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February 15, 2004

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» Academic Bias from Matthew Yglesias
John Holbo notes that it's simply not the case that a scan of an academic's professional work will typically tell you a great deal about his politics. He does so by citing examples of people who don't work on areas... [Read More]

» Elsewhere in the Blogosphere from Invisible Adjunct
(Or in that corner of the blogosphere that devotes itself to academic issues) Just a quick entry to briefly note a couple of posts: 1. John Holbo takes up "This whole conservatives in academia thing." 2. Robert "KC" Johnson responds... [Read More]

» Odds'n'Ends from Thoughts Arguments and Rants
After a small delay due somewhat to my work habits and somewhat to the lack of material to work with, the papers blog is up today. Adam Morton features two short papers on conditionals. There's an interesting discussion going on around the web about wh... [Read More]

» Blogroll addition and moonbat taxonomy from Ministry of Minor Perfidy
I have taken the liberty of adding John and Belle have a blog to the blogroll at right. As an introduction, here is an excellent post on This whole conservatives in academia thing. [wik] Speaking of conservatives: Via Volokh, I see that Kieran of... [Read More]

» Conservatives in academia from Crooked Timber
Just a pointer: be sure not to miss John Holbo’s post on conservatives in academia and Belle Waring’s memoir of one she knew in the Berkeley Classics Department.... [Read More]

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Comments

Brian Weatherson

You're right that a quick glance at a CV won't tell you much about people's politics. Nor will reading through their papers. But before hiring someone you normally talk to a lot of people about that person, what they'd be like as a colleague etc. (Or at least I do.) And any surprising (i.e. strongly held not centre-leftish) political commitments will normally come out then. So if we wanted to discriminate, we could.

What you can't normally do is tell the political affiliation of someone before they enter grad school. Then you are just working off a paper trail, and a pretty small paper trail at that. In my (unscientific) observation, graduate students tend to lean more left-wing than faculty. And of course all hiring is from the pool of grad students. So I think (based on a vanishingly small observation!) most political discrimination (if there is any) takes place before applications to grad school are considered.

This isn't to say there couldn't be a problem. Maybe conservative undergrads get systematically biased references. That would be a very very bad thing. Or maybe conservative undergrads just don't want to spend 5 years in relative poverty in grad school. That's also possible, and I think more probable. But there are a lot more facts we'd need to know before making judgments on root causes.

Chun the Unavoidable

I don't know if this would be an example of confirmation bias or not, but Brian might think that graduate students are more leftist than professors because they are more leftist than he is.

If you make such a startling claim as "conservatives are often discriminated against the humanities," you really should try to support it, lest it be interpreted as mere sensationalism. I think it's far more likely for leftists to be discriminated against--are there watchdog sites for rightist academics, e.g.?

PZ Myers

And if Weatherson is actually correct, and grad students are more left-leaning than faculty, doesn't that suggest that there is some selection AGAINST leftists when hiring for faculty positions?

I've written a fair number of recommendations for students trying to get into grad school, and I have to say that I have far less knowledge of undergraduate political leanings than I do of past grad students. Even if I were to go on an active crusade to block the careers of young campus conservatives, I wouldn't have the information to do so. I know their grades. I know how well they write and discuss. I usually get a CV listing their various endeavors. I suppose if one mentioned being in the campus Republicans, I might see it -- but since I'm not on a crusade, it wouldn't be one of the factors I'd use in writing the rec.

Matthew

I was a conservative undergraduate philosophy major who will be a conservative graduate student in philosophy come fall. I certainly knew that I was often the minority opinion when in many of my ethics and political philosophy courses. However, I didn’t think that I was treated like I or my ideas were stupid. Professors often thought I was wrong, but it never affected our relationship or my grades. There were a few other conservative undergrads in our program but I’m the only one that chose to go to graduate school for philosophy. The others all chose seminary or law school. So I think the problem is much more one of self-selection. I think we’d see more conservatives in humanities if there were more interest in that as a career route. I don’t have any conservative friends who thought that the left bent of our professors was a real problem.

David Velleman

The field of philosophy is not a good test case. Our discipline has resisted the trends that have politicized other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Those disciplines have spent 10 - 15 years hiring "scholars" whose work is explicitly political -- primarily work inspired by identity politics of race and gender. Students may be getting straight philosophy in our courses, but in English and Anthropology and many other disciplines they are being force-fed a heavy diet of political doctrine.

This trend is due, in part, to the intellectual vacuum created by post-modernism. If there are no objective intellectual standards (which is what the post-modernists believe) then hiring may just as well be guided by the political sympathies of the recruitment committee -- in particular, by their desire to promote racial and gender equality. We therefore have an entire generation of tenured professors who were hired, not because their work was intellectually superior or even moderately good, but because it purported to uncover racism and sexism in previously unsuspected places, or to recover the cultural contributions of previously neglected minorities and women.

One can be a strong proponent of racial and gender equality and yet deplore the influence that identity politics has on these disciplines. One can be a feminist and still think that commitment to the cause of feminism is not a qualification for academic employment. One can be an anti-racist and yet deny that sloppy scholarship can be excused on the grounds that it serves the cause of fighting racism. Unfortunately, most of us have hesitated to draw these distinctions -- partly out of fear that we might undermine causes that we support, and partly out of fear that we might be labeled racists or sexists ourselves. Our hesitations have gravely endangered the independence of the academy.

I do not support any efforts to enforce ideological balance in universities. But I also believe that our grounds for resisting such efforts have been seriously undercut by the politicization of the academy over the past decade or two. The main reason for allowing us to govern ourselves in the academy is that we are applying intellectual standards that we are best qualified to apply. If we are not applying such standards , if we are instead hiring people because their work is feminist or anti-racist, then we lose our grounds for insisting on self-governance.

In any case, those who deny that academic hiring is political simply aren't looking in the right places. The point is not that recruitment committees are checking up on candidate's political party affiliation; the point is that explicitly political research programs are dominating many disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.

