective opinion of their own group matches that of the larger population. If the members of a group reach a consensus and rarely encounter those who dispute it, they tend to believe that everybody thinks the same way.

the Law of Group Polarization. That law as Cass R. Sunstein, a professor of political science and of jurisprudence at the University of Chicago, predicts that when like-minded people deliberate as an organized group, the general opinion shifts toward extreme versions of their common beliefs. In a product-liability trial, for example, if nine jurors believe the manufacturer is somewhat guilty and three believe it is entirely guilty, the latter will draw the former toward a larger award than the nine would allow on their own. If people who object in varying degrees to the war in Iraq convene to debate methods of protest, all will emerge from the discussion more resolved against the war.

Sounds like MetaFilter to me.....many of the posts above smack of the "who? me??!" guilt.
posted by SpaceCadet at 1:06 PM on November 11, 2004

Just as Clinton had his "Sister Soulja" moment, when he sent a none-too-subtle coded message to certain extremists that they weren't going to get a blank check from him, I wonder if the Repubs are going to do the same -- and if so, if it'll be their moderate "extreme" that they shut down or their other, radical right extreme. Considering the visit-to-the-woodshed-cum-bitchslap Specter appears to have received in the last week, I'm not hopeful it'll be the latter.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:34 PM on November 11, 2004

rushmc, your distaste for me has overwhelmed your logic.

What distaste is that? I think the logic of my statement stands—if it doesn't apply to you, all the better.
posted by rushmc at 1:44 PM on November 11, 2004

This election proved the power of cultural politics -- I fully expect we'll start seeing conservative state politicians forcing, on pain of budget elimination, departments of their state universities to diversify their faculties. Once Republicans know that two thirds of the new humanities appointments at "red" state universities are going to them, they'll start to pursue more humanities PhDs, a virtuous cycle.
posted by MattD at 2:28 PM on November 11, 2004

This election proved the power of cultural politics

All this election proved is that we are split down the middle:

God and the Electorate by Virginia Postrel

Have religious issues become more important in politics because too few Americans go to church?

...First, there are actually two important voting decisions - not just
whom to pick but whether to vote at all. Candidates need to get their
voters excited enough to come to the polls (or possibly to give
money). Extreme positions can do that.

But positions that energize your base may also encourage the
opposition to come out against you. That's where the second part of
the model comes in. Candidates need a way to target their messages so
their supporters are more likely to respond than their opponents.

That's where social groups like churches and unions come in. These
groups provide friendly forums for candidates' direct or indirect
messages. While outsiders may know something about a candidate's more
extreme positions, group members know more - because the messages are
aimed specifically at them.

"When I go out and say, 'I want to tax all the rich and I want to end
outsourcing,' I can give that message to an economically left-wing
audience without the economically right-wing audience hearing it with
exactly the same probability," Professor Glaeser said. "All you need
is some ability to target your message, and then you're going to go to

Those in-group forums work, however, only if the groups are just the
right size. They have to be small enough to be homogeneous and big
enough to be influential. "The model has this very odd prediction that
the power of social groups is most when they're roughly 50 percent of
the population," Professor Glaeser said.

If a group is too small, it's not worth courting. But if it's too big,
it includes too many of your opponent's supporters, making targeted
messages impossible. If everybody goes to church or belongs to a
union, membership in either group will not predict voting behavior.

"This is exactly what you see in the data," Professor Glaeser said.
"The degree of polarization around religious issues is greatest in the
places that are in the middle. It's not the Philippines, which are 100
percent religious, and not Scandinavia, where no one has attended a
church in 40 years except for a wedding or a funeral. It's really
these places like the U.S. that are in the middle."

Similarly, in states like South Carolina where most people go to
church regularly, whether someone attends church does not predict how
he or she will vote.

During the period studied, about 62 percent of South Carolina voters
attended church at least once a month, but the churchgoers were only 4
percent more likely to vote Republican. In California, by contrast,
only 38 percent reported monthly church attendance, and they were
about 11 percent more likely to vote Republican.

The same is true for changing church attendance over time. In the
1970's, 57 percent of Minnesotans attended church at least monthly,
and churchgoers and nonchurchgoers split their votes about the same
way. By the 1990's, only about 45 percent of Minnesotans were regular
churchgoers. About 40 percent of them voted Republican, versus 23
percent of nonchurchgoers.

There is a center in this country but when we are divided so evenly between religious and secular, it has no power. Just remember, 51% =| 98%
posted by y2karl at 3:04 PM on November 11, 2004

What the article and everbody said. And more.
posted by semmi at 3:48 PM on November 11, 2004

If there remains a center in this country, it is strangely quiet.
posted by rushmc at 4:51 PM on November 11, 2004

It's the Wealth, Stupid - Right-wing class warfare swung the 2004 election

Pundits blow hot air. Political scientists crunch numbers. On his blog Polysigh, my favorite political scientist, Phil Klinkner, ran a simple exercise. Multiplying the turnout among a certain group by the percent who went for Bush yields a number electoral statisticians call "performance." Among heavy churchgoers, Bush's performance last time was 25 percent (turnout, 42 percent; percentage of vote, 59 percent). This time out it was also 25 percent—no change. Slightly lower turnout (41 percent), slightly higher rate of vote (61 percent).

Where did the lion's share of the extra votes come from that gave George Bush his mighty, mighty mandate of 51 percent? "Two of those points," Klinkner said when reached by phone, "came solely from people making over a 100 grand." The people who won the election for him—his only significant improvement over his performance four years ago—were rich people, voting for more right-wing class warfare.

Their portion of the electorate went from 15 percent in 2000 to 18 percent this year. Support for Bush among them went from 54 percent to 58 percent. "It made me think about that scene in Fahrenheit 9/11," says Klinkner, the one where Bush joked at a white-tie gala about the "haves" and the "have-mores": "Some people call you the elite," Bush said. "I call you my base."

So they proved to be. The two issues he mentioned in his post-election press conference had nothing to do with succoring God-fearing folk; instead he mentioned only "reforming" the tax code, and "strengthening" Social Security—issues of particular concern for the haves and the have-mores.

What about gay marriage? Even here the results prove inconclusive. The Diebolds had hardly cooled before Clinton operatives leaked to Newsweek that if only the Democratic campaign had listened to the 42nd president—who urged Kerry to come out in favor of the 11 state anti-gay-marriage initiatives—the Democrats would have won. Tina Brown contributed the thought the morning after the election that advances in gay rights were "the trade-off for 45 million Americans without health care." But Klinkner ran a regression analysis comparing his 2000 and 2004 totals by state, and it suggested that though the measures didn't hurt Bush, they didn't help him either. "If anything," he writes, "Bush's vote was a bit lower than expected in states that did have such a measure on the ballot."

posted by y2karl at 5:06 PM on November 11, 2004

Um. What does all that have to do with the linked article?
posted by loquax at 5:12 PM on November 11, 2004

God knows the Engineering students at the University of Alberta are about as left-wing as... something not very left-wing at all, but witty.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:42 PM on November 11, 2004

piss off y2karl, please. Your copy-and-pastes have zero to do with the (excellent) article on liberalism in academia.
posted by SpaceCadet at 12:28 AM on November 12, 2004

wanders into the empty room.

exclaims: wow. great article!

realises everyone left a week ago. eats half a stale cookie. leaves.
posted by andrew cooke at 4:51 AM on November 21, 2004

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