Sunday, February 24, 2008

Conservative academics

Why are there comparatively few academic conservatives? The Chronicle of Higher Education provides some answers based on a paper by Matthew Woessner & April Kelly-Wessner.

Conservatives are not as interested in the issues that might go into a doctorate, feel discriminated against by professors - ‘liberal enclaves provide a chilly environment’ - and have more interest in raising a family than liberal students. On the latter point one way of broadening the range of views in academic departments would be to provide better childcare facilities.

Conservatives are also less interested in doing original work and more interested in financial success than are liberals.

In my limited experience economics departments provide a mix of ideological approaches with many right-wing academics supporting free market policies but plenty of old-fashioned lefties working in areas such as industrial relations and labour economics. This often translates into support for a diverse range of political positions. Many arts-based departments (especially politics) however are overwhelmingly left-wing with a crushingly tedious orthodoxy of left-wing babblers and social romantics. I cannot imagine conservative students feeling at home in such departments.

I think it is very important to reconstitute political science departments so that they do teach about politics and not just left-wing ideology. The central role they attach to Marxist theory is totally ridiculous. Most would be better-off learning about markets and modern economics.


conrad said...

I wouldn't know if that really generalizes to the Australian system. A lot of the US university system is really like an extended high school, which is why they take longer to graduate than Australians (although Australia is quickly catching up with this idea, and will if more universities start moving toward the Melbourne model and other universities keep on teaching less and less). Thus you have a greater proportion of people doing liberal studies before other stuff, which might have a reasonable influence on their later behavior that historically hasn't existed in Australia to such an extent. I agree with you that the hard left is disproportionately represented in academia in some areas.

Mike said...

I think that's a pretty big generalisation about politics, Harry.

I know from my time studying politics that there were several conservatives (or even hardline right-wingers) in my politics department.

I had a seminar on US Foreign Policy as part of my masters work that was led by a lecturer who was a firm proponent of both the intention and the strategy of the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq. He was also shared the skepticism held by some neoconservatives about the importance of climate change as a threat relative to the threat of terrorism. Despite these opinions, he was happy to have an environmental politics lecturer take a joint session with him to debate Kyoto and energy security versus military security.

Another example that springs to mind is in a different subject, taught in different versions at an undergraduate, honours, and post-graduate level, about international relations and warfare with a lecturer who was a realist IR theorist through and through. In that class the central role of power was frequently reinforced, and while open to ideas and theories like interdependence and marxist IR, the lecturer frequently made the case that in reality in came back to power above all else (rather than, for example, class).

Another lecturer, who specialised in communist and post-communist theory, including Marxist theory, took the position that while neo-liberal policies and reforms may be imperfect in terms of their impact of society and welfare, they're better than the alternative.

As for the students, throughout my studies in that department I encountered many conservative who, if they felt out of place, certainly didn't show it. Spirited debate was a hallmark of many of the classes I took.

As someone who tends to lean further to the left than to the right I sometimes found myself wishing the Lefty-Arts stereotype were more true - it would have made winning arguments a lot easier!

Fortunately, as you suggest is ideal, there emerged support for a wider range of views and ideas.

I'm not convinced the situation is as dire as you make out.

Anonymous said...

"I think it is very important to reconstitute political science departments so that they do teach about politics and not just left-wing ideology."

Harry, have you actually looked at what is taught in political science departments, or are you giving us your perceptions based on what you might have heard once?

And, your passive voice plea to "reconstitute" (read: purge) political science departments to your taste begs the question: who is going to do this reconstituting?

How would you like it if a political science professor called for a reconstituting of economics department to get rid of people like you?

Ultimately, if what is taught in poli sci departments is crap, the students will stay away and these departments will fade away.

Harry, you've got to have faith in the market.


hc said...


I think the prevailing ideology in most departments is uncritically left-wing. It is most uninspiring and in some cases extreme.

I am not interested in purging - I certainly don't have the power so the issue is redundant - but - as the post suggests - in augmenting such departments to make them more representative. The views of 50% of the population cannot be ignored.

The market is working and regretably the students are staying away - one of the points of the post.

Anonymous said...

"augmenting such departments to make them more representative. The views of 50% of the population cannot be ignored."

Political science departments don't exist to reflect the political views of the population. They exist to teach, and scholarly research in, political science. That is not the same thing at all.

I'll bet you wouldn't think it's a good idea for the general public's notions about economics to be taught in your department!

You might want a political science department to contain a broad cross section of thought in the discipline of political science; or it might decide that that would be spreading its resources to thinly, and so it might concentrate on certain strains of thought (say, in the style of the University of Chicago).

That is for them to decide.


Mike said...

Even if (a) the argument is being made that there should be a proportional representation within academic institutions of views held both in public policy and private sector arenas in the same field, and (b) the position - implied in the first post - is that at present we have some theories or ideologies dominating the discipline (for example, ultra-left, marxist theory being the dominant form of theory taught in politics, without substantial recognition of markets), I still disagree with the position on the grounds that the range of political views I've encountered in my studies in arts, both in history and politics, were quite broad.

I also think that the continuing dominance of rational choice theory in political science and the fact that students in masters courses need to become familiar with linear regression analysis and mathematical economics (for better or worse!) suggests that the left-wing dominance is less severe than suggested.

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