“Conservative,” “Liberal,” and Higher Education

The extent to which “conservative” and “liberal” politics, as popularly defined, discussed, and understood, are and ought to be represented in higher education is a knotty, not a naughty, problem.

Illustration: When I still had an account on facebook, I posted a link to something about the science behind the causes (or correlatives) of global warming.  A facebook “friend” inquired as to whether the scientific researchers/professors were “liberal” or “conservative.”

My first response was to sigh deeply.  My second response was to write back, feebly, and try to explain that whatever the politics of the individuals were, the individuals were no doubt adhering to the  scientific method–when they were “doing” science, not when they were betting online (I kid the scientists).  I did not go on to explain the scientific method (methods, really) involved generating hypotheses, testing them with repeatable experiments, gathering and presenting data that can be scrutinized, insuring as much as possible that the experiments don’t include built-in biases or even flaws, having peers in the field review the reported research, and so on.

This just illustrates one of myriad problems with popular opinions about conservative and liberal politics and higher education.  Some other problems:

1. How do we define “liberal” and “conservative”?  Some conservatives don’t endorse the scientific method, at least as far as Creationism v. Evolutionary Theory is concerned.  So if you’re a scientist and adhere to aspects of evolutionary thought, are you a liberal?  If you teach African American Studies (regardless of what, specifically, you teach and how), are you a liberal?  Is jazz liberal or conservative? Is Langston Hughes’s poem, “I, Too,” liberal or conservative? If you teach business classes, are you automatically a conservative?

2. Most classes in college, even introductory ones, have enough depth that they’re bound not to concern or reflect “liberal” or “conservative” politics. A Constitutional Law class is going to cover cases and decisions widely considered to be seminal. It’s going to examine what Supremes actually wrote and what precedents they may have cited. It’s going to consider cases that arose when politics were measured by different popular scales that we derive (e.g.) from Fox News and MSNBC now.  And so on.

3. True, a certain percentage of college professors will proselytize.  But: why? And: To what effect? Some may do it because they’re deluded into thinking they can affect the world at large. Others may need the attention. Others may have axes to grind with “the world.” Some may be terrified that they’re not very smart.

But the situation gets complicated quickly.  For instance, a “Marxist” professor may oppose deliberate moves to insure that hiring and student-recruitment pools include persons of color.  Is this person “liberal,” “conservative,” both, or neither? Also, if you’ve been a parent, you know that people whose age ranges from 13 to 23 (approximately) will most likely recoil from “advice” and “lessons” offered by a parent, any older person, and a person in some other kind of position of authority.  And finally, any professor who spends time proselytizing is probably a shitty teacher, for multiple reasons, so there are larger fish that need to be fried, so to speak.

4. People have been set up to believe that college professors are “all” liberal. Apparently some data show that college professors, if/when they vote, tend to vote “Democratic.”  But, seriously, when the GOP has run off the rails on so many issues, Democrats may merely look like vaguely appealing road-kill by comparison.  And voting “Democratic” doesn’t necessarily translate into Leftist or liberal. Disinterested political scientists frequently point out that, to all intents and purposes, the U.S.A. operates by means of a one-Party system.  One example: how many lobbyists insure that members of both parties receive loot in any given election? I’ve met a lot of professors with an environmentalist bumper sticker on their Volvos who, on any given issue arising on campus, will behave like a garden variety Republican.

5. What questions really take up almost all professors’ time and energy–even if they are raging Marxists or card-carrying Tea Partiers? Have the students whose faces are before me done any of the assigned reading? Why do even upper-division students not seem to know about the possessive apostrophe, proper pronoun-agreement, basic logic, the proper use of the semi-colon, the conventions of a well developed paragraph, and so on? How can I finish marking this [set of essays, set of tests, lab reports] and attend the meeting of Graduation Attire Committee and go to the grocery store and work out and pick up the kids?  When will I have time to write the paper for the conference–a paper than has absolutely nothing to do with “liberal” or “conservative” politics? What is the best way for me to explain what W.E.B. Du Bois meant by “double-consciousness”? How can I get students to understand that “shared power” is a better way to describe how the branches of the federal government work than “checks and balances”?  Why does my colleague behave like a lemur on speed?

6. Finally, because colleges are businesses that deploy public relations, they can bait people into thinking they are “liberal” or “politically correct,” when, in terms of PR, they’re simply full of bullshit.  (That I regard the term “politically correct” to be bullshit is another matter.) Thus a college may have a “statement on diversity” (most colleges do) that asserts, “We here at Bubbly Acres State College Value a Diversity of . . . .” blah, blah, blah.  Now, any self-proclaimed “conservative” with the politically correct hammer cocked might react to such bullshit with, “See, I told you: they’re liberal!”  One problem is that anyone on campus who is actually interested in–one example only–recruiting and retaining more faculty of color will look at such a toothless statement and think, “Whatever!”  Such a statement is simply something colleges do know.  It’s like having a website. It’s neither liberal nor conservative.  It isn’t anything; or, if it’s something, it’s bullshit.  The bullshit might distract a “conservative,” sooth a sleepy “liberal,” or bore most readers. But the bullshit is not going to make anything happen.

So if you know someone who frets over the “politics” (as popularly understood) of higher education, tell that person not to waste his or her time and energy. The issue is quite beside the point, whatever the point of higher education may be.


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