May 16, 2005

The liberal academic bias is a problem in our universities

I agree with Rita's call ("The Debate over Academic Bias Is an Ethical One," 5/12/05) to depoliticize the classroom. Armed with the works of the greatest minds of the past, professors are supposed to teach us how to think, not what to think. A text must be understood first and foremost on its own terms. When a professor voices her own political views in class, she violates the pursuit of these goals and creates an atmosphere of intellectual intimidation.

Unfortunately, the call to remove politics from the classroom does not fully address the issue of bias in the academy. A generally homogeneous faculty is now shaping intellectual discourse in universities and colleges throughout the country, to the detriment of liberal education. There is an enormous amount of pressure on students and scholars in the humanities, for example, to study literature and works of art from points of view that are tied to left-leaning ideologies. In English departments, Marxist and feminist theory, New Historicism, deconstruction, and methodologies involving race, class, and gender are paramount. In the empirical realm, a politically correct band of arbiters now decides which scientific explanations of the differences between genders and races are acceptable and which are too insensitive to be considered; it is OK to blame society for a group's shortcomings or tendencies, but you'd better not point the finger at mother nature.

A primary goal of the academy is the pursuit of truth, or at least "the truest account," as former Boston University president John Silber put it. A tool in uncovering this truth is the unsympathetic marketplace of ideas. In an open and free marketplace of ideas—where real inquiry flourishes, and where there are no speech codes or censors limiting what scholars are able to study—incorrect, bad, or simply weak theories will yield to stronger and better ones. Ideas will combat each other, proponents of ideas will battle with all their metaphorical blood, sweat, and tears, and ultimately the best ideas will win out. Fostering an atmosphere in which ideas can battle in this way ought to be the goal of the academy.

And yet, as illustrated in the examples given above, such an atmosphere has been deliberately constricted. There are few places in the academy for someone who rejects the merits of Marxism, deconstruction, methodologies of race, class, and gender, and historicism when studying the great works of literature and art. (I am proud to point out that Chicago's Committee on Social Thought is a notable exception.) Much of a text is lost when only studied in this way. Understanding Shakespeare only through postmodern lenses skews the soul of his pages; his observations on the universal workings of power, the struggles of the human heart, and the universal aspects of friendship are lost when one spends all class time focusing on deconstruction or identifying the victimization of women. Intellectual growth among students also suffers because of this agenda-driven scholarship; original ideas and interpretation are stifled when how a piece of art can be studied is so narrowly limited.

The censorship of the sciences—both hard and social—is possibly even more harmful to society at large. Empirical research is supposed to deploy the scientific method to uncover the reality around us and about us. Science, unfettered by inquiry blockers and practiced with sound methodology, is the way we have learned so much about our universe, our planet, and ourselves. And yet it is now generally accepted that certain things should not be studied even in this manner because somebody might be offended.

Why aren't Daniel Pipes or Charles Murray welcome in the academy? Why was there such an uproar over Lawrence Summers's remarks? Because these people said things about certain groups that some have found to be offensive; they said things that we have been taught it is not polite to say. Despite the fact that their arguments about ethnic groups or women are unpleasant to hear, these men are scholars and have empirical data to support their arguments. Sweeping unpleasant empirical evidence under the carpet will not negate that evidence; it will only obstruct our ability to understand the complex world around us. Ideas—even unpleasant ideas—need to be dealt with.

One of the cornerstones of Chicago's greatness is its economics department—a department that owes its success to its reliance on the empirical method. The department rigorously applied quantitative methodology to understand human behavior—both in the micro and macro realms—and did not steer away from subjects because they were taboo. Milton Friedman and crew famously used empirical data to challenge the socialistic and Keynesian assumptions widely held by all right-minded intellects in the middle of the last century. These scholars drew much ostracism for their unpopular findings. And yet over time, their ideas have emerged victorious in the marketplace of ideas. It is good news that, to my understanding, this department is still a place where open and free inquiry occurs. (For those who don't believe me, and who generally fully discredit anything to do with economics, especially of the Chicago variant, please note the work Steven Levitt has done on abortion—not quite what you would expect from a "doctrinally conservative" department).

I hold up the Chicago economics department as an example of greatness that all empirical departments should emulate. There should be no room for those who would "block the way of inquiry" (C.S. Peirce) in the academy, whether their methods are intimidation or a cowardly resort to political correctness. Charles Murray and Daniel Pipes are both doing important work in their respective fields. Murray's work on innate differences between ethnic groups and Pipes's scholarship on the Middle East both have important policy implications. I challenge Chicago's sociology and NELC departments, respectively, to offer a visiting position to these scholars. Those who disagree with these scholars should not fear them, as they should be confident that their own findings and scholarship can easily defeat that with which they disagree. I am certain that much good would come of scholars like Pipes and Murray being invited to the academy and allowed to challenge the widely accepted beliefs now propagated, as well as be challenged by those who disagree with them. Everyone would come out of such debates with a better understanding of the world around us, and be that much closer to truth. Moreover, such debate would necessarily instill doubt in the minds of college students—who more often than not are exposed only to one point of view—that might motivate them to further pursue inquiry, even on unpopular, politically incorrect subjects. That would be a victory for liberal education and the pursuit of truth.

The academy is suffering because of the problem of academic bias, and it is up to individual departments and administration to try to do something about it.