Thursday, September 09, 2004

Biased Teaching, Part III

I agree with Phil that courses should be clearly distinguished when they represent the views of the professor, rather than an attempt to neutrally survey a body of literature. It's probably best to create a separate classification scheme for such classes, especially given that they represent a distinct pedagogical approach. I also think it's best that these not be mandatory classes, either for general or departmental curriculum requirements. In classes that are no so identified, professors could then be legitimately criticized for an absence of neutrality or breadth in their reading list.

On the matter of ideological or religious diversity, I would say that, yes, in most elite schools there is little question that they would be better intellectual institutions with greater substantive breadth of professorial philosophy. In practice, this means more conservatives and libertarians. My main problem comes with how you get there. Phil seems comfortable imposing something close to the existing anti-discrimination regime on departments. I'm uncomfortable with this. I think in a liberal society that the anti-discrimination cure, especially in its stronger, affirmative action mode, is very strong medicine indeed, and should only be imposed where there is a pervasive problem unsuited to more libertarian cures.

On the one hand, I think that the problem of an absence of conservative/liberal professors is a supply problem (less so in law schools, though, I might add, since they hire out of the pool of JDs, some of whom go into academia, and some of whom go into practice--there we have a reason to believe that it is a selection rather than a supply issue). This supply problem is, in part, a consequence of rational expectations of the future labor market they will face, and so in that sense the problem is akin to that of African-Americans, who may, in anticipation of discrimination, alter their behavior (for example, going into professions that are more public-sector-dominated, where they anticipate lower discrimination or network hiring). The solution, in my mind, is for elite graduate institutions to make a greater effort to recruit conservatives into PhD programs in the social sciences and the humanities, and give them as much room to pursue research programs that reflect their beliefs as they allow graduate students on the left. Currently smart conservative college graduates often head into the Washington, DC think tank world instead of going to graduate school, because of their expectation of future discrimination, and in the short term of differential treatment in graduate school. So I think part of the problem is not overt discrimination (although there is some of that), but rational adaptation to the expectation of future discrimination, which may in fact be less pervasive than conservatives think.

The trickier issue is what to do about overt discrimination in hiring, which certainly happens, although, again, it's hard to tell what the magnitudes are. If maximizing substantive outcomes were all we cared about, it might be that imposing something like affirmative action obligations on hiring departments might be the solution, not just to the discrimination problem, but also the supply problem (since this would alter conservatives' rational expectations of future discrimination, thereby inducing more to enter graduate training). The problem is that, as I noted before, this is a fairly illiberal solution (do we really need to add MORE bureaucratic rules on the hiring process than we've already got?), and also that, unlike race or gender, the problem of identification is infinitely trickier. Are we going to ask everyone to take a 25 question test of their political views, and give preference to those who come out on the minimal government/ social traditionalism end of the test? Do we even want to start collecting data like this? What about the "stigma" of affirmative action hiring that conservatives always complain about when it comes to blacks?

In the end, I think the answer to this problem, to the degree that there is a solution (and any good conservative would say that there are some problems that, regardless of their severity, are not worth the treatment, or are not susceptible to treatment), is good old John Stuart Mill-ish: publicity. Large departments that continue to fail to hire or train conservatives are, probably, engaging in either overt or covert ideological bias. They should be shamed into at least becoming sensitized to whether they are importing into their hiring decisions ideological decision-making. To the degree that this is what Horowitz et al are doing, I think there is nothing wrong with it. But I think as good conservatives they should foreswear the use of the anti-discrimination paradigm here, which has its own problems where it is already applied and certainly doesn't need to be extended to every possible human difference.


Anonymous said...

A careful discussion of a difficult problem, not only at elite universities(one awarded me a PhD), but at small colleges out on the prairies(where I have taught for 20 years).The number of conservative-sounding candidates who show up in the available pool is tiny. von Hayek supposedly said, "All my conservative students become bankers, all my radical students become professors." Affirmative action is not likely to change these preferences. I have served on many personnel committees where I tried to give serious consideration to qualified candidates with conservative "stigmata." But, with the exception of one scholar who sneaked in partly through family pedigree in 1970, our department is , broadly speaking, liberal, with a strong tincture of sectarian leftism. I expect this kind of selective migration to continue.

Palooka said...

Diversity is great, so long as it's not used as reason to discriminate against individuals.

The individual and meritocracy are what matter to me. Diversity is fine. Discrimination is not.

I view the intellectual diversity a bit differently. In a few cases, where a staff may desire a balance of viewpoint, I think it is relevant as part of their qualifications--because that is what they are looking for, balance.

I'd be content just to have a rigorous non-discrimination policy, without a commitment to diversity. There should be a balance of expertise, however. If a department has 9 Marxist theorists out of 10 faculty, well, I think it is time for at least some diversity based on knowledge and background and expertise.

Those of you who like dishing out handouts, creating groups and division, hightening racial tension, and perpetuating negative stereotypes, please, be my guest and support raced-based affirmative action right to the destruction of the American ideal--individual responsibility. It's the individual that is entitled to equality under the law, not the collective.

McGruff said...

"dishing out handouts, creating groups and division, . . . and perpetuating negative stereotypes" was common stock in trade for the academic racket for most of its existence, long before things like affirmative action or the ostensible left-wing slant of the academy appeared on the scene. Then, too, there is only one social group in the U.S. for whom racial tensions might conceivably seem higher now than anytime in the past, and to think that they have suffered much from racism takes a good deal of imagination.

I think Steve got it right when he suggested that, to the extent biased teaching is a problem, any solution would not be worth the treatment. A quick effort to imagine exactly how the labeling of biased courses would proceed should immediately reveal its impossibility: exactly how would you measure a neutral survey and where would you find such a thing, who would be the arbiter, who's gonna volunteer that their course is biased--as opposed to what every serious teacher believes: that what they teach is true and responsible.

It would be nice in that light to ensure a diversity of opinion on campus, but if there's genuinely a supply problem, it doesn't make much sense to charge that "large departments that continue to fail to hire or train conservatives are, probably, engaging in either overt or covert ideological bias."