(Issue dated November 12, 2004)
Liberal Groupthink Is Anti-Intellectual

...The public has now picked up the message that "campuses are havens for left-leaning activists," according to a Chronicle poll of 1,000 adult Americans this year. Half of those surveyed -- 68 percent who call themselves "conservative" and even 30 percent who say they are "liberal" -- agreed that colleges improperly introduce a liberal bias into what they teach. The matter, however, is clearly not just one of perception. Indeed, in another recent survey, this one conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute of the University of California at Los Angeles, faculty members themselves chose as their commitment "far left" or "liberal" more than two and a half times as often as "far right" or "conservative." As a Chronicle article last month put it: "On left-leaning campuses around the country, professors on the right feel disenfranchised."

Yet while the lack of conservative minds on college campuses is increasingly indisputable, the question remains: Why?

The obvious answer, at least in the humanities and social sciences, is that academics shun conservative values and traditions, so their curricula and hiring practices discourage non-leftists from pursuing academic careers. What allows them to do that, while at the same time they deny it, is that the bias takes a subtle form. Although I've met several conservative intellectuals in the last year who would love an academic post but have given up after years of trying, outright blackballing is rare. The disparate outcome emerges through an indirect filtering process that runs from graduate school to tenure and beyond.

Some fields' very constitutions rest on progressive politics and make it clear from the start that conservative outlooks will not do. Schools of education, for instance, take constructivist theories of learning as definitive, excluding realists (in matters of knowledge) on principle, while the quasi-Marxist outlook of cultural studies rules out those who espouse capitalism. If you disapprove of affirmative action, forget pursuing a degree in African-American studies. If you think that the nuclear family proves the best unit of social well-being, stay away from women's studies.

Other fields allow the possibility of studying conservative authors and ideas, but narrow the avenues of advancement. Mentors are disinclined to support your topic, conference announcements rarely appeal to your work, and few job descriptions match your profile. A fledgling literary scholar who studies anti-communist writing and concludes that its worth surpasses that of counterculture discourse in terms of the cogency of its ideas and morality of its implications won't go far in the application process.

No active or noisy elimination need occur, and no explicit queries about political orientation need be posed. Political orientation has been embedded into the disciplines, and so what is indeed a political judgment may be expressed in disciplinary terms. As an Americanist said in a committee meeting that I attended, "We can't hire anyone who doesn't do race," an assertion that had all the force of a scholastic dictum. Stanley Fish, professor and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, advises, "The question you should ask professors is whether your work has influence or relevance" -- and while he raised it to argue that no liberal conspiracy in higher education exists, the question is bound to keep conservatives off the short list. For while studies of scholars like Michel Foucault, Michael Hardt, and Antonio Negri seem central in the graduate seminar, studies of Friedrich A. von Hayek and Francis Fukuyama, whose names rarely appear on cultural-studies syllabi despite their influence on world affairs, seem irrelevant.

Academics may quibble over the hiring process, but voter registration shows that liberal orthodoxy now has a professional import. Conservatives and liberals square off in public, but on campuses, conservative opinion doesn't qualify as respectable inquiry. You won't often find vouchers discussed in education schools or patriotism argued in American studies. Historically, the boundaries of scholarly fields were created by the objects studied and by norms of research and peer review. Today, a political variable has been added, whereby conservative assumptions expel their holders from the academic market. A wall insulates the academic left from ideas and writings on the right.

One can see that phenomenon in how insiders, reacting to Horowitz's polls, displayed little evidence that they had ever read conservative texts or met a conservative thinker. Weblogs had entries conjecturing why conservatives avoid academe -- while never actually bothering to find one and ask -- as if they were some exotic breed whose absence lay rooted in an inscrutable mind-set. Professors offered caricatures of the conservative intelligentsia, selecting Ann H. Coulter and Rush Limbaugh as representatives, not von Hayek, Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss, Thomas Sowell, Robert Nozick, or Gertrude Himmelfarb. One of them wrote that "conservatives of Horowitz's ilk want to unleash the most ignorant forces of the right in hounding liberal academics to death."

