Why So Few Conservatives in Higher Ed?

The New Criterion

The social scientist Neil Gross made a splash last year with his book Why Are Professors Liberal, and Why Do Conservatives Care?, which, among other things, attempted to refute the claim that conservatives face ideological discrimination in academic hiring. There is some quantitative evidence (with more on the way soon) of ideological discrimination, which Gross grudgingly acknowledges, but he then goes to great lengths to argue that it is vastly overestimated.

He may be partly right, but not for the reasons his data-rich analysis lays out. Furthermore, Gross does not begin to reach the more important dimensions of the ideological shape of today’s humanities and social science departments that come into play before you even reach the fever swamps of race, class, and gender.

Liberals have pushed back against the charge of ideological discrimination in hiring with an entirely valid point: You guys don’t show up! There simply aren’t many conservative graduate students in the humanities and social sciences. If the top 200 universities set out to hire a conservative for each of their humanities departments, they’d run out after about 75; in some departments, they might run out of qualified conservative job candidates after about two. And if you can’t find newly minted Ph.D.’s for tenure track jobs, you have to poach the thin ranks of conservatives already in academia somewhere, leading to no net increase in conservative presence in universities. But while liberals can’t be blamed wholly for this, they can be blamed for acquiescing in, when not actively causing, the degradation of the humanities and social sciences in ways make academic track jobs repellent to many intellectual conservatives. Understanding what has taken place requires a three-part analysis.

First, it is necessary to take brief note of what so many are calling the “higher education bubble,” that is, the shockingly high cost of colleges and universities today. It is necessary to connect this trend with the precipitous decline in enrollment in humanities and social sciences—a 50 percent decline over the last generation. It is presumed that this decline is a direct result of education’s high cost and increasing job consciousness among students, but the decline in humanities and social science enrollment preceded the worst of higher education cost inflation. In other words, the soaring cost of college may have only aggravated a more important underlying cause.

Second, it is useful to pose a series of questions about what might be learned from the particular places where you do find conservatives in higher education—questions that are susceptible of a range of possible answers, and therefore perhaps more controversial.

Third, there is no escaping or papering over the substantive differences between the way left and right think about education itself. These differences explain a lot of things that have escaped notice, but taking these differences into account might ironically make liberalism more robust on campus.

Everyone knows what has happened to the cost of higher education: a 500 percent increase in college tuition in the last twenty-five years, while the Consumer Price Index rose just 115 percent. By contrast, health care costs have risen just 300 percent. The figure the White House put out to accompany President Obama’s speech last summer on this subject noted that, since 1983, tuition and fees at four-year public colleges have risen by 257 percent, while typical family incomes have advanced 16 percent. What is less well known is the adverse result: Today, only about 7 percent of recent college graduates come from the bottom-income quartile, compared with 12 percent in 1970, when federal aid was scarce. From a liberal egalitarian point of view, we’re going in the wrong direction.

The decline in humanities and social science enrollment began long before the current economic downturn made students more hyperconscious of the marketability of their degree. And if the enrollment in humanities courses continues to slide, can a reduction in humanities faculty positions be far behind? I think we are not far from starting to see “double-retirements,” that is tenure-line faculty positions in the humanities discontinued when a senior professor retires. Already we’re witnessing signs of a rapidly shrinking hiring market in the humanities and some social sciences. Political science hiring is down sharply in recent years according to numbers out of the American Political Science Association.

It could be even worse. In Vietnam, still run by the Communist Party, the very selective national university is offering free tuition to anyone who signs up for the university’s curriculum in Marxism. They’ve had to offer free tuition because no students have been signing up for these courses. I can’t help but be amused that the market-clearing price for courses in radical philosophy is lower in a Communist university than in American higher education.

All of this happens in the context of the peculiar world of academic employment in which the road to a professorship has always been steep. Now it’s no longer just a steep hill—more like a rock climb without ropes. Max Weber said over a hundred years ago that “Academic life is an utter gamble.” The odds are getting steadily worse, and if you’re a rational person calculating the odds, you may shy away from a Ph.D. track, or consider non-academic paths as more attractive than academic paths. This probably describes conservatives more than liberals.

It is here that some of the data that Neil Gross, Harvard’s Louis Menand, and others have unearthed and reanalyzed is interesting and helpful, and provides the transition to my short set of queries. Drawing on student survey data from UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, Matthew and April Woessner found that self-identified conservative students reporthigher levels of satisfaction with their university educational experience than self-identified moderate or liberal students, though not surprisingly conservative students report lower levels of satisfaction than liberal students with the humanities and social sciences. (Incidentally, the data found that liberal and conservative students tend to get higher grades than moderates or students who report no political outlook.)