Chun the Unavoidable

Professor Velleman, a philosopher, should know better than to make hasty generalizations about things he apparently knows little about. No department anywhere (including those at Michigan) has hired strictly "identity theorists," and to describe research into race and gender as necessarily "political" and consequentially unworthy when what he means is that he doesn't like or understand it is not "A"-level argument.

While it may be true that some research on "neglected minorities" is intellectually inferior (as is, doubtless, some work on modal logic), it does not follow that it all is. Since the claim that all hiring in English and Anthropology is based upon this narrowly construed definition is obviously false, there is no reason to conclude that those scholars hired in these disciplines whose work does concern race and gender were hired for that reason alone rather than the intellectual merit of their work. (Another factor is always going to be the curricular needs of the department, but this is a different matter.)


Adam Kotsko

or to recover the cultural contributions of previously neglected minorities and women.

I'm not sure what's wrong with this. Surely part of the job of literature departments is to find more literature to assess and study. If certain factors other than literary quality have previously excluded certain works from serious study, then recovering them seems like a very good idea that will only enrich our knowledge and enjoyment of literature. Right?

No one accuses T. S. Eliot of having had a political agenda in recovering the metaphysical poets or the late Elizabethan playwrights (Webster, etc.) -- and no one accuses the early 20th-century literary scholars of having a political agenda for recovering, say, Melville.

They were neglected figures; they're good; let's read them. That's the "agenda." Instead of insisting on a closed literary canon, as though it's some kind of modern scripture, let's just read and study as much literature as we can get our hands on. And if you want to study the old stuff, that's cool, too -- there are Milton and Chaucer scholars aplenty.

In short, calm down.

David Velleman

I didn't say that departments shouldn't hire people who work on racism and sexism or the contributions of its victims. Those are worthy programs of research. Nor did I say that all such scholarship is inferior. I have no investment in defending the so-called canon, or in painting whole areas of scholarship with a single brush.

All I said is that departments have allowed themselves to appoint people, not because of the quality of their work, but because of its appeal to their (perfectly laudable) political commitments to fighting racism and sexism. Political correctness has been allowed to substitute for intellectual rigor.

These two responses to my posting display precisely the sort of knee-jerk hostility that confronts anyone who dares to question the agenda of race- and gender-politics in the academy. If you want to know why conservatives (of which I am not one) feel the atmosphere to be hostile, you need read no further.

Chun the Unavoidable

But this "those disciplines have spent 10 - 15 years hiring 'scholars' whose work is explicitly political -- primarily work inspired by identity politics of race and gender" (delightfully bitchy scare quotes there) and this "but in English and Anthropology and many other disciplines they are being force-fed a heavy diet of political doctrine" aren't kneejerk hostilities or anything.

I've always enjoyed this philosopher-king rhetorical strategy of being grossly inflammatory and then complaining about a lack of civility when someone responds (mildly) in kind.

And it's not a duumvirate; class is still kicking ass.

Neil

The question why certain areas are dominated by certain political views which (prima facie) are not directly relevant is an interesting one. But it certainly isn't the product (as David, and perhaps John suggest) of certain departments hiring along explicitly political lines because they are sceptics about truth. Po-mos are (mostly) confused about truth: they argue there is no such thing or any valid argumentative standards, but of course that's an incoherent thing to do. As this suggests, they don't live their scepticism, and they certainly don't hire on its basis: they hire on perceived quality of the candidates. That isn't to say that political agendas don't play a role, but the role is indirect: entering into assessments of quality of work and the selection of topics pursued.

I suspect that self-selection is almost the entire explanation of the political leanings of disciplines. Philosophy in Germany in the 1920s was a bastion of the far-right; I suspect that similar swings in orientation could be documented in other countries. And this kind of self-selection phenomenon is not limited to the humanities. Researchers at my old university (Monash, in Australia) did a study of the religious views of students. Belief in God was very much higher among science students than among humanities students or among the general population. More alarmingly, creationist views were well represented among science students - and remained just as strong after a one semester course on the evidence against creationism.

BTW John, though the day when the right dominates the academy might come, the day the left controls Fox never will. The right will always have the money; that's almost a platitude.

Adam Kotsko

I have yet to read a piece of literary analysis, no matter what the theoretical perspective, that concludes by saying, "And therefore, the House of Representatives should pass such-and-such a bill" or "Therefore, our highest priority should be making sure President So-and-so doesn't get reelected" or anything of the kind.

They are "politicized" to the extent that they advocate, in very big words with a lot of annoying allusions to French people, basic human decency. Let's try to make society less oppressive for women. Let's try to make it so that people aren't so grossly unequal in power. Let's try to make it so that people aren't dismissed or put at a disadvantage due to their race. Let's try to correct the inertia of past injustices and work toward a more just future. If people are part of specific cultural traditions that give them meaning, let's try not to impose another, supposedly better tradition upon them (within certain limits).

What exactly is supposed to be objectionable about the so-called "politically correct" agenda? Seriously! Are lit professors calling for an overthrow of the United States government? Are they even spending a lot of their time developing specific, detailed policies and then dogmatically insisting that everyone give lip service to them? I guess the closest we have to that is affirmative action, but even that is just an idea that can be implemented in a variety of ways (although conservatives like to pretend that it's always and everywhere implemented in the stupidest possible way, with quotas).

Adam Kotsko

These two responses to my posting display precisely the sort of knee-jerk hostility that confronts anyone who dares to question the agenda of race- and gender-politics in the academy.

I think that what you're thinking of isn't so much "knee-jerk hostility" as "fervent disagreement." "Knee-jerk hostility" would be something along the lines of, "Shut up, butt-nugget." Fervent disagreement would consist in saying that your argument is invalid and pointing out the reasons -- which was the actual response your posts generated.

