Data Comes to the Culture Wars

Remember the good old days of the early culture wars? Oh, how I wistfully long for the late 1980s and early 1990s, when higher education was under sharp attack. It was then that Allan Bloom called out his colleagues for closing the American mind, and E.D. Hirsch surveyed the scene and wondered where all the cultural literacy had gone. Faculty, graduate students, and liberal defenders of American higher education bristled against these charges, to be sure. Yet this was elevated discourse compared to the knuckle-dragging anti-intellectualism of today’s assaults on the academy.

Gone are Bloom’s and Hirsch’s pious—if precious—reverence for great ideas and students capable of tussling with them. Now we are left with the spectacle of conservatives trying to outflank each other by trash-talking “liberal intellectuals” and the refuge they find in American universities. Only by understanding how crucial these attacks are to conservative identity can we make sense of the jockeying among the GOP field this last election cycle. Newt Gingrich, a former history professor, mocked the class from which he came. Mitt Romney sought to discredit Obama for having spent “too long”—three years—at Harvard, when he himself spent four years there. Rick Santorum called the president a “snob” for championing universal access to higher education. Young Americans don’t need “some liberal college professor … trying to indoctrinate them,” he said.

Neil Gross’s Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? enters the ongoing debate about the position and role of the academy in American life at a high-stakes moment. Critics and defenders disagree over how much, and at what cost, higher education is implicated in our fractious political culture. They wrangle over the university’s place in an increasingly privatized public sphere. Should it be a haven from or responsive to market imperatives? The hand-wringing and finger-wagging intensifies nowadays every time committees are hastily called to assess the mysterious causes of dwindling enrollments in the humanities, or departmental chairs receive “advice” from administrators to be open to educational “innovations” like replacing faculty with online courses.

An American professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, Gross first examined postwar American academic life in Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher (2008). There he employed the “new sociology of ideas”—a smart synthesis of the sociology of knowledge, historical sociology, and intellectual history—to examine the contexts that Rorty, one of the most influential thinkers of the late 20th century, worked within and against as he made his way from analytic philosophy to neopragmatism (and academic superstardom).

Five years and a wealth of additional research on the American university later, Gross has applied his sociology of ideas to examining the question of “professorial liberalism” in higher education. Until now, the characterization of a staunchly liberal professoriate has annoyed progressives and disturbed conservatives, while remaining a curiously underexamined trope in American political life. As Gross’s study shows, it is a product of long-standing misguided assumptions and overdrawn conclusions about American academics’ politics. Gross offers an impressive range of hard social scientific data to soften the hyperbole and help set straight the terms of our debate.


A more appropriate title for this book might be Are Professors Liberal? The answer, Gross’s large-scale survey data tell us, is a little more than liberals would like to admit and a lot less than conservatives would have us believe. His survey research indicates that in simple terms of party affiliation, 51 percent of American professors identify as Democrats, versus 35 percent of the voting-age American public. A significant one-third of faculty identify as independents (though they are twice as likely to lean Democratic as they are to lean Republican). Unsurprisingly, political orientation is differentiated somewhat by disciplines, with those in the humanities and a number of the social sciences, including sociology and psychology, tracking more to the left, and those in disciplines such as economics, law, and engineering tracking more to the right. Despite the prominence of claims that the university is awash in tenured radicals, only 8 percent of the professoriate identifies as “radical.” The “gotcha” factor with such a number is mitigated by the fact that 8 percent of American faculty members are distinctly un-radical business professors, and business is currently the most popular major in American universities.

The professoriate’s reputation as tenured radicals crystalized around a large cohort of baby boomers accused of taking their dissatisfaction with the hubris of the American century from street protests in the 1960s and 1970s to the seminar podium in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet baby boomers make up a diminishing part of the academy today, outnumbered by younger academics, who, like the general population, are less idealistic and more convinced of the exhaustion of rigid political ideologies. Nevertheless, after slicing and dicing the data (admirably giving readers a view of his research and the path he’s taken to his conclusions), Gross determines that there is something to the charges of a liberal professoriate. “By my calculations,” he concludes, “between 50% and 60% of professors today can reasonably be described as leftist or liberal, at a time when only 17% of Americans fall into that category.”

One standard explanation for why parts of the academy skew moderately left appeals unsurprisingly to liberals. Smart people who are capable of sustained, rational analysis often chose to pursue this analysis for a living as professors; with the same tools they cut through the intellectual fog surrounding conservative political arguments and moral commitments. A different explanation—and one that has traction among critics on the right—is that higher education is awash in prejudice against conservative students and faculty, who either are deterred from or systematically chased out of the profession. Then there’s an argument that has traction on both sides: Liberal intellectuals, better educated than they are paid, jealously police their cultural capital within the academy in the absence of any tangible financial capital. While recognizing the intellectual coherence and historical plausibility of all three theories, Gross points to his survey and historical research suggesting that they are bedeviled by fuzzy causality and “explanatory overreach.”