On the surface you’d think that the pool of conservative students who express satisfaction with higher education would lead more of them toward graduate paths, except for their evident alienation from the liberal dominance of the humanities and social sciences, perhaps along with a perceived higher salience for conservatives on pursuing “practical” professional vocations. While these factors can’t be dismissed, Neil Gross points to compelling data about how the most important determinants of whether students go into graduate study are not large ideological factors, but mundane things like whether students have close relationships with professors or find academic mentors to encourage them along graduate paths. And lacking mentors and direct encouragement means that liberal predominance in graduate education, and hence the ranks of left-leaning professors becomes self-reinforcing, even if there is zero political bias in hiring decisions.

There’s a lot more to be said about these factors, and in particular a fascinating survey datum Louis Menand points out that job satisfaction is much higher for non-academic Ph.D.’s, which I can tell you is certainly the case with non-academic conservative Ph.D.’s. Menand also observes that there are fewer non-university places for liberal intellectuals than conservative intellectuals, and while I don’t think he’s quite correct about this, he’s on to something important. I can tell you from my own experience and that of other conservatives who took doctorates in political science that an academic career path was often number five or six on the list of desirable career paths, whereas for liberal students in Ph.D. programs it is probably number one or two on the career ladder.

But this still doesn’t get to the heart of the matter, and I think everyone has overlooked what might be learned by examining the particular places where you do find conservatives in higher education. Hence the following four queries.

First, why is it that when you take in the universe of conservative professors, you tend to find most of them in private liberal arts colleges, and only a few at large public research universities like Colorado, or Michigan, or Ohio State? There are some exceptions to this, but I think any serious survey would validate this proposition.

Second, why is it that you find a fair number of conservatives in political philosophy, but not in philosophy proper? I’d estimate the ratio of conservative academic political philosophers to traditional philosophers to be about 10:1. Furthermore, why is it that when you do find a right-of-center academic philosopher, most of the time he or she will turn out to be a libertarian of an especially dogmatic variety? I’ll add a third corollary question here: Why is it that, by most conservative reckonings, political science departments are the least politicized—or least prone to politically correct absolutism or conformity—of the social sciences? The reason for this may turn out to be significant.

Third, why is it that there are quite a lot of conservatives among the ranks of academic economists, but very few in other social sciences, even though many other social sciences employ the same quantitative methods and treat many of the same questions? Conservative economists have dominated the Nobel Prize since it was launched in the early 1970s, and if I was a social psychologist, I think I’d be worried right now about the fast-growing field of behavioral economics, which finds enthusiasts across the political spectrum. Economists can sometimes take on rather imperialist ambitions and attitudes, and I note that there is no Nobel Prize for any other social science. To borrow the terminology of the critical theory left, this is as clear a case of “privileging” a specific viewpoint as I’ve ever seen. There have already been at least two Nobel Prizes awarded for work in behavioral economics—one of them to Vernon Smith, who runs the only economics program in the nation that owns and operates an MRI machine. I’d watch my back.

These queries admit a range of answers and are susceptible of fresh controversy, but I think you can move past them by asking the obvious fourth and larger question: Why are conservatives drawn to certain fields or disciplines, and not others that on the surface might seem roughly equivalent?

Thus far I’ve tried to speak analytically, but at some point there is simply no avoiding fundamental differences between the intellectual outlook of liberals and conservatives that are not only at the root of all of our current disagreements, but also explain much of the skewed profile of the humanities and social sciences—even if there was no hiring bias at work at all.

I usually try to resist large generalizations, but sometimes they are necessary to sharpen our thinking. And one of the chief conservative critiques is that liberalism and its radical left variants tend toward utopianism, and even when it is not explicitly utopian, it operates on tacit premises that are. There is no utopian right, with the partial exception of dogmatic libertarians, which supplies an answer to my query of why you sometimes find libertarians among the ranks of philosophers. There’s quite an irony at work here, by the way: Liberals quite easily and quickly point out the real-world defects and weaknesses of doctrinaire libertarianism, without pausing to notice that the converse defects afflict nearly every species of liberal-left utopianism.

So for example, many academic philosophers today seem utopian in their premises and argument, although of a constricted and uninspiring kind: You don’t see a lot of grand utopian visions that you’d line up next to Thomas More or even Marx. Instead you see an egalitarian presumption that takes little account of the difficulties and limitations that are central to political philosophy. It seems to be Rawls all the way down.

