Monday, March 28, 2005

Alligator Alert

They're at it again. According to this article in the Tallahassee Alligator (!), Republicans in the Florida legislature have voted in committee to pass a law mandating ideological 'balance' in college faculties. Gotta clamp down on those faculty socialists poisoning the minds of the youth. You know, all those socialist youth you see swinging elections to the Green party...

Last year, I did an entry on the 'viewpoint diversity' movement. I've reprinted most of it below, with an update at the end:

Conservatives have taken up the slogan of ‘viewpoint diversity’ to force colleges to hire more politically-conservative faculty. The state legislature in Florida is now moving to give this slogan the force of law.

I admit that my first response involved an unattractive combination of gagging and giggling. But, upon sober reflection, I realized that the idea has considerable merit. It just needs to be more fully fleshed out. As a public service, I’ve taken the task upon myself…

Start with the religious colleges. Their faculty are disproportionately religious! How can students possibly expect to be exposed to differing points of view? I’m pleased to hear the Republicans urge Lynchburg College to hire more Jews, liberals, and homosexuals. Catholic colleges and universities tend to have disproportionately-Catholic faculties; this too must stop! How can anyone fully embrace a faith until exploring the alternatives? I join the Republicans in calling upon every Catholic college in the U.S. to start a stepped-up hiring program for secular liberals immediately.

Some of the displaced Catholic faculty could find work at, say, Brandeis…

And what about the military colleges? The faculty at West Point could use some openly gay, vegetarian pacifists. The women’s studies department at the Army War College could use some beefing up…

Business schools are vastly overrun with Republicans. Obviously, a purge is in order. To make sure all points of view are represented, we could mandate that every other hire come from, say, the leadership of a labor union. One for business, one for labor. That’s fair!

What about the proprietary sector? Since the very nature of proprietary schools is capitalist, they need a counterbalancing faction of socialist faculty. After all, students mustn’t be indoctrinated. Dispatch the University of Phoenix to the MLA, stat!

In fact, why should we limit viewpoint diversity to colleges? Why not other important public institutions?

Over half of Congress is comprised of millionaires. That’s not representative! Let’s get a representative sample of Wal-Mart workers in there. Let them vote on tax policy. For that matter, let’s get the median income of Congress down to the national average. That might have some interesting effects on the laws about parental leave, health care, tax distributions…

And what about the judiciary? Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas – outta there! 7 out of the 9 current members of the Supreme Court were appointed by Republicans – no wonder they threw the election to Bush! Make it an even split – hell, while we’re at it, let’s extend the income-diversity rule there, too. Let’s see what someone making $25k has to say about equal protection of the laws…


Apparently, affirmative action is only okay when it benefits conservatives.

The idiocy of the law is even deeper than it looks. Leave aside the question of higher-ed exceptionalism; what’s even more disturbing is the idea that everybody’s political thinking has to fit cleanly in certain boxes. If I’m hired to be the token liberal, and my thought evolves, I could lose my job! If I stitch positions together in ways that don’t reflect the approved categories (say, a Daniel Bell type – socially conservative, but left on economics), I don’t count, so I can’t get hired. Best to avoid thinking anything new.

For the idea of ‘viewpoint diversity’ to make any sense, we have to assume that all possible viewpoints are already known, as is the proper numerical distribution of viewpoints. We also have to assume that all of the interesting questions have already been asked, all answers to all questions coalesce into only two or three possible constellations, that political preference colors all knowledge (“Democrats argue that the atomic number for hydrogen is 1, but Republicans…”), and that students are perfect sponges for what their professors tell them. In other words, we have to be morons.


I can't imagine a worse idea for higher education than to prescribe the 'correct' answers in advance, whatever they are. Don't be fooled by the 'leftist professor' crap; if ideological balance had anything to do with anything, Bush would appoint several liberal justices to the Supreme Court to keep the conservatives honest. The Republicans control the Presidency, the Congress, and the Judiciary. They control the mainstream media, most state governments, and most of the wealth in America. It just kills them not to have a (legally-mandated!) clean sweep.

To make higher education the political handmaiden of anybody would be a tragic mistake. The purpose of higher ed, I always thought, was to expose people to ideas they hadn't seen before, to sharpen their critical thinking skills and enable them to take part in a democratic society as agents of their own interest. To declare that exposing someone to new ideas violates his 'rights' is both obtuse and insanely dangerous.

It's also a betrayal of one of the more honorable lines of conservative thought. As any serious student of American political history can attest, the postwar 'fusion' in American conservatism was held together by the glue of anti-communism. Anti-communism was premised on the (correct) idea that an open society (in which people are allowed to question those in power) is preferable to a closed one. Buckley, Taft, Popper, Friedman, von Hayek: all of these conservatives understood that absolutism leads to oppression.

Drunk with power, the new conservatives have forgotten all that. They believe that everything worth knowing is already known, and that, therefore, any questioning of the existing order can only be explained by bad faith. (This is a nearly perfect mirror of the old Soviet habit of explaining discontent with the workers' paradise as a psychiatric malady.) To them, the only role for higher ed is to produce workers.

Fox News's obsession with Ward Churchill makes sense, in this context. He's what Trotsky used to call a 'useful idiot.' Academically, he's a nonentity, but never mind that; he embodies the conservative stereotype of the left-wing professor, giving a convenient cover for a purge. Inflame populist outrage against some insignificant little twit, and channel that outrage to squash independent thought generally. It's an old move, but apparently, it still works.

I'm not naive about the limitations of the academy; as my regular readers know, I bump up against them with some frequency. That's not the point. The point is that education, done right, involves exposure to things you didn't know before. You build cognitive skill by engaging with ideas different from your own. Are some professors arrogant? Sure. So are some businesspeople, but I don't see conservatives calling for more regulation there.

The alligator's nose is under the tent. By all means, step on it.