Conservatives don’t like professors. When conservative Republicans were asked to gauge their feelings about college professors, over half gave a “cold” response, while only 24% were “warm”. I experience that disdain in the comments that conservatives make to my columns, where the word “professor” itself is a taunt, a curse.
Conservatives don’t like the institutions where professors work. A recent Pew poll found that only 29% of conservative Republicans thought that colleges and universities have a positive impact on our country.
Republican politicians encourage these views. Betsy DeVos, the new Secretary of Education, was explicit in her condemnation of professors as she was being confirmed: “The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community.” There is no evidence that even 1 out of 1000 professors ever said that, but DeVos didn’t need to provide evidence. The idea that college professors indoctrinate students with liberal ideas, that conservatives are discriminated against on university campuses, is now taken as fact in conservative thinking.
It is a fact that conservatives are outnumbered in higher ed. A study from 2014 shows that liberals outnumber conservatives in college and university faculties 6 to 1. Is this proof of discrimination on campus? In fact, conservatives themselves choose not to pursue advanced degrees. Only 10% of those with some postgrad study are consistent conservatives. Even fewer conservatives decide to pursue a PhD, as opposed to more professional degrees like MBA. Thus the preponderance of liberals among faculty is the result of different educational choices according to political preference.
One interesting statistic that I had never seen is that voter registrations among social science faculty at 40 major universities show that Democrats outnumber Republicans by 11 to 1, but among historians the ratio is 33 to 1. My own educational history offers an explanation of how that happened. Earning a PhD in history, studying history intensively, pushed me to the left. Timing was probably a factor: I became a graduate student in 1973, as the Watergate scandal demonstrated the dishonesty of a conservative Republican President. But more important was that learning history itself can be radicalizing.
The Russian populace had been terribly mistreated by the very conservative Tsarist autocracy and their revolutionary demands for a socialist system in 1917 were a reasonable response. American Southerners rebelled in order to defend slavery and said so clearly. Discrimination against racial minorities and women continued through the 20th century, defended by racist and sexist conservative arguments. Social improvements, like worker safety or food purity or Social Security, were radical ideas eventually accomplished over conservative objections.
Even though all my history professors were white males, these and other obvious historical lessons pushed me in a leftward direction. Those who argue, for example, that the Civil War was not about defending slavery, but about states’ rights have to violate all the basic rules about using evidence to make this historical argument. They are out of place in academia, because they are historical frauds.
Good academic science and social science lie behind ideas that conservatives don’t want to believe, about climate change, about evolution, about the persistence of racism. So conservatives attack the whole academic enterprise. Organized conservative assaults on academic liberals are now the norm on campuses.
Here’s how it works: an art historian writes an essay about how ancient marble statues were typically painted in colors which have disappeared over the centuries. In modern museums, we see white skin as representing the ideal, contributing to the idea that white is ideal. Then the conservative media take over, gradually distorting the article to delegitimize this liberal professor, her ideas, and all others like her. “A Campus Reform headline describes a professor’s essay as arguing that white marble in sculptures ‘contributes’ to white supremacy. Two days later, a Daily Caller piece, citing Campus Reform, has the professor ‘equating’ white-marble statues with white supremacy. Two days after that, a site called Truth Revolt — now citing another account from Heat Street, which had also picked up on Campus Reform’s report — is blunter: ‘Professor: White Marble Statues Are Racist.’”
The twisting of information about what goes on at college by people like David Horowitz is central to conservative attitudes about higher ed. This process leads to organized calls for leftist professors to be fired, and even to death threats.
Arthur C. Brooks of the conservative American Enterprise Institute wrote a NY Times op-ed “Don’t Shun Conservative Professors” last week. He assumes this shunning is obvious and that “discrimination” is ubiquitous. He compares the historic barriers against women and the alleged plight of academic conservatives, a clever tactic that makes it harder to remember that conservatives defended those barriers for decades.
Brooks says liberals should “make campuses more open to debate and the unconstrained pursuit of truth.” But that open debate over the past decades has led to an intellectual consensus that conservatives hate. Conservatives don’t like professors precisely because the pursuit of truth demonstrates the emptiness of current conservative dogmas.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 19, 2017