Inside Higher Ed just ran a story titled, "Eye of the Beholder," which reports on an article showing that there is a strong correlation between being conservative and not open to changing one's mind and perceiving liberal bias in the classroom. Similar thing happens with closed-minded liberals — they have the habit of seeing conservative bias.
The study found that students — even in the same classrooms — didn't perceive bias in the same ways (or at all), and those who perceived bias were those who were resistant to changing any of their views. The finding extended to some who identified themselves as being far on the left and resistant to change, and who believed that they had some biased conservative professors. But among both left-leaning and right-leaning students who didn't score high on resistance to new ideas, there was little perception of bias.
In short, if you're dogmatic about your views, you're likely the one to report having a biased professor. (Sidebar: my experience is perfectly consistent with this, as pretty much every person who's ever accused me of classroom bias has either been a blinkered conservative or a raging Marxist. That said, this, apparently is true of me.)
What explains this variation in perception of bias in the classroom? The lead researcher, Darren Linvill of Clemson University, proposes:
…[T]here may be elite colleges and universities where students arrive as freshmen used to having their views challenged by teachers, and that might still be "an ideal." But he said that the reality he sees from his research is that this is a foreign concept to many entering college students today.
That's it – challenging a view is a case of bias. In a way, yes, it is. It is biased against dogmatism. (A question: is this a case of self-serving bias, as the dogmatic students tend to do poorly in discussion and blame it on professor bias instead of their own lack of preparation? Is it self-serving to offer that as an explanation?)
I pick on "conservative" columnists a lot here. I've noted elsewhere (click here) why this is so. Now I am not the only one making this observation. From County Fair:
Last week, I noted that the numerical advantage conservatives have on the nation's op-ed pages doesn't tell the whole story:
There's a huge qualitative difference between the conservatives given newspaper columns and their progressive counterparts as well. The conservatives tend to be more partisan, more aggressive, and more reliable advocates for their "team."
The Washington Post employs as a columnist Bill Kristol, a hyperpartisan neocon Republican strategist who has been a key player in GOP efforts to block health care and start unnecessary wars. Who is supposed to be Kristol's counterpart? Richard Cohen, who opposes affirmative action, supports torture, and attacked liberals who opposed Kristol's war in Iraq?
Now, here's what you see if you turn to the op-ed page of today's Washington Post:
Former Bush speechwriter and current Post columnist Michael Gerson on "The Democrats' Assault on the CIA."
Conservative Post columnist Kathleen Parker on chaos in the GOP.
Former Bush aide Ed Gillespie, misleading readers about his party's historical reaction to Supreme Court nominees by Democratic presidents.
Centrist Post columnist David Ignatius on President Obama's approach to Israel
Liberal Post columnist Ruth Marcus writing about her new puppy.
So that's three conservatives, including two former Bush aides, a centrist, and a progressive. One conservative attacking Democrats, one conservative misleading readers about the Supreme Court and attacking Democrats, one conservative noting disarray in the GOP, and a liberal writing about her dog.
I invite those who hunger for balance on this page to produce the party-line liberal columnists in national newspapers.
Discussions of bias seem to take on a similar pattern. Aside from the groundless hurling of the "you're biased" accusation, someone will quickly make the claim that "bias" is inevitable and that we all have our own unjustified biases, so why bother. Here is yet another way, the Stanley Fish way, to deal with questions of bias:
I agree that it is important to have a position on such questions of truth, but the classroom is not the place to work that position out; the classroom is, however, the place to consider the efforts of men and women to work it out in the course of centuries. Steven Brence may or may not be right when he announces that an “untenable” Hobbesian notion of individualism is responsible for “much of contemporary conservative thought.” But “untenable” is not a judgment he should render, although he should make an historical argument about conservative thought’s indebtedness to Hobbes. Save “untenable” for the soapbox.
Sarah asks, what good does academic conversation “do us if it does not put us in a better position to assess current theories and thoughts?” It depends what you mean by assess. If you mean analyze, lay bare the structure of, trace the antecedents of, then well and good. But if it means pronouncing on the great issues of the day — yes we should export democracy to the rest of the world or no we shouldn’t — then what she calls assessing I call preaching.
Sarah touches on what is perhaps the most urgent question one could put to the enterprise of liberal education. What, after all, justifies it? The demand for justification, as I have said in other places, always come from those outside the enterprise. Those inside the enterprise should resist it, because to justify something is to diminish it by implying that its value lies elsewhere. If the question What justifies what you do? won’t go away, the best answer to give is “nothing.”
Now I hate to be the guy who draws the facile conclusion, but isn't "laying bear the structure of" a kind of "pronouncing on"? I mean, if I say, "this argument has the structure (and say content) of an equivocation," aren't I pronouncing on it? Or should I not teach logic, because it's biased?