Monday, April 04, 2005

Is Political Diversity Really That Important?

Inspired by the study discussed in the previous post, Todd Zywicki of the Volokh crew tells us why we should be concerned about diversity in academia. Brian Leiter has already responded, and I agree with much of what he says, but I thought I would add and/or reiterate a few points.

First, let's look at what Todd says. First, he provides three purposes or goals for higher education:
(1) to develop human capital, (2) to educate and develop critical thinking skills and intellectual self-discovery and character in students, and (3) to develop individuals who can participate as responsible citizens in a free and democratic society.
Since I more or less agree with these, I won't address them specifically. However, Todd uses these goals as a launching point for his arguments for diversity. The first goal "develop human capital" doesn't require diversity, he says, but the second does. He writes:
Ideological diversity has a lot to do with this [critical thinking skills and intellectual self-discovery]. The purpose of education should be to teach students how to think, not what to think. I don't know how you can teach students to analyze arguments and determine the truth value about claims about the world if you don't expose them to a variety of ideas. As Greg Ransom observes the presence of an intellectual orthodoxy on campus can severely hamper student's critical reasoning skills. Ransom's experience is that many students do in fact absorb some degree of indoctrination at a very superficial level, and that the virtual absence of any serious counterarguments leaves them at this very superficial and unreflective mode of analysis. I think this is probably right--for instance, I am amazed at the shallowness of analysis that I hear from ostensibly educated students. Comments I hear about environmental issues, in particular, come to mind.

UPDATE: I added as an update after my initial post "intellectual self-discovery" for students in response to a perceptive reader comment. I did mean to include this as well as part of this point--in addition to developing individual critical reasoning skills, it is also important to develop individual student intellectual skills to understand themselves and the world better as well as guiding ethical and character attributes. Obviously this requires students to wrestle with various ideas in coming to their own world views.

There's something naive, even simple-minded about this (a seemingly persistent quality of Todd's thinking), and a discerning reader will probably notice it right away. The issue Todd is discussing in this paragraph is not the ideologically diversity of university professors, but of the ideas they present in their courses. But Todd doesn't present any evidence of a lack of ideological diversity in classroom material, and neither do any of the studies he and other conservatives cite. They only look at professors' political orientations. But professors' political orientations and class reading lists are not the same thing, and there is no reason why a liberal professor would not include conservative ideas in a course in which they would be relevant. Until someone produces data showing that course reading lists are heavily skewed toward liberal sources, even when conservative sources are available, or that professors are, more often than not, unfair to conservative ideas in their presentation of them to students (a distinct possibility, but not a possibility made inevitable, or even probable, by disparities in political orientation), this point of Todd's seems to be arguing past itself. It certainly doesn't provide a reason for working towards ideological diversity in academia.

Unfortunately, Todd merely repeats this argument for the third goal (responsible citizens, and all that), writing:
It seems to me that it is imperative that students be exposed to all viewpoints about the world and to learn to evaluate the truth and resonance of competing world views. Living together as citizens in a free society, and having the kinds of connections and conversations that make that possible, requires developing a depth of understanding that cannot be created in an atmosphere of one-sided intellectual orthodoxy. It is a pretty short road from the impoverished discussions in modern universities to the idiocy of Michael Moore and red v. blue America. I don't pretend that American political discussion was ever that exhaulted [sic], but surely we used to hold educated people to a higher standard of discourse then we see today, especially on university campuses? I personally would add to this that as part of educating free and responsible citizens we should make sure students understand the intellectual and historical foundations of the western world, but I recognize that this is a more controversial proposition.
Once again, Todd is assuming, without any objective evidence, that disparity in political orientation is identical with, or directly and invariably causes, disparity in classroom material. (Note that there can be classroom disparity, due to the availability of quality material for example, even without there being a disparity in the political orientation of professors -- the two really are mutually exclusive.) Sure, Todd has some anecdotal evidence, from his own experience, like every conservative seems to. But I can tell you honestly that I had at least two professors as an undergraduate -- one in political science, and one in philosophy -- who were heavily biased toward conservative ideas in their teaching. Of course, that's 2 out of almost 60(yes, I took about 180 of coursework; I was a nerd on a two-degree track), most of whom (if we believe the studies) were liberal, but who showed no bias in their teaching. So Todd, like so many before him, has left us without a real argument for diversity among professors. Instead, he's argued for the sensible position that students should be exposed to a wide range of ideas, but he can provide no evidence that they are not.

In fact, as Leiter hints in his response, Zywicki's argument (for diversity in the classroom, not in the ranks of the professors who teach in them) may actually undermine his own position. The key is to have a significantly diverse collection of scholarly ideas. Many of the scholarly ideas that professors teach in their courses were produced by other university professors, and thus it is important that, across all universities (in the world, not necessarily in the United States), there be a wide range of viewpoints (not just political, but with Todd, we have to keep things simple, and what's simpler than considering an incredibly broad issue unidimensionally?) among professors, so that a wide range of ideas are produced for instructors to use. But this doesn't mean that we need intellectual diversity at each individual university, and it certainly doesn't imply that we should require it by law. It may be that, as Leiter claims, scholarship advances more rapidly when several like-minded thinkers are working closely together. I know that in the sciences, that is often the case, because it facilitates productive cooperation on research. In cognitive science (I don't know about other sciences), this has led most universities to concentrate on hiring people studying similar things from similar perspectives. They can still teach about a variety of ideas, but when they do the research, they start from their own position.

