Saturday, February 20, 2010

Does this justify the left-liberal bias on campus?

It's a common complaint of conservatives that universities have a left-wing bias.

Jere P. Surber is a professor of philosophy at the University of Denver. He is a left-liberal who agrees that the arts faculties are strongly biased to the left. But he thinks that there are three good reasons for this.

Before I summarise these three reasons, just a quick point on terminology. Surber distinguishes between a "liberalism" which dominates the arts faculties and a "conservatism" which dominates the business faculties. By "liberalism" is meant what we would call in Australia "left-liberalism". And the "conservatism" in the business faculties is really a kind of economic liberalism, a right-liberalism.

So why does Professor Surber think it natural and reasonable for the arts faculties to be dominated by left-liberalism?

1) Envy

It's best if I let Professor Surber explain this one:

First ... virtually all instructors in the liberal arts are aware of the disparity between their level of education and their financial situation. There's no secret that the liberal arts are the lowest-compensated sector of academe, despite substantially more advanced study  ... You don't have to be a militant Marxist to recognize that people's political persuasions will align pretty well with their economic interests. It's real simple: Those who have less and want more will tend to support social changes that promise to accomplish that; those who are already economic winners will want to conserve their status.

I don't mean to suggest that issues of conscience beyond the confines of crass self-interest don't play an important role for many in the liberal arts, but their basic economic condition virtually assures that those in the liberal arts will be natural-born liberals. Who, after all, would want to preserve a situation in which others who are equivalently educated and experienced—doctors, engineers, lawyers, scientists, colleagues in other areas, and, yes, chief executives—receive vastly more compensation ...

Every time I read this I'm left speechless. If Professor Surber were working in Australia he'd be on $135,000 a year. He'd also enjoy some perks of the job, such as frequent trips overseas for academic conferences. Yet, in his mind, he's not getting what he's entitled to, given his splendiferous level of education ... because someone else is getting more.


2) The evidence of history

According to Professor Surber, it is left-liberals who study history; therefore it is left-liberals who discover the truth that history is all about the struggle against oppression; therefore the only respectable intellectual position is that of left-liberalism:

A second reason that liberal-arts professors tend to be politically liberal is that they have very likely studied large-scale historical processes and complex cultural dynamics. Conservatives, who tend to evoke the need to preserve traditional connections with the past, have nonetheless contributed least to any detailed or thoughtful study of history. Most (although, of course, by no means all) prominent historians of politics, literature, the arts, religion, and even economics have tended, as conservatives claim, to be liberally biased. Fair enough. But if you actually take the time to look at history and culture, certain conclusions about human nature, society, and economics tend to force themselves on you. History has a trajectory, driven in large part by the desires of underprivileged or oppressed groups to attain parity with the privileged or the oppressor.

Consider the Greek struggle against Persian tyranny, the struggles to preserve the Roman Republic, the peasant uprisings of the Middle Ages, the American and French revolutions, the abolitionist and civil-rights movements, and now movements on behalf of other groups—women, Latinos, homosexuals, and the physically impaired. As President Obama recently put it, any open-minded review of history (and perhaps especially American history) teaches at least one clear lesson: There is a "right side of history," Obama said­—the side of those who would overcome prejudice, question unearned privilege, and resist oppression in favor of a more just condition.

If you don't study history, whether because it doesn't pad quarterly profits, isn't sufficiently scientific or objective, or threatens your own economic status, then you won't know any of that. But most of those in the liberal arts have concluded that there really isn't any other intellectually respectable way to interpret the broad contours of history and culture. They are liberal, in other words, by deliberate and reasoned choice, based upon the best available evidence.

They are liberal by deliberate and reasoned choice? This is myth making. The embarrassing truth for left-liberal professors is that liberalism is a long-standing orthodoxy that most Western intellectuals fall into. The idea that every professor just happens to end up agreeing with the orthodoxy after a process of "deliberate and reasoned choice" is incredible.

Note too that Professor Surber wants things both ways. He wants to hold to the pretence that intellectuals adopt liberalism via "deliberate and reasoned choice" rather than it being the orthodoxy, whilst at the same time claiming that liberalism is the only "intellectualy respectable way" to interpret history, i.e. that there can only be a liberal orthodoxy.

To rephrase this: we are supposed to accept that there can only be a liberal orthodoxy, but that it is accepted not as an orthodoxy but via the deliberate and reasoned choice of each intellectual. Yeah, sure.

Note too just how reductionist Professor Surber's understanding of history is. History is nothing more than the movement to overcome prejudice, question unearned privilege, and resist oppression in favor of a more just condition. This is obviously a reading backward of the political programme of the liberals of today into centuries past.