What Gross’s historically grounded approach does remind us is that the university’s liberal reputation dates back over a century. From the rise of the research university and the proliferation of secular colleges in the late 19th century to the Progressive– and New Deal–era enthusiasm for melding scientific research with social reform; from the postwar McCarthyist worry that there was a communist behind every lectern to the campus unrest of the 1960s, the American professoriate has for over a century been “imprinted” anew as a guild for theologically and politically liberal thinkers. Because academic work has for so long been regarded as a “liberal pursuit,” it draws in young liberals who recognize the selves they want to become in their professors. Gross refers to this as “political self-selection,” which may sound circular—and indeed it is. But the phenomenon is no less probable because of it.

There is good news here for conservatives who worry that American universities are, as Santorum put it, “indoctrination mills.” Contrary to the conservative complaint that liberal academics dress their political preferences up in highfalutin’ theories and prejudiced data, Gross’s evidence suggests that professors are mindful about the relationship between their political views and their work. Many of the humanists and social scientists surveyed believe that objectivity is more often fetishized than achieved, but almost all strive in some way to adopt practices of self-reflexivity, transparency, and impartiality in their research and teaching. As for conservatives’ concern that the university threatens to politically disfigure its students into left-wing fellow travelers, Why Are Professors Liberal provides evidence that college does not make students more liberal. Rather, time at the university gives students analytical and rhetorical resources to strengthen the political leanings they had when they entered. While it is true that college graduates tend to be more liberal than those their age who didn’t attend college, college-goers tend to be more liberal than their non-college-going peers. So it’s a wash.

In this balanced effort, Gross also puts conservative criticisms of the university into historical view while trying to suss out their merits today. For well over half a century, from William F. Buckley with his God and Man at Yale (1951) through David Horowitz’s campaign to ferret out leftist advocacy with his “Academic Bill of Rights,” introduced in 2003, conservative detractors have made castigating a liberal professoriate a marquee event of their activism. The conservative punditry’s postwar rise and growing stature were not ex nihilo but rather gained funding and political force through conservative organizations, foundations, think tanks, and publications. This postwar para-academic infrastructure helped them to give voice and coherence to their grievances and find a receptive audience. The work of critics of the university, in other words, has been crucial for creating alliances between economic elites and small-government populists within the postwar GOP. Just as the image of a left-leaning professoriate is instrumental for self-fashioning among liberals, so has attacking it been crucial for the making of conservative intellectuals.


Both liberals and conservatives will likely be frustrated by this book. Liberals may notice that while reading it, they’ve developed a strange tic—maybe a jittery tapping of their finger or a staccato bobbing of their leg—born of impatience with the statistics, the explication of competing methodologies, and the numerous profiles of pseudonym-donned interviewees potted throughout the study to enliven the aggregate data. Gross identifies himself as a “Democrat with very liberal social attitudes and more center-left [political and economic] views.” Yet instead of fighting words or practical advice he delivers impeccable, if occasionally tepid, objectivity, without a whiff of advocacy.

Conservatives will likewise find themselves aggrieved. Gross is restrained and fair-minded. He challenges the strength of conservative arguments in the most neutral and unflowery of language. This doesn’t make for a gripping read, but the payoff is better: balanced, well-researched, accessible scholarship that in the end helps inoculate the academy against the criticism of liberal bias the book takes as its centerpiece.

Gross’s subtler challenges to the caricatures of higher education—as stronghold of liberal ideology or as some kind of bulwark against late capitalism—are welcome, though not revelatory for those on the inside. Quite the opposite. Universities have become ever more adept at accommodating outside pressures—adopting corporate structures of accountability, standardized grading rubrics, and assessments for teaching efficacy; accepting departmental mergers and the parceling of educational positions, libraries, and research institutes into big-business-sponsored platoons. Higher education has become a perfectly hospitable habitat for a student population comfortable with a naturalized view of “free choice,” “supply and demand,” and of themselves as “customers.” America now enjoys the most college-credentialed population in its history; the notion of universities as “indoctrination mills” doesn’t comport with the political temper of a nation that, by all accounts, finds its comfort zone just right of center.

Any careful listener to university and college departmental gatherings, committee meetings, and hallway conversations knows what’s most crucial today, even for the most left-leaning of academics. It’s figuring out how to train a new generation of students to read a book, not just a Twitter feed, and to distinguish strong evidence and subtle arguments from bald rhetoric and exaggerated posture. It’s showing the value of navigating the content in the university library, where a Google search engine or smartphone GPS is irrelevant. The simple, if ho-hum, task of today’s professoriate is no different—certainly no less challenging—than it ever was. It’s teaching students to think.

Yet the nuanced claims of Why Are Professors Liberal are nevertheless timely. They remind us that if “more than a third of the public believe political ‘bias’ in higher education to be a ‘very serious’ problem,” then we had best take this public concern seriously, or we may look back at today’s rock-and-a-hard-place as wistfully as we now regard those glory days of the culture wars.

You may also like

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)