Unless there's been a change in the rules of etiquette and it's now considered deeply rude to disagree with another person's opinion, especially in a forum specifically intended for the open discussion of controversial issues -- in which case, I'm terribly sorry.

David Velleman

My initial posting was "inflammatory" only to those who are inflamed by dissent from the political orthodoxy.

I invite you to visit the "faculty interests" page of the English Department at the University of Michigan:
(http://www.lsa.umich.edu/english/faculty/fib.asp)

By my count, the page lists 79 faculty members. Of these 37 -- very close to half -- list interests in minority literatures ("African American", "writers of "color", etc.), "post-colonial" literatures, "women writers" (none list "men writers"), gender, feminism, or sexuality.

Could there be a pattern here?

Chun the Unavoidable

A question for Neil: if I were to comment on an article about say, David Lewis, and start talking about how "Elusive Knowledge" is consistent with Plotinus's epistemology, at least I'd be making a lot more sense than whatever in the hell it is that you think "pomo" means. Can I blame David Stove for this?

Furthermore, the other professor was talking about identity politics, which is by no means synonymous with postmodernism, unless you just are using it as a catch-all term for whatever nonsense the larger and better-funded English departments propagate, stupid rich English departments.

Chun the Unavoidable

It's 2004, Professor Velleman. We've moved past only talking about Keats in a port-induced stupor. Jean Rhys, Ishmael Reed, and Chinua Achebe also get some attention nowadays.

Ted H.

I think there's an obvious and in its way 'innocent' explanation for why humanities departments skew left, and it's illustrated by my own recent experience.

A lifelong Democrat, I supported the war last spring (for more or less Paul Berman's reasons) and caught hell for that support from nearly all my academic colleagues at two institutions -- especially those with whom I had the most intellectually in common. My colleagues seemed to think I'd gone insane, and told me so regularly. At some point this past fall I changed my position on the war -- it was not only this barrage of criticism but realities in Iraq that wore me down -- and now colleagues and I talk pleasantly about politics nearly every day. Though it wasn't the reason I changed my mind (at least, it wasn't the normative reason!), no longer being a war supporter has made my professional life much easier.

The experience makes me wonder whether those on the left who think conservatives are merely whining when they complain about bias have any idea what it's like to hold a 'conservative' or 'right wing' view on campus. I tried (though I continue to insist that my support for the war was neither conservative nor right wing -- hence the scare quotes). I can attest that it leads your colleagues to worry you've lost your mind. This isn't only a political disagreement. To regain your colleagues' respect, you have to prove, again and again, that you haven't really "gone over to the dark side" -- a phrase I heard repeatedly.

Now that I am once again an angel of political light (i.e. an undiluted Bush-hater), I have to fight the temptation to put others in the position that I was in. The other day, a colleague said he'd heard the Kerry rumor on right-wing talk radio. "You listen to right-wing talk radio?" I asked incredulously? "Oh, merely to understand the enemy," he quickly replied. See? There I was reinforcing the assumption we all share -- that Republicans are not just wrong but crazy. It's second nature. Before my five or six months on the "dark side" I must have made this move several times a day.

No doubt the social conformity takes root in grad school, or even earlier, so there's no weeding out left to be done at the hiring stage...

What explains the phenonemon under discussion, then, is that learning how to converse with academics -- how to engage in their form of life -- is indistinguishable from learning how to demonstrate that one is not 'conservative' or 'right wing.' (The scare quotes give libertarians some wiggle room, since they aren't 'right wing' on every issue. Hence you do find libertarians in philosophy departments.)

It should be no surprise that many academics are willing to come right out with "conservatives are stupid." In an academic context, social anxiety comes packaged in the thought "I'd be an idiot to let them label me a conservative." Brandon's faux pas was just the anxiety talking.

P.S. In light of Leiter's post today, I hope Holbo will permit me to add this. Brian, please do not wonder aloud in front of the profession why I am "committing professional suicide" by admitting that conservatives have a point when they complain about bias against them. You may disagree with my characterization of our profession, but please do not express your disagreement by predicting that it will bring about my professional ruin. That sort of rhetoric makes the reality on the ground in philosophy departments look even worse than it is in this respect. In fact, I do not expect to get fired for writing this comment on Holbo's blog. Nor do I expect that the guy whom you were criticizing today -- with the substance of whose piece I do not at all agree, by the way (his argument was different from mine in crucial respects) -- will in fact meet the career death you so gleefully predicted for him simply by presenting a conservative perspective on academia. Things aren't that bad -- yet.

P.P.S. Hi David. Sorry to interrupt your debate with Chun with this off topic rumination. And don't worry. I'm really really really not a conservative or rightwinger. I swear. Andrea can back me up... ;)

P.P.P.S. Chun can call me whatever he likes. After all, he called me 'troglodyte' not too long ago. Let's see if he can top it.

Neil

Off topic now (every one but Chun please ignore). Chun, you should David Stove for many many things. He was exactly the kind of racist and sexist we do not usually encounter in humanities depts these days - and that's a good thing. I think there is a case for discriminating against anyone who thinks that women do not usually have the intellectual capacity to do academic work. As these remarks indicate, you can't blame DS for my views on what I called po-mo (which, I admit, I'm using as a catch-all term, for those views which deny that there is anything like truth or argumentative standards - the view that David had in his sights). I know this stuff from the inside out (I hope you noticed my qualifier before confused, BTW. Close reading is an important skill).I have an undergraduate degree in literary theory and a PhD in French philosophy. And believe me the general (notice qualifier) standard of debate on topics like truth and the criteria which must be met before we accept a truth-claim is abysmal. Clever philosophers like Foucault, who actually made important contributions to knowledge, are partly to blame, because he (and Derrida, and many others) is confused on this topic himself (in at least most of his work). Unfortunately quality control in continental philosophy is lax, which means that the standards are lower and clever people do work that is less good than it might be (because quality control enhances everyone's work, including the best: we all make mistakes, we're all confused sometimes, and we all benefit when this can be pointed out in ways we cannot help but accept). Second-hand continental philosophy, which has been swallowed by many humanities depts, is even worse precisely because the quality control is watered down further.

