Education

How should we treat the left-leaning bias in universities?

BY Mark Brolin   /  30 November 2018

It is no secret that the number of university professors leaning left has, for decades, by far outnumbered the number of university professors leaning right. How big a problem is this? Jonathan Haidt, a prominent American social psychologist, says – a massive one.

It is not so much the ratio is skewed, but that the ratio is skewed to a degree that leads to left-wing thinking hardly being challenged at all. Neither by the few remaining right-wing professors – nor by students who might feel an urge to test right-wing thoughts. Meaning that some American universities are turning into the very opposite of what real science is supposed to be about: a place where ideas are challenged until proven or disproven.

The political implications are hard to overestimate for three reasons.

Firstly, the academic sector has probably never been as politically influential in shaping the political agenda as it is today. Politicians in the past, including the “greats” on both sides – leaders like Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher – tended to nurture a healthy scepticism towards academic thought. At least when this thought was fluffy and untested on the field of practical reality. Such scepticism helped to ensure robust academic legwork. Today the opposite dynamic is at work. Not only does academic fluff often pass the peer review tests; frequently it is also treated as serious thought among politicians too much in awe of academia to smell a rat. Which, perhaps, should come as no great surprise when so many political leaders have gone into politics almost straight from university. If you have spent most of your formative years among armchair thinkers, where to look for guidance if not among the “clever” professors on top of the academic power pyramid?

Secondly, due to the current bias within academia, many social science professors have arguably started to relate to politicians similarly to how management consultants and investment bankers often relate to company CEOs. The latter send money in the direction of the former and in return, they expect an intellectual alibi for an (expansion) agenda already broadly decided.

Thirdly, a reason Mr Haidt is offering himself, is that the massive political problems we are facing today – and the lack of effective countermeasures – are not so much the result of unsolvable political problems. He suggests that the real problem is that human nature stops us from even trying to arrive at constructive solutions. Just look at the big issues – immigration, the EU, gender. How hard are they really if looking at them from a practical perspective? Outside the “liberal ecosystem” it is not particularly controversial to argue that the problems are rooted in overshoot. Meaning the remedy is quite obvious: backtrack to practically sustainable and thereby politically acceptable discourse and policymaking. However, among many liberal academics, the overshoot argument tends to be treated as heresy rather than an argument worth even testing. Today’s bubble mentality, in certain political circles, would not be possible without the legitimacy offered by academics.

Crucially, Jonathan Haidt argues that the development towards thought-police-campuses has been driven by students rather than professors; and by university administrators who have given in to the student demands for safe spaces. He has specifically studied the psychology of students who experience views at odds with their own as threatening. It is these students who demand deplatforming – sometimes of even liberal thinkers of the wrong shade. It is also these students who find it perfectly acceptable to intimidate their less politically correct peers.

But, the problem is increasingly being called out. And, there is also a degree of self-correction. It is probably no coincidence that the influence of think tanks, on both sides of the Atlantic, has grown as the output of the social science faculties has turned less intellectually interesting. Moreover, labelling yourself a liberal while at the same time hindering free speech is not unproblematic. Ken MacDonald, Warden of Wadham College, Oxford, suggests that the snowflake liberals are not doing the liberal side (his own) any favours. In fact, their uncompromising attitude is feeding the parties of discontent. Meaning there is a chance university administrators might eventually be pressured into tackling these people in the same way as they are expected to tackle everyone else in a classroom who deal with their personal insecurities through intimidation of others. Because there is already a term for such people. Bullies.

Then again, there is sometimes a fine line between bullying and youthful attention seeking. Testing boundaries is what attention seekers do. And is there not, in all this, a student element of how-much-snow-flakeyism-can-we-get-away-with? In other areas, it is a commonplace that if adults fail to push back against youthful boundary testing things can easily spiral out of control. Also for the kids doing the testing. All of this is to say: that adult failure to push back against this developing culture on campuses fails just about everybody.


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