Grad school’s a grind for the right

Measured in terms of self-identification, professors currently compose the most liberal major occupational group in American society. – Neil Gross

It strikes me as outrageous when the American right complains about the unholy dominance that the left holds over the country. This complaint is often associated with the “liberal media” (has anyone informed Fox and Clear Channel?), but it’s most shrill when directed against the leftist hordes in the Arts faculties of the country’s major universities.

Come on, now. The United States has just moved even more sharply right, as the Congress and the White House have completed a budget agreement that details how to make the working classes pay for the bankers’ meltdown.

Still, the call to arms comes again, this time in a New York Times article based on an academic paper by UBC’s Neil Gross et al. — “Political Bias in the Graduate Admissions Process: A Field Experiment (Working Paper).”

Gross and his former colleagues at Harvard set out to test the perception that there is a selection bias in the application and acceptance process for postgraduate degree spaces at major universities, especially in the humanities, which, as everyone knows, are overflowing with leftists. That the typical American “leftist” is somewhat to the right of the old Canadian Conservative faction known as the “Red Tories” is lost on conservative Americans, who see their centre-right president as some kind of communist.

Anyway, as I continue to struggle, unsuccessfully so far, to stick to the point, back to the sociological study.

Gross and his co-authors sent emails by fictitious potential students to the graduate studies departments at 75 top schools. The emails mentioned that the students had worked for either Obama or McCain during the 2008 campaign. The result? No discernable bias in admissions.

Maybe grad students swung to the left after being exposed to years of indoctrination by leftist professors? Gross’s study found no evidence for it, documenting instead that the grad students who self-identified as left of centre at the end of their studies were the ones who had self-identified as left of centre before their admission.

As the Times article reports: “’The liberalism of professors is explained mostly by self-selection,’ Dr. Gross said, arguing that conservatives avoid fields with reputations that don’t fit their self-identity.”

Potential students with conservative views, say some on the right, select themselves into other, more comfortable environments, either at Christian and conservative colleges, or in more welcoming major university faculties like business and law.

One conservative survey found that “more than a quarter of [responding] sociologists said they would be swayed favorably toward a Democrat or an A.C.L.U. member and unfavorably toward a Republican. About 40 percent said they would be less inclined to vote for hiring someone who belonged to the National Rifle Association or who was an evangelical. ” More on that in a moment.

Some of the comments on the Times article were at least as interesting as the article itself. Predictable and less useful responses included both extremes — “Why should we use our tax money to fund these commie profs?” and “Conservatives are all rednecks who are too dumb to go to university.”

More nuanced comments included a somewhat less personalized version of the second idea, suggesting, among other things, that by their very political and moral natures “Conservatives lack the intellectual flexibility and open-mindedness to succeed and thrive in graduate school. Their obstinate and narrow world-view is what stops them from climbing a graduate school ladder that requires an open mind free of orthodoxy.”

And, in the same vein, “Of course universities skew left. Intelligent, educated, intellectually curious and moral individuals have always skewed left: that is the definition of left.” (As the identities of comment authors  cannot be verified, or may not be available, I’ve omitted any citation.)

Keeping to the same general theme: “It is very, very difficult to go through a doctoral program in, say, evolutionary biology and maintain a biblical worldview. Likewise, it is very difficult to spend 6-10 years studying American history and come away with the idea that we live in a genuinely egalitarian society that does not need ‘progressive’ change.”

And, “A conservative is likely to be more religious or even fundamentalist, and fundamentalism doesn’t hold up well to the kind of critical inquiry engendered by postgraduate study. This is simply one example, but there are other convictions that determine both career and political adherence. You could just as easily ask why there are fewer liberal police officers, or conservative union organizers.”

I have considerable sympathy for these last viewpoints — not because they denigrate conservatives and religionists as unintelligent, but rather because they seem to me to correctly identify the “mind block” that keeps many conservatives from thinking more broadly than their core beliefs normally encourage them to think.

And if it’s true that the current members of university humanities departments are rather reluctant to hire people with an announced disinclination to embrace the whole range of ideas, is that really surprising? Or inappropriate?

And yes, I am completely aware that there are many university profs whose views, and even whose entire disciplines, are as blinkered in their own ways as are those on the right. I’ve spent a whole whack of time in this blog trying to tear down some of their most outrageous blind spots and egregious irrationalisms. In this particular case, their academic sins are off the topic.

The topic of perceived leftist bias in academia has come up before in this space. If you’re interested, you might take a look at my response, back in February, to Jonathan Haidt’s observation that his fellow psychologists are shocking pink.

You can link directly to the article here.

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2 thoughts on “Grad school’s a grind for the right

  1. Thank you, Ron. Your selection of comments with your insightful obvservations has crystallized what I believe I thought (what I thought I believed?) for some time. P.

  2. This is painting with a broad brush. What would the details reveal in terms of differences between physicists and post modern literary critics; the differences between searchers for hard truth (in numbers) and the metaphor seekers?

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