Chun the Unavoidable

I don't remember calling you a troglodyte, Ted. Are you a state legislator? (That was easy, eh?)

Neil, your conflation of "pomo" with theories of identity politics, which was based off of Velleman's remarks and which, if you didn't agree with (the conflation), you at least did not say so, was what I commenting on. Well, that and the whole no valid argumentative standards thing. I believe that the standards are lower in what's called "continental philosophy," but I also believe that they have to be if you're going to do anything broadly interesting. This is a structural consequence, not an intellectual defect.

I'm actually not much of a pomo or identity person at all, but I just can't stand to read my entire discipline being ignorantly slagged-off on the basis of chimerical versions of either (and my materialist speculation above on the true source of such slagging should not be passed over in silence).

I actually don't care much for postmodernism or many o

David Velleman

Just to clarify my early remark about the UM English Department. I was not counting faculty who listed an interest in writers who are, as it happens, women or members of minority groups. I was counting only those who listed an interest in "women writers" so described, or "writers of color" so described -- in other words, an interest in writers specifically on the grounds of their gender or race. Reading Chinua Achebe or Jean Rhys or Ishmael Reed is one thing; reading them because of their gender or race is another.

Neil

I don't see anything wrong with having a research interest in women of color (or whatever). There are several good reasons for such an interest: (1) we each need to find a patch of earth to cultivate, and Shakespeare and Milton have been done (2) it is permissible to wonder whether women members of other oppressed groups have been unjustly ignored in the past (esp since, whatever your views on truth, subjectivism in aesthetics is very plausible and respectable) (3) even in these enlightened times, most of the verbiage we consume comes from middle-class males and it is permissible to wonder whether other people might write from a viewpoint which is colored by different experiences. In any case, what's wrong with academic fashion? Today women of color might be in; is this any more objectionable than imaginative resistance in philosophy or evolutionary explanations in law and anthropology, or whatever? Each discipline has its fashions, doesn't seem anything wrong with that.

Chun the Unavoidable

I remember when they didn't have those silly designations because they didn't need them. Old-school English profs. were far too good of stylists to use "white" or "male" as adjectives to describe writers when they were redundant.

Sheesh

BTW John, though the day when the right dominates the academy might come, the day the left controls Fox never will. The right will always have the money; that's almost a platitude.

Come on, the Beatles don't have any money? Barbara S doesn't have any money? Leftists don't have any money. Guess Oprah just went broke too?

Anyway ....

Adam Kotsko

Reading Chinua Achebe or Jean Rhys or Ishmael Reed is one thing; reading them because of their gender or race is another.

Back in my English days, I was especially "into" British literature. In fact, virtually every paper I wrote in the department was over a British author. Initially, this was because particular authors appealled to me, but eventually I wanted to read authors "because they were British" -- that is, I had stumbled upon a logical grouping of authors through my love of particular authors, and then felt that I would be well-served by reading others who fall into the same group. My grouping was broader, perhaps, than those of your colleagues at U of M, but then, I was working on a bachelor's degree, not a PhD.

I agree with what I take to be your contention that we should not take race into account when judging works of art -- i.e., we shouldn't assume that a book is going to be good "just because" the author is Asian. However, due to historical circumstances beyond any of our control, concepts of race arose that caused certain broad groups of people to have very different social and economic positions (due almost entirely to their race) and thus to have very different experiences and to write from very different perspectives.

If I were in charge and I could go back, I would certainly make it so that that didn't happen and so that skin color or ethnic origin would be qualities as indifferent as hair and eye color now are. We can't start from that zero point now, however. Maybe some day we'll completely get over racism, and I hope we do -- but the way to get over racism is not by making thinly-veiled accusations that anyone who talks about race "as such" is a racist (such as, for example, implying that it is unacceptable to specialize in literature produced by people of a specific race).

bryan

"And if Weatherson is actually correct, and grad students are more left-leaning than faculty, doesn't that suggest that there is some selection AGAINST leftists when hiring for faculty positions?"

it could mean that old people are generally more conservative than young people. Perhaps there's some research on this somewhere, maybe some common folk wisdom stating that this is the case, something, anything? Well I'm probably way off base on that idea.


"The experience makes me wonder whether those on the left who think conservatives are merely whining when they complain about bias have any idea what it's like to hold a 'conservative' or 'right wing' view on campus. I tried (though I continue to insist that my support for the war was neither conservative nor right wing -- hence the scare quotes). I can attest that it leads your colleagues to worry you've lost your mind. "

Couldn't this be more like a socially imposed restriction to perceived personality.
I'm sure people who work with Glenn Reynolds don't give him that guff, because they know his opinions pretty well.
In your case your support for the war was outside the bounds of what was expected for your long demonstrated personality. Suddenly everyone was concerned, who is this strange pod person in chun's flesh? Has chun gone insane, he's not acting like chun.

Consider this, if a colleague was a tweed jacket wearing, pipe-smoking eng. lit. stereotype and one day he suddenly changes to a leather jacket sporting, harley-riding tough guy, you might be concerned that a neuron somewhere had short circuited. However, if he achieved this transformation over a reasonable length of time, or went away for a year and came back transformed, you might be more willing to accept the change. This example is of course one of costumary fashion, but perhaps the same thing holds true in shifts of ideological fashion.

Ted H.

"In your case your support for the war was outside the bounds of what was expected for your long demonstrated personality. Suddenly everyone was concerned, who is this strange pod person in chun's flesh?"

Just to clarify: it wasn't Chun's comment to which you were replying, Bryan. I am neither Chun nor unavoidable.

