Sunday, August 6, 2017

Thoughts on Maranto and Woessner: "Why Conservative Fears of Campus Indoctrination Are Overblown"

(Pix source HERE)

There has been some attention paid to the challenges of being a conservative (however one defines that term) in the modern American academy (e.g., here and here). That attention has drawn the intersst of important political forces that have manged, yet again, to draw universities into the middle of contemporary political struggles, and likely for all the wrong reasons. Much has been written of, about or around the issue. Some of it is quite good, others mostly polemics meant to advance one agenda or another by frightening stakeholders with select references to data or other bits of "information" to suit. For a taste, see also Why Colleges’ Liberal Lean Is a Problem; Academe Is Overrun by Liberals. So What?; and The Academy’s Assault on Intellectual Diversity; Liberal Academia in Donald Trump’s World; and A Confession of Liberal Intolerance.  There is much more, of course, all easy to find via internet search engines. And they appear to have had some effect (e.g., here).

Robert Maranto and Matthew Woessner have just published an interesting contribution to the debate, "Why Conservative Fears of Campus Indoctrination Are Overblown," Chronicle of Higher Education (July 31, 2017). Robert Maranto is a political scientist and professor in the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas. My colleague Matthew Woessner is associate professor of political science at Penn State Harrisburg and co-author of The Still Divided Academy: How Competing Visions of Power, Politics, and Diversity Complicate the Mission of Higher Education (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011). Professor Woessner is currently serving as Chair of the Penn State University Faculty Senate, in which I serve this year as Parliamentarian.

The essay is well worth reading.  This post provides some brief thoughts on Maranto and Woessner's excellent essay.

Maranto and Woessner (M&W) start by situating the problem within a time in American academic culture "when higher education’s political-correctness problem moved from the conservative echo chamber into the mainstream zeitgeist, with the likes of The Atlantic and The New York Times weighing in on hostile, even violent, student outcries against conservative speakers at Middlebury College, the University of California at Berkeley, and points in between." ("Why Conservative Fears of Campus Indoctrination Are Overblown"). There is a nod as well to the contribution of the American Political Science Association, "which can be fairly characterized as a center-left body," (Ibid) to the debates (here, and here for dissenting views).

This evidence of an intellectual diversity problem in the academy, they suggest, is likely most strongly felt in “sociology, history, anthropology, and psychology, among others — [where] nonleftist faculty are becoming extinct.” (Ibid). They note that homogeneity is also a function of place of the academic hierarchy, with the greatest (left) homogeneity in the most elite schools. This ideological capture, of course, is hardly surprising, where orthodoxy is inherent in an industry that prides itself on strong control of the integrity of the disciplines. It should come as no surprise that academics, long trained in the arts of orthodoxy and its enforcement within disciplines, should now transfer those cultural patterns of institutional and normative behaviors onto their politics. And then to infuse their disciplines with the orthodoxies of their politics. To say that there is a diversity problem, then, is not merely to suggest that lots of academics vote democratic party candidates, but rather that this political orthodoxy has also now infused the structures and practices of orthodoxy within academic fields of study. In a sense, the argument goes, one can no longer be an anthropologist, for example, unless one is a “left” anthropologist. Deviation from political orthodoxy in an academic field is conflated with deviation from the orthodoxy of legitimate practice within a field of study.

But Maranto and Woessner build up to a make a different political point. They note first a perception of a structural problem in the societal relations of the university in the face of this diversity gap:
As the social distance between the elites and the rest grows, citizens continue to lose trust in the government, the media, and especially higher education. A recent Pew survey reflects that disenchantment, especially on the right, finding that 58 percent of Republicans say that colleges and universities have a negative impact on the country, up from 37 percent just two years earlier. (Ibid).
They acknowledge the consequence that produces backlash—the fear that students will be “corrupted” by an orthodox point of view built into academic disciplines and the cultural life of the university by a faculty (and others) whose orthodox views may not reflect those of either students (going into our “learning factories”), or of their parents (who remain singularly unaffected by the academic political cultures of the university and likely impervious to their blandishments, or of the communities form which students and parents reside. The premises underlying the backlash—that students and their parents are entitled to some sort of protection of their own political orthodoxies, is at best odd. Socio-political views do not rise to the dignity of religion, nor do they merit the sort of preservationist servitude which this society reserves for specific privileged social, religious, ethnic and other communities. At the same time, this is a culture that understands the power of preaching a gospel—and in function there may be little difference between witnessing the gospel among the community of non believers and witnessing the political orthodoxies of contemporary American academic fields of study. That debate, however worthy of serious engagement, has yet to be had except in the crudest way in this Republic.

