Sunday, November 01, 2015


A Bumper Crop of Lupins

Anyone remember the Monty Python version of Robin Hood, in which Robin Hood stole lupins from the rich to give to the poor?  The poor were a bit underwhelmed, having no use for lupins.  Robin Hood was solving the wrong problem.

Arthur Brooks’ piece in the New York Times on Friday is a bumper crop of lupins.  

According to Brooks, the major problem facing “academia” now is a lack of “true diversity,” by which he means the presence of political conservatives.  After all, he notes, one study of social psychologists showed that they lean liberal, so the entire academy must!  We must commence with compensatory hiring of conservatives post-haste!

Um, no.

Here are some actual issues I deal with on a daily basis:

Trying to maintain and improve quality on increasingly austere budgets.
Improving student outcomes, especially in foundational courses.
Ensuring that employees feel respected.
Building relationships with community members, employers, and four-year colleges.
Finding solutions within the confines of collective bargaining agreements and tenure.
Fostering a culture of innovation.
Helping OER gain traction on campus.
Personnel stuff.  Enough said.

Here’s one I don’t give a single, solitary hoot about:

How the one person who teaches the social psychology elective votes.

Now, one might respond that community colleges are not what Brooks meant.  If so, then his use of the falsely inclusive “academia” reveals more than he intended it to.  Or, one might respond that my indifference is based on mindless conformity to a norm so thorough as to be invisible.  I’d respond with surprise that “false consciousness” arguments are valid again, and might suggest some more compelling applications.

Or, in a calmer moment, I might point out that hiring to fill ideological quotas fails on any number of levels.  It assumes that ideologies are fixed, internally consistent, and easily counted.  As a political theorist by training, I can assure you that they are anything but.  They evolve.  The ‘center’ moves.  Twenty years ago, the thought of gay marriage was so far to the left that Bill Clinton had to adopt “don’t ask, don’t tell” and DOMA to duck it.  Now, among voters my age and younger, open homophobia is discrediting.  John Kasich mentioned in a Republican presidential debate that he had attended a gay wedding.  That would not have happened in 1992.  

Even more basically, the idea that every political position can be reduced to one of three -- conservative, liberal, or in-between -- is simply inaccurate.  There is no shortage of other ways of stitching views together.  

More basically than that, the freedom to change one’s mind as new facts emerge is central to scholarly inquiry.  Requiring adherence to a single ideological camp means shutting down the possibility of acting on new information.  That would defeat the entire enterprise.  If I’m hired to be the resident conservative, and my research leads me to change my view on this issue or that, I could lose my job; I’d have to choose between following the truth where it leads and keeping a paycheck.  

Brooks is solving the wrong problem the wrong way.  I have literally no idea how almost anybody at work votes, nor do I care.  I have worked in Republican areas -- Morris and Monmouth counties -- as well as a Democratic one, in Massachusetts.  The challenges are the same.  The daily work is the same.  Political party is roughly as relevant as astrological sign.  

I wouldn’t expect Brooks to know that, since as far as I know, he has never actually managed a college.  Yet he gets space in the New York Times to tell the rest of us how it really works.  

No, it doesn’t.  It’s a giant pile of lupins.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some actual work to do...

The fact that the NYT pays David Brooks to write this crap is profoundly depressing.

Brooks is a pompous fake: he's paid by the NYT to spout drivel that sounds like "thoughtful gravitas." He's a phony pretentious idiot.
Confusing David Brooks (employed by the NYT) with the author of this op ed piece (Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute) suggests that neither of the two commenters above even looked at the column.

Too bad, because it was funny when it wasn't sadly ill-informed. Seeing a social scientist generalize from one study of social psychologists to the math or engineering or business departments at every college in the country was very entertaining. Almost as entertaining as trying to imagine why that finding about academic social psychologists shocked him, or why he would expect "trustworthy findings" from any social science (I have in mind Harry Truman's search for a one-armed economist) or conclude that there is political bias in research conducted by engineering professors.
There have been a lot of complaints that academe is very heavily stacked with liberal leftists, much more so than in the general population at large. I don’t know if this is really true, since I have known quite a few who were rather conservative. It may depend on the nature of the discipline, with there being more liberals in sociology, English, or history disciplines than there are in STEM disciplines. But I suspect that academe as a whole is by nature a humanist endeavor, one that is more likely to attract people with a liberal bent, just as the military, the police, and corporate environments are more likely to attract people with a more conservative frame of mind.

I don’t think that there should be any sort of ideological or political test applied to academe. I don’t really care whether my physics or math prof is a Democrat or a Republican. But a teacher should not use their class to rant about their political or religious views, unless they are actually relevant to the course material.

But there are some rather disturbing proposals to crack down on academe for perceived bias. Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson has proposed that the Education Department identify “extreme bias” in the classroom, and cut off federal funds to colleges and universities found to engage in such bias. This could lead to a witch-hunt in academe, with the administration riding herd on classroom instruction, attempting to avoid any perception of “extreme bias” in the classroom, which could potentially put their federal funding at risk. Professors would be forced to censor themselves in the classroom, lest what they say about a controversial issue cause them to be called on the carpet. This would completely destroy academic freedom.

I'll happily embrace affirmative action for hiring conservatives in academia, just as soon as corporate boardrooms embrace affirmative action for hiring Marxists in the boardroom.

You have seen this, right?
the idea that every political position can be reduced to one of three -- conservative, liberal, or in-between -- is simply inaccurate

Especially as the American spectrum is so limited compared to the rest of the world.

Canada's neocon party is a bit to the left of your Democrats, and the rest of our parties are to the left of the CPC. So from north of the border, your three positions look more like hard right, extremely hard right, and stark-raving-loony right…
CCPhysicist, excellent comment. BTW, I'm a conservative and I also find David Brooks' work unrewarding.

However, as to Arthur Brooks' thesis, here's a data point. My four now-adult children attended three different higher-ed institutions. They uniformly reported that their professors/instructors were mostly liberals, with a smattering of "not sures." Conservative viewpoints were rarely represented, and the pressure to toe the liberal, politically correct line was intense. Three very different colleges, same perception. My own alma mater has lurched far to the left as well.

I tend to think that this is more than a lupin. Higher ed will be losing bipartisan support the more it is seen as the bastion of liberal elites. One might make the case that the current financial distress in higher ed is a signal that half the population is unhappy with the direction higher ed has been taking. As to DD's scoffing that there is no political test in hiring, that dodges the issue--the question is whether the faculty lacks the voices of conservatives, not how it got that way. If it lacks those voices, why is not affirmative action the remedy?
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