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?
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.
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)