So, Zywicki's arguments fail, but might there be other reasons for promoting diversity in academia? My feeling is that in the most departments (the natural sciences, most of the social sciences, applied fields like engineering and medicine, and even in many humanities departments), political orientation is completely irrelevant irrelevant. There is absolutely no reason to worry about diversity on this dimension. In departments where political orientation may be relevant, such as political science, how much would diversity improve education? To what extent would students come away with a more diverse education, if they studied at a university at a more politically diverse institution? I doubt anyone can answer that question effectively now, and until someone goes out and gather the relevant data, all of the posturing by conservatives seems misguided to me.

7 comments:

Razib said...

i think yearning for the day when conservatives are represented in academia in representative proportions is like hoping that petrol executives are politically diverse, a priori one could imagine it happening, but practically people self-select by values & preference of who they wish to be around.

when i was in college and in non-science courses i think i did have a salubrious impact on some of my fellow students being the token "conservative" in classroom discussions (i went to a liberal state school). they were surprised for instance that a "conservative" could support abortion rights, be an atheist and take a very strong line on civil liberties (the last was particular shocking to some because i tended to be more absolutist on search & seizure related issues than my more pragmatic classmates). of course, i was a rather strident libertarian at the time, not a genuine conservative, but basically that was close enough for most people.

Clark Goble said...

I fully agree with your thoughts. I think, however, that the place they fail is that the discourse within universities is all about diversity. It's just that they only apply this selectively.

But I personally have no problem with universities having a bias. I just don't like the faux appeals to academic freedom or diversity that some hypocritically appeal to with respect to racial diversity and so forth.

Not that I'm against having minorities go to university. Indeed I'm all in favor of scholarships for minorities, especially in fields they are underrepresented in. I just notice a lot of hypocrisy when this is defended on the basis of diversity and the benefits of diversity on the academy.

The fact is that there is a more than enough hypocrisy on both sides of this debate.

Chris said...

razib, it's definitely true that diversity among students can improve the quality of class discussions. Having gone to school in the south (both for my undergraduate and graduate work), I never saw a lack of conservative viewpoints in the classroom. And I was at time surprised, by people with all sorts of views that I did not share, and in many cases, had not previously encountered. Really, anyone who's spent time in academia should be offended at the suggestion that "conservative" and "liberal" are categories that we should be worried about, when we talk about "intellectual diversity." There are so many dimensions, and so many viewpoints, even within those two categories, that lumping people into one of those is like calling all wildlife either "gray" or "not gray."

Clark,
I wholeheartedly agree. While I think racial (and religious, and lifestyle, and even political) diversity among students can benefit the social life on a campus, and even classroom discussions, I don't think diversity is valuable in and of itself. What's really important about racial diversity in universities, as you indicate, is not its effect on education, but its effect on society as a whole. Education is so important, today, that unless minority groups have equal education opportunities, they will never have equal economic and social opportunities. I don't think that can be said about political diversity in university faculties.

Suz said...

I don't think schools are as "liberal" across the board as most people seem to be claiming. At MIT, for instance, there are a lot of conservative structures and centers (with conservative professors and fellows). For example, the Center for International Studies at MIT was founded by the CIA. While its programs and seminars do not always fall neatly into one category, the ones I've been to have mostly had a strong conservative bent.

I do think (from anecdotal evidence) that there is a leaning - but not as dramatic as some think - toward liberalism in the sciences. But it appears that most of the professors who get top administrative positions, like department chair or university president, are not liberal at all.

Incidentally, the most liberal science department here (in terms of professors' leanings) appears to be that of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

Chris said...

Suz, I can definitely attest to the "liberalness" of the cognitive sciences. Even though I've known some politically-conservative faculty, the vast majority of the people I know in the field are politically liberal. Of course, that's not surprising since the cognitive sciences are so closely linked to the social sciences. I can't imagine how it affects the content of our courses, though.

Clark Goble said...

I think the one danger of a political establishment in universities is the social environment. Even if the comments are hyperbolic, I don't think that all the conservative professors telling story of pressure and ridicule are wrong. Further I think it unarguable that some professors don't keep their political views separate from their class lectures. But I think that is on par with the fact that many professors, especially in a university, are very poor teachers. In some technical fields one often gives thanks if a professor is able to teach in understandable English.

That's not a slam on foreign born professors. Indeed I think one benefit of the past decades is to share science with the world. However communicative abilities often are lacking, and not just because of grasp of language or accent. You've got more than a fair share of people with Asperger Syndrome trying to teach. They may be brilliant in their field but rather difficult to get much from as a teacher.

My point isn't to discount the political debate, merely to point out that there are many bigger problems.

Admittedly I'm looking at it from the harder sciences where frankly political talk makes the least amount of sense. I think that in the humanities or more soft sciences though the effect is undoubtedly greater.

Chris said...

Since politics are contentious, it's inevitable that large differences in the distribution of political ideologies in a social group is skewed, holders of minority opinions are bound to suffer. Of course, that doesn't just apply to conservatives. There are all sorts of minority political groups (socialists, libertarians, anarchists, and so on). I think it certainly makes it more difficult for conservatives to be happy in a career in academia, but I don't know that our goal should be to worry about whether members of any group are happy in academia, unless their being unhappy affects the quality of education and scholarship.

Oh, and here's a somewhat amusing anecdote. When I was a freshman in college, my first year chemistry professor was a native Chinese speaker, who had learned English in grad school. His accent was heavy, and students often had a difficult time understanding him. There were two words, in particular, which were almost impossible to distinguish, "ion" and "iron." Since those words are quite important in introductory chemistry, and at times appear in very similar contexts, it was occasionally impossible to determine which one he meant. Needless to say, confusion abounded.