And while I wish your explanation were true, I'm sure it isn't. What explains my case is what explains the case recounted on Andrew Sullivan's blog this morning. ("You read the execrable Andy?" -- more data.) Why is it so common for an academic to look right into the eyes of a Republican student with whom she has worked for a long time and say with perfect sincerity that she doesn't know any of those awful Republicans? This happened to me repeatedly last spring -- substituting 'war supporter' for 'Republican' -- and I'm sure I'd put many others in the same position before those experiences awakened me to the insidious presumption.

Yes, I know, it's probably going to corrupt me, this newfound ability to feel conservatives' pain... My point is only that we academic lefties should not deny the basic accuracy of the complaint. I concede that conservatives often overdo it -- I agree with Leiter's assessment of the merits of Feser's argument, for example. (I merely wish he hadn't added that Feser is "committing professional suicide." That makes it look like things are worse than Feser's portrait.)

David Velleman

Those who are interested in a specific example of institutional hostility to conservative points of view might want to consider the case of Michigan's campaign for affirmative action. In an op-ed piece written for the Michigan Daily, I detailed some of the ways in which the UM administration managed to stifle dissent on that issue. The conservative views thereby silenced are not my views; but one needn't hold views in order to resent being pressured not to express them.

David Velleman

The list of faculty research interests in the UM History Department is here:

http://www.lsa.umich.edu/history/facstaff/

Out of 107 research profiles posted, 34 list an interest in "women" or "women's history", "gender", or "race and ethnicity". This count does *not* include historians whose primary interest is African-American history, Native American History, or American Latino History but who do not explicitly mention race or gender. If the latter were counted, the total would be 42.

A_Reader

"What exactly is supposed to be objectionable about the so-called "politically correct" agenda?"

The problem is that teachers who profess to be teachers and scholars of English literature are, at times, teaching sociology instead of literature (and I think literature in-and-of-itself is a worthwhile endeavor). The agenda to try to make society less oppressive for minorities is a good one, but the problem is that some Lit profs have substituted and/or conflated the dismantling of aesthetic and literary traditions with enacting social justice in the world outside of academe.

Holding up past literary works to a moral litmus test by judging them according to 21st century ideology is incredibly vacuous. It misses out on much of what literature has to offer to all of us. I'm all for broadening the canon with quality works by minority and other ignored authors (which has always been done)... what I'm not for is over-simply indicting Western literary tradition for their so-called evil, patriarchial ways and, futher, thinking this does any good for the legitimate cause of social justice in the contemporary world.


David Velleman

Unlike A_Reader, I am not criticizing any of this research in itself. What I am criticizing is its over-representation, which does (in my view) show that hiring has been influenced by politics. When a UM undergraduate takes a course in English or History -- two of the largest and most central departments -- the chances are better than 40% that the professor lists race or gender as a research interest.

A_Reader

David,

Well, I agree about the over-representation. But doesn't your criticism in some ways lead to the criticism in my post? A 40% rate of English/History Profs who cite race and gender as research interests is problematic only if they are systematically over-teaching those areas at the expense of others in, say, Survey or Intro courses (if anyone still offers those!)...or, as my post points out, pushing those social agendas instead of teaching a discipline (i.e., English profs not teaching literature, but rather "approved" sociology of race, gender etc).

I don't think those items are disconnected. Just a thought....

Chun the Unavoidable

You know there's no way in hell I'm going to count the research profiles of UM philosophy, but I seem to remember exactly one out of twenty or so with a research interest in what the kids call 20th C continental philosophy. Obvious political bias.

Adam Kotsko

A Reader,

Who is supposed to determine what is a "good balance" aside from scholars in a given discipline? Maybe state legislatures should take some action?

Also, the "political bias" of philosophy departments, as cited by Chun, might account for a significant amount of the "overrepresentation" of theoretical types in literature departments. They have nowhere else to go, except religion departments, and who wants to go there?

David Velleman

Adam --

This is exactly my point. Yes, I would like to argue that the only people who are qualified to make these judgments are scholars in the relevant disciplines. And I would like to argue that state legislatures should keep their hands off hiring and curricular decisions in state universities. But in order to have legitimate grounds for making these arguments, I must be able to claim that the decisions are being made on the basis of intellectual criteria rather than politics. And when over 40% of the English and History faculty are working on race and gender, that claim begins to lose some of its plausibility. So the independence of the academy has be jeopardized.

Claire

If your department had 34 whites and only 4 blacks, would you consider it biased?

If your department had 34 men and only 4 women, would you consider it biased?

Why then is it not biased to have 34 Democrats and only 4 Republicans?

Can we all say "double standard", boys and girls?

This is not meant to throw rocks at Duke or any particular university. But the vehemence of the defence from the university establishment is out of proportion to the article. As I read it, no one was asking for any kind of correction or 'affirmative action' program for conservatives in university humanities departments.

But it is interesting to see the selective reactions of the establishment. I guess it has to do with the difference that, in this case, academia's feeling personally threatened.

I don't think there's overt bias; I think the many who have expressed the view that most of this is self-selective are correct.

But I can't help but wonder why the same people are so dead-set against the possibility that there is some self-selection involved in racial and gender areas. We already know that more blacks than whites self-select for professional sports; but that's apparently okay. Women self-select for elementary education, and I don't hear howls of outrage there, either (although there is the odd, quiet observation). Males tend to self-select for the hard sciences, and I don't hear anyone screaming about the fact that 95%+ of nurses are women, either....

Selective application of standards, people. The pitfall of estremists on both ends of the spectrum.

baa

Ted H. nails it: mainstream academic insitutions impose high social costs on being right or even center-right. And you needn't be out there running Affirmative Action bakesales to experience it. I can't count the number of parties, picnics, and innocuous gatherings in which a crude caricature of conservatives -- really, only one step up from what would be provided by a left version of Rush Limbaugh -- were offered as innocuously as one would relate the score of yesterday's basketball game. These are just the facts on the ground. Perhaps you don't notice it if you don't have your antennae out, but it's really, obviously there.