I think the concentration of conservatives in political philosophy and economics is explained by one common factor: Both fields are more directly oriented toward the concrete over the abstract. Political philosophy—even the left-leaning variety—still asks the kind of large questions that tend to be lost in today’s increasingly finely sliced, specialized academic inquiry. Many conservatives are drawn to economics because of its close practical connection, ever since Adam Smith, to the postulates of individual liberty and free markets. It also helps that a Ph.D. in economics can substitute for an MBA; if you don’t get an academic job, you can go work for a hedge fund or a bank (and with a better paycheck to boot).

And here you may see the beginning of an answer to my first query, about the scarcity of conservatives in the humanities in large research universities. Conservatives (but also some liberals) tend to be alienated from the research university mode of inquiry. Some of this connects directly to the long-standing conservative skepticism or even opposition to modern social science as it emerged from thinkers such as Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin.

The old conservative critique of social science needs to be revised considerably in light of some of the refinements in social science that have occurred over the last twenty or so years, and in fact you can point to models of consequential conservative social science, such as, for example, James Q. Wilson and Charles Murray. Another example is the fascinating work of the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics. Haidt is no conservative; to the contrary, he an Obama-supporting liberal. But he acknowledges that some of his empirical findings cast a more favorable light on conservatives.

But the core of the old critique of social science still stands in some ways. This is a long subject, impossible to treat adequately in one lecture. So let me enlist briefly two witnesses, one a halfway-forgotten conservative and the other a contemporary liberal.

My halfway forgotten conservative is Richard Weaver, a professor of literature who wrote a sort of famous book—sort of famous because everyone embraces the title but almost no one ever reads it—called Ideas Have Consequences. The book came from his Walgreen Lectures at the University of Chicago in 1949. The title has become a popular conservative slogan (the Heritage Foundation at one time included it on their letterhead), but large portions of this short book are ironically almost unreadable.

But there are accessible parts that speak to the conservative disposition against social science and ever narrower specialization:

By far the most significant phase of the theory of the gentleman is its distrust of specialization. It is an ancient belief, going back to classical antiquity, that specialization of any kind is illiberal in a freeman. A man willing to bury himself in the details of some small endeavor has been considered lost to these larger considerations which must occupy the mind of a ruler.

You’ll see here that this English professor has the political dimensions in mind with this view of pedagogy, about which lots more can be said—but that’s for some other time. Bear with me through two more short paragraphs:

The significance of the movement we are here tracing is that the former distrust of specialization has been supplanted by its opposite, a distrust of generalization. Not only has man become a specialist in practice, he is being taught that special facts represent the highest form of knowledge. . . .

The theory of empiricism is plausible because it assumes that accuracy about small matters prepares the way for valid judgment about larger ones. What happens, however, is that the judgments are never made. The pedantic empiricist, buried in his little province of phenomena, imagines that fidelity to it exempts him from concern with larger aspects of reality—in the case of science, from consideration of whether there is reality other than matter.

Weaver’s noting a “distrust of generalization” leads to my second witness: Anthony Kronman, a former dean at Yale University who still teaches in Yale’s legendary directed studies program—a liberal, near as I can make out from the pride he expresses in his student activism in the 1960s on behalf of Students for a Democratic Society.

He writes about the humanities with an almost embarrassing charm, as can be seen from the title of his recent book: Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. As I say, even to state it like this is to risk a blush these days. The meaning of life? As Woody Allen put it, how can you be concerned about the mysteries of the universe when you can’t find your way around Chinatown? I’ll add briefly what requires an extended separate treatment—namely, that it is well nigh impossible to ask the old questions about the meaning of life if you don’t believe objectivity is possible, and Neil Gross’s survey research finds that nearly a third of sociologists and English professors do not believe objectivity is possible. This always prompts me to ask: Then why exactly are we having this conversation? More importantly, how are we having this conversation? I think this defect it not lost on students, and helps explain why students are being lost from liberal arts enrollment.

Like Weaver’s old title, I find Kronman’s book to be very uneven, repetitious, and poorly thought out in places. But I think his larger point is worth taking in. Here’s one broad statements of his argument:

I have watched the question of life’s meaning lose its status as a subject of organized academic instruction and seen it pushed to the margins of professional respectability in the humanities, where it once occupied a central and honored place. . . .

Why did the question of what living is for disappear from the roster of questions our colleges and universities address in a deliberate and disciplined way? What is the source of the appeal of the research ideal, and why is it so hostile to this question? Why are the ideas of diversity and multiculturalism and the belief that values are merely expressions of power so corrosive of the attempt to explore the question of life’s purpose and meaning?

