Bubble brains

Groupthink in college faculties is anti-intellectual, writes Max Bauerlein, an Emory English professor, in Chronicle of Higher Education. Politics is embedded in some disciplines.

Schools of education, for instance, take constructivist theories of learning as definitive, excluding realists (in matters of knowledge) on principle, while the quasi-Marxist outlook of cultural studies rules out those who espouse capitalism. If you disapprove of affirmative action, forget pursuing a degree in African-American studies. If you think that the nuclear family proves the best unit of social well-being, stay away from women’s studies.

Many academics don’t read conservative texts or talk to conservative thinkers, writes Bauerlein. They think the conservative intelligentsia is represented by Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, “not von Hayek, Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss, Thomas Sowell, Robert Nozick, or Gertrude Himmelfarb.”

The ordinary evolution of opinion — expounding your beliefs in conversation, testing them in debate, reading books that confirm or refute them — is lacking, and what should remain arguable settles into surety.

Liberal professors assume all thinking people agree with them. Those who disagree must be stupid; their ideas aren’t worthy of consideration.

Academics don’t realize they’ve lost “all sense of the range of legitimate opinion,” Bauerlein writes.

The problem is that the simple trappings of deliberation make academics think that they’ve reached an opinion through reasoned debate — instead of, in part, through an irrational social dynamic. The opinion takes on the status of a norm. Extreme views appear to be logical extensions of principles that everyone more or less shares, and extremists gain a larger influence than their numbers merit. If participants left the enclave, their beliefs would moderate, and they would be more open to the beliefs of others.

. . . Panels on issues like Iraq, racism, imperialism, and terrorism that stack the dais provide lots of passion, but little excitement. Syllabi that include the same roster of voices make learning ever more desultory. Add a few rightists, and the debate picks up. Perhaps that is the most persuasive internal case for infusing conservatism into academic discourse and activities. Without genuine dissent in the classroom and the committee room, academic life is simply boring.

Bauerlein doesn’t want affirmative action for conservatives on campus. His goal is to prod professors to think about the ways they exclude and ignore dissenting opinions. I think he’s absolutely right in saying academics would have far more influence if they could break out of their bubble.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. The lack of dissension on the college campus is extremely frustrating. It is also a bit ironic, since the college campus espouses to be an open forum for ideas. I have often wondered how these professors come up with the distorted ideas that they have. How many times does socialism have to fail before it gets rendered to the scrap heap of history. This is precisely the reason that dissent cannot be allowed on the college campus, for many of the leftist theories would not hold up under scrutiny.

    For those of you who would like to lessen the influence of the leftist professor on campus, there is hope. The rise in popularity of the executive private school over the past 10 years have greatly increased the options for students looking for a 4-year degree. No longer are students forced to choose between one leftist campus or another. They can now add to their choices hundreds of relatively low-cost, and even online choices for their degree. The quality of education in these private institutions has risen dramatically, and is certainly comparable to undergraduate education in the extremely large universities. (I attended one of those reputed university giants and found the undergraduate services woefully inadequate. I could never figure out why I paid so much money to sit in a class with 500 students to listen to a professor who had little interest in teaching. And it always irritated me that our “quality” time in study was spent with a graduate student, not the professor.)

    At any rate, the market will turn the campuses to the center. While I don’t expect snob centers such as Harvard to ever become “centered”, I do expect fewer people clamoring to get indoctrinated at such places. In time these campuses will adjust to the market or experience diminished attendance.

  2. “I think he’s absolutely right in saying academics
    would have far more influence if they could break
    out of their bubble.”

    I agree. It would help Democrats to do the same thing…

  3. ” Liberal professors assume all thinking people agree with them. Those who disagree must be stupid; their ideas aren’t worthy of consideration.”

    Would you care to source that, Joanne? The sweeping comments about “academics” and “liberal professors” would certainly benefit from some of the nuancing that Bauerlein seems to call for.

    The notion of political balance in academia is misguided. What every good professor should be committed to is inquiry into what is and what could be. The best follow knowledge where it leads. The most publically outspoken political ideologue on my campus happens to be quite conservative–and he hasn’t really generated a following among his colleagues.

    Most of Bauerlein’s claims seem based on contact with faculty in the humanities, but he does not acknowledge that bias.

    One way we could look at the current state of affairs in the US is that conservatives control the national government in all branches, about 28 states, most corporations and financial institutions, most churches, and the military. So now the goal is to conquer the university, making it “conservative” so all aspects of society will appreciate Ayn Rand and William F. Buckley, Jr. and order their lives accordingly.