Ted H.

I just read Feser's follow up on Tech Central and now regret that I said anything that might have been construed as a defense of him. It's quite a sad spectacle. There's some principled conservatism in it, but the conservativism is in the service of a truly vicious rhetorical stance (insinuating, for example, that one aim of "leftism" is to make the world safe for pornography).

Why does so much conservative rhetoric look like this? Here's my hypothesis: When the vast majority within a profession is habituated into the assumption that a minority within that profession is crazy, their frustrating predicament may in fact drive members of said minority crazy.

That's not to say that the craziness is our, the majority's, fault. I'm saying merely that the best way to address these crazy caricatures of the academy is to seek intellectual engagement with conservative modes of thought and constructive personal engagement with conservatives' complaints about the academy. Comparatively little conservative thought takes the paranoid and dismissive form of Feser's fulminations (though those are the instances to which we attend most, because we know how to refute them).

Dismissing or making fun of conservative critics -- whether state legistlators or visiting assistant professors of philosophy -- is only going to make the very real threat to academic independence a lot worse.

Fontana Labs

I'm going to be tedious by jumping on the Ted H love train. I'm in the first year of my (tt, thanks for asking) job, and I'm surprised (after grad school, no less) at the extent to which colleagues assume that I'll have the typical left-esque politics. Now, as it turns out, I do, but it's quite tempting to be contrary when, you know, everyone blithely assumes that we're all on the same page, that it's the right page to be on, no matter where you're going, and that pure practical reason itself is enough to get you there. Wanting tenure, I keep my mouth shut, but, because I'm bitchy by nature, it's difficult. That said, I still think philosophers are fairly good at keeping the politics out of large parts of their professional labors, so there's still hope.

Chun the Unavoidable

The two most plausible ideas I have about Feser are: 1) He's either not very bright or slightly unhinged, as others have suggested. And, the one I favor more, 2) He doesn't really believe this nonsense, is smart enough to realize there's not much money in philosophy, and wants to get a cushy job at a conservative think-tank.

bryan

'Why then is it not biased to have 34 Democrats and only 4 Republicans?'

uhm, because the first two conditions you discussed, race and gender, are things that people are born as and generally do not change in their lifetimes (note the 'generally').

So you see, it's not biased in the same way it's not biased to have 34 chess players and only 4 poker players.

Adam Kotsko

Yes, one of the most impressive rhetorical feats of the "conservative" movement is to make people think, mostly unconsciously, of "conservative" or "liberal/leftist" as something like race or gender. Especially conservatism, since another impressive rhetorical feat is convincing everyone that conservatives are an embattled minority, even now that they run all three branches of the federal government.

A_Reader

That kind of rheoric also comes from the left, Adam. If I choose to discuss aesthetics over social politics then I risk the accusation that I am "ignoring" race and gender, and therefore, am part of the patriarchial regime, etc., i.e., not discussing race, gender marks one as conservative. Your point is well taken, but it cuts both ways.

And THAT is how politics is, mistakenly if at all, interpreted from a CV--not from voter registration, but from scholarship and in ways that are completely irrelevant to discerning one's politics as either conservative or liberal.

And the talk in these circles considers conservatives a minority within the academe--I haven't read anyone say they were a minority outside of the Ivory Tower (and I say "they" because I am not one).

Ted H.

Two more brief points:

1. This piece by Arnold Kling today on Tech Central is the sort of thing I had in mind when I said that academic left-liberals ought to try harder to engage libertarian and conservative critiques of the academy. I'm not saying Kling is right about anything. But the sort of critique he's offering is reasonable. In fact, it's a more reasonable rendition of state legislators' worries than the latter seem capable of (or of their most fundamental worry).

2. Fontana Labs raises the point that I find most puzzling in this context, a point that I was assuming but didn't explicitly state. How is it that a group of people -- I mean professional philosophers, expecially those trained in the analytic tradition -- who spend most of their waking hours testing out positions and playing devil's advocate with each other and with their students, trying never to let a suspect argument or position escape vigorous rebuttal, are so herd-like in their politics? Surely the thing to do when all your interlocutors scowl and sneer at the claims of this Bush fellow is... defend Bush! Just to make the conversation interesting! We all spend most of our day defending positions we don't actually hold. Why stop here?

baa

I doubt that many readers/contributors of this thread frequent right-wing academic think tank circles, as I do. Well no surprise, one finds there a certain groupthink, an irritating willingness to place disinterested observation in partisan contect. Let me provide some more anecdotage: recently, at one such think-tank seminar covering, bascially, philosophy of science, I heard sociobiology praised as "useful for us" -- with 'us' meaning, basically, supoprters of center-right policy. This staggered me -- the casual assumption that "we" (at a freaking philsophy seminar!) shared a policy program and conceived E.O. Wilson as a means to advance it.

Well, barf, right? And no doubt many of you are thinking "that's just what I expect from those liars at AEI/Cato/Heritage or wherever." Well, frankly, it's not what I expect. And -- here's the connection to the discusion on this thread -- if I thought that's what one could expect in academic departments at publically funded universities, I would want to deny that funding. And so, I suspect, would most everyone else here. That's the point, I take it, that David Velleman was making. Insofar as academic departments model the excesses of bad pressure groups, they lose claim to public finacing and self-oversight. And further, should it not be deeply embarrassing that the social tenor of academic life approximates, basically, that of an explicitly right-wing political organization? Again, I would have thought the answer was obviously yes.

Does anyone deny that at least many departments behave this way (most Womens' Studies departments, e.g.). And can there be any doubt that this is bad both for victims and perperators? Indeed, I would argue a sort of Master-and-Slave dialectic is in place here: it's far worse, intellectually and morally to be part of the hive mind, rather than a (perhaps oppressed) dissenter.

Fontana, always a pleasure to join you on any love wagon. Not the first time.

