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On liberal academic groupthink and on why it may be worse in the USA than in Britain

I don’t usually much enjoy denunciations of liberal bias, because they so often seem to me to be as tediously and unthinkingly abusive as the liberal consensus that they denounce so often is. But I did enjoy this piece by Mark Bauerlein, entitled Liberal Groupthink Is Anti-Intellectual (linked to recently by Arts & Letters Daily)

The essence of Bauerlein’s description of liberal bias is that it is a social process, and not just a political conspiracy. Quote:

The problem is that the simple trappings of deliberation make academics think that they’ve reached an opinion through reasoned debate – instead of, in part, through an irrational social dynamic. The opinion takes on the status of a norm. Extreme views appear to be logical extensions of principles that everyone more or less shares, and extremists gain a larger influence than their numbers merit. If participants left the enclave, their beliefs would moderate, and they would be more open to the beliefs of others. But with the conferences, quarterlies, and committee meetings suffused with extreme positions, they’re stuck with abiding by the convictions of their most passionate brethren.

Quite so. What I like about Bauerlein’s piece is that it addresses how it feels to be a typical academic. And your typical academic does not feel biased, in the sense that he thinks what he thinks through a great and continuous effort of mental will, in full knowledge of several alternatives. On the contrary, he thinks that what he thinks is the most natural thing in the world. So, if you do call him biased you immediately lose him, and prove to him only that you are stupid, about this and about much else.

Unchallenged extremism is one problem. Another is the resulting tedium. Bauerlein takes a J. S. Mill line, to the effect that even if the orthodoxy is right (which he doesn’t think it is) it still needs to be kept on its intellectual toes by facing regular in-house challenges.

But he writes about liberal academics more as confused and ignorant barbarians than as fully functioning enemies. His job is not so much to oppose them as to rescue them. He feels sorry for them. Even as I write the above paragraphs, I know that commenters will probably swarm around this posting, saying that those damned academic liberals are continuously and malevolently biased and that it is all their fault and curse them to hell, blah blah blah. I am not satisfied with this kind of non-dialogue, and I think that people who think approximately as I do can do better, and that Bauerlein (who does think very approximately as I do – given the overlap between what Americans call conservatism and what I call libertarianism) does do better. For him, liberal academic bias is not so much a continuous and conscious decision, as the unthinking outcome of a process, and because of that, the process might just as easily have produced a different kind of bias.

He does not talk about this, but it is my understanding that in the past, it did. In Britain in the nineteenth century, higher education was more independent of state control (although arguably just as much controlled by the social elite who also controlled the state) and groupthink and intellectual degeneration held sway in British universities, then as now. As I understand that story, this often took the form of an obsession not so much with the truth of theology as of an obsession with its obvious importance, compared especially to science, the beyond-the-pale intellectual upstart of those times. Science rode into the twentieth century universities on the back of nineteenth century scientific institutions that were founded and run by enthusiastic amateurs and academic outsiders. But ride in it eventually did.

Which leads me to speculate about another possible reason for the strength of liberal academic bias in the USA. This is: that in the USA, the God versus Science thing is still playing to packed houses. Here in Britain, the only people who really, seriously. believe in God in any numbers, in the sense of believing that the earth is how it is now because of decisions made and still being made by God, in heaven, are the recently arrived Muslims. Britain’s Christian theologians – and I for one, as a devout atheist, am very content about this – have, not just academically but intellectually, been utterly routed. (Which means that we atheists are completely out of practice for dealing with the Muslims, but that is another story.) British Christians are content to sing hymns on the TV, worship nature and do good works. But in the USA, the Christians are now doing some serious intellectual regrouping, having never really gone away. Setting aside what you may think about the rights or wrongs, truths or falsehoods, of this national contrast, I surmise that one of the effects of it is to make academics in the USA still think that they are fighting old battles on behalf of scientific enlightenment against Godly primitivism, while in Britain, academia is, from the point of view of the God versus. Science debate, a victorious coalition. And we all know what happens to victorious coalitions. They split. As a result, British academia actually does offer slightly more genuine intellectual debate (about other things beside God) than is offered in many universities in the USA. Say “cut income tax” to a liberal on campus in the USA and he is liable to hear (truly to hear – he is not merely pretending to hear): “God created heaven and earth”. Say “cut income tax” in a British university, and you are more likely to be told why you are wrong, and to be genuinely thought wrong, about income tax. But, me not having recently been to a British university, or ever to an American one, that could be all wrong.

By the way, Instapundit did a good Guardian piece last week about the continuing relevance of religion to politics in the USA, on both sides of the political divide. He also said that he did not much care for this fact, which will immediately get him a more polite hearing in Britain than he would get otherwise. This may not be saying much, but it is something. In the USA, his support for Bush is probably felt by many a liberal academic (insofar as they are even aware of it), as ‘objectively pro-creationism’. Which puts him beyond the pale.

