Liberals On Campus

A few days ago, the editorial page editor of the Indianapolis Star wrote an article in which he counseled a “young conservative” on how to navigate Indiana University’s “left-wing” campus in Bloomington.

There are so many things wrong with the consistent right wing trope about “lefty” professors, the perceived persecution of their conservative colleagues, and the imagined “indoctrination” of their students–where to begin?

For one thing, these critics are painting with a very broad brush. The so-called “elite” colleges–Harvard, Yale, etc.–probably do have faculties that are disproportionately politically liberal, but there are thousands of colleges and universities in the U.S. that most definitely do not fit that stereotype. Many of them are religious, and others are small and medium-sized institutions reflective of the communities in which they are located; very few of them are bastions of liberal brainwashing.

What this characterization of the “liberal” professorate actually reveals is the unacknowledged (and often unconscious) extremism of those who employ it. As “conservatives” have become more radical and doctrinaire, they have applied the term “liberal” more and more broadly. Today, “liberal” describes anyone who accepts the theory of evolution and the scientific consensus on climate change, anyone who believes  (along with some 80% of NRA members) that we need more rigorous background checks for gun buyers, anyone who supports (along with numerous faith groups and a majority of Americans) a woman’s right to control her own reproduction; and (again with a majority of Americans) anyone who condemns racism and other forms of bigotry.

Positions that used to be considered mainstream and uncontroversial–positions that were held by Republicans as well as Democrats–have become markers of political liberalism.

I’ve taught at the university level for the past twenty years, and if I had to identify one “ideology” that virtually all my colleagues have in common, it wouldn’t be a political “ism” at all; it would be a belief in the importance of data and evidence. What distinguishes academia –what makes its denizens “liberal” in the original sense of that word–is willingness to examine one’s own preconceptions and change positions when credible research proves those preconceptions wrong.

One of the enduring contributions of the period we call the Enlightenment was the scientific method, and what the early American colonists called “the new learning.” Before the emergence of science and empiricism, education began with “biblical truth,” and consisted of studying how “learned men” had explained and justified that truth. You began with the answer and learned how to confirm it. When science came along, it flipped the process: first, you asked  questions, and then, through repeated rigorous experimentation and observation of the world around you, you tried to find answers that others could replicate.

Today, political liberals and conservatives are both prone to start with the answers, and to become angry when data and fact don’t support those answers. The mission of the academy is inconsistent with political ideologies of all kinds; that mission is to ask questions, evaluate data, and follow the evidence to whatever conclusion it requires.

If the contemporary definition of a liberal is someone who accepts the scientific method and the importance of verifiable fact, then I suppose most of us are liberal. If teaching our students to follow the evidence is indoctrination, then we plead guilty.

 

 

28 thoughts on “Liberals On Campus

  1. Swarens and most others making this tired argument ignore the persistent influence of the voice of conservative talk-radio as a source of “facts” for their faithful. If we wanted to have a discussion about indoctrination and facts, we should start there and include accountability in the discussion.

  2. Well said. If Mr. Swarens had been on a campus lately, he would have found that the majority of students are majoring in Business, Nursing, Education, and Engineering. It is hard for me to imagine how “liberal” dogma can be imparted in those disciplines, so it is immaterial what the political beliefs of the faculty in those disciplines happen to be. What Conservatives are really concerned about is the existence of programs such as gender studies, in which their Patriarchal “frame” (to use George Lakoff’s concept) is not the dominant one. They see their world-view crumbling.

  3. You do realize that the Alt-Right does not give a damn about data and evidence? The left, liberals and progressives, are fighting a losing battle when they engage on those terms.

  4. “If the contemporary definition of a liberal is someone who accepts the scientific method and the importance of verifiable fact, then I suppose most of us are liberal. If teaching our students to follow the evidence is indoctrination, then we plead guilty.”

    I guess, I’m forced to be a liberal.

    The FACT of the matter is that the USA is not the place for creating a successful FASCIST MOVEMENT. It just won’t work. Creating a Civil War is much more of a reality if that’s what Trump/Pence/Bannon want to accomplish.

    Consequently, Trump and the vast majority of his ilk DISMISS the idea of evidence. If they didn’t they would realize that they are committing POLITICAL SUICIDE, which was eventually the case with Adolph Hitler and his immediate entourage.

  5. The Kochs have been busy setting up and funding conservative think tanks in universities across the country. The goal is control the dialogue on campus and promote alternative facts. They are pursuing psuedo-science with a vengeance.

