Pop Psychology and Political Distractions

(Editor’s note: This is the second article critiquing Neil Gross’s book Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?)

If Neil Gross’s analysis of the “why are professors liberal?” question is weak (as I argued here), his analysis of the “why do conservatives care?” question is appalling.

When I was in high school, I had a friend who accepted much of the liberal critique of America in the 60s. When I would raise an argument against his ideas favoring activist government, he would usually retort something like, “You conservatives just say that because you’re insecure.” Rather than engaging in actual arguments, he avoided them with pop psychology.

Gross employs the same tactic, but with enough equivocation that he still sounds scholarly.

In trying to explain why conservatives care about the liberalism of the faculty, he refers to leftist writers who argue that conservatives are driven by “status anxiety” to oppose social changes that academic liberals champion. Consider this passage: “Scholars like Robert Horwitz…have argued that the status anxiety generated by these changes (rights for gays and lesbians)…was a crucial factor propelling the rise of the Tea Party after Obama’s election in 2008, and with it the distinctive style of politics—which some have described, not without reason, as paranoid and anti-intellectual—that Tea Party supporters have practiced.”

Gross sure can pack a lot of tar into one sentence. Conservatives allegedly dislike faculty liberalism because they’re insecure, atavistic people who fly off the handle over social changes that disturb them at a gut level.

But then he makes a scholarly retreat, writing, “While these arguments make some theoretical sense, the evidence is not overwhelming that Americans who agree with conservative critics … are insecure about their status.”

So this pop psychology “explanation” continues to hover even though the evidence is “not overwhelming.” This reminds me of a trial lawyer who asks a question he knows won’t be allowed and then says, “Withdrawn” before opposing counsel objects. The idea has been planted even if the jury is told to ignore it.

Another reason why conservatives worry about faculty liberalism, Gross suggests, is that they are “fearful of the knowledge economy.” He derived that idea from polling data showing that most of the people who said they were “concerned about liberal bias” felt that much of the research work done by professors is irrelevant.

The implication is that conservatives who fret about faculty bias are backward folks afraid that they’ll somehow be hurt by the scholarship of liberal professors. But then  Gross retreats again because his data don’t really show that “the concerned” are “boycotting the knowledge economy or being left behind by it.” Another pop psychology speculation fizzles. Why bother with it at all?

Later, Gross takes a different tack and argues that conservatives’ attack on liberal professors is just a skirmish in the war between Republicans and Democrats for political power. His chapter “Why Conservatives Care” takes readers on a wild ride through the McCarthy era, the founding of Bill Buckley’s National Review, and the supposed need for the Republican Party to have “anti-elitist” credentials, which are supplied by attacks on higher education.

Gross sees the efforts of groups such as the National Association of Scholars, American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the American University, and the Pope Center (all of which Gross risibly calls “heavily funded”) as an aspect of the war for power between Republicans and Democrats. He even goes so far as to suggest that part of those groups’ mission has been to destroy the reputation of academic research so as to make the output of conservative think tanks seem better in comparison.

Nowhere does he entertain the idea that there might be sound reasons for criticizing what has happened to higher education in America, reasons having nothing to do with either the big political clash or the pitiable traits of ordinary conservatives.

Conservatives and libertarians have often explained why they find the politicization of the faculty to be a problem. The problem is not their politics per se, but that so many of them try to turn their courses into re-education camps for students who have been “misled” in their formative years. Gross tries to pooh-pooh that by reporting that among the 57 professors he interviewed, only two said that they aimed to shape their students’ beliefs rather than teach objectively.

That’s not much of a sample, but why allow even a small percentage of professors to abuse their position?

And is it really such a small percentage? Stanley Fish, far from a conservative, found the problem of politicized teaching to be widespread enough that he devoted a book to it, Save the World on Your Own Time.

This passage from Fish’s book explains the problem that conservatives and libertarians have with professors who use their classrooms to foment activism: “If what you really want to do is preach, or organize political rallies, or work for world peace…you should either engage in those activities after hours and on weekends, or, if part-time is not enough time, resign from the academy…and take up work that speaks directly to the problems you feel compelled to address. Do not, however, hi-jack the academic enterprise and then justify what you’ve done by invoking academic freedom.”

Would a professor hi-jack the academic enterprise? Another non-conservative, FIRE president Greg Lukianoff provided plenty of examples in his book Unlearning Liberty, such as the speech professor who promised her students extra credit if they wrote letters to President Bush demanding that there be no war in Iraq.

Or Gross might have read the study by the California Association of Scholars, A Crisis of Competence: The Corrupting Effects of Political Activism in the University of California. That work, co-authored by history professor Charles Geshekter who calls himself a “traditional, civil rights liberal” exposes the great extent to which the UC system has been hi-jacked by radical faculty members who want to “save the world” on taxpayer time.

Sadly, you find no references to those works or anything else that explains why conservatives, libertarians, and other people find the politicization of the faculty troubling.

During his research on the book, Gross interviewed a number of people who play important roles in the higher education reform movement, including Steve Balch, Peter Wood, and John Leo. Why didn’t he just ask them why they care that most professors are liberal?

During his interview with Balch, for example, Gross learned that during his teaching days, Balch had come to see that the intelligentsia had “betrayed the cause of freedom.” That would have been a good point to explore further. It would certainly have led to a clear explanation as to why the heavy liberal tilt in the professoriate matters to him. If Gross and Balch had that conversation, however, it didn’t make it into the book.

But if Gross had sought a direct answer to the big question, it would have made all of his pop psychology look pointless. Same for his theorizing about the political function of the “attacks on higher education.” Most of all, it would have made it hard  to maintain his stance that criticism of faculty politicization is both kind of silly and kind of malevolent. Liberal readers wouldn’t have been so pleased.

At the end, Gross suggests that further research is in order. It certainly is.

If he is actually interested in testing his idea that political/philosophical hostility has almost nothing to do with the relatively small number of conservatives in the professorial ranks, he ought to talk to more than the small number he interviewed, including some who work outside of academia. He ought to take a serious look at obstacles that conservatives and libertarians face in a wide array of fields, first in earning their doctorates and then in getting hired. And he ought to look around for evidence that politicized teaching is not as rare as alligators in Anchorage.

I can’t resist a parting shot at the book’s purported objectivity.

On his final page, Gross writes, “With the American Association of University Professors in decline, and with the major scholarly societies as well as many individual colleges and universities lacking the expertise necessary to respond meaningfully to conservative criticisms, it is not clear that the academy will be in a position to come out unscathed from these battles in the years to come.”

Just what “scathing” does Gross think will occur if his fellow leftists don’t get better at “responding?” Would it be so terrible if we returned to the old-fashioned idea that professors shouldn’t use the classroom as a forum for propagating their own beliefs, as the AAUP itself at one time advocated? The comment above indicates that Gross’s mission is really to protect the status quo against the depoliticization of education that conservatives, libertarians, and some true liberals want to see.

Neil Gross has asked two important questions, but if he really wants answers, rather than just a book that will be popular with those already inclined to agree with him, he should start over.