Soft Bias Against The Right

In recent years, conservative critics of academia have had few better friends than Ward Churchill, the Group of 88, MIT biology professor Nancy Hopkins (who fled Larry Summers talk about variations in intelligence between genders), and a few other hot-headed leftists on campus who made headlines. They proved the point about ideological bias every time they opened their mouths or printed their opinions. They were the slam dunk cases, and their high standing proved an embarrassment to their colleagues.

Beyond those outspoken circles, though, the evidence appears to grow thin. For the truth is that the majority of academics are not fiery, intolerant people railing against Bush in class or berating a conservative sophomore in office hours. They fall on the left side of the spectrum and wouldn’t dream of voting for a Republican, yes, but they pretty much stick to their jobs of teaching a field and pursuing more or less apolitical topics. Churchill et al discredited the profession with their partisan heat, but mainstream professors restore credibility precisely by their dutiful, everyday manner.

It is all the more regrettable and exasperating, then, that when they make fundamental choices in their work these moderate professors harbor some of the same biases, although in softer form and more judiciously expressed, and they produce equally discriminatory effects.


A fair illustration appeared recently in an essay by Thomas R. Tritton in the lively e-daily Inside Higher Ed. The piece recounts an education course he taught at Harvard, and it focuses especially on the texts he chose for the syllabus. Throughout the exposition, this former-president of Haverford College appears entirely thoughtful and open-minded, his language humble and genial.

But the actual points he makes and the syllabus he devised are no less tendentious than what might come from an outspoken leftist who regards conservative thought as an aberration. “My basic plan,” Tritton explains, “was to explore how colleges promote social justice issues to their students.” Tritton never pauses to consider whether colleges should promote social justice issues to their students. Why do so, when “Most social justice efforts probably have at least the implicit notion that making the world a fairer and more just place is a worthy goal, and that education may be the most effective way to promote it”? Tritton adds: “Hard to argue with that, at least if you’re an educator.”

Hard, indeed, if you’ve never encountered arguments to the contrary. Tritton apparently hasn’t, for a few sentences later comes an admission. “As one might predict,” he remarks, “scholarly writing is tilted towards the liberal and it is difficult to find serious work from rightward perspectives.” Note the wording. Tritton doesn’t say rightward approaches are wrong or faulty. Rather, they are not “serious,” and unseriousness is the most damning judgment for a professor to make. It means that such work doesn’t merit opposition, or even attention. Tritton doesn’t need to introduce conservative or libertarian thinking about social justice at all. It’s already in such poor condition that it doesn’t pass the legitimacy test.

Hence, the following texts don’t qualify: Friedrich Hayek, The Mirage of Social Justice; Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia; several works by Thomas Sowell; and essays by Irving Kristol and Michael Novak.

So what does qualify? Well, one text Tritton chose was Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, by bell hooks. Here are its opening sentences:

When contemporary progressive educators all around the nation challenged the way institutionalized systems of domination (race, sex, nationalist imperialism) have, since the origin of public education, used schooling to reinforce dominator values, a pedagogical revolution began in college classrooms. Exposing the covert conservative underpinnings shaping the content of material in the classroom . . .

You get the idea, and hooks’s indignation doesn’t hide the flatness of her assertions or the clunkiness of her prose. Tritton finds it serious, however, and the “students adored her.” That Tritton allowed hooks’s anti-conservatism to stand without any conservative to speak back demonstrates well the bias at work. Let’s call it for what it is – partisanship, not education – and for all Tritton’s reasonableness, it creates a skewed intellectual climate.

This is how soft bias works in higher education. It doesn’t spout anti-Americanism, blackball conservatives, and penalize libertarian students. “Soft bias-ers” enter committee rooms and keep calm, designing syllabi, choosing works, and selecting ideas not by active exclusion but, putatively, by professional scruples. In a word, they cast a disciplinary sheen over the discriminations, passing ideological judgments as intellectual judgments. Soft bias doesn’t respect or refute conservative thinking. It dismisses it, soberly and patiently.

That makes soft bias less newsworthy. It is far more widespread than Churchill-style bile, but to expose and refute it requires time and disciplinary knowledge, too much of them to fit popular formats on television and in op-eds. And so soft bias will continue, with people making their way up the professional chain by exercising it. Meanwhile, students will receive a partial, tendentious education, and often never know it.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

10 thoughts on “Soft Bias Against The Right

  1. I am a liberal who believes that liberals have nothing to fear from a more conservative curriculum. My main concern is that students are taking classes before they have the tools to understand them. Taking African American history before competence in western history makes no sense, taking feminism in literature before having a mastery of western literature provides no context. , takings psychology of sex class before understanding either psychology or physiology is meaningless.
    I was in an honor program at my university and the first year revolved around Greek literature and history. Aristotle is quite conservative.
    I would encourage students and professors to focus on the basics for the first two or three years. Ideally this would include world history and western civilization plus strong classes in one of the many canons of literature such as English writers, Chinese literature, Judeo-Christian literature ext.

  2. In my experience, the bias is not all that soft, at least among faculty.
    In my field (English), it is assumed that one is of course some version of leftist, with maybe a tiny measure of toleration for very left-leaning Democrats as the far edge of what counts as an intellectual.
    Everything else is beyond the pale. All you have to do is listen to the casual statements in the hallway or discussions of students’ writing. You can pick out the leftists’ assumptions–that a conservative is by definition a blockhead, racist, overly religious agent of domination who laughs at poor people and is unable to see nuance–a mile away.
    Talk about the “political unconscious”!

