Liberal Arts Education Lives Up To Name

Pope Benedict XVI kisses the head of a boy, as he arrives for a celebration of Catholic education at St Mary's University College, Twickenham, London Friday Sept. 17, 2010.
AP Photo/Steve Parsons, Pool
This column was written by Mary Eberstadt.

Every once in a while, something you read is so otherwise inexplicable that satire seems the safest bet. Take my accidental encounter last week with a recently released paper, commissioned for reasons inscrutable by the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, called "The 'Faculty Bias' Studies: Science or Propaganda?"

Perhaps the most unintentionally entertaining report to issue from social science in many a sabbatical, this document argues in all apparent seriousness for what may be the most counter-intuitive ruling since the O.J. Simpson verdict. Several studies documenting left-wing bias among college professors, the AFT paper claims, are so methodologically flawed that "none gives readers the confidence in the conclusions that a well-designed study should provide" — those conclusions being, of course, that there is a pervasive political bias among the faculty on many American campuses, and that the bias in question overwhelmingly tacks port.

I say "apparent seