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11/12/2004 01:09:00 AM | Timothy

Boohoo
There's a lot of conservative belly aching about how liberal the academy is. (This post was prompted after reading this and this but my post is not a direct comment on them.) As a state of affairs, I can understand how conservatives might lament that people who share their views are not well represented. But why do conservatives say this is WRONG? The odd thing is that conservatives try to use the language of liberals, as in 'we need intellectual diversity'. You have David Horowitz basically advocated for affirmative action for conservatives (to level the playing field, I suppose). And supposedly conservative students feel 'intimidated' by the atmosphere around them. Does anyone honestly feel that conservatives are the most vicitimized group on campus? That they feel the least welcome? When minorities complained of the atmosphere on campus (from both students and professors), conservatives effectively said 'suck it up.' I realize that conservatism has many elements. But one of the key elements of campus conservatism has been to criticize the very ideas they are now trying to capitalize on. Why can't professors be fair despite their voting preferences? Again, there is a question of power when a Professor explicitly threatens a lower grade when a student expresses an ideological viewpoint. However common that is, it is not the norm. So conservatives are arguing against more subtle biases and forms of power. They are arguing student do not feel 'comfortable'?? When did conservatives get so wimpy? More importantly, how do conservatives have the right to appeal to these rectifying the subtle power relations going on in academia when a major part of their world view is that those subtle power relations should not be a basis for transforming policy? (I am thinking of sexual harassment, more active anti-discrimination laws, even affirmative action) Now, a Professor can step over the line. But whereever that line is, conservative advocates often draw it in a way that is inconsistent with their other professed reasons for ignoring structural injustice.

Let me clear on my own approach in teaching classes or leading discussion sections. I generally try not to let students know exactly where I stand. I certainly never say something that makes it sound like I assume that everyone in the class voted for Kerry. And I am a debater at heart and try to present a political philosophy in its strongest light. I do not care the position a student holds, but the arguments he or she gives for it (but I debate with myself whether this is best and whether can truly always be neutral). I am always very glad to have students who disagree with the rest of the class (in a class on American capitalism, I had a ex-Soviet who was vehemently pro-market and she was one of top two students in terms of class participation).

Furthermore, let me say that in Columbia and the New School, I have seen Professors make comments that clearly assume we're all liberals or democrats or all against the war. (Though I have to say, I didn't really see that at Dartmouth; professors knew it wasn't true of students.) I am not going to defend that, in that that is not how I aim to do things.

But I want to make a few points. Conservatism does not necessarily equal intellectual diversity. The faculty at the academy is a lot less left wing than you might expect. It is certainly not conservative. But center-left democrats do not need to be particularly liberal. And even the 'radical' professors are not too radical, depending on your perspective.

And I emphasize 'depending on your perspective'. What is this magic neutral central point from which we should moderate discussion? We often make assumptions in conversations that someone will find controversial. And you cannot simply say that everything that is disputed should not be presumed at any time (if you said that, I would disagree with you, and then what would you respond?)

Conservatives who attack the 'liberal bias' in academia or the media may be right that the media tilts more in a certain partisan direction. But is there some magic center point? Taking media bias, I see not evidence that conservatives want unbiased, objective news outlets, rather than a 'fair' media which is not as tilted towards the left and which leans more to the right. Conservatives have often railed against left-radicals for not believing in 'truth.' Do they believe in it any longer?

Implicit in conservaitve talk of liberal bias, I think, is that fairness and diversity requires that institutions reflect the views of the general population. That is, truth is not what is important, but representation of political views based on the voting trends of the public. Conservatives claim that liberal academics are political. But their implicit solution of having intellectual ideas reflect the strengths of political parties seems far more political, especially in the way they often pursue it. If you think I'm wrong, ask yourself, what would a fair media or a fair academy look like? If you said one that is half liberal, half conservative, you have helped prove my point.

I'm not saying the current situation relects 'truth.' I do not think the media or professors are objective. But if the goal is intellectual diversity, why are conservative ideas more worthy than other ideas that are not well represented in the academy? Why not look at global standards rather than local ones? From that vantage point saying the academy is biased to the left is sort of silly. But more importantly, saying we only need conservatives to get intellectual diversity is just as silly. In other words, I am saying that even if the American academy does tend to cluster around a certain type of left-liberal outloook, it is lacking tons of voices even farther to the 'left'. Some departments used to refuse to hire Marxists for example. Universities are not free of politics by any means.



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