For some time now, conservative commentators have been criticizing American universities for their alleged liberal bias. According to this argument, which has been made recently on this very campus, most professors are liberal, as indicated by their Democratic Party affiliations. The preponderance of liberal professors, it is claimed, stifles intellectual curiosity and renders conservative students on campus a disempowered minority.
Some members of the faculty disdain this argument as a mere partisan ploy, unworthy of response. But it will not do to dismiss the argument entirely. After all, the "post-" intellectuals?post-modernists, post-structuralists, and post-colonialists?have been making a more sophisticated form of the same argument for several decades now, merely from the other side of the bench. They argue that colleges and universities institutionalize structures of knowledge that are inherently political?that the very ways disciplines are organized have ramifications for the distribution of power in an unequal society. In light of this, it seems rather bad grace, once the argument is made from the other side, to retreat into claims of scholarly objectivism and the virtues of universal truth.
No, the problem with the conservative argument is not that it makes a case that "liberal" professors don't like. The problem is that it is a political rather than an intellectual argument. It simply has no credibility as an academic claim, for in seeking to measure political bias among campus faculties it uses yardsticks that are completely indefensible. Trying to map the political proclivities of the professoriate through categories such as "Democrat versus Republican" or "liberal versus conservative" is like trying to perform brain surgery with hedge clippers.
As any student of political history can tell you, Republican and Democrat are not historically static categories, but dynamic and contingent ones. Parties and what they stand for change over time; they are changing before our very eyes, even if we don't see it. The same thing goes for words like "conservative" and "liberal." The historical founders of these principles would roll over in their graves to see the modern causes over which their flags wave.
Deep differences divide members of the political parties on a wide range of issues. How can party affiliation serve as a litmus test for hiring? The equally vague categories of "liberal" and "conservative" offer no better compass. Who would determine where potential professors belonged on such a scale? Obviously, for an institution such as Bowdoin to predicate its curriculum decisions on a breakdown of professors' registered party affiliations or presumed political leanings would be the height of intellectual irresponsibility.
The key point that champions of an "academic bill of rights" miss is this: department hiring decisions are academic rather than political endeavors?complex processes fraught with competing intellectual imperatives. They are well-orchestrated affairs designed precisely to minimize the potential for political abuse of the very sort welcomed by the conservative plan to "balance" liberal faculty with conservative ones. To reduce hiring decisions to mere tests of political allegiance is to disregard the very concerns?for methodological balance, field coverage, disciplinary innovation, student needs, and other kinds of diversity?that safeguard the process from turning into a political football. Healthy academic communities do not need ideological scorecards. Only those concerned with policing ideology, like totalitarian states or McCarthyite America, endorse them.
There is something deeply anti-democratic in this new push for ideological control over the academy. A liberal arts education exposes students to a wide range of disciplines, methodologies, and viewpoints. It does not guarantee that anyone's views will be left unchallenged. The essence of academic enquiry is contentious, messy debate. But our culture has become increasingly enamored with cheaply purchased comfort, and we live in a public forum balkanized into vying ideological sects that speak past one another. It has become ever more possible to consider the challenges inherent in thoughtful academic life an invasion of some imagined personal right to comfort. We must remind ourselves that comfort and complacency in our discourse only undermine democratic society.
Ultimately, the conservative argument for liberal bias among the faculty insults the professional integrity of faculty members with a long history of separating their own political views from the material they teach. The "liberal bias" argument degrades our understanding of the scholarly mission?from one wherein we coach young minds toward independent yet rigorous thought, to one wherein we indoctrinate impressionable youth presumed to be incapable of thinking for themselves. It is a cynical projection of the Far Right's desire for ideological influence onto perhaps the last place where free and independent inquiry are preserved.
If I'm wrong, show me. Show the campus. We should, after all, welcome a serious debate on the place of "politics" on this campus and in our curriculum. We badly need to be shaken out of our inertia, to be reconnected with the broader issues confronting higher education and our society in general.
So make the case. But do it with academic credibility. Without resorting to the empty talking points of professional pundits, without invoking hypocritical rhetoric of conservative victimization, without relying on the flawed methodologies of campus partisans. Conservatives who irresponsibly attack the faculty for political bias owe this academic community more?more than the canned, made-for-TV argument we've seen.
In other words, think. That, after all, should be the only thing that really matters at a place like Bowdoin.
Patrick Rael is an associate professor of history at Bowdoin.