Monday, April 25, 2016

Ideology in the academy

My previous post on felons, gun rights and voting rights probably doesn't sit well with everyone.  And it might surprise some people that a professor would question liberal orthodoxy, either on the issue of voting rights or guns.  And serendipitously, we have a new piece over at The Monkey Cage in which Henry Farrell interviews the authors of a new book on conservatism in academia.  I haven't read the book, but I might.  Rather, here are some general thoughts on the topic.

First, let's define ideology.  My definition of ideology comes from Philip Converse's classic article, "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics."  For Converse, ideology is about constraint.  To be liberal is to be constrained to take the liberal position on a broad range of issues.  To be conservative is to take the conservative position on a broad range of issues.  Converse describes three types of constraints:  logical, psychological, and social.  A logical constraint is a principle from which one derives policy positions.  The problem is that no ideology is truly logically consistent.  Ideology comes about, then, by incorporating psychological predispositions and social influence.

Let's focus on logical constraints.  No ideology is purely logically constrained.  To me, that means that if any two people agree on all issues, at least one of them isn't thinking.  If you aren't sure whether or not that one is you, it's you.

And yet, Shields & Dunn aren't wrong to say that academia treats people poorly when their positions deviate from liberal orthodoxy.  For pedagogical reasons, I don't share my political beliefs with people who don't know me personally.  I don't want students trusting me just because I agree with them, nor do I want them using politics as a reason to reject what I say if I disagree with them.  If I obscure my positions, students must evaluate my claims and arguments on the basis of their merits.

Regardless, I think.  That means I have at least some positions that deviate from liberal orthodoxy.  What happens if I express such opinions around other academics?

Most don't care.  We are a narcissistic bunch.  We live in our own heads and obsess with the depth of our own great thoughts.  Boredom is other people, or something like that.

But there will always be a few who resort to ad hominem attack.  What does that cost one?  Realistically, not much.  Shields and Dunn analogize conservative professors to closeted gay people in an earlier era.

Except, you know, they don't have to worry about being physically assaulted.  Stonewall for conservative professors?  Yeah, that never happened.

And to be blunt, most probably wouldn't even have to worry about tenure decisions.  When a professor goes up for tenure, his or her file goes out to external reviewers, who look at the professor's publication record, etc., and make recommendations.  If a department deviated significantly from the external reviewers' letters, there might be grounds for a lawsuit.  If a hypothetical conservative professor publishes, he or she should be fine, regardless of personal politics.

So, what does a conservative professor really have to fear?  Realistically, not much.  We are a privileged bunch (those of us with permanent positions, anyway), and we whine far more than our conditions justify.

But there are negative social implications for stating positions that deviate from liberal orthodoxy.  As I said, I like to think for myself.  (Title of the blog, anyone?).  That means I have at least a couple of positions that deviate from liberal orthodoxy.  And to state them around other academics is to invite some serious scorn.  At the very least, conservative professors would risk losing their colleagues' respect for acknowledging their positions.

What do I lose by either pointing this out or stating heterodox positions?  Nothing.  Nobody knows me, and those who do, don't respect me anyway.  There is freedom in that.

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