  6. Today, “liberal” describes anyone who accepts the theory of evolution and the scientific consensus on climate change, anyone who believes (along with some 80% of NRA members) that we need more rigorous background checks for gun buyers, anyone who supports (along with numerous faith groups and a majority of Americans) a woman’s right to control her own reproduction; and (again with a majority of Americans) anyone who condemns racism and other forms of bigotry.
    By this definition, I’m most certainly liberal. Used to be that these were pretty moderate views.

  7. Thank you Marv and Peggy. The rub is that while we pride ourselves a little in knowing what is happening that in no way is having any real impact on it. The time left to stop this, given how disengaged the American people are right now, with more and more tuning it out to save their sanity, as perhaps shorter than even Marv thinks. Events, on top of what the Kochs and the Spencers are currently doing, may soon overwhelm us and vector us all into even more unknown territory. A “perfect storm” of political, diplomatic, and socioeconomic calamity that we have no previous experience with.

  8. So why don’t schools hire more conservative professors? Do they even exist except at extreme right wing religious unis?

    Personally I have never heard of a conservative arts school, but I admit I don’t get around much.

  9. I believe the “university scene” has been changing dramatically over the past 20 years while you’ve been teaching. I would recommend reading the attached academic article about how universities have been “auctioned off” over the past decade or so.

    https://thebaffler.com/salvos/academe-on-the-auction-block-johnson

    I get to see it at Ball State where the new Schnatter/Koch Institute peddles free market philosophy within their “entrepreneurial center”. They not only peddle this to young minds, but will also be peddling it to faculty and staff.

    While liberal professors cling to the corrupt democratic party, guess who’s winning the game with their economic influence?

    Universities, like public schools, are being intentionally defunded, to allow for the private sector to work their magic. Academic integrity has no meaning anymore. Waking up to this harsh fact will be painful for many in denial the last decade or so.

  10. The logic class I took in the Philosophy Department at I.U. Bloomington in 1969 has served me very well. I think more critically and less ideologically because if this class and a statistics class. The only liberal message I recall coming from faculty was in the Sociolgy Department. However, books like Blaming the Victim and others sounded alarms about our county that are tragically more true today than they have ever been before.

  11. “If the contemporary definition of a liberal is someone who accepts the scientific method and the importance of verifiable fact, then I suppose most of us are liberal. If teaching our students to follow the evidence is indoctrination, then we plead guilty.”.

    Guilty as charged. And damn proud of being a critical thinking graduate of one of many liberal arts colleges in Indiana. There was no indoctrination; that would have required narrowing of the mind and its view of the world. My mind was instead opened to the world with all of its complexities and nuances. It was up to me to ask the questions, become informed, be accountable. Again, if this is being a liberal, then I am.

  12. I was born and raised a Republican. When John F. Kennedy came along, I switched to being a Democrat. About half of my friends are Republican … and the other half Democratic. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

    I’ve been a very active Rotarian with 35 years of perfect attendance. Republican club presidents have had me serve as chairman of numerous committees. Republican members have willingly served on committees I’ve chaired.

    In my humble opinion (and it is humble), I think there are two things that make society work successfully: talking and listening. Show me a politician who ignores either of those things and I’ll show you a person with orange hair.

  13. Also you can’t dismiss this ‘homeschooling’ trend that the conservative members of society are doing in massive numbers. These kids rarely leave home and interact with other homeschooled children so their world view is in a silo. I know one of my friends from middle/high school home schooled her children and her oldest went to college and was enlightened. He divorced the family and they don’t speak at all anymore. He’s my god-son so I wonder how he’s doing. I think he just wanted to get away from that religious upbringing and his parents wouldn’t have it. Or maybe, he’s gay. He lives in Colorado so I hope the best for him.

  14. Excellent article, Sheila. And thanks for the link to the other, very disturbing article about academic institutes funded by billionaires and corporations, Todd Smekens. Money and politics can indeed constrain true inquiry and free thought. That’s part of the reason for tenure, and for public funding of universities. Because public funding (as in state legislatures funding universities) has declined so much in recent decades, universities are raising tuition (which leads to another kind of pressure, the pressure to satisfy paying customers), engaging in a lot of fund-raising, and looking for ways to be more “efficient.” All of these trends need attention. Meanwhile, people shouldn’t worry about whether university departments are hiring “liberals” or “conservatives.” In my experience, we look to hire excellent scholars and teachers. As Sheila notes, intellectual openness and a commitment to free inquiry and rigorous examination of all kinds of data (not just quantitative or laboratory data, by the way) probably makes university faculty look “liberal” to rigid ideologues.

  15. Tom,

    “The time left to stop this, given how disengaged the American people are right now, with more and more tuning it out to save their sanity, as perhaps shorter than even Marv thinks.”

