Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Culture Warriors are Wrong: Part MCMXLIII

The only people who still believe the right-wing critique of academia are those who haven't set foot on a college campus for years or those who are so blinded by their own doctrinaire conservatism that any challenge to the existing order seems hopelessly radical. Most of the pundits and bloggers who push this line, of course, don't really believe it themselves. They merely resent the right's inability to penetrate the academy and silence left-of-center voices the way they have so effectively done in politics and journalism.

Because those who see American universities as leftist indoctrination centers are either ignorant, fanatical, or dishonest, there's really no reason to believe that they can be persuaded by facts or data. Study and after study provides evidence that academic indoctrination is neither common nor successful, but that hasn't daunted David Horowitz or the folks at ACTA. Neither will the latest research by a bipartisan pair of political scientists, soon to be published in one of their discipline's general interest journals.

Using a comprehensive survey of U.S. college students, the authors find only a slight liberal drift in ideology between the freshman and senior years. Further, they suggest that this drift can be explained by factors other than the political leanings of the students' professors. Indeed, even after four (or more) years of supposedly leftist indoctrination, the number of seniors describing their views as "far left" still falls below their age cohort in the general population.

No doubt we will hear the usual responses from the usual suspects. Some will take issue with the study's methodology. The most common, however, will sidestep the findings altogether and argue that the supposed lack of intellectual diversity on campus damages students even if most tenured radicals fail to persuade their captive audience.

On the website Inside Higher Ed, an article quotes a professor named Daniel Klein, a George Mason University economist who evidently obsesses about these matters. “Even if it were true that students totally took a Bart Simpson attitude toward their college professors and were completely uninfluenced by them," Kline tells the website, "I still think it would be a tragedy that during those four years, they were not getting the good stuff.” Tragedy is where you find it, I suppose, though when I encounter the word, I normally think of Hurricane Katrina rather than a 22-year old graduate going out into the world having never read Milton Friedman.

As for the "good stuff", well, leave it to a critic of the so-called liberal academy to undermine his own point. Precisely what makes Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and Adam Smith (these are the examples Klein cites) "the good stuff' rather than, say, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, or even Paul Krugman? The answer, of course, is nothing, or at least nothing more than Klein's own judgment. Presumably, he would tell us that this judgment is based on his understanding of economics and objective reality rather than his desire to indoctrinate the students he encounters each semester. Imagine, though, how he and similar academic critics would respond to a leftist professor making an equivalent statement.

(For what it's worth, by the way, if you Google "economics", "syllabus", and "Keynes", you get 17,300 hits. If you Google "economics", "syllabus", and "Friedman", you get 102,000. Replace "Friedman" with "Marx" and the number declines to 68,100. It is certainly possible that all of these economists are simply availing themselves of the opportunity to trash Milton Friedman before an impressionable young audience, but that seems unlikely. Rather, though this little quick and dirty survey may not prove much, it does suggest that perhaps Professor Klein can take heart that at least one tragedy has been averted during the Bush Administration.)

If Daniel Klein can reference "The Simpsons", I can cite "South Park". The right-wing critique of the academy reminds me of the Underpants Gnomes, an industrious little group of cartoon characters who steal boxers and briefs out of the characters' homes. When finally traced to their hideout, the Gnomes explain that their theft is part of a three-step business plan. Step One concerns stealing underwear, while Step Three involves making a profit. When asked about Step Two, the Gnomes explain that they are still working on that one. The show does not make clear whether the Underpants Gnomes studied Hayek.

Interestingly, the logic of the anti-academic right displays a similar fundamental flaw. For them, Step One is proving that college professors, especially in the humanities and social sciences, are far more likely to be liberals and Democrats than the population at large, which they are. Step Three is to assert that this fact exposes American college students to the risk and reality of political indoctrination. But they never quite come to grips with Step Two, which would require evidence that these supposedly tenured leftists actually seek to indoctrinate in the first place. One of the few attempts to do this, ACTA's risible "How Many Ward Churchills?" study of college syllabi, failed so comprehensively that the organization's president, Anne Neal, was forced to argue that her methodological critics were "applying irrelevant 'scientific’ standards to textual analysis", a statement so profoundly ignorant that it released Ms. Neal from any further consideration as a serious student of the academy.

But the full truth is even more damaging. This latest study by the two political scientists demonstrates that Horowitz, ACTA, and the rest are, in fact, even less credible than the Underpants Gnomes. Not only have they failed to address Step Two, but now it appears that they fall short on Step Three as well. It's hard to sustain shrill jeremiads against academic brainwashing when the empirical evidence demonstrates persuasively that such indoctrination doesn't even take place.

It must be frustrating to conservatives that they have been unable to get the same sort of toehold in the academy that they enjoy in politics and the mass media. Unfortunately, the academic culture demands that adherents to any theory defend their assertions with evidence, something most right-wing culture warriors have little experience at. Even leftist professors must submit their work to peer review, and they cannot expect to pass the bar simply on the basis of their politics.

But in one sense, none of this really matters. The cultural right will forge ahead with their plans regardless of how high the mountain of evidence against them grows. They are not interested in reality; they are interested in ideological hegemony. After all, as Stephen Colbert once pointed out, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias."


redbarb said...

Stephen Colbert, South Park Underpants Gnomes and PS all in one blog entry. I believe you have set a record that will be very difficult to match.

The Man Who Was Never Born said...

I think the Underpants Gnomes would be great political scientists, probably in the rational choice field:

Step 1: Form preferences.

Step 3: Vote.

What's Step 2?

Figuring out why rational people should go to the polls in the first place, given the low probability that their vote will be decisive. We're still working on that one...

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