Leaning Left in Academia

The Thinker by Rodin

From yesterday’s Washington Post:

College faculties, long assumed to be a liberal bastion, lean further to the left than even the most conspiratorial conservatives might have imagined, a new study says.

By their own description, 72 percent of those teaching at American universities and colleges are liberal and 15 percent are conservative, says the study being published this week. The imbalance is almost as striking in partisan terms, with 50 percent of the faculty members surveyed identifying themselves as Democrats and 11 percent as Republicans.

The disparity is even more pronounced at the most elite schools, where, according to the study, 87 percent of faculty are liberal and 13 percent are conservative.

Is this a surprise? Not to me it isn’t. Aside from the fact that most college professors and I share a lot in common politically, this is really one of those no duh sort of news stories. Because of course there is a rather natural correlation between education level and liberalism. And as long as our education levels mean something, it’s going to stay that way.

Why? Because you don’t become a learned professor by being a simpleton. You have to look at things from many points of view. You quickly learn that things are not simple at all. Rather the world is a very complex place. That is the perspective you are almost certain to have if you survive the ordeal of completing a PhD. If you want to take your PhD and become a college professor then you are expected to continuously expand your knowledge and research your subject area. If you make it to the ranks of tenured professor without being able to win any debate on its merits something is seriously wrong.

I hate to break it to most conservatives but they are not exactly embracing of the world’s complexity. Rather they see simple solutions as a general panacea to complex problems. Conservatism is not about embracing change, it’s about keeping things simple and ideally identical to the way things were before. (Note: neoconservatives are not conservatives. They sure aren’t liberal but they definitely are okay with the idea of change.) Liberalism is about understanding existing models and either improving them or finding better models that solve a broader set of problems.

If you have a PhD you are not going to arrive there embracing the notion that your area of study requires no further research. Instead you are going to be predisposed to try new things and experiment in new areas of both basic and applied science. If you have a PhD not only are you learned, you are curious by nature. You are not cut from the common mold; you embrace your uniqueness and revel in your intellect. And as a scholar you naturally want to be an agent for change. Liberalism is simply a philosophy of embracing change in ways that advance the quality of life of mankind. It’s really a wonder that only 72 percent of college professors describe themselves as liberal.

This is not a problem that needs to be fixed. Embracing quotas for college professors based on their political ideology would be a stupid idea, unless of course you think promoting incompetence and stifling curiosity are good ideas. One thing is for sure: people married to the past didn’t accomplish mankind’s greatest advances. They believed in the future and they believed in the power of positive change. They learned from experience that tolerance was a virtue and that to seek out different points of view was invigorating. Good ideas, like steel, improved with refinement.

So let’s be thankful that we have so many liberal professors. Without them we would be in an academic dark age.