Such parochialism and alarm are the outcome of a course of socialization that aligns liberalism with disciplinary standards and collegial mores. Liberal orthodoxy is not just a political outlook; it's a professional one. Rarely is its content discussed. The ordinary evolution of opinion -- expounding your beliefs in conversation, testing them in debate, reading books that confirm or refute them -- is lacking, and what should remain arguable settles into surety. With so many in harmony, and with those who agree joined also in a guild membership, liberal beliefs become academic manners. It's social life in a professional world, and its patterns are worth describing.

The first protocol of academic society might be called the Common Assumption. The assumption is that all the strangers in the room at professional gatherings are liberals. Liberalism at humanities meetings serves the same purpose that scientific method does at science assemblies. It provides a base of accord. The Assumption proves correct often enough for it to join other forms of trust that enable collegial events. A fellowship is intimated, and members may speak their minds without worrying about justifying basic beliefs or curbing emotions.

The Common Assumption usually pans out and passes unnoticed -- except for those who don't share it, to whom it is an overt fact of professional life. Yet usually even they remain quiet in the face of the Common Assumption. There is no joy in breaking up fellow feeling, and the awkward pause that accompanies the moment when someone comes out of the conservative closet marks a quarantine that only the institutionally secure are willing to endure.

Sometimes, however, the Assumption steps over the line into arrogance, as when at a dinner a job candidate volunteered her description of a certain "racist, sexist, and homophobic" organization, and I admitted that I belonged to it. Or when two postdocs from Germany at a nearby university stopped by my office to talk about American literature. As they sat down and I commented on how quiet things were on the day before Thanksgiving, one muttered, "Yes, we call it American Genocide Day."

Such episodes reveal the argumentative hazards of the Assumption. Apart from the ill-mannered righteousness, academics with too much confidence in their audience utter debatable propositions as received wisdom. An assertion of the genocidal motives of early English settlers is put forward not for discussion but for approval. If the audience shares the belief, all is well and good. But a lone dissenter disrupts the process and, merely by posing a question, can show just how cheap such a pat consensus actually is.

After Nixon crushed McGovern in the 1972 election, the film critic Pauline Kael made a remark that has become a touchstone among conservatives. "I don't know how Richard Nixon could have won," she marveled. "I don't know anybody who voted for him." While the second sentence indicates the sheltered habitat of the Manhattan intellectual, the first signifies what social scientists call the False Consensus Effect. That effect occurs when people think that the collective opinion of their own group matches that of the larger population. If the members of a group reach a consensus and rarely encounter those who dispute it, they tend to believe that everybody thinks the same way.

The tendency applies to professors, especially in humanities departments, but with a twist. Although a liberal consensus reigns within, academics have an acute sense of how much their views clash with the majority of Americans. Some take pride in a posture of dissent and find noble precursors in civil rights, Students for a Democratic Society, and other such movements. But dissent from the mainstream has limited charms, especially after 24 years of center-right rule in Washington. Liberal professors want to be adversarial, but are tired of seclusion. Thus, many academics find a solution in a limited version of the False Consensus that says liberal belief reigns among intellectuals everywhere.

Such a consensus applies only to the thinking classes, union supporters, minority-group activists, and environmentalists against corporate powers. Professors cannot conceive that any person trained in critical thinking could listen to George W. Bush speak and still vote Republican. They do acknowledge one setting in which right-wing intellectual work happensnamely, the think tanksbut add that the labor there is patently corrupt. The Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and the Hoover Institution all have corporate sponsors, they note, and fellows in residence do their bidding. Hence, references to "right-wing think tanks" are always accompanied by the qualifier "well-funded."