Well, I do not seem to have proved very much with this posting, just to have rambled for a while. But interestingly, I hope.

18 comments to On liberal academic groupthink and on why it may be worse in the USA than in Britain

  • I pity them, also. Poor bastards are rendering themselves more irrelevant with every passing year. It’s no accident that those departments that actually get results (ie, engineering and science) get all the funding (and students) while traditional academia gets marginalized.

    There is hope, though. A friend of mine is a philosophy major, and he reports that the PoMos have lost essentially all credibility (amongst students, at least.)

  • Julian Morrison

    Just saying hoorah for another explanation than wilful malevolence. The number of lefty academics is just way too high for that many people to have been “born bad”.

    Leading on from what Matt Shultz said, I reckon a lot of the stridency in lefty circles is the recognition that they peaked in the 1950s, that there is no hope of regaining those heights, and as the trends now stand they are on track to lose their academic monopoly within a generation.

  • toolkien

    I may be trotting out tired ramblings, but I see the triad of modern academia, evangelical religion and Statism all as manifestations of the same condition, namely mechanisms of conditioning and control. One may trace its logic back to a creator, the others typically do not (depending on who happens to be infesting the State most currently) but they all are collectivist rooted and foist a more ‘enlightened’ coterie on the rest of us.

    While I do agree that the academics here are tempered toward a cloister-like environment due to the dynamic with theology, but I don’t see it is simply a duality. There many different sub-groups all of whom are becoming more closed minded and radical. This, in my opinion, is due to the rise of Federalism and the decay of regionalism or ‘localism’, much less individualism. We live in highly impersonal culture, and identities are derived across airwaves and across internet connections, and the conduits of real
    Power lay in some nether region of DC. The academics are merely following the path that most other Americans are following – a personal dislocation followed by identity to a cloistered group. A sense of powerlessness and an eagerness to find strength in numbers, a combination unsuitable for fostering individualism.

    Personally I see cracks in society opening wider. There have numerous acts of violence and mayhem (perpetrated by the left on the right mostly) during this past election. While there has always been contention, it seems to rarely to have risen so consistently to this level. Radicalism is starting to effect behavior. The cloistering of American society, inluding academia, is not healthy, and I believe much worse is yet to come. Again perhaps a convenient scapegoat, but I blame advancing Statism and Federalism for this as people are conditioned to look for solutions from the top down versus the self outward.

    Lastly, as far as function, academia certainly suffers in terms off effectivity. It is more concerned about protecting held tenets than it is about conditioning open minds to collect and assimilate ALL kinds of information. It breeds intellectual bigots that are spored onto society.

  • Foobarista

    I don’t think religion is much of an issue in the US either; it seems to me that the “excitement” about religion is more of a European thing than an American question, probably because religion is more “institutional” in Europe than the US. Most universities in the US (unlike many older European universities) were not founded as divinity schools, but more as teaching and research facilities (the land-grant colleges – which offered degrees in agriculture and mining, the “institutes of technology”, etc). UC Berkeley’s first degree fields were in Letters, Mining, and Agriculture. So, American universities, other than the Ivy League (which often _were_ founded as divinity schools on the ancient European model, and are often rather ancient themselves: Harvard is well over 400 years old), have long been quite practical. In fact, it was often that the university was founded to be a practical teaching institution, and non-practical research started quite a bit after the university was founded.

    As for conservative intellectuals, they have mostly abandoned the field, going to think-tanks or other research outfits, leaving the universities to the Left.

  • I think there’s also some sort of tie in with Brian’s post a few weeks ago on the differences between the European (dirigiste) and common law (adversarial) styles of teaching. A problem with the US system is that it may have moved over to the European system as a result of the large influx of European academics as a fall out from the collapse of the European education system. It may therefore have started recruiting people who don’t like the adversarial system.

    The second issue has to be the diversity policies they run – American universities are big big big on diversity. The problem however is that if you deliberately hire people from different backgrounds, you get cohesion problems. But any group likes to have at least something in common and will normally construct an bonding thing (like football) is necessary. I think in US academics case that the “liberal” view has been constructed as the glue that holds them together.

  • As one who denounces liberal bias (probably tediously and abusively), it’s not because I think there’s a great conspiracy. It’s unconscious and unwitting, as McPherson said.

    “After all, don’t all reasonable people think like that ?”

  • John Galt

    As a mature student at Birkbeck College, Univ Of London from 1999-2003 I can report that liberal bias is alive and well in that particular bastion of learning.