Roger Sweeny

Adam Kotsco,

However, due to historical circumstances beyond any of our control, concepts of race arose that caused certain broad groups of people to have very different social and economic positions (due almost entirely to their race) and thus to have very different experiences and to write from very different perspectives.

It sounds like you are saying, "History has turned you into a round peg or a square peg based on your race."

That sounds like a genteel way of saying "All Asians write one way and all whites write another. All Asians think one way and all whites think another."

Adam Kotsko

Mr. Sweeney,

My last name is spelled with two K's.

What I'm saying is that we may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us. Another way of putting it might be, We make our own destiny, but not in circumstances of our own choosing.

In other words, you're not responding to what I actually said. You're responding to a charicature of what I said.

Have a wonderful day.

Steve Horwitz

As a libertarian academic, and one who has tangled with Ed Feser before, let me completely distance myself from his view of the left in academia. And let me add, knowing Ed, that he really does believe everything he's saying, believe it or not.

Very enjoyable exchange in the comments here, and nice to see my alma mater (Michigan - class of 85, economics and philosophy major) so well-represented by Prof. Velleman.

The best piece I've seen on this issue is by Tim
Burke
. My apologies if this piece has been linked before. I think Burke gets it just right.

anony-mouse

First, nice blog. I only discovered it a few weeks ago but I keep coming back for more; the writing style is downright delicious.

Second, regaring this query from Adam Kotsko:

They are "politicized" to the extent that they advocate, in very big words with a lot of annoying allusions to French people, basic human decency. Let's try to make society less oppressive for women. Let's try to make it so that people aren't so grossly unequal in power. Let's try to make it so that people aren't dismissed or put at a disadvantage due to their race. Let's try to correct the inertia of past injustices and work toward a more just future. If people are part of specific cultural traditions that give them meaning, let's try not to impose another, supposedly better tradition upon them (within certain limits).

What exactly is supposed to be objectionable about the so-called "politically correct" agenda? Seriously!

Seriously? What's objectionable is not the arguments themselves but rather that performative dimensions are typically employed in the presentation, as you appear to have done here. Rather than laying the claims on the table as debatable issues, counting on the merits to show which positions are superior, you have structured the arguments to lock out competing strains of thought.

Example: "Let's try to make it so that people aren't so grossly unequal in power."

Assumed a priori is that 'gross inequalities of power' exist at some level capable of being stated broadly, and apparently, the arguer already got to define what constitutes "power" and when it becomes "grossly unequal." Now, maybe that point of view -- whatever it actually may be -- is entirely valid and would withstand a sustained attack, but as structured here, this isn't going to sit well with someone who has differing interepretations over the meanings of the assumed subjectives.

I have met people, for example, who hold a deontological view that any evidence of inequality (power or otherwise) is evidence of injustice. I don't mind deontological positions but I do like to see them balanced with a certain amount of consequentialism; hence I would not accept any blanket statements about power until I knew what was being claimed about it, and the circumstances surrounding a particular case under discussion. If someone achieved power by working his/her southern exposure off while another person failed to aquire it through sloth and indifference, as far as I'm concerned, the new Powerbroker is rightfully entitled to power (at least, just shy of the point where he/she begins perverting law and committing associated excesses), and the disparity is meaningless except where it illustrates the fruits of dilligence.

Or in other words, pre/sub/con-text all become critical factors in understanding the claim, and I'm sure we all know how dangerous that trio can be.

Ideals are often not objectionable; but very few people can express them without trying to pre-mold them based on personal and/or political priorities. And when that is done, intentionally or otherwise, it pollutes dialogue and therefore IS objectionable.

anony-mouse

Oh yes, regarding this off-topic bit from Neil:

Belief in God was very much higher among science students than among humanities students or among the general population. More alarmingly, creationist views were well represented among science students - and remained just as strong after a one semester course on the evidence against creationism.

What evidence would this be? The gross inability of creationists to empirically prove the existence of God? I can accept that.

On the other hand, maybe the students remained convinced of previously held beliefs because the evidence against wasn't especially compelling. Try reading some of the serious criticism that's been written in the past 10-15 years -- it's much deeper and better researched than the circa-1980 Henry Morris rants about the Gospel of Evolution According to Satan.

By the way, I like researching both sides of an argument (I've found this is the best way to expose weaknesses in one's own position), so I've read a few works from Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, and have Ernst Mayr in the queue. I can confidently say thus far that if these are really the best evidences for evolution/against creationism -- namely, preeminent evolutionary scientists coughing out philosophy treatises that carefully explain why the strong empirics for their bread-and-butter field of study largely don't exist -- then the result you cite is unsuprising.

A reactionary use of creationism as a near-synonym for 'fanatic' -- far too common on blogs these days (although the fundamentalists trying to rewrite the Georgia curriculum are not helping matters, I will grant) -- is boring and intellectually sterile. It is an argument cut from the very same kind of cloth that, looking over the anecdotes people have provided in the thread, has liberals reacting in amazement when someone in academia expresses something resembling a "conservative" view. Which is to say, it sounds disturbing and foreign to them not because they know independently that any particular argument is inherently right or wrong, but rather because they were apparently so enamored with their preferred position, they never truly made an effort to expose themselves to a diverse set of views.

Rich Puchalsky

"Yes, one of the most impressive rhetorical feats of the "conservative" movement is to make people think, mostly unconsciously, of "conservative" or "liberal/leftist" as something like race or gender."

Right on. There are good reasons not to discriminate against people who were born into the discriminated-against group. But conservatives *chose* their evil, harmful philosophy.

