Skip to main content

Lefty profs

by Christine Overall

Lefty profs
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.

Print Comments (3) Post a comment
Email Reprint Share Share

Comments on this Article

Conservative lefties, Christine.

I've been a graduate student for several years now and have worked as a sessional instructor at three different schools, in three different departments.

Over the years I've met quite a number of outwardly ideologically liberal professors who are actually very conservative in their day to to day views.

You would be hard pressed to find a professional group that is more resistant to institutional change. In my view, that type of conservatism is healthy in an age where it's fashionable for political Conservatives to attack public services.

University professors are also very conservative about what they and to whom they say it. This is less of a virtue I think. The culture of academe is heavily steeped in notions of paying respect and academic tribute (citations) to one's intellectual 'betters.'

In addition, there are many quietly politically Conservative academics who keep their politics under wraps because they worry that being Conservative labels them as un-sophisticated, or perhaps that it damages their opportunities for advancement.

Finally, it seems increasingly that a lot of the progressivism in the professoriate is based in nostalgia. There are many tenured radicals who pine for 'The Sixties' and lament the lack of political interest and action from the current generation of graduate students. And yet these are the same handsomely compensated radicals that have not rushed to the barricades to prevent their own departments from exploiting sessional instructors' labour. In fact, some faculty associations act like craft unions, spurning sessional instructors by not allowing them to join. Are these professors really left wingers if they are willing to tolerate an unconscionable caste system in academe, one that is right beneath their noses every day?

Posted by Jay, Jan 14, 2011 8:52 AM

Christine. You have completely missed the origin of the progressive and leftist "tendencies". The indoctrination begins early, it is in the public education system beginning in elementary school and all the way up through high school. The preaching of it is very much "in your face" at this point in history. Historically this is the way nations have been completely changed. Through indoctrination and manipulation of the young. It is hands down the easiest way to overthrow a country with little to no violence. Most parents don't even know what has happened before it's too late. It doesn't help that most parents now days were in the earlier stages of indoctrination.

Posted by NMB, Dec 24, 2010 12:10 PM

On the chance that I am making a fool of myself by assuming that this article is not a satire but meant in earnest, I will respond by questioning Ms Overall's basic assumption: that academia is left wing. First, academia is more than the humanities and social sciences, and I do not see a "predominance of left-wing scholars" in medicine, engineering, business administration, law, etc.

Even if we accepted the author's confounding of "humanities and social sciences" (first paragraph) and "academia" (the rest of the article, including the first paragraph), I would dispute the author's claim that studies in the United States and Canada "confirm that the humanities and social sciences are dominated by scholars with left-wing opinions and values." It would be nice to know what these studies are and what definitions of left-wing and right-wing they use. I also doubt we can draw conclusions about Canadian academia from US studies (such as those by the Woessners). On several issues, Canada’s Conservatives are left of the Democrats (death penalty).

In my own discipline (History) I see a predominance of progressive and radical views in social history and predominance of conservative views in military, diplomatic, political, and intellectual history. The latter may not be evident at academic conferences, but visit any bookstore and watch any mainstream media and you will see a great predominance of conservative history and historians. Granted, this is not based on any empirical study and it is based on my own understanding of left and right. But we do know that the vast majority of students are recruited from the upper and middle classes -- not exactly bastions of the Canadian left if we take national and provincial elections as one indicator. Thus the vast majority of professors come from middle and upper class families. This self-recruitment already is a form of conservatism not addressed in this article.

Even if the basic assumption about "lefty" humanities and social sciences is correct, I find Ms Overall's wavering conclusion troubling: that “it may not be so important to seek ‘intellectual diversity’ by hiring right-wing professors.” As if this were actually a reasonable option! No, we need to be adamant that we do not hire professors on the basis of their political views (left or right). (This does not mean that we do not do this anyway -- albeit often more unconsciously through the force of 'habitus'). We need to be clear, as professors on hiring committees and in our negotiations with university administrations, that political conviction is not a qualification for an academic job and that the use of such a criterion in the hiring process would contravene the Employment Equity Act.

Finally, Ms Overall's last sentence opens up a Pandora's box that is worthy of further discussion (but cannot stand as a conclusion): what are conservative views, how are they useful in research and teaching, and why should they be researched and taught?

The better question, in my opinion, would be based on the assumption that all of us hold political views: How do our political convictions interfere with our work: our research, our teaching, and our evaluation of our students’ and colleagues’ work? This is a debate we need, because of we have yet to address this problem in a systematic way and we have yet to find constructive solutions. Let me suggest just one such solution: University administrations need to invest much more into the education of graduate students and professors at all ranks as teachers. A continuous engagement with and critical reflection about our practices as teachers would help us think through the implications of our political convictions for our research and teaching.

Posted by Alexander Freund, Feb 3, 2009 8:41 AM

Post a comment

University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.