The dangers of aligning liberalism with higher thought are obvious. When a Duke University philosophy professor implied last February that conservatives tend toward stupidity, he confirmed the public opinion of academics as a self-regarding elite -- regardless of whether or not he was joking, as he later said that he was. When laymen scan course syllabi or search the shelves of college bookstores and find only a few volumes of traditionalist argument amid the thickets of leftist critique, they wonder whether students ever enjoy a fruitful encounter with conservative thought. When a conference panel is convened or a collection is published on a controversial subject, and all the participants and contributors stand on one side of the issue, the tendentiousness is striking to everyone except those involved. The False Consensus does its work, but has an opposite effect. Instead of uniting academics with a broader public, it isolates them as a ritualized club.

The final social pattern is the Law of Group Polarization. That lawas Cass R. Sunstein, a professor of political science and of jurisprudence at the University of Chicago, has describedpredicts that when like-minded people deliberate as an organized group, the general opinion shifts toward extreme versions of their common beliefs. In a product-liability trial, for example, if nine jurors believe the manufacturer is somewhat guilty and three believe it is entirely guilty, the latter will draw the former toward a larger award than the nine would allow on their own. If people who object in varying degrees to the war in Iraq convene to debate methods of protest, all will emerge from the discussion more resolved against the war.

Group Polarization happens so smoothly on campuses that those involved lose all sense of the range of legitimate opinion. A librarian at Ohio State University who announces, "White Americans pay too little attention to the benefits their skin color gives them, and opening their eyes to their privileged status is a valid part of a college education" (The Chronicle, August 6) seems to have no idea how extreme his vision sounds to many ears. Deliberations among groups are just as prone to tone deafness. The annual resolutions of the Modern Language Association's Delegate Assembly, for example, ring with indignation over practices that enjoy popular acceptance. Last year, charging that in wartime, governments use language to "misrepresent policies" and "stigmatize dissent," one resolution urged faculty members to conduct "critical analysis of war talk ... as appropriate, in classrooms." However high-minded the delegates felt as they tallied the vote, which passed 122 to 8 without discussion, to outsiders the resolution seemed merely a license for more proselytizing.

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.

As things stand, such behaviors shift in a left direction, but they could just as well move right if conservatives had the extent of control that liberals do now. The phenomenon that I have described is not so much a political matter as a social dynamic; any political position that dominates an institution without dissent deterioriates into smugness, complacency, and blindness. The solution is an intellectual climate in which the worst tendencies of group psychology are neutralized.

That doesn't mean establishing affirmative action for conservative scholars or encouraging greater market forces in education -- which violate conservative values as much as they do liberal values. Rather, it calls for academics to recognize that a one-party campus is bad for the intellectual health of everyone. Groupthink is an anti-intellectual condition, ironically seductive in that the more one feels at ease with compatriots, the more one's mind narrows. The great liberal John Stuart Mill identified its insulating effect as a failure of imagination: "They have never thrown themselves into the mental condition of those who think differently from them." With adversaries so few and opposing ideas so disposable, a reverse advantage sets in. The majority expands its power throughout the institution, but its thinking grows routine and parochial. The minority is excluded, but its thinking is tested and toughened. Being the lone dissenter in a colloquy, one learns to acquire sure facts, crisp arguments, and a thick skin.

But we can't open the university to conservative ideas and persons by outside command. That would poison the atmosphere and jeopardize the ideals of free inquiry. Leftist bias evolved within the protocols of academic practice (though not without intimidation), and conservative challenges should evolve in the same way. There are no administrative or professional reasons to bring conservatism into academe, to be sure, but there are good intellectual and social reasons for doing so.

Those reasons are, in brief: One, a wider spectrum of opinion accords with the claims of diversity. Two, facing real antagonists strengthens one's own position. Three, to earn a public role in American society, professors must engage the full range of public opinion.

Finally, to create a livelier climate on the campus, professors must end the routine setups that pass for dialogue. Panels on issues like Iraq, racism, imperialism, and terrorism that stack the dais provide lots of passion, but little excitement. Syllabi that include the same roster of voices make learning ever more desultory. Add a few rightists, and the debate picks up. Perhaps that is the most persuasive internal case for infusing conservatism into academic discourse and activities. Without genuine dissent in the classroom and the committee room, academic life is simply boring.

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University and director of research at the National Endowment for the Arts.