Steve

two comments:
1) Philosophy is not a good field in which to discuss/uncover intellectual bias, for all the reasons mentioned here-philosophers are, generally speaking, so obscure, it makes no sense to worry about whether a phenomenologist or platonist or whatever is liberal/conservative. its hard enough to figure out what they are talking about, much less tie that opinion to voting patterns.
2) That being said, I agree with the posts stating, in essence, that post-modernism has destroyed professionalism in academia. This, for some reason, causes academia to 'be liberal.'
A concrete example: I recently was sent to Bosnia as a peacekeeper, in a job which would require me to do alot of political work. I have earned a MA in political science, emphasis political theory. In order to prepare for my deployment, naturally enough, I read quite a bit. Surprisingly, academia has very little of PRACTICAL INTEREST to say about Bosnia-arguably one of the hotspots in the world during the 1990's. I learned most of what I needed to learn from 1) journalists, and 2) military/political memoirs. (If you are interested in learning about the history, root causes, current events, -anything of real value about Bosnia, I can recommend a library full of books. None are written by academics). Academia essentially had nothing other than theoretical posturing.

What does that suggest about the topic at hand? First, that academia doesn't do much of value-if you want to 'solve a problem' (promote peacekeeping in Bosnia/Iraq/Afghanistan, cure a psychologically sick patient, better manage a city, etc), you will look to other 'doers' in your field. One would think that academics, who are 'experts' in those fields, would have something to offer, but because their expertise is so narrowly drawn, and drawn so far from practical application, they simply don't offer much.

Thus, people who go into academia are presumably those who want to engage in that type of work-not solve problems, but rather espouse theories. People who want to solve problems go out and do so. In essence, if professors are overwhelmingly liberal (which we know is true), and if they are not consciously hired to be so (which is arguable, but will be accepted for now), then it must be self-selection that causes the poliical bias. Liberals go into academia because they are not attracted to practical work. Conservatives don't because they are not attracted to theoretical work (interesting aside: when we talk about academic bias, we are ALWAYS talking about academic bias in the humanities. I know from experience-I also have an MS in engineering-that mathematical/scientific academics are not as biased as humanities academics-possibly supporting my thesis further).

This means two things. 1) Academics are biased by choice, and 2) academics aren't really experts in their fields (as most of us would define them), so it doesn't matter. Want to learn about Bosnia? Read journalists/politicians, and soldiers. Ignore academia. Want to learn how to cure a schizophrenic? Do your schooling, then go out and work in a clinic. Want to learn how to manage a city? Work for a city. Want to appreciate great literature? Read it. Ignore your english professor-she's just ranting about queer theory and the Vietnam War. Oddly enough, the one exception to this rule is philosphy itself (the original motivation for this discussion!). Philosophy is so difficult, with so much historical/cultural dependence built into clear understanding of the canon, that you really need an academics' help to interpret much of the work.

Thus, the change we as a society need to make is not 1) academics are liberal, lets change their political bias. Rather, its 2) academics are liberal but let's realizet that they are irrelevant.

steve

Roger Sweeny

Mr. Kotsko,

My apologies for misspelling your name.

BTW: my last name is spelled with 2 E's.

I was really looking for clarification of what you said. It sounded like you were saying people of different races think very differently. You can predict what they'll think from the group they belong to.

It didn't sound like, "history isn't done with us." It sounded like "when it comes to race, history pulls our strings."

However, due to historical circumstances beyond any of our control, concepts of race arose that caused certain broad groups of people to have very different social and economic positions (due almost entirely to their race) and thus to have very different experiences and to write from very different perspectives.

Ophelia Benson

One small point.

"he'd heard the Kerry rumor on right-wing talk radio. "You listen to right-wing talk radio?" I asked incredulously? "Oh, merely to understand the enemy," he quickly replied. See? There I was reinforcing the assumption we all share -- that Republicans are not just wrong but crazy."

But that may not be all there is to it. I would react the same way, but I wouldn't react at all the same way to someone who said she'd been reading Richard Posner, say, or Harvey Mansfield, or Robert Nozick. Right-wing talk radio (and for that matter much left-wing talk radio) is just stupid and generally rebarbative. Surely that's a large part of the surprise?

Same with Bush. Bush is hateful for far more than political reasons. I'd hate Bush if he were a Democrat.

roger

Hmm -- one of the comments I found most interestin here was this one:
"No one accuses T. S. Eliot of having had a political agenda in recovering the metaphysical poets or the late Elizabethan playwrights (Webster, etc.) -- and no one accuses the early 20th-century literary scholars of having a political agenda for recovering, say, Melville."

Well, actually, in both cases there were political agendas -- and in both cases those agendas make for an interesting question about how humanities departments accrue political biases. In the case of Eliot, the recovery of the Metaphysicals was clearly motivated, in part, by two things: one, a desire to turn the literature of the 17th century, which at that time was thought to be dominated by Milton, towards poets who were more acceptably royalist and Anglo-Catholic, Eliot's political preference; and 2, to take ease the romantic movement from its central place in the canon. That Eliot would try to remove Shelley seems a sort of obvious move.

As for the recovery of Melville, again, someone like Lewis Mumford had political motives he was not at all ashamed of -- his were more on the left. The recovery of Moby Dick as the quintessential American text is about, partly, what a novel can be, and that, in turn, was about a move away from the staid novel of manners. Of course, that could skew right or left -- Mencken, for instance, the promoter of Twain and Dreiser, was clearly a conservative.

The Eliot example is important because Eliot's critical influence, by all accounts, was dominant in English departments in the fifties. I would guess that the political valence of those departments skewed towards the right back then, or at least much more than it does now. My guess would be that these departments were strongly male and Protestant at the time, and that they express a different demography now. I'd guess that is at the base of the political tilt.

rogerg

PS -- and now let's have the discussion about why there is such an overwhelming conservative bias among executives in energy companies. Shouldn't energy companies try to reach out to liberals? Inquiring minds want to know.

Stellamonika

In these days, our beloved philosophers and scientists focus on the products of science and philosophy.
But the learning community of the world wants an exact way to produce science and philosophy!
The product is "on the origin of science" posted for public reading at: http://wwf.edula.com

Let the world decide the fate of.....

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