Photo: Josée Bisaillon
Is higher education a political monolith? In both the United States and Canada, some academics worry about what they take to be the lack of “intellectual diversity.” Studies in both nations confirm that the humanities and social sciences are dominated by scholars with left-wing opinions and values. This characteristic, they argue, means these professors are out of step with the majority of North Americans and more efforts must be made to hire scholars who lean to the right. It is not enough merely to teach or research right-wing views; a substantial number of academics must adhere to them.
Now, we might account for the dearth of political conservatives in one of two very different ways. The first would be to explain it in psychological and sociological terms. One recent explanation, by April Kelly-Woessner of Elizabethtown College and Matthew Woessner of Pennsylvania State University, is that fewer “conservative” than “liberal” students remain in the academic pipeline.
“Liberalism is more closely associated with a desire for excitement, an interest in creative outlets, and an aversion to a structured work environment,” they write. By contrast, “conservatives express greater interest in financial success and stronger desires to raise families.” Hence the former are more likely than the latter to seek doctorates in the humanities and social sciences.
To some, such explanations might be deflating. 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.
But let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that the views of academics in the humanities and social sciences are the result of good-faith attempts to reason on the basis of evidence. If this were the case, what might it mean?
One possibility is that 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 that suggestion seems outrageous, what are the alternatives? We could say that there is no objective way of differentiating between left-wing and right-wing views; that, as political opinions, they are merely the expression of subjective feelings. We would still have to explain why so many academics end up having the same political feelings, but we would not have to give any particular credence to the specific ideas on either side.
But to treat political views in that way is a counsel of despair. If choosing among political theories is merely a matter of feelings, and there is no objective way of assessing them, then it is impossible to say that one view is better than any others. Presumably, the expression of political disagreements is simply the airing of emotions, and there is no rational way to resolve such disagreements. When a particular viewpoint prevails, you might feel happy or sad, but you would have no reason to suppose that the viewpoint is either consistent or inconsistent with the evidence, or that policies built on one rather than another represent genuine progress or improvements.
Moreover, if there is no way to apply rational thought to political disagreements, then there is no rational way to change people’s minds. Just in practical terms, violence, propaganda, or brainwashing would be more effective in getting people to share your politics.
I assume that this form of subjectivism would be distasteful to most readers. But 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.
Maybe the tendency toward progressive politics among academics tells us something important about politics itself. And if so, it may not be so important to seek “intellectual diversity” by hiring right-wing professors. Though conservative views should be researched and taught, it is less necessary for scholars to believe them.
Christine Overall is our regular columnist on philosophical issues in the academy. She teaches in the philosophy department at Queen’s University.