It also provides more evidence of the relatedness of left-liberalism and Marxism. It was, after all, Marx who wrote that, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." Isn't Professor Surber as a left-liberal pushing a similar idea?

And look at where Professor Surber's reductionism leads him. The Middle Ages gets reduced to the peasant uprisings; the history of America to the civil-rights movement. There is a view of man embedded in all this. Professor Surber assumes that the ideal man, who contributes to the trajectory of human history, is the one who agitates against privilege. So if German peasants have any historical meaning it was in their uprising against the landowners.

But this is a very limited view of man. I would like to think that a man might conceivably be measured by his strength of character, by the quality of his loves and attachments, by his productive contribution to society, by his success in raising children to adulthood, by his cultivation of knowledge, by his appreciation of culture, by the quality of his spiritual life, by his creativity and inventiveness, by his virtue, by his appreciation of the ordinary pleasures of life, by his ability to perceive beauty and goodness and so on.

If we have a more sophisticated view of man, then we can look at past societies and see more than occasional agitations for political reform.

3) Values

Professor Surber's final argument is that professors in the humanities,

have trained ourselves to think in complex, nuanced, and productive ways about the human condition 

It is this "open perspective on what types of values can be considered legitimate" that helps to explain why so many professors in the arts faculties are left-liberals.

If only. As I've already discussed, Professor Surber does not think in a complex way about the human condition but in a remarkably and disastrously reductionist way. Nor does he have an "open perspective" on "what kind of values can be considered legitimate". He told us earlier in his essay that there was only one "intellectually respectable" way to look at history, namely via left-liberal values. And later on he tells us that there is considerable agreement in the arts faculties "on what constitutes the good life," based on "some sort of a broadly liberal point of view."

I don't see how you get from this insistence that left-liberal values are the politically correct ones to the idea that left-liberals are unique in having an "open perspective on what types of values can be considered legitimate".


(Hat tip: David Thompson)

16 comments:

  1. If Professor Surber were working in Australia he'd be on $135,000 a year.

    Rubbish. The average academic would probably earn about half of that, maybe slightly more, and would be on a fixed-term contract.

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  2. If Professor Surber were working in Australia as a professor then he'd be on about $135,000 a year. There is a pay scale with professors at the top and associate lecturers on the bottom.

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  3. The point is that professors think they should be paid the same as doctors and lawyers, whom the professors think have "the same amount of education" as them. This is, of course, preposterous for many different reasons.

    Professors in the United States are grossly overpaid, work very little, and have immunity from being fired to boot. They have no idea how good they have it compared to the vast majority of the people in the private sector; all they can think about is that some people are doing better than they are.

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  4. Life is full of "unearned" privileges starting from mother taking care of the baby. If Surber is so concerned about the "unearned", he should stop eating. Sunlight, biochemical reactions in plants etc. to which his food is based are totally unearned by him.

    Those qualities with which a man borns with are at least as much part of him than those which he "earns"; more so, in matter of fact, "earning" is a partly a matter of choice, inherent qualities are permanently part of him.

    How about professor Surber's unearned IQ that enabled him to reach his position. He should be fired because of that unearned privilege.

    How about the huge infrastructure, culture and trust that Surber's/ Australians' ancestors and contemporaries have built, created and preserved, to which his upbringing, education and society is based. Unearned by him. Take away his unearned position and put him to the streets with a brush.

    I can go on and on, if necessary.

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  5. Mark Richardson says: "There is a pay scale with professors at the top and associate lecturers on the bottom."

    I think that in Australia ordinary lecturers would be well below associate lecturers these days in terms of pay, and would find it considerably more difficult to get tenure - thanks be to God - than they would've done even 20 years ago. Today the real money and job opportunities at Sydney and Melbourne universities, below the professorship level, are to be found not in teaching or in research but in administration.

    Recently, I did several hours of cleaning work at an Australian college. (With luck, there will be more such work soon.) As I did so, I reflected with pleasure on the fact that I might well be getting more money on an hourly basis - even after tax - than some of the PhD-toting staff members, at the bottom of the academic tree, would receive.

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  6. As a philosopher, Professor Surber should have learned to prefer the explanation with the fewest assumptions. Academics have spent a long time in school, but it is an assumption that this represents advanced training. I have been a professor at what is generally accounted a major research university for twenty years, and would grade the historical knowledge of most faculty (including the liberal arts faculty) as poor to average. Surber's essay is a useful, if embarrassing, description of what many professors see when they look in the mirror. The simple explanation for left-liberal bias in universities is (a) secondary socialization in graduate school, and (b) the tendency of the non-left-liberals who survive this indoctrination to exit the system due to harassment, boredom, or disgust.

