Monday, April 29, 2013

Narrow-Minded Politicians and Higher Education

Across the history of higher education in America - as with any other institution, at any other time - there have been incidents in which the Powers That Be have sought to meddle in the substance of what's taught. We see this all the time in K-12 education, as battles are fought over science standards or the teaching of American history. But for the past few decades, despite occasional complaints, politicians have to a substantial degree left higher education alone.

In an era of tightening budgets (in many states, public allocations now account for as little as 5% of state universities' budgets, as I've discussed before), some legislators still think that the pittance they're handing out gives them some say in what universities say and how they say it. Onto this field steps Jim Geddes, Congressman and member of the University of Colorado Board of Regents, who apparently thinks that Colorado should make a deliberate effort to hire more conservative professors.

Were I inclined to take a liberal tribalist position in response to Geddes' conservative tribalism, I could go off on a rant about the sanctity of higher education and how dare this low-brow conservative butt his head into our business. There's some truth to that, of course - this is a little like me trying to tell a major hospital how to hire its nurses (note: I am not a medical professional of any kind). But there is also data that suggests that, if you survey faculty, more of them tend to be liberal rather than conservative. Whether this means anything or not is another question.

The real mistake that Geddes is making here is not his suggestion, it's the premise which underlies it. He is assuming that "liberal" and "conservative" are the categories that actually matter in what gets taught and how. This is the kind of arrogance only a true politician could evince. He is so wrapped up in the political world of Republicans and Democrats that he assumes, like the blind man and the elephant, that the part of the world he sees is the most important and defining part.

This is, of course, unmitigated nonsense. I teach political science, and even in my area (international relations/foreign policy) the labels of "liberal" and "conservative" as understood by Geddes have essentially no meaning. Step outside the narrow realm of US electoral politics and you discover that the things people argue over don't map - at all - onto our tribal party system. And if this is true in important swaths of political science, how much more in Biology? Neuroscience? Accounting? Computer Engineering? Should all of those departments also hire more "conservatives" to "balance" their teaching?

Sadly, this kind of numbskullery is increasingly associated with American politicians - and, it must be noted, with conservative/Republican politicians in particular. I don't know what outcome Geddes wants, but no amount of "conservative affirmative action" is going to get him there. In this era of vast communications, students of any stripe can get all the exposure to all the opinions they want. If that matters to them, let them watch Fox or MSNBC or whatever they like. In the meantime, let's keep hiring professors on the basis of their expertise, rather than to fill some nonsensical ideological quotas at the behest of interfering politicians.

1 comment:

  1. This conservative gambit has done a brilliant job of making sure the question asked is always "Why don't universities hire more conservatives" and never asked as "Why do so few highly educated people find American conservatism persuasive?" There are answers to the latter that don't assume conservatism is wrong -- some of the psychology about how traits such as openness to new experience map onto political identifications suggest that the psychology that makes a successful academic may lean liberal -- but nonetheless I think the republican job of making the question about universities' biasses instead of their intellectual poverty has been a brilliant piece of public relations.