I ask [these questions] as a former dean who worried every day that the demands of the research ideal and the spirit of political correctness have together put the humanities on the defensive and their authority to guide us in the exploration of life’s meaning under a cloud.

Just to reiterate, this is not the ghost of Allan Bloom speaking here; this is a liberal. And if Kronman and Weaver, and also Harvard’s Louis Menand (whose politics I can’t make out and who I must mostly skip over here in the interest of brevity) who also argues in a similar vein as Kronman and Weaver—if they are right or partly right, then the style of education today also sweeps against certain kinds of liberals as well as conservatives. Menand points out that Richard Rorty, whose neo-pragmatism was a very intellectually ambitious and at times openly political project, was persona non grata in the philosophy departments at Stanford and Virginia; he had to be housed in the English Department, as was, equally oddly, Jacques Derrida. Both Kronman and Menand argue that the research ideal, when taken too far by the humanities and social sciences, has the effect of narrowing our intellectual range—that they make the humanities and social sciences boring. This may be why we’re losing students in these fields, as much as the concern over high cost.

I’ll give one last contrasting example of the unbridgeable gulf between left and right that I think is highly revealing. It turns out that at a shockingly high number of universities it is possible to take a degree in English without having to take a single course on Shakespeare, which strikes me as absurd as taking a course in radical philosophy that omitted reading Karl Marx. Then again, if you have a close look at the political science departments around the country that lean conservative or have a strong conservative plurality in the department—these would be Boston College, Notre Dame, Chicago, Georgetown, Loyola, Claremont, University of Dallas, University of Virginia, Kenyon, Ashland, Hillsdale, and maybe a handful of others—you will typically find in the political science course offerings one or more courses on . . . Shakespeare. (You’ll notice, by the way, there’s only one public university on that short list—Virginia.) In this contrast I think you can really begin to grasp the very different educational philosophies dividing left and right. While many English departments now regard Shakespeare as optional material because he’s old or because he represents the “white Anglo-Saxon phallo-logocentric hegemonic discourse” that needs to be swept away, conservatives think you can find wisdom of permanent value in reading the works of the great dramatist. Actually conservatives argue vigorously among themselves about how Shakespeare’s politics should be understood: Was he the last Aristotelian philosopher, contesting against Machiavelli, or was he in fact simply a more genteel version of Machiavelli?

There are some possible remedies for this—but all extremely difficult for a public research university to implement even in the humanities. One is that universities ought to try to recultivate the fast-fading role of the “public intellectual,” that is, professors who can write cross-over books that appeal to a wider reading public beyond fellow specialists. This is increasingly rare today. Jonathan Lear of the Committee on Social Thought at Chicago lamented in The New York Times a few years ago that “academic philosophy in the United States has virtually abandoned the attempt to speak to the culture at large.”

It seems to me we have fewer Richard Hofstadters, Lionel Trillings, and Arthur Schlesingers than we once had. I was reflecting in class this week that when Lionel Trilling died in 1975, his death notice rated the front page ofThe New York Times. Is there an academic literary figure today who would merit that placement? Maybe Terry Eagleton or Gerald Graff, but I doubt it. Why is it that, with the great public and publishing industry interest in books and biographies about American history, especially the founding, almost all of the best-sellers, are written by journalists like Jon Meacham rather than by academic historians? (There are exceptions, like Joseph Ellis, but there ought to be a lot more.) One problem here is that professors, who are plenty ambitious and hard-working and talented, are not rewarded for this kind of work any more. In fact, popular work can be a detriment to your career.

This leads to the final point: Does it matter if conservatives are scarce in the liberal arts faculty? Well, if we believe that monopoly power is bad in the economic marketplace for goods, why wouldn’t it also be bad for the academic marketplace of ideas? Of course, as serious students of antitrust will tell you, not all monopolies or oligopolies in markets are the result of nefarious behavior; there are lots of reasons they come about, and remedies for market concentration are not always simple or easy. But regardless of the cause, monopolies usually lead to stagnation. The left’s academic monopoly is the chief cause of the stagnation of the humanities and social sciences today.

You hear some skeptics of the initiative that brought me to the University of Colorado say that it is unnecessary to have someone like myself around or hired into a department in the regular way, because even partisan liberal professors—being professional—can present conservative points of view in their courses perfectly well. This is doubtful.

I think John Stuart Mill’s argument about this is just as compelling today as it was 150 years ago:

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. . . . Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. This is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or to bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of, else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty.

Lionel Trilling thought the same thing. The heart of his famous preface toThe Liberal Imagination is his warning to his fellow liberals, then at the very apogee of their postwar confidence and near-monopoly on American intellectual life, that the absence of serious conservative opposition was very bad for them.

