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The Intellectual Monoculture of Higher Education

Departments filter out opinions that are different from the norm

By George Leef

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August 17, 2006

“It just won’t do to have an all-white university,” Harvard’s president Derek Bok said several years ago, attempting to justify the policy of favoring non-white applicants. The rallying cry for “diversity” proponents has long been that our institutions should “look like America” – that is, to mirror the composition of society with regard to racial, ethnic, and other classifications of individuals. Taking them at their word, what about diversity of philosophy? What about intellectual diversity?

In education, you would think that diversity of ideas would be at least as, if not more important than skin color or sexual preferences. But when it has been pointed out that college faculties tend to be very homogeneous when it comes to their beliefs on socio-economic questions, the response from the higher education establishment has mostly been that it’s a threat to academic freedom even to discuss the matter. No need for “all colors of the rainbow” when it comes to points of view on the proper relationship between state and society. Many academic departments are intellectual monocultures, with hiring preferences by those in authority filtering out any new professors whose opinions are much different from the norm. They think that is perfectly fine.

A recent study by Professor Daniel Klein of the economics department of George Mason University and Charlotta Stern of the Institute for Social Research at Stockholm University strongly supports the idea that American higher education is short on intellectual diversity. (The paper, “Professor and Their Politics: The Policy Views of Social Scientists,” is available here.) Klein and Stern’s work is descriptive; they want to find out what professors in several branches of social science (anthropology, economics, history, political/legal philosophy, political science, and sociology) think about a wide array of political philosophy questions. They don’t try to explain why we have an academic monoculture, or declare that it’s a problem calling for action. What they do show is that the American professoriate is overwhelmingly drawn from a narrow band of the political spectrum.

First, the survey asked about voting and found that 80 percent generally support Democrats, 9 percent Republicans, and 1 percent each for Green and Libertarian. (The remaining 9 percent consists of no answer, “other party” and “don’t vote” responses.) The ratio of Democrats to Republicans was highest in anthropology and sociology, where it exceeds 20 to 1, and is lowest in economics, where it is less than 3 to 1.

Then the survey turned to a series of 18 questions on public policy issues. Among the issues were protective tariffs, minimum wage laws, federal regulation of workplace safety, anti-discrimination laws, prohibition of the sale and use of “hard” drugs, laws against gambling and prostitution, increasing control over immigration, the use of the American military abroad to promote democracy, and foreign aid. What did Klein and Stern find?
One conclusion they drew is that the Democrats and Republicans generally fit the “liberal” and “conservative” types. The faculty Democrats tend to strongly support government policies that ostensibly help the poor and control the economy, whereas the small coterie of Republicans is more friendly toward free enterprise and market forces. Surprisingly, however, the policy disagreements are less pronounced than one might expect. Klein and Stern find that both Democrats and Republicans are generally in favor of interventionist policies. They write, “The political rhetoric of Republican politicians often favors ‘free markets’ and ‘free enterprise.’ However, the Republican professors are not opponents of economic regulation and redistribution per se. And while Democrats often say that they favor tolerating diverse lifestyles, the Democratic professors do not, in absolute terms, oppose restrictions on hard drugs, prostitution, and gambling; nor are they strong opponents of military action abroad (at least in the abstract).”

Resorting to a musical analogy, it’s as though we have one group of musicians who want to play Bach and another group that wants to play Handel. We have very few musicians who would rather play Beethoven or Stravinsky or jazz or reggae.

To the extent that personal policy views end up in class discussions (as they frequently do), students are apt to hear mostly “mainstream” opinions from their professors. There certainly are some who hold to radical views and would probably challenge their students to examine the conventional wisdom, but not many. For example, on the issue of the minimum wage, Democrats might be inclined to advocate a substantial increase and Republicans to advocate no or only a small increase, but how many would get their students to think about whether it’s wise to dictate wages and prices through politics?

Based only on their own opinions, probably not many. Of course, some professors do attempt to fairly present views that are opposed to theirs and play devil’s advocate to encourage students to consider them carefully. Klein and Stern did not attempt to find out how often that is the case.

What is particularly arresting is the authors’ analysis of the academic monoculture we now seem to have:

Spaulding and Turner (1968) suggested that the social sciences and
humanities were dominated by the left by virtue of their courageous
willingness to criticize the status quo. This ‘critical thinking’ explanation
constantly resurfaces in debates over academic bias. Four decades after
Spaulding and Turner’s research, however, it seems that there is now a ‘status
quo left’ on campus. The establishment left and the progressives differ little
and dominate the social sciences and humanities. Even the tiny contingent
of conservatives differs only moderately from the establishment left. We close
by asking whether the libertarians, whose views are very different and in an
intelligible way, are not today’s social-science ‘critical thinkers.’”

Klein and Stern are not demanding that academic departments begin to write their job postings with language like “Libertarians and other intellectually underrepresented minorities encouraged to apply.” If colleges and universities are really interested in diversity, though, perhaps they should.

 


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