    In the Department of Computer Science one may find massive anti-Microsoft sentiments (whilst ignoring the benefits to mass computing) as well as grad. research students conducting classes on ‘social ethics’ of computing. One had the effrontery to call for global governance as a means of promoting ‘fairness in information access’ and thought that the concept of ‘One people. One state. One leader’ had a lot going for it – until I pointed out that the Germans had already translated and tried these sentiments as ‘Ein Volk! Ein Reich! Ein Fuhrer!’ and found them wanting.

    The Deprtment Of Management featured unabashed Keynesians teaching Economics. My Econ. lecturer simply failed to recognise the validity of any other system than that of forced-backed taxation and suggested I was foolish for believing in ‘airy-fairy alternatives’.

    The lecturer on ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ was an out and out green leftie who couldn’t see that his tenure was in jeopardy if we implemented his proposals for a ‘better world’ – my pro-objectivist arguments were publicly ridiculed by him and I had some cogent, properly argued papers marked down to insignificance simply because he did not agree with the points they presented.

    So why did I take a degree? Simply to prove to myself that I had the intellect that was required. It was fun to engage in leftie-baiting although it probably cost me marks and I was certainly marked as a ‘troublemaker’

  • Jake

    Liberal group think is financially enforced in US Colleges. If you don’t accept liberal group think, you are not hired. If you vary from liberal group think, you do not receive tenure.

  • To me, it’s the “most obvious and natural thing in the world” that individuals have rights, that only individuals have rights, and there is no such thing as the right to violate the rights of another. Is this an example of the “extremism” Brian is referring to?

  • Dave J

    Foobarista: “Harvard is well over 400 years old”.

    Er, no. Although Harvard is, by a fairly wide margin, the oldest university in the US, in 1604 the Massachusetts Bay Company, let alone the colony it founded, did not yet exist. Harvard was founded in 1636.

  • Foobarista

    Oops 🙂 I remembered some big anniversary at Hahvahd Yahd a few years ago, just forgot the number…

    Anyway, my point was that the first generation of American universities were founded as divinity schools, much like European universities. But the far larger second generation schools, started during the western expansion in the 19th century, were started as technical and trade schools and weren’t terribly religious.

  • Bias is fine. I am as biased as they get. But universities suffer from a lack of competition of ideas. Certainly, there are always a few voices speaking against the mainstream academics. But many universities fail to insure that ideas run the gauntlet of disagreement and debate. Bias is a good thing. A monopoly on the ideas being discussed is the problem.

  • veryretired

    The educational system in the US is in serious trouble, and the public school monopoly may not be long for this world. The collegiate level is becoming more and more politicized, as speech codes and sensitivity classes enforce an orthodoxy on all students, and stifle any attempt to debate alternative ideas.

    Fortunately, the students who have been subjected to this dogmatic and arbitrary experience have themselves begun to question its legitimacy. I guess it never occurred to the leftist academy that they had become the establishment that youth would rebel against.

  • Guy Herbert

    This phenomenon is related to something I call “the Scholar’s Fallacy” – an assumption that all intelligent people, presented with the same facts, must reach the same conclusions, and that therefore someone who has a different idea must be stupid, mad, or deceitful.

    It’s uncommon in science (though it still does occur), and fairly uncommon in history, but overruns any discipline that has, or aspires to, current application to everyday life. It even appears on Samizdata from time to time.

  • Mark Taylor

    As one who denounces liberal bias (probably tediously and abusively), it’s not because I think there’s a great conspiracy. It’s unconscious and unwitting, as McPherson said.

    “After all, don’t all reasonable people think like that ?”

    And yet, you wonder whether they do know how biased they are and just don’t care to correct themselves. I was reading the recent entry in your blog about liberals blaming Theo Van Gogh for his own misfortune, going to great lengths to paint his provocative nature as the cause of his murder, not the decision taken by the murderer to do so.

    I just have a hard time accepting that they are not conscious of what they are doing, or that they don’t twist things around deliberately.

  • Harvard is both private and fantastically successful.

    The obvious conclusion is that political correctness and Statist-Liberal beliefs amongst the Faculty are market winners; and as libertarians we can hardly complain that about.

    If students really want an alternative, there is nothing stopping a private univeristy from providing it; the fact that none have done so, suggests that sadly there is no real demand for an alternative.

  • “The obvious conclusion is that political correctness and Statist-Liberal beliefs amongst the Faculty are market winners”

    I think some would argue that there isnt a free market in education – Harvard took 400 years to get where it is which suggest pretty high entry costs!

  • Jacob

    Seems universities were never so broad minded and unbiased as they pretend. In the not too distant past (maybe 150 years back) you couldn’t be an atheist (openly) and be tolerated in a univerisity. Nowadays the dogma has changed, but the dogmatism is the same.
    That universities are places where there is free eaxchange and investigation of ideas is a pious myth, mostly. Like most institutions of society, they fall short from the proclaimed ideal.