May 12, 2005

The debate over academic bias is an ethical one

Even if the major players in the current national debate over academic bias are waving some rather comically ironic banners, the recurrence of the issue both in this newspaper and in Diskord indicate that while the national face of the debate might look foolish, there really may be something important at stake.

On the one hand, we have David Horowitz, a self-proclaimed conservative, coordinating an attack on college campuses through a campaign of grassroots student activism aimed at overturning the dominant social order of the university in order to admit minority opinions.

On the other hand, we have liberal academics responding with claims that the status quo is justified either because conservatives are inherently too stupid or greedy to make meaningful contributions to scholarship (as George Lakoff and dozens of letters to The New York Times have suggested), or because there is in fact no skew at all in the political composition of campuses. For data to the contrary, Daniel Klein's and Stanley Rothman's studies of university political composition and academic employment come to mind for interested readers.

In short, conservatives are campaigning for affirmative action by a familiar strategy of student activism and media pressure, while liberals are attempting to protect the status quo by arguing that inequality is actually a good thing, or at least not too detrimental. It's like a rerun of the 1960s, except all the actors have switched costumes.

The central question in the current debate is whether ideological diversity is necessary for a thorough education. The irony is that partisans on both sides have already implicitly agreed that it is. Those who endorse racial diversity as a "compelling interest" are hard-pressed to show why other kinds of diversity that are demonstrably relevant to education are less compelling. Those who oppose racial affirmative action but think that competing political views should have proportional representation are tacitly agreeing to the same premise—diversity in education is good for its own sake.

So are we agreed that universities should simply establish ideological quotas, start checking people's previous political affiliations, and hire accordingly?

When diversity is a central virtue of a good university, we must conclude that the aim of such a university is nothing more than the mere exposure of its students to as many kinds of people and ideas as possible. The most educated is he who has interacted with the widest range of people and ideas.

If this is really our aim, then we cannot stop at such broad categorizations as "liberal" and "conservative" in order to achieve it. We need to recruit monarchists and anarchists, fascists and communists. And we need to hire all of these people precisely for who they are, not what they know.

If this sounds absurd, then perhaps we should stop looking for a political answer to a question that is, at its heart, ethical in nature. And, if over-politicization of an ethical question is the problem, then perhaps de-politicizing the curriculum and consciously extricating advocacy from academics is the answer.

The obvious objection is that contemporary politics is too relevant to some subjects to be entirely excised, and I agree. However, one should be circumspect about bringing in divisive issues will actually help students gain insight into texts and when it will merely be redundant, provoking debate about applications rather than meanings that arise spontaneously in dining halls and dorm rooms and requires no qualified guidance. And when contemporary issues are unavoidable, professors should keep their own opinions out of discussions, serving as moderators rather than participants in the debate.

Is there any instance in a classroom when it is useful for a professor to make his own political sympathies known to his students? After all, he is often teaching ideas that themselves transcend modern American partisan categories. Plato, Machiavelli, and Locke endorsed neither of the candidates in the 2004 election. Their contributions to civilization can be claimed by both sides of our modern political debate, and to identify them with either is grossly to oversimplify them.

For a professor to admit that his views on texts are based in political ideologies rather than the texts themselves discredits the value of his teaching; he is merely giving some prescribed dogma rather than attempting to grapple with the text on its own terms. Those students who agree with his politics have little incentive to challenge any of his ideas, and those who disagree have little incentive to take any of them seriously. Who stands to gain from this kind of education?

Because political bias in the academy is ultimately an ethical and not a political problem, an effective resolution cannot be enforced through political means. We cannot implement federal laws or university regulations demanding that professors subscribe to the particular philosophy of education that values apolitical classrooms. Nor can we legally prevent students—who share partial responsibility for the bias of the academy—from asking their professors leading questions that reveal their political leanings, or from converting class discussions into partisan contests.

Every individual instructor must consider his own aims in teaching, and, at the risk of alienating future political allies and even helping to nurture future opponents, each professor must decide for himself whether his job is to teach his students what to think or to teach them how to think.