My junior year of high school I took AP Language and Composition, and there was an event I want to use from that class as a springboard to discuss bias on college, at to a less degree high school, campuses. Most students in that class were liberals to varying degrees, and our teacher was one of those feminist types Youtubers like to complain about. There were a couple other conservative students, but we knew we were the minority, and it was clear our teacher was our ideologically opposite.
One day I was gearing up to push back on something we were discussing, something I knew most of my classmates and our instructor would disagree with. But as the discussion progressed, I decided it wasn’t worth it, and kept my mouth shut.
But as I thought about it, I started to question the role bias played in my decision to stay silent. After all, I was friends with most of my classmates; they respected me and I respected them. What evidence did I have to think they would find our ideological divergences intolerable? As for the teacher, while we disagreed on many matters, we had always gotten along well, and I was under the impression she enjoyed having me as a student.
I realized I wasn’t the victim of bias in the school system. I was just too lazy to craft a good argument I would have to defend in a place where I was in the ideological minority.
Now I’ll preface this by saying I go to a conservative university. I’m not silly enough to accuse my school of being a progressive environment. However, I believe my experiences in high school, which was a pretty liberal school, combined with a good understanding of the subject broadly, makes me informed enough to have an opinion worth sharing.
As we discuss bias on campus, I’m more concerned with the professors and faculty, not the students. For starters, college students are less liberal than their professors. I don’t doubt the presence of a loud minority of highly ideological students, I just don’t think they’re very important. The kid down the hall who’s a member of the Young Democratic Socialists of America might be really obnoxious, but he doesn’t have that much power.
Another thing to mention – liberal bias on campus is not a new problem. Conservatives have been talking about it since William Buckley wrote God and Man at Yale in 1951. Two other classics of the genre, The Closing of the American Mind and Illiberal Education, were published in 1987 and 1991, respectively.
That is not to say the conservative complaint about campus bias is baseless. But we have a tendency to think our problems are new. A good understanding of history dispels this fiction.
Discussing bias on campus, I want to answer three questions:
- Are the professors at most major universities actually mostly liberals?
- Does this create an undue hardship on conservative students?
- Why are all the professors liberals?
The answer to the first question is almost always yes. The answer to the second is generally not really. The answer to the third question is its complicated.
I’ll be quicker on the first question, as there is a wealth of material on the subject. Only 14% of professors call themselves Republicans and about 60% of professors identify as liberal or far left. Now this is obviously affected by discipline, but it’s also heavily affected by region, as schools in the northeast are much more liberal than their western counterparts.
What’s interesting to note though, is that the most liberal group on campuses aren’t the professors, they’re the administrators. While liberal professors outnumber conservatives 6 to 1, in administration that ratio is 12:1. This is why most universities are better described as progressive environments than progressive academies, where misgendering someone is a far more serious offense than opposing minimum wage. To quote a New York Times piece, “it appears a fairly liberal group of students are being taught by a very liberal professoriate – and socialized by an incredibly liberal group of administrators.”
Second question is whether the liberal consensus on campus creates undue hardship on conservative students. There’s a certain amount of privilege that inherently comes with being in the majority. If I’m have dinner at a friend’s house, and the group is mostly vegetarians, meat is likely to not be on the menu. This is majority privilege, and the question is whether the bias on campus is majoritarian privilege of something more pernicious.
I don’t buy the argument that the progressive environments on campus are inherently discriminatory. Only about 20% of conservative students say they feel like they can’t speak freely without suffering consequences, and while that’s higher than the liberals, that’s hardly broad discrimination. In my own experience, I’ve found that there are many teachers that are progressives, even unabashed progressives, but they still respect open discussion and dissenting views so long as it’s quality work. What qualifies as quality work could be a tighter standard for conservatives than it is for liberals, but again, that’s majoritarian privilege, not viewpoint discrimination.
That’s the key right there, picking your spots, knowing what you’re talking about, and making good arguments. If you write a paper on why Barack Obama is a communist and your professor savages it, it’s not because they’re an intolerant liberal. You’re just a moron.
The next question is why this bias exist. This might surprise you, but I don’t think it’s because the liberals are smarter and since professors are smart, they must be liberals. In general, American education has been moving to the left for the last 100 years. Also, liberals who enjoyed the college environment are more likely to return as professors. From a statistical perspective, liberals are more likely to go to graduate school, and get the requisite level of education necessary to become professors.
There’s also the question of professor mindset. At most major universities, the professors are going to be mostly secular humanists, confident in their capacity to understand the world and firm believers in their own rationality. Since much of conservative thought is concerned with ideas of natural right and natural law, God and tradition, things that aren’t necessarily scientific, but first principles considered self-evident, this will naturally lead a lot of academics to reject it.
The great Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek makes his point in his masterpiece The Road to Serfdom to explain why academics are so quick to embrace socialism. Progressives, and the professors that form their vanguard, are adherents to an “erroneous rationalism” that struggles to accept they might not be smart enough to grasp certain complexities (such as the free market), especially when those complexities are protected by traditions (which many progressives scorn) such as property rights, which are just supposed to be self-evident. You can see where a confident humanist might have problems with this line of thinking.
Lastly, I want to pose the question, does the liberal environment on campuses actually hurt conservatives? Fire destroys, but it also purifies. I firmly believe there is a conservatism that can withstand even the strictest scrutiny. Only that conservatism is more complex than what you’ll find on clickbait YouTube videos or Twitter. You have to research, read, and discover what you truly believe and what evidence makes you believe it.
And if liberal professors force young conservatives to drop the same old tired arguments in favor of something more intellectually robust, I suppose I should say thank you.