Illustration by Joe Bish

It Makes Sense Most College Professors Are Liberals

It's true that academics lean more left wing than the general population, but that doesn't mean academia is a hotbed of revolutionary socialist sentiment.

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Mar 3 2017, 10:02pm

Illustration by Joe Bish

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

It's good we've got right-wing think tanks to look out for these things, because according to a report by the Adam Smith Institute (ASI), our colleges have a serious problem: They're far too left wing. The report identifies a pronounced left-wing bias among academics, especially in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

This is bad—the ASI says—because "social settings characterized by too little diversity of viewpoints are liable to become afflicted by group think, a dysfunctional atmosphere where key assumptions go unquestioned, dissenting opinions are neutralized, and favored beliefs are held as sacrosanct." For this reason, colleges ought to start promoting "ideological diversity," just as they would diversity of gender or race, presumably by positively discriminating in favor of right-wing academics.

There are at least three issues here. Firstly, is there really a left-wing bias among academics? It must be noted that the ASI report's methodology is far from watertight, leaning heavily on a sketchy survey studying voting intention among people with a college email address. Indeed, what ring of plausibility their hypothesis has is largely enforced anecdotally: Of course college lecturers are a bunch of lefties because, well... George Orwell mentions that it's a stereotype, basically.

That said: fair enough. As someone who has worked as a college lecturer, I have to admit: My own experience suggests the anecdotal evidence is correct—academics lean more left wing than the general population does. But that doesn't mean academia is a hotbed of revolutionary socialist sentiment. It just means your average college lecturer is pro-EU, politely liberal, and in favor of some sort of economic redistribution.

Secondly, why are academics more left wing? One answer might be: Left wingers are more intelligent than their right-wing counterparts. This is something you may have heard before because it was the conclusion of a psychological study from 2012 that still often resurfaces as viral news. This study's general hypothesis is: Stupid people are drawn to right-wing views because such views make them feel safe, insofar as they maintain the status quo.

The ASI report mentions this study, but dismisses intelligence as an explanation—largely because there is no analogous left-wing bias among people in the top 5 percent of IQ. The think tank does, however, find a partial explanation for the bias in the fact that being left wing correlates to what it calls "openness to experience," a personality trait, which, apparently, makes you more likely to pursue "intellectually stimulating careers like academia."

This notion of "openness to experience" sounds incredibly vague to me. The report defines it as follows: "People high on openness are more artistic, creative, and intellectually curious, and tend to prefer novelty and variety over familiarity and sameness." But in real terms, what does this mean? Enjoying meeting new people? Being into traveling? Perhaps—but why would enjoying those things make you more likely to be left wing? There are plenty of Tories who've been on gap years. And why would they make you more likely to become an academic? I know plenty of brilliant scholars who can barely stand to be in a room with unfamiliar human beings.

The "Ivory Tower" exists, but few college lecturers are trapped in this bubble at all times. And the world outside this bubble? Incredibly right wing and getting more so.

The seed of plausibility in this explanation consists of the fact that being "open to experience" suggests enjoying—and celebrating—diversity: of lifestyles, behavior, opinions, whatever. Which of course would correlate with "not being a racist piece of shit" and "wanting to work in a cosmopolitan environment" (like a college campus, for example). It also, crucially, entails wanting to think imaginatively and creatively about the world around you—which of course is vitally important if you're going to carve out a successful career in the academic humanities.

But then, equally, the report wants to trace at least some of the causes of left-wing bias in academia to what it calls "social homophily"—namely, "the tendency of individuals to associate with those who share their characteristics." And, of course, their general picture of colleges is of "ideologically homogeneous" places in which every member of staff is obliged to parrot the leftist party line on pain of being "shouted down" by their colleagues.

On the one hand: What exactly is it about right wingers that makes them think being told to shut up is the worst thing that can possibly happen to you? On the other: The report just seems to be directly contradicting itself here. Academics are open to different views and like diversity, but they also instinctively marginalize any dissenting views they encounter in their place of work? What gives, academics?

As far as I can tell, the ASI's mistake is that it seems to be assuming no academic ever has anything to do with anyone who is not employed by, or studying at, a college. The "Ivory Tower" exists, sure—and academics in general could certainly do more to communicate their research to a general audience—but few college lecturers are trapped in this bubble at all times. And the world outside this bubble? Incredibly right wing and getting more so.

In fact, it strikes me that the academic humanities are exceptional among skilled professions in that they involve comparatively little collaboration with this deeply Tory external world. This, to my mind, constitutes the best explanation as to why so many academics should be left wing: Because it's one of the few intellectually stimulating professions in which being a Tory doesn't help. The ASI report mentions this as the idea that jobs can become "politically typed." Intelligent, ethically minded left wingers are likely to become academics—because otherwise they'd have to, I dunno, become a management consultant, or write for VICE.

All of which brings us on to the third issue, namely: Is this left-wing bias in academia a problem? To which my answer is, as you might expect: of course not. The problem, in fact, is that the rest of the world has a pronounced right-wing bias. And, as I've already quoted the ASI as identifying above, "social settings characterized by too little diversity of viewpoints are liable to become afflicted by group think, a dysfunctional atmosphere where key assumptions go unquestioned, dissenting opinions are neutralized, and favored beliefs are held as sacrosanct."

Undermining one of the few sanctuaries of left-wing sentiment we have left would only compound this issue. If the ASI actually believe its own rhetoric, it ought to set its sights on government, banking, journalism, and big business. Leave our already marginalized colleges out of it.

Follow Tom Whyman on Twitter.

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