    If conservatives don’t get a lot of play for their ideas in the marketplace provided by the university, maybe those ideas just don’t hold up very well under rational analysis and thoughtful scrutiny.

  4. John L,

    You must be very lucky in your campus then. It is certainly not the case most places. Just look at the cases brought up by the organization FIRE. Would you say that the cases they follow up on are based on the professors permitting free discourse? That is the problem.

    I for one don’t think conservatives want to be the only game in town. What conservatives want is to be educated and to have that education based on a read dialogue of both sides of the argument. I for one had political science professors who would brook no argument when it came to what was good and true politics. If it was not leftist, it was no good and if we continued our ways, we god graded down. I do not think that was a unique situation. Cases where the university will support liberal newspapers and will cause conservative newspapers to be destroyed. Cases where liberal groups can meet in campus sites but consrvative groups are excluded. These are going on all the time. On campus after campus. Liberal faux pas being punished by writing an apology. Consrvative faux pas being punished by expulsion and community service. On the same campus.

    Conservatives just want a fair shake and the more liberals fight it the more we realize that there is only one way to get a fair shake.

  5. I think Joanne hits on what’s really stifiling debate when she says that liberals think the other side’s opinion is too stupid for consideration. The important part of debate is that reasonable people can disagree. Almost all the left-wingers I’ve met think any view but theirs is contemptible, and dismiss it out of hand. It makes it IMPOSSIBLE to debate with these people.

    Now, this is something I’ve seen right-wingers do as well, but with less frequency. It’s what has turned the political discourse in the country from a debate into a shouting match. Both sides come out of a debate more enlightened, not just the winning one. The only thing I leave a shouting match with is a headache. (Part of the reason I’m glad Nov. 2nd has come and gone.)

  6. One the one hand we have:

    conservatives control the national government in all branches, about 28 states, most corporations and financial institutions, most churches, and the military

    Which is all inconsequential compared too:

    the marketplace provided by the university, maybe those ideas just don’t hold up very well under rational analysis and thoughtful scrutiny.

    Which leads us to the inevitable conclusion that even though the vast, right-wing conspiracy controls this country in root and branch, the only place we’ll find “rational analysis and thoughtful scrutiny” is in the university.

    Of course, not everyone who inhabits the university is given to cool reflection.

    Students, for instance, are much more likely to be interested in getting laid and getting drunk. Neither activity is generally considered to be conducive to rational analysis and thoughful scrutiny.

    The facilities staff is, of course, somewhat blue collar in nature and much more likely to be diagnosing a persistent leak in their moonshine stills then engaging in rational analysis and thoughful scrutiny.

    The administration?

    Perhaps the aura of intellectual elevation that pervades the university ennobles the administrative staff sufficiently to allow them to engage in rational analysis and thoughful scrutiny? They do tend to dress well, in the main.

    Absurd notion.

    Jumped-up clerks with a checkbook. They probably think introspection is a medical procedure.

    I believe that leaves only the teaching staff as practitioners of rational analysis and thoughful scrutiny.

    What a coincidence.

  7. “If conservatives don’t get a lot of play for their ideas in the marketplace provided by the university, maybe those ideas just don’t hold up very well under rational analysis and thoughtful scrutiny.”

    Rational analysis starting with what premises? If I start from a socialist stance and reason my way through conservative ideas, they are going to look idiotic. On the other hand, if I start from a conservative stance, conservative ideas are going to look really, really good.

    Ask yourself something, with what premises will 90% of academics start a rational analysis? Are most academics even willing to consider non-leftist ideas as valid?

  8. The basic premise of these comments is faulty. Most academic ideas have no left or right. They are either demonstrable or not. Galileo and Newton and Einstein each presented a formulation which had greater explanatory power than earlier claims. That’s the primary work of the academy: transmitting current knowledge in ways that encourage the building of new knowledge.

    The current reductionist effort to say that everything is either left or right, and the university has too much left and not enough right, distorts the nature of academic inquiry.

    The left has no nationally organized program to create campus newspapers. The right does. At least seventy-five conservative college newspapers at major universities are provided national support by an organization with a dozen or so full-time employees. The group helps those students make claims of being victimized by “liberal” forces on campus. It’s not honest journalism, just another part of the Great Spin Machine that has developed on the right the last decade.

    I live about a mile from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Most of the scholars there start from conservative premises. There’s no effort to repress their findings. At the same time, their research and publication is not so compelling that the Stanford Economics department simply accepts those views.

    And, frankly, any student learns more when he’s offended by a professor’s views. My idiot education professors at my undergraduate university inspired me to read more and construct better arguments than the ones they offered. I live for the days when a student challenges what we’re reading or the ideas I’m presenting.