There was an interesting book published a couple years back by the late Paul Lyons called American Conservatism: Thinking It, Teaching It. Lyons was a professor at Stockton College in New Jersey, by his own admission quite far to the left. He was an excellent writer, quite widely read, and I suspect he was an excellent classroom teacher. He set out to teach a course on conservative thought, and his book is a detailed account of how it went. From his account I can make no complaint of unfairness or bias in his presentation of conservative thought, but what I did notice often was an incompleteness. He’d only get two dimensions of a thinker where a third or fourth was essential. Though he did not mean to construct a straw man, it was the result he often achieved. Putting the shoe on the other foot, I can readily acknowledge that on the occasions when I’ve decided to present Rawls to conservative students, because I’ve been dismayed that they’ve taken no account of him, I am struck by how inadequate and incomplete my account must be, because I’m not, as Mill put it, passionately committed to Rawls’s point of view, and therefore haven’t given it the time it requires or deserves for a complete account. But it’s better than nothing. And so to liberal-minded professors here, and I’ve heard from a few, who present conservative ideas in their classes, I say, “Good—it’s better than nothing. But it’s better still to have me do it.”

Better still would be to have universities that had true intellectual diversity, rather than the identity politics we do now.


6 thoughts on “Why So Few Conservatives in Higher Ed?

  1. The problem of English departments is not merely political — or rather it’s a problem of where politics finally led the discipline when politic’s work was done. When I was an undergraduate in the 70s, not only was Shakespeare’s presence in English literature central, the people who taught Shakespeare (in even the undergraduate courses) were genuine scholars, people who had read and studied Shakespeare with depth and keenness. I went to a public university.

    Now, the person who teaches Shakespeare may well specialize in “critical theory,” “women’s writing,” “history of sexuality, the body, and the senses,” “Africana” or whatever is the flavor of the week. You can hire conservatives — assuming you can find them — to balance the leftist nature of the humanities — in theory at least. But scholars don’t grow on trees. Once the tradition is broken, that of one expert training the new-comers in a particular area, regaining that personal dimension becomes a huge problem. Mentoring? How do professors mentor students in areas where to all appearances they are cluelessly incompetent themselves? When it’s gone, it’s gone. Once all the old scholars, the ones who lived and breathed to study Milton or Shakespeare or Wordsworth or whoever have been pushed out to make way for the New Newer New, how do you reclaim that lost ground?

    And if creating a “renaissance” is largely a matter of going back and reading the old books, the scholarship that preceded political correctness, well a good student can find his or her own way to the library. Why bother with an institution that has demonstrated how little it even cares? A young person who is passionate about Shakespeare today does better to get season tickets to a Shakespeare theatre company or to follow the careers of this generation of great Shakespearian actors — Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, David Tenant et al via film versions and/or filmed recordings of theatrical productions.

    Why would any sane person toss buckets of money at university courses taught by persons who don’t know and don’t care?

    University English departments long ago declared that the various famous old white guys “didn’t build that.” Thus you don’t study a writer, a once living breathing human being of the past. Now students study studies — of the body, of gender, of discourse, of power (they love power), of difference, and so on. And they “re-imagine” and enthusiastically hyphenate this and that thingy with mind-numbingly boring reliability. Smart people don’t spend good money for that.

  2. I sympathize very much, of course. However, our present predicament is apparently not all that new: “…He [Adam smith] found nothing of value there [Oxford]. He summed up his experience there in his description of the average university as a “sanctuary in which exploded systems and obsolete prejudices find shelter and protection, after they have been hunted out of every other corner of the world.” Arthur Herman, How the Scots Invented the Modern World, MJF Books, 2001, p.198

    1. It’s interesting that Smith nonetheless went on from Oxford to universities in Scotland, working there as an academic for a decade and a half. He gave it up to travel in Europe and tutor a nobleman’s son, at which he doubled his academic pay. Like a lot of other free market academics who are happy to take what academia offers until greener pastures beckon — usually involving no teaching. That is probably part of the reason why there are so few conservative academics — their disdain is hard to hide, and then they bug out when a juicier gig comes along.

  3. It occurred to me while reading this that having visiting scholars of Mr. Hayward’s stripe at public research universities would be very helpful all around. Then I got to the part about him having been the visiting scholar at Colorado.

    Maybe if the conservative think tanks would spend some of their money on financing more of these visits, instead of staying cooped up in their own intellectual ivory towers, it would be a very good thing.

      1. If you mean that they could not legally “volunteer” their staff to work for a while at universities, I would like to know why.

        They certainly have the money.

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