But, Maranto and Woessner argue instead from the position of imperviousness. That is they suggest that “most students aren't ideologically pliable; by the time they reach college, they've developed a point of view.” (Ibid). Or, in my view conversely, that the left political orthodoxy that is said to pervade academic disciplines and the cultures of the university, appear to have little real power other than to amuse itself and discipline its adherents. Of course, it has more power than that—it produces the patina of legitimacy underlying the exercise of power by adherents of this orthodoxy against deviants. Yet Maranto and Woessner suggest that while the controlling elites may have power over institutional operation, they appear to have failed to assert power over te minds of those whose conduct (and education) they manage. They suggest:
But while these are reasons for grave concern, the conservative fixation on political correctness is, in fact, misdirected. One of the right’s main worries about campus culture is that the left’s dominance of academe is so widespread and powerful that it leads to leftistindoctrination or conservative alienation. Incidents at a handful of colleges — Middlebury, Evergreen, Berkeley — have come to seem representative of the state of higher education. And these events seem to suggest that conservatives in academe, both teachers and students, are hopelessly out of place, in need of refuge or rescue. These fears are overblown. (Ibid).
The stories of the academic “orthodox left,” they argue is overblown crisis mongering on the part of those who might find amusement or benefit in the exercise. As self-identified Republican academics, they posit that “Not all is well with academe, but right-wing alarmism obscures the fact that the left’s stranglehold on campuses has less influence on college students than people think.” (Ibid).

They acknowledge the “cottageindustry on the right” that feeds on lurid tales of radical leftists and their totalitarian-like control over university cultures. There is much to be gained, I suppose, from spreading tales of brainwashing students who are then turned into the shock troops of the ideological revolution directed from academia. “But most undergraduates [they caution] are in fact not ideologically pliable. By the time they reach college, most students have developed a political point of view.” (Ibid).

Maranto and Woessner offer the fruits of their own research to support this conclusion. Interestingly, what they have found is something like a 1980s style California Republican syndrome effect of exposure to academic cultures. “Far from experiencing a left-wing brainwash, the typical student becomes slightly more progressive on social issues while becoming slightly more conservative on economic issues. And, according to another study by Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner, undergraduates can readily identify individual professors’ ideological leanings, which helps them to be skeptical of what they are being taught.” (Ibid). On the whole this is an eminently reasonable conclusion. Students aren’t stupid, or more gullible than their parents—for the most part. They know what they like and they tend to gravitate to those who show affinity to their views. Of course the difficulty is that in an academic environment in which there are relatively few role models, that can place a burden on the conservative voices within an academic setting. To that concern, Maranto and Woessner suggest that academic leftist monocultures are relatively rare.
[M]ost colleges and universities have in fact far more ideologically diverse students, and somewhat more ideologically diverse faculty. While only 11 percent of college faculty identify as Republican, nearly a third identify as independent. Although left-leaning instructors constitute a large majority of faculty, most colleges have contingents of moderates, many of whom are strong advocates for academic freedom and free speech. (Ibid).

And here there is a somewhat ironic glimmer of hope for the conservative political-academic cultures that retain some hold in the university. The relentless move toward closer connections between wage labor markets and the development of academic programs appears to favor the development, in equal measure, of more conservative (or a-political) academic cultures. They argue:
There is no liberal or conservative (much less postmodern) way to draw blood from a patient, or frack a natural-gas field. Business professors of all stripes want to make profits; all civil-engineering professors want bridges to stand. These imperatives keep empirically minded fields grounded in reality and limit the impact of political leftism on their undergraduates. (Ibid).
Moreover, even with respect to some field sin the social sciences, they point to a 2012 study, in which they “highlighted how political science’s openness to nonleftist ideas benefits both the discipline and higher education as a whole.” (Ibid). As long as students are able to control their enrollment choices, and as long as those choices permit some choice among political sub-text in teaching, student retain a certain power to “ minimize exposure to overtly political classes and virulently ideological professors. In this manner, cultivating an ideologically tolerant discipline becomes a quiet selling point in the competitive marketplace for student patronage.” (Ibid).

As a result, on most campuses, right leaning students can thrive; and left leaning students might learn something form them (and vice versa). Yet problems remain: Maranto and Woessner note that “Sadly, progressive defenders all too quickly dismiss the problems resulting from an ideologically homogeneous academy, most notably the creation of an elite more concerned about its own status than its fellow citizens’. (Ibid). For all that, it is far too early, they suggest, to proclaim the death of the politically balanced academy. Lurid stories of persecution do not a culture make. “A closer look reveals an ecosystem that is, in some respects, more diverse than appearances suggest — and students who are more resilient and independent than we think.” (Ibid).

Maranto and Woessner may well be right. Yet they also have put their finger on a the larger problem form which the issue of the irritations of political correctness emerge. That, simply put, is the problem of orthodoxy. Maranto and Woessner remind us that academic and political cultures—like societal mores—are built on the construction of orthodoxies effectively policed. Where orthodoxy fails, cohesion dissipates. And in the absence of cohesion it is impossible to maintain the structures of order and the meaning of relationships. Pluralism itself provides a nice manifestation of orthodoxy even in the guise of positing the mandatory nature of difference. While orthodoxy is unavoidable, the suppression of expression and exploration around it is not. There lies the great problem that the lurid stories of the control of the academy by the “left” exposes—a problem that was once that of rightist control and suppression of the left (in the 1950s most famously). Perhaps, the answer, impossible to actually apply, requires a rectification that would expose and reduce the prominence of political ideology within the structures of academic fields of study. That project, of course, would undo a generation’s worth of activity that was grounded on the identity of politics and knowledge, and that sought to infuse inextricably the role of political ideology as a driving force of knowledge production. Alas, that is a suggestion that likely holds little appeal to either left or right in the academy. Yet a step in the right direction would be to acknowledge the central role of politics in the formation of the foundational presumptions of academic fields (and the scope and tenor of their knowledge production processes) and to create a space where those too might be subject to the sort of rigorous debate on which the academy is said to thrive.

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