Groupthink: Marching to a Single Drumbeat

Walk into a paint store and you’ll see a huge spread of colors, with shades from lightest to darkest all along the spectrum. You’re interested in a shade of gray to match your draperies, so you take a color sample with six different, only slightly different grays.

Paint color samples like that have a lot in common with college academic departments, where you usually find professors with views that are about as monochromatic as those paint samples. In fact, not only do most of the members of, say, the History Department at Big State U. tend to think alike, but most of the members of history departments in colleges and universities across the nation tend to think the same way.

That is the argument advanced by Professor Daniel Klein of the George Mason University Economics Department and Charlotta Stern, a research fellow at the Swedish Institute for Social Research at Stockholm University, in a recent article, “Groupthink in Academia.” The authors seek to explain why there is usually so little intellectual diversity among professors in disciplines, and why that matters.

This tendency of university departments to have as little variety as paint samples is one that scholars noted long ago. Klein and Stern quote the famed Swedish sociologist and Nobel laureate Gunnar Myrdal, who wrote, “Generally speaking, we can observe that the scientists in any particular institutional and political setting move as a flock….” They tend to share the same basic perspective on the world and when they disagree, it’s almost always over peripheral matters.

What Myrdal observed more than half a century ago, Klein and Stern find to be true today. They are both in the social sciences and argue in particular that the academic “flock” accepts the tenets of modern liberalism (support for or at least acquiescence to most government socio-economic interventions) and rejection of classical liberal ideas favoring highly limited government and reliance on voluntary socio-economic processes.

Why is that so? Is it because classical liberal ideas have been so crushed in intellectual combat that no sensible person accepts them any longer? A few years ago, a Duke professor, asked why there were scarcely any conservatives on the faculty, quipped that they just aren’t smart enough. Klein and Stern don’t accept that explanation.

Instead, they argue, the explanation is found in basic facts of human nature and the hierarchical structure of our higher education system.

For all their professed commitment to open inquiry and the pursuit of truth, faculty members are mostly like everyone else—they don’t care to have their ideas challenged. It’s more pleasant to have people around who nod in agreement at your statements and writings.

Here’s a personal anecdote in support of this tendency by people to want only affirmation of their ideas. Years ago I attended a conference on law and economics. In one session, a certain professor would present a paper and it would then receive comments from two others. One of those others was the famed University of Chicago Law School professor Richard Epstein, who is widely known for his rigorous and often devastating analysis. When it was announced that Epstein was ill and unable to make the session, the professor almost danced a jig. He wasn’t the least bit unhappy that a great scholar was not going to critique his work!

Klein and Stern combine that human trait with the fact that departmental hiring is usually majoritarian and you can see why if you started with a department where 51 percent of the members were leftists and 49 percent were rightists, it wouldn’t take long before you had overwhelming leftist domination. The authors observe that “majoritarianism tends to produce ideological uniformity in a department.”

That would explain why individual academic departments tend to be monochromatic, but we still need to explain why whole disciplines also tend to be. Klein and Stern maintain that the explanation lies in the pyramid shape of American higher education. Some schools are far more important than others in determining where new scholars will be trained and if they are monochromatic, that leads the entire field to be.

The academic job market is not like the market for waiters, taxi drivers, salesmen and business executives. In most fields, the place where an individual happened to learn the calling makes very little difference. In business, for example, someone who went to a college almost no one knows about (or didn’t go to college at all) can nevertheless rise to the top by successful work. Lack of a sterling pedigree doesn’t matter if you produce results.

In the academic world, however, pedigree counts for almost everything. If you don’t get a Ph.D. from one of the top schools, you have little or no chance of ever even being considered for a teaching job at many colleges and universities. At the apex of the academic pyramid are the elite schools such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Chicago and the departments at those institutions train a very high percentage of the scholars who will eventually find teaching positions in not only the top but also the middle-range schools. In economics, the authors report, in the top 35 departments, more than 90 percent of the professors received their doctorates from one of those very same 35 departments.

Therefore, say Klein and Stern, when a certain point of view (“ideology j,” they call it ) takes hold in those top departments, it sweeps all the way down through the pyramid: “The professional pyramid and departmental majoritarianism function together effectively to exclude scholars opposed to ideology j, especially from the highest-ranked departments.”

One can, of course, find exceptions. Sometimes students who don’t hold the dominant ideology make it into top graduate departments and manage to earn their Ph.D.s despite the obstacles they often encounter. And sometimes they get hired into top departments despite the fact that they are not ideological replicas of the current professors. That is rare, though.

The most important implication of that for students is that they rarely hear classical liberal perspectives at all, much less seriously presented. How often do students in, say, sociology classes, read books or essays arguing that social problems often are rooted in government policies and that government policies are often counterproductive? Answer: hardly ever. For most of their professors, steeped for decades in the interventionist thought-world, it would be almost unthinkable to have their students consider opposing, classical liberal, arguments.

Reflecting on this state of affairs, Professor Mike Munger of Duke says that students are badly shortchanged by the one-sidedness of their educations. He likens it to teaching chess to kids, but only the moves white should make, never contemplating the best moves black can make in response.

Klein and Stern have explained why there is so little faculty disagreement on the “big picture” questions. Unfortunately, their analysis also indicates that it is unlikely that any course of action will succeed in changing that. Those who want to ensure that college students don’t get a completely one-sided education should explore paths around this problem.