  3. “Luther Blissett” is the pseudonym (formerly) used by 4 Italian “anarchist” writers whose “Q” is, in fact, an interesting (if little known) novel. They now call themselves something else, but a couple of points need to be made about the “argument” of the “Luther Blissett” of the emails (above). First, the second sentence is typical “gotcha” rhetoric (you guys do it too) and is a staple of left-liberal “arguments” in all the dept/univ. committee meetings I’ve attend for over 30 years. It’s “moral equivalency” premise is insipid but effective (after all, most of the people in the room actually believe it anyway). Second, the third “paragraph” contains two sentences which, together, constitute a non-sequitur.
    Etcetera.

  4. The problem hooks has is that she’s been trained not to see that those “institutionalized systems of domination (race, sex, nationalist imperialism) [that] have, since the origin of public education, used schooling to reinforce dominator values” are not, and never were, covertly conservative. They’re liberal (or liberal by our definition, anyway). Here is the sad, false dichotomy of the dialectic, come home to roost. Inside that tortured prose is a cultural conservative trying to write her way out.

  5. As an English undergraduate, I took a few literature classes. One in particular involved contributions to a “class journal” kept at the reserve desk. I read the comments thus far a few weeks into the semester and found it full of spiteful ad hominem attacks on conservatives as being stupid, backward, and generally unworthy of inclusion in American society (or, in one case, the human race itself). The vitriol was a bit misplaced; nothing in the material we had read at that point really spoke to American politics, though we would eventually get there later in the year.
    Anyway, I wrote a bit of soft anti-liberal discussion suggesting some internal inconsistencies in liberal dogma that require resolution before liberals have any kind of standing to attack the intellectual merits of other viewpoints, and in class the next day a half dozen students raised hell about the “hateful” and “unhelpful” comments that “lowered the discourse” and “basened the dialog” about the literature and which were totally unrelated to the material, etc.
    The professor, a lib through and through, defended me, and said that you can’t rip conservatives up and down and then become indignant when they respond in kind. Either the gloves are on or off, and if they’re off, they’re off for everybody.
    The class quickly picked “gloves on” and the political discussion in the journal ended. However, I was disowned by the entire class. When it came time to write our collaborative papers, my group wrote it and excluded me from the planning, research, and writing. They scheduled sessions when I couldn’t attend or just didn’t tell me when they were, and turned in “our” paper with my name left off of it and with a note saying that I didn’t participate at all in writing the paper and they didn’t feel I deserved any credit for it (which was all true, though it was a circumstance of their making, not mine).
    The professor called me into his office to talk about it, and said he felt that I learned more in the class than any other student, not just about the material, but about the social politics of collaborative learning and writing, and so he simply ignored the collaborative paper for my grade. He offered me the change to “punish” my group for their pettiness by negotiating to have their grade adjusted or a note added to their student records for academic misconduct.
    I declined and stated that if they could live with their behavior, that was their business.
    My final grade was an A-.
    They’re not all bad out there.

  6. Luther-
    Of course higher education should be a battle between competing biases. Of what worth is a university as a marketplace of ideas if the ideas which have value are preordained by the academics themselves? The problem with the left is that there is only progress. There are never trade-offs or unintended consequences. If nothing else, the 100 million deaths in the twentieth century which were the direct result of left-wing social and economic theories ought to underscore the need for a vigorous counterweight to progressive thought.

  7. This confirms my judgement some years ago about Tritton, and my decision to cut my annual alumnus donation to Haverford to a nominal sum. The campus was typical fashionable leftist before Tritton, but it veered farther left, despite the tragedy of several alumni perishing in the World Trade Center September 11. One would have hoped that would have caused Tritton and the rest of the campus to stop and think, but instead their knee-jerk anti-Americanism was too strong. I can only hope that Tritton’s successor will at least make the campus less hostile to moderates and conservatives, at which point I will restore my donations to their previous level.

  8. Check out the history and political science coursebooks at most universities and community colleges for a great example of what Prof. Baulerlein writes about. It is not unusual to see courses where the required reading is by Paul Krugman, Mark Crispin Miller, Frank Rich, even Michael Moore, with nary a right-of-center book for balance. For all I know, maybe the instructors for these courses are tolerant of and fair towards conservative students who speak up in class, but by not providing that perspective on the reading list they certainly skew debate in one direction.

  9. Mark, I agree that these forms of bias can be a problem. But I find it ironic that you object to that bell hooks passage when it’s saying about college education *exactly* what you are saying.
    hooks is suggesting that there was a time when college education was full of “covert conservative underpinnings”. You are arguing that today college education is full of covert leftwing underpinnings.
    To single out hooks is to suggest that the course shouldn’t include her. That would seem to go against the other part of your argument, that is, that such syllabi need to be more inclusive of various argumentative positions.
    Is education then simply teaching what you call “hooks’ anti-conservatism” alongside your anti-liberalism? So education becomes a battles of biases?

  10. Unfortunate.
    I had a clear liberal professor for English last semester, but he was a actually a rare find. We had a lot of political debates, sometimes heated. However, he never showed bias when grading papers, and I ended up in good standing.
    But yeah, it’s pretty bad where education is heading, for real. One of my friends is taking a course, and his professor is a flaming feminist. He basically goes in just to hear a lecture how his being a man is bad for the world. Sickening.

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