The interrogative form in which the title of Neil Gross’s study Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? is cast indicates a searching curiosity about what some observers might consider a subject beyond worthwhile investigation, a simple matter of the way things are—to be celebrated or lamented depending on one’s politics. For it has long been a conviction in certain circles of the American Right that colleges and universities in the United States are, for the most part, little more than leftist indoctrination centers, ideological cousins to, say, Chairman Mao’s communist re-education camps.
Indeed, it’s practically a cottage industry among right-wing commentators to decry the purportedly lockstep liberalism of academia—running the gamut, in its more extreme manifestations at least, from the populist, nearly sub-literate lunacy of Glenn Beck to the elitist, relentlessly erudite lunacy of Roger Kimball (if that seems a harsh assessment of the far smarter, if more obscure, Kimball, let’s remember that he has, in what might generously be described as a repulsive attempt at humor, intimated that if political conditions on American campuses don’t start improving the solution is for some numinous “we” to round up tanks and start blasting away). Surely, it should be very easy to dismiss all the hoopla as a well-worn tactic of right-wing fear mongering and pandering to the “common” man—see, for example, William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale or Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education as classic installments in the genre.
And yet, and yet. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire—or at least some smoldering embers. Academics are, generally speaking, more liberal than the average American on a host of cultural, social, economic, and political issues. So here at least popular suspicion and objective data actually coincide. The standard right-wing explanation for the phenomena is something along the lines of: academics, cloistered away in their ivory towers, indulge in utopian fantasies, preferring theoretical musings and self-satisfied pronouncement of pious political sentiment to the lessons to be learned from hard-knock reality. The standard leftist explanation is something along the lines of: let’s be honest, academics are much smarter than the average person, and smart people naturally see the superiority of progressive or liberal political beliefs. While each position certainly offers considerable solace to those who hold it, neither is particularly intellectually satisfying.
In an attempt to provide a better explanation, Gross does what really good scholars do—namely, research, research, research. Through reflection on existing data and that gathered from studies of his own devising, he concludes that the liberalism of the academy is not nearly so pronounced as alarmists would like to believe, nor is it uniform. Left-leaning engineers, for example, are not the same as avowedly radical humanists or social scientists. And overall, while academics are generally more liberal than the average person in the United States, far more often than not their liberalism is much closer to the political center than histrionic accusers would like to believe.
That said, the academic disciplines cited in the above paragraph are not chosen at random. Gross’s research indicates that the social sciences and the humanities harbor the most left-leaning members of the academy—who are, not coincidentally, the academics most likely to insist that their political convictions and intellectual interest are inextricable. The standard explanation for this position stems from a conviction that everything is inherently political, whether one intends for it to be or not. Objectivity is impossible, no more so than when one stridently insists one is being objective. Or so goes the humanist and social science line. Gross demonstrates that it has little traction in the physical sciences, where academics insist that the phenomena of the material world are not subject to the ideological persuasions of their observers.
The issue at hand, then, is not one of right versus left but, it would seem, the culture of humanities and social sciences versus that of the physical sciences—which is, of course, a debate unto itself, with its own long and vexed history.
Still, according to Gross’s account of his research, the strong consensus among academics of all disciplines is that colleges and universities are—and should be—places of genuine inquiry and discussion, not indoctrination centers. So is it more than just statistical anomaly that academics trend leftward in their convictions? To answer this question, Gross elaborates upon a theory presented by other scholars: academics have essentially foregone monetary reward for cultural influence, albeit of a subtle kind, and that this self-selection influences their worldview in many ways. In other words, rather than seek out the obvious material compensations of intelligence and the professional potential it should offer, academics seek the subtler rewards of discovery and shaping knowledge.
This should not surprise us. Though Gross does not make the point, we do well to remember that for all the profound changes in higher education—its increasingly vocational orientation, its evermore inextricable links to corporations, its relentless catering to the consumer demands of students barely past adolescence—it remains, for those who choose it as a profession at least, a profoundly monastic endeavor, just as in its institutional origins in medieval Europe. How different, after all, is the graduate student laboring over a rare book in an archive or carefully scrutinizing test tubes in a lab from a novitiate painstakingly copying out a Bible in a scriptorium?
Not so different, after all, it would seem. Still, it’s a mysterious alchemy, why a profound interest in knowledge-making should correspond to certain political positions. Gross admits he does not have all the answers but he does suggest at least a few factors: the transformation of relatively staid academic institutions into sites of radical protest in the ‘60s, for example, and the increased presence of feminists on college campuses since the mid-‘60s and on. These seismic social changes introduced not just new possibilities for what constituted appropriate subject matter for academic inquiry but also for rethinking the very mission and purpose of higher education.
Does any of it really matter, though? The fear that impressionable youth who depart for college squarely in line with good old fashioned values will return wild-eyed radicals has little foundation in reality, Gross finds. Students’ political convictions—whatever they may be—tend to remain pretty much the same throughout their time in higher education. Should this come as a surprise? No, not at all. Or at least not to anyone who has spent any time on a college campus, where the possibility of profound intellectual change seems far down the list of interests for the great majority of students.
It may be, then, that for all the furor, the political orientation of American campuses doesn’t really matter all that much. Or perhaps it does. Gross leaves the question open, modestly noting in his conclusion that he has hoped simply to shed some light of rational inquiry on a persistent controversy, rather than stoke its fires.