Why ask why?

By and large, academics are a liberal bunch. With studious reference to the numbers of registered democrats versus registered republicans, a few recent newspaper articles have reminded us (academics) of just how liberal we are as a group. A few other articles, and now an op-ed piece by George Will, have ventured explanations. While it is not disputable that academics–especially professors of humanities–are by and large of generally left or liberal political orientation, just *why* they are is another story. And since we are dealing with academics, some of them philosophy professors, we might point out that the question, “*why*?” is a tricky one. This little word could, after all, mean a lot of different things. Among them the following:

1. What reasons do they have (or somehow collectively enunciate) for their beliefs?

2. What significant explanatory features do they uniquely share as a group that might cause them to have certain properties in common (such as beliefs)?

As you can see, these are fundamentally different versions of the “why” question (we could go on, but that would be so, how do you say, *academic*). A common habit of the media is to treat answers to the latter question as sufficient answers to the former, when they are in actuality different questions altogether. We find an example of this in George Will’s Sunday op-ed in the *Washington Post* (11/28/04).

In answering this question, Will repeats the usual conservative line (which applies, by the way, to anything nowadays–the media, Hollywood, Boy Scouts):

>A filtering process, from graduate school admissions through tenure decisions, tends to exclude conservatives from what Mark Bauerlein calls academia’s “sheltered habitat.”

So what explains why there are so many liberals in academia is liberal *bias*. How do liberals effectuate this bias? Well,

>in order to enter the profession, your work must be deemed, by the criteria of the prevailing culture, “relevant.”

It’s clear now where this argument is going. The quotation marks signal that Will is taking a right turn onto hyperbole drive. He cites a few examples of what he takes to be extreme liberal bias, then allows the reader to conclude that he has made his point about academia in general:

>”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.”

Even if any of this were true–and it isn’t–these instances of overt political orientation in academia hardly constitute sufficient evidence for the more robust claim that academia skews unjustifiably (that is to say, in a biased way) leftward. Perhaps more appropriate would be a survey of departments and programs that the greater majority of schools share as a part of their basic academic program. Will, and Bauerlein on whom he relies, might take on the substantially more difficult task of unveiling the hidden but nonetheless “regnant” premises of any of the following disciplines: History, English, Classics, Foreign Language, Psychology, Sociology, Philosophy, Economics, and Political Science. (It might also be pointed out that African-American studies has a whole lot more to offer than arguments for affirmative action, and women’s studies encompasses more than critiques of the contemporary American nuclear family, but that’s really a factual (not a logical) matter).

Nonetheless, having presumed, on the strength of such an obvious dearth of evidence, that he has said something meaningful about academia as a whole, Will he sets his sights on the more ambitious explanatory point:

>This gives rise to what Bauerlein calls the “false consensus effect,” which occurs when, because of institutional provincialism, “people think that the collective opinion of their own group matches that of the larger population.” There also is what Cass Sunstein, professor of political science and jurisprudence at the University of Chicago, calls “the law of group polarization.” Bauerlein explains: “When like-minded people deliberate as an organized group, the general opinion shifts toward extreme versions of their common beliefs.” They become tone-deaf to the way they sound to others outside their closed circle of belief.

Now just because academics tend to draw similar conclusions, and just because they hold beliefs that differ little from each other (but perhaps much from the population at large) does not mean that there are not independent justifications for these beliefs. Most physicists, for instance, probably hold beliefs as a class that differ wildly from the population as a whole but little from each other. This fact alone does not mean they are wrong, or that they are subject to Orwellian groupthink, as Will suggests. Perhaps the nature of their expertise is an indication that there is a greater chance they are right. And, considering the kinds of debates about high school science curricula one unfortunately hears nowadays, only a completely out of touch physicist would think his view agrees with that of the public at large. And the same, I think, would go for just about any academic who pronounces on a matter in which she has demonstrated competence. In other words, the number of those who hold a position is completely irrelevant to whether or not the position is well justified.

And this is precisely the point. It is our task on this website to consider the *reasons* an op-ed writer advances for his or her position, not the accidental features such a person might share with others of the same class. Were we to engage in such an analysis, we might point out that certain pundits seem always to make the same sorts of conservative or liberal arguments, and since these arguments are obviously wrong, there must be some sort of psychological reason for the pundit in question to hold it. Perhaps the pundit is a failed and resentful academic, and the greater majority of such persons hold conservative views on account of their deep resentment of the institution that snubbed them. But such a strategy would not only be logically unsound, but would fail the simplest of all charity tests: when your opponent holds an argument different from yours, assume she has reasons for her belief.

2 thoughts on “Why ask why?”

  1. “Perhaps the pundit is a failed and resentful academic, and that the greater majority of such persons hold conservative views on account of their deep resentment of the institution that snubbed them.”
    In Will’s case, this explanation workks for me.

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