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...