Saturday, December 31, 2016
Boston Magazine joins the post-election introspection with this cover article in its January issue, "How Liberal Professors Are Ruining College." (I was especially happy to see the cover centrally displayed while buying local honey in Whole Foods, not a grocer I visit frequently but that is always humming when I do.) From the article:
Long known as bastions of progressive thought, and home to the likes of Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn, our region’s schools have always been suspected of putting the “liberal” in liberal arts college. Until recently, though, no one had quantified just how far left higher ed here had drifted. [EB: See note below re this muddled use of the term "liberal."]
Last spring, Samuel Abrams, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College, in New York, decided to run the numbers. From the start, he certainly expected liberal professors to outnumber conservatives, but his data—25 years’ worth of statistics from the Higher Education Research Institute—told a far more startling tale: In the South and throughout the Great Plains, the ratio of liberal to conservative professors hovered around 3 to 1. On the liberal left coast, the ratio was 6 to 1. And then there was New England—which looked like William F. Buckley’s worst nightmare—standing at 28 to 1. “It astonished me,” says Abrams, whose research revealed that conservative professors weren’t just rare; they were being pushed to the edge of extinction.
A key trouble for the article's author seems to be the potential radicalization of conservatives if they are pushed further and further underground while at college. (Conservatism is treated as yet another potential personal identity more than a philosophy of education or even of government.) But he is also (somewhat) attentive to the more essential trouble: that in becoming so ideologically monolithic, colleges have abandoned their raison d'etre. Quoting Abrams: “The goal of college is to give you multiple viewpoints and to grow your mind, not to just be comfortable in your own bubble. The real world is not full of progressives.”
The article hardly provides the sort of introspection offered by Columbia's Mark Lilla in the New York Times just after the election [interesting post-article interview with Villa here], but it does present research and anecdotes that are worth the quick read. Readers are of course offered an easy out in the form of a response provided by the NYT's Paul Krugman: "professors actually haven’t become more liberal, but rather that the meaning of conservatism has changed and the Fox-ification and now Trump-ification of the Republican Party has pushed highly educated members of the right over to the left." Still, it is something that Boston Magazine is trying to make sense of it all.
NB: For an excellent essay exploring the distinctive classical and progressive/revisionist understandings of how liberal arts education ought to "liberate," see "Liberalism, Liberation, and the Liberal Arts" in Robbie George's masterful Conscience and Its Enemies. Just a taste of what I think is the book's most important chapter, offering essential insight into the current troubles in the ivory tower:
Formally, the classical and revisionist conceptions are similar. Both propose the liberal arts as liberating. Both promise to enable the learner to achieve a greater measure of personal authenticity. But in substance they are polar opposites. Personal authenticity, in the classical understanding of liberal arts education, consists in self-mastery--in placing reason in control of desire. According to the classic liberal-arts ideal, learning promises liberation, but it is not liberation from demanding moral ideals and social norms, or liberation to act on our desires--it is, rather, liberation from slavery to those desires, slavery to self...
According to the classical liberal-arts ideal, our critical engagement with great thinkers enriches our understanding and enables us to grasp, or grasp more fully, great truths--truths that, when we appropriate them and integrate them into our lives, liberate us from what is merely vulgar, course, or base. These are soul-shaping, humanizing truths--truths whose appreciation and secure possession elevate reason above passion or appetite, enabling us to direct our desires and our wills to what is truly good, truly beautiful, truly worthy of human beings as possessors of a profound and inherent dignity. The classic liberal-arts proposition is that intellectual knowledge has a role to play in making self-transcendence possible. It can help us to understand what is good and to love the good above whatever it is we happen to desire; it can teach us to desire what is good because it is good, thus making us truly masters of ourselves.