The first questions ought to be what one means by “leftist,” and how one goes about ascertaining the number of such “leftists” in academia. Dr. Christine Overall, a Professor in Philosophy at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, believes that a number of studies have shown that leftists predominate in universities in both Canada and the United States. As someone who did his Bachelor’s degree at York University in Toronto, I recalled having only one Canadian professor out of 20 for the courses I took, and that the majority were Americans who came to Canada during the Vietnam War, and the majority of those overtly used Marxist theory as an analytical tool in their courses (I am still not convinced that Marxism was much more than a research instrument in many of those cases). What I heard frequently at the time was that York was something of an exception, as an especially left-leaning university. And if the predominant prejudices were correct, then there is another exception: me. I am not a Marxist. Not only did I not turn out as a Marxist, I was not a Marxist then. And if I am to be considered a leftist, my leftist ideas were none of the ones that were taught to me. Was I penalized for not adhering? I graduated Summa cum Laude, the top student in my program, and in the top 0.2% of all students graduating from York in 1990. I was also awarded the prize for academic excellence by a York college named after a prominent Canadian communist: Norman Bethune. So much for the vulgar theory of indoctrination by mere exposure. So much for the tall tales of professors who punish students for not toeing the party line.
Writing in Canada’s exceptional university news magazine, University Affairs (no offense to Inside Higher Ed or my other favourite, The Chronicle of Higher Education, but here is your very strong competitor), in an article titled, “Lefty Profs” (12 January 2009), Christine Overall notes the push for greater intellectual diversity. What we are meant to understand by that is that more right wing perspectives need to be taught, and more than that, the people teaching those perspectives need to actually believe them themselves.
Overall takes us through the arguments around the apparent leftist predominance, examining their assumptions, checking their validity and reasons, and then drawing what seems to be the most appropriate conclusion.
One explanation is that more “liberal” than “conservative” students remain in academia. One idea here (one largely bypassed by Overall) is that more conservative types go where the money is, and not into academia with what is now the normal average of 15 years of training, with high debt loads, low income, deferred earnings, and a lifestyle that often approaches that of the vagabond. Overall is instead more charitable, and she does not suggest that “conservatives” reject academic work because it does not pay well enough. Instead, she focuses on psychological predispositions. What if conservative types are not psychologically predisposed to enter academia, or to stay in it? Overall suggests that such a view — that conservative or right wing types are not predisposed to see themselves as academics to begin with — is not a view that is flattering to conservatives. As she puts it,
Scholars like to believe they adopt a particular viewpoint on the basis of the evidence, not because their personality predisposes them to that outlook. Academics are, after all, paid to think, and to think carefully. Either academics’ political views are formed on the basis of good-faith attempts to reason on the basis of evidence or they are not. If they are not, then, as scholars, they are the dupes of their psychological predispositions.
The other alternative, and this is the conclusion toward which Overall gravitates, is the one that most right wing commentators do not wish to hear, let alone entertain:
if a lot of smart, well-educated and conscientious people tend to form left-wing views, then perhaps those views are justified. When a majority of skilled and informed academics converge on a particular theory or set of ideas, we ordinarily tend to respect their authority. So perhaps the dearth of conservatives in academia can be explained because it is just harder to hold right-wing views in the face of compelling evidence against them. That is, maybe right-wing views are more difficult to justify. In that case, we should not expect evenly balanced “intellectual diversity” with respect to political matters embodied by scholars within universities.
If one disagrees, then what are the alternative explanations? That all political views are the same, and there is no way of differentiating between them? That political views are merely the product of subjective feelings? Then if the latter is true, why do so many individuals have the same subjectivities that drive them to hold the same feelings?
One possibility that Overall does not address is that hiring committees select persons with the “right” political views — now one must entertain that as a possibility. Are there any studies that show how often persons appearing before hiring committees are interviewed about their personal political leanings? My experience with hiring committees is limited, because I have been lucky: not only were my political positions never the subject of discussion, I also had no idea about what the politics of the department, the university, or the majority of students might have been. Indeed, the only time I knew of the politics of a single faculty member, he was an acrimonious right winger who embraced me warmly. He was also not on the hiring committee, just one of those department members who takes you to lunch or breakfast so you can get to meet other prospective colleagues — and he made my breakfast go down the wrong way when his guess, based on the title of the talk I was to give to the department, was that my work connoted post-modernist orientations. So the most politically vocal person, one with a public profile in one of Canada’s leading right-wing think-tanks (the Fraser Institute), not only got my politics wrong, he was more than friendly regardless of what they might have been. The other fact is well known: if you want to get a job, you mute your politics. So the political selection argument seems spurious.
Some might say that you can divinate the politics in the research that one does. That is true, but in especially rare cases. With so much post-modern ambiguity, eloquent and aimless ambivalence, cross-theorist fertilization, and complex nuances that seemed designed to evade conclusive statements, it is almost impossible to tell.When I thought I knew, I was wrong.
Back to Overall’s argument, that subjectivism seems implausible as an explanation. As she argues,
…if you want to reject subjectivism with respect to political views, then you’re committed to saying there are ways of rationally evaluating political views and deciding among them. In that case, the predominance of left-wing scholars in academia starts to seem like not merely the fortuitous outcome of self-selection on the basis of personality but rather a growing consensus of knowledgeable people — and therefore something to be respected.
Now that really would be radical: to see academics respected and not treated as cartoonish, villainous stereotypes sunk in padded arm chairs, nourishing their gluttony and gazing at their widening navels. Even more radical, and less personal perhaps, is to start seeing academics outside of the simplistic little boxes in which popular culture places them. Otherwise we are left with an umcomfortable truth as an alternative to the more common saying: those who can’t “do,” think — or those who can’t “do,” question.