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Saturday, November 10, 2007

"Conservatives Ought to Appreciate Academia, Because It’s a Vicious Market System"

In defense of liberal bias on college campuses:

Liberal Bias is A-OK, by J.D. Porter [senior majoring in English], Columbia Daily Spectator: Here at Columbia, as at most top universities, we enjoy belittling conservative beliefs. Even the professors are in on it, and conservatives often find their beliefs directly challenged by academic trickery, like thinking about things, and facts. But shouldn’t good pedagogy incorporate all sides of an issue? No, it should not. If conservativism is absent from the University, it’s because it hasn’t earned its way in.

The fundamental problem here is that good intellectual exercise of any kind doesn’t mean including all the viewpoints available; it means including the good viewpoints. When I get a headache, I don’t equally weigh the taking aspirin option with the putting leeches on my head option even though many people, including several major founding fathers, have been adamantly pro head-leech. Similarly, when a news program has scientists on to talk about global warming, it doesn’t make sense to invite one who believes in it and one who doesn’t. It makes sense to invite two good scientists, even though they will probably agree. I don’t care about “unbiased” reporting; I want accurate reporting. I also want good scholarship, whether or not it has a balanced political perspective. If your idea gets left out, it’s your fault for having a dumb idea.

The obvious question, of course, is who decides which opinions are good. It’s a tricky issue that requires a lot of thought, but one place to start might be with people who know what they’re talking about. We all know this on some level, but we’re bad at applying it to politics. If you want to know what’s wrong with your car, for example, you don’t poll your neighbors; you ask a mechanic. If most of your neighbors disagree with the mechanic, you ignore them, even if they quote the Bible. For the same reason, it doesn’t really matter what most of the country thinks about global warming or evolution, because the people who know actual facts about those things have pretty much formed a consensus. Yes, you can dig up a scientist who disagrees, just like the tobacco industry has found doctors who think Marlboros make fun Halloween treats, but consensus among experts is really what matters here.

Of course, the experts can be wrong. For example, the New York Times recently reported that scientists in general have basically been wrong about what makes a healthy diet for about a half century. But at least with science there’s a correction mechanism of some kind, namely other science. Unlike, say, conservativism, science doesn’t exist to endorse past beliefs. If scientists could prove that the Earth has secretly been flat all these years, they would, and the other scientists, instead of taking it as a personal affront, would probably give them a Nobel prize.

The same holds for academia. A sociology professor isn’t going to get ahead just by finding a way to blame America first. She’s going to have to do some sociology stuff, which will probably be judged on the quality of the scholarship rather than the viewpoint espoused. Just as there is no organization called Science that holds secret meetings to determine which part of Christianity is going down next, there is no cabal of academics trying to keep campuses liberal, as in, “You barely seem to grasp the difference between supply and demand, but you say you ‘really like Marx,’ so you’re our new economics professor.”

In reality, conservatives ought to appreciate academia, because it’s a vicious market system. Professors have absurdly specific training in tiny career fields. A guy who spends years writing a dissertation on the importance of beads to indigenous tribes in Brazil really wants the world’s other bead expert to fail. If he doesn’t get tenure, there’s a good chance he won’t find a decent job anywhere else ever. He doesn’t care whether bead-man number two is a Republican; he could be left of Castro and the first guy would still spend days writing scathing articles blasting his shoddy bead analysis.

Similarly, Columbia isn’t going to refuse to hire a conservative who has done prominent work, because rich people like prominence, and we at Columbia need rich people to send us their progeny. You could argue that conservative professors have a more difficult time becoming prominent, but if most professors are liberal, then a conservative doing convincing research or writing influential journal articles would probably just be more conspicuous. You might also argue that the liberal environment at Columbia makes conservatives less inclined to work here, but that just sounds like a way of saying that conservatives are pansies who can’t handle disagreement, which seems unfair to me.

Speaking pragmatically, it doesn’t really matter why campuses are liberal, because we don’t have a way to change that. Theoretically, schools could start hiring professors based on their political beliefs, but that’s uncomfortably like totalitarianism, or, even worse, some kind of affirmative action. Of course, if academia is truly a marketplace, and there are truly students interested in conservative education, then we ought to see the emergence of conservative universities. So far we have at least one. It’s called Liberty University, and it is to academia what Larry the Cable Guy is to the performing arts.

If conservatives truly feel under-represented in the academy, their only option is to do better work. They shouldn’t allow themselves to be coddled by some sort of regulatory system looking out for their welfare. It’s a mistake, however, to say that we even need more conservative voices at Columbia. We need good scholarship and good pedagogy, and not lip service to an ideology just because it’s popular. That may mean we hire conservatives, or, if history is any indication, it more likely won’t. If we judge professors purely on their work, however, conservativism will have the place in academia that it deserves.

    Posted by on Saturday, November 10, 2007 at 03:24 AM in Economics, Politics, Universities | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (49)


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