    Finally, among the “liberal” authors I’ve assigned the past year are Homer, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Chaucer, John Milton, and John Donne. Frankly, Russell Kirk and Thomas Sowell don’t measure up in that company. And I’ve read both of them.

  9. greeneyeshade says:

    a friend of ours is an assistant dean at a college here where another faculty member writes periodically for the public interest, irving kristol, nathan glazer and the late daniel p. moynihan’s quarterly. i lent our friend the issue with this professor’s latest article; she told me she’d taken it to a faculty meeting and the reaction was, ‘you’re reading *that*?’

  10. “The basic premise of these comments is faulty. Most academic ideas have no left or right. They are either demonstrable or not. Galileo and Newton and Einstein each presented a formulation which had greater explanatory power than earlier claims. That’s the primary work of the academy: transmitting current knowledge in ways that encourage the building of new knowledge.”

    This is partially true. Most of the sciences are kept free of this because of the scientific method. In addition, math courses are very hard to politicize.

    On the other hand, fields like sociology and ethnic studies use controversial left-wing ideas as orthodox starting points for debate. These ideas, mainly notions of collectivism, have never stood up against the ideas of people like F.A. von Hayek in debate, so in my mind their truth is suspect. Hayek has proven right again and again in the real world, yet collectivists ignore or dismiss his ideas because it does not fit their ideology. This is NOT searching for truth. They think they already know the truth and must defend it. This is NOT encouraging the finding of new knowledge. They think any knowledge which does not fit their truth is false or idiotic. *This* is the groupthink of which the article speaks. It most certainly does exist, and if you don’t agree with left-wing ideas it’s blatantly obvious.

    (Try being a libertarian in a sociology class, you’ll find out that individual responsibility does not exist, and that society is responsible for the behavior of everyone who lives in it.)

  11. In addition, math courses are very hard to politicize.

    You would think so. But on my campus, the math department has been the center of the most political controversy of any at the college the past two years. Students for Justice paraded around campus carrying signs saying “Math is wack.” The argument has to do with the levels of requirements and teaching methods used by some math faculty.

    Also, the professional conservative, who publishes his views regulary in local papers and the student papers, is a part-time math instructor.

    I have a sociology colleague a lot like the one you describe. I know or have had coursework with four prominent sociologists who would not fit your description.

    Just because you can find some ideologues on a campus–and just because most professors register Democratic–does not mean there’s some uniform political viewpoint in every college and university.

    And generalizing from one’s personal experience is hardly a reasonable way to proceed.

    For me, the question is not one of leftness or rightness, but rather the one our reelected president posed a while back, “Is they learning?”

  12. John L – It must be different where you are, because on my campus there is ONE political view, and that is the far-left perspective. I’ve been called an idiot, moron, imbecile, uneducated, racist, sexist, bigoted, worthless, and shameful all for not toeing the bloody line.

    Leftism is more than a political stance on my campus, it’s a social norm, meaning that those who don’t believe in leftist ideas are second class citizens.

    That’s my personal experience, and when I see it echoed time and time again on the net, I can make at least some generalizations. I was once told, “You don’t know what it’s like to be black until you’ve lived it.” Well, you don’t know what it’s like to be a non-leftist on campus until you’ve lived it.

  13. Richard Brandshaft says:

    “I for one don’t think conservatives want to be the only game in town.” I presume all those conservative censors aren’t true conservatives, just like Muslim terrorists aren’t true Muslims.

    Here’s a link to a New York Times story from last August, headlined “Media Talk; The Left Asked to Speak to the Right, But a Gatekeeper Wouldn’t Hear of It”

    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=FB0A10FB345A0C738FDDA10894DC404482

    You have to pay for stories that old. The short version: “The Nation” accepts ads from Fox News. Fox News does not accept ads from “The Nation.”

  14. Does the article mention what ads were refused? I only ask because I regularly see ads for the NYTimes on foxnews.com. If Fox were trying to eliminate opposing viewpoints, I seriously doubt I’d be seeing those ads so frequently.

  15. Richard Brandshaft says:

    andyo,
    I don’t feel comfortable quoting the whole article — I take copyrights seriously — but here’s the only description of the commercial:

    …agency for The Nation sent a 60-second commercial to the cable network promoting its brand of political news and commentary as free of White House influence and corporate agendas.
    “Nobody owns The Nation. Not Time Warner, not Murdoch. So there’s no corporate slant, no White House spin. Just the straight dope,” the commercial says.