    The time has RUN OUT for the American people to ACT ALONE. However, that’s not the case for joint action. Hopefully, the WORLD won’t reject JOINT ACTION as was the case with the German people in 1938.

  16. Thank you again Professor Kennedy. One of the more troubling issues comming out of the polls today is the one that says that a majority of those who identify as conservative think that higher education is detrimental to our society. I find this deeply disturbing to say the least. Agreed, not everybody needs a 4 year degree to be successful but all need some type of further education. But this anti education idea is not new. I am currently re-reading a book called, “White Trash, The 400 Year History of Class in America”, and it points out that this has been an issue from our very origions.

  17. I proudly and unapoligetically am pleased to classify myself as a liberal by the definitions set forth in Sheila’s excellent piece today, though I admit to putting the answers before the questions on individual issues such as, for instance, health care, slave wages and the like. I have heard no good arguments from any souce yet for starving people and refusing them (literally) the right to live, and since I don’t think there are any, I have become a conservative in voting no without hearing further evidence from the propaganda organs of the right wing. I have noted also that the standards of what is liberal and what is conservative have undergone considerable movement on the political spectrum. I consider myself as slightly left of center, and more left as the center moves right, a matter of self defense and countervailing force in matters political. I even think the New Deal (with some modifications dealing with interim events) would work these days on the theory that though the facts may change our principles in dealing with them do not. Thus two and two are still four irrespective of how many twos and fours are involved and right and wrong are still right and wrong irrespective of differing factual contexts in which they are to be applied etc., which adds up to being a conservative as to principles but liberal as to the principles to be applied to specific issues whose determination becomes policy.

  18. We all search here daily for something, anything really, positive to say about Trumpublicans and today Sheila has found at least the embers of something.

    They have united mid-libs. I’ve never felt better about being a recovering Republican.

    In addition, I’ve never felt better about Jimmy Kimmel who publically and rightfully shamed Bill Cassidy for having to lie about the Graham Cassidy anti-health care bill.

    We’ll get through this tragedy of the commons yet.

  19. Very true, except some of the professoriate have been didactically dogmatic in their “open-mindedness” and “nontraditionalism;”and dismiss almost reflexively the concerns and frameworks of more conservative students. As student, instructor, and administrator in college settings, I have for many decades marveled at the illiberalism of more than a few liberal instructors. True believers are a problem of higher education on both sides of the lectern. Ignoring this situation, as you and others seem to be doing here, makes dialogue very difficult.

  20. AgingLGrl; my daughter-in-law removed her two sons from a Charter school and a Catholic school after five years of the school “authorities” and teachers refusing to stop the bullying of her son with a disability that prevents him from entering in activities and his slightly “different” appearance. The younger brother was bullied for being the brother. Last year when they were 17 and 15 years of age; they were more knowledgeable and qualified to vote in the presidential and local elections than most adults who voted…or didn’t vote because “it wouldn’t count”. My son and daughter-in-law are certainly not conservatives but attempts to seek quality, SAFE education even outside the public school system here was damaging to their sons and preventing them from learning. They have friends on line and in person; would be honor roll students if in schools; this would not be so if they were not being home-schooled where all concentration is on their education and not protecting themselves from school bullies and uncaring school staff.

    I did know one very conservative, Mormon family who home-schooled all five of their children. I only knew they had five children because their mother told me when she came to ask for all of my raked and bagged leaves to use as mulch in their garden. She told the her children enjoyed spreading the leaves; till then I didn’t know there were children in that home corner-wise across the street from my home.

  21. Don, extremism IMO is dysfunctional for everyone. It’s also become the theme of the right (at least the right has let themselves be represented by it) and we are seeing now a reactionary extremism from liberals. I really cannot imagine anyone surprised by that.

    Is there a path back to debate? Us optimistic types hope so but I think that it’s naive to think that it will happen quickly or easily.

  22. I noticed the tone of voice when some extreme right wing people (family included) use the term “liberal” is dripping with poison.

  23. I agree JoAnn that they had no choice when the school failed to protect your DIL’s sons from bullies. There are qualified teachers that stay home and school their children but they are rare. My friend is not one of those qualified to home school because she never went to college and is living in a bubble (Trumper too). She told me about home school networks because of the sheer number of people that have taken their kids out of school for various reasons. When your DIL did all of that, she had good reason to and I support that. Most people I know can’t afford private schools and don’t even get me started on the charter school thing. I don’t want my tax dollars paying for religious private schools, damn it.If education makes you liberal than so be it. Proud Liberal here.

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