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  7. Mark said:

    "Note too just how reductionist Professor Surber's understanding of history is. History is nothing more than the movement to overcome prejudice, question unearned privilege, and resist oppression in favor of a more just condition. This is obviously a reading backward of the political programme of the liberals of today into centuries past."

    I totally agree. Because leftie/liberals see history in such a narrow way they often have a limited grasp on it or actually aren't that interested in it. The past is all the bad stuff that happened before we got to the good now. The past can be cherry picked for examples of early "strivings to moderness", eg the peasant uprisings or Spartacus. Alternatively as myth making and hagiography of the early left pioneers, Wollstencraft, Marx, Dr Martin Luther King. Additionally it can viewed as an endless smorgasbord of uncivilised behavior, eg witch trials, inequality/racism, wars, which make modern leftie/liberal policies/people so advanced.

    History for leftie/liberals certainly isn't the study or understanding of what actually went on!

    Incidentally on the pay issue Australian professors’ are well paid but its considered a higher rank here than in America.

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  8. I would also add its quite an advance to get these guys to admit they're actually left wing. Usually any attempt to portray them as such is considered an "ugly right wing smear".

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  9. A Finn wrote:

    "How about the huge infrastructure, culture and trust that Surber's/ Australians' ancestors and contemporaries have built, created and preserved, to which his upbringing, education and society is based. Unearned by him."

    This I totally agree with. Not just unearned but totally taken for granted. Also endlessly toyed with, stuffed around with and derided on the pretence of making a "better" future.

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  10. "History has a trajectory, driven in large part by the desires of underprivileged or oppressed groups to attain parity with the privileged or the oppressor... the abolitionist and civil-rights movements, and now movements on behalf of other groups—women, Latinos, homosexuals, and the physically impaired. "

    This is Whig history. The professor lacks the tragic understanding that oppressed groups often seek not parity with their supposed oppressors, but rather supremacy over them.

    The identity groups he mentions now have lobbies in politics and academia. These create structural incentives for leftism and disincentives for conservatism.

    In the US, many schools even require professors' syllabi guidelines to explain how their courses will do justice to these identity groups.

    Accreditation rules and government laws also encourage colleges to advance a left-wing ideal of diversity.

    There is also the matter of lawsuits. The American biology professor who killed several of her colleagues recently had previously filed a lawsuit charging sexual discrimination. In the academy's ideological hothouse, leftism is a necessary defense against frivolous charges from leftists.

    There is a commonplace saying about the free marketplace of ideas. In truth, that market is rigged.

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  11. Such honesty from a leftist is always refreshing because it is so rare.

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  12. Kevin J Jones wrote:

    "This is Whig history. The professor lacks the tragic understanding that oppressed groups often seek not parity with their supposed oppressors, but rather supremacy over them."

    This seems an unfortunate fact. Look at what happened in South Africa. Not equality between groups (as was promised) but the replacing of one group with another. Equality is such a difficult, odd concept to achieve in pracitse. Its takes place in a momentary blink of the eye as one group overtakes another.

    But its slightly a moot point anyway because most leftists aren't actually arguing for equality but domination. Equality is the stalking horse.

    Equality does sound good though. The concept sounds very harmonious, even if the reality is something different.

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  13. On another point entirely. I think I've come to the conclusion that I'm a blogging addict. I need people to post to feed my addiction.

    Now that that terrible secret is out I'm off to read or something.

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  14. Jesse wrote,

    "On another point entirely. I think I've come to the conclusion that I'm a blogging addict. I need people to post to feed my addiction."

    I hear you, man. A few months ago, I came to that conclusion, and swore it off: no reading blogs ever.

    But I found out pretty quickly that I just started watching TV again or asking other people that did to tell me what was going on in the world.

    After a few days, I figured that blogging wasn't a new addiction as much as a substitute for an older one: hearing news about the world around me. And if that's an addiction, I'm not so sure addictions are that bad.

    Nah, just joking: I limit my blogging time now, just like I used to limit my TV time. ;)

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  15. From teh article:
    In Germany, where I did a good deal of my graduate work and have been a visiting professor on numerous occasions, compensation is determined by civil-service rank rather than academic field. Probably because German conservatives have rarely attacked academe as a hotbed of liberalism, and privacy laws prevent such polling of civil servants, the sort of studies reported on in the Times aren't generally available. But my own experience indicates that German professors and instructors are paid roughly equivalently across disciplines and in comparison with other nonacademic professionals, so they tend, for the most part, to be moderate or even conservative.

    He is basically saying that one's ideas and beliefs are merely a product of one's material circumstance. Given a different salary, he would see the world differently. That puts leftism ( or any philosophy) in a rather weak position doesn't it?

    It also contradicts the notion of the right and wrong side of history and the "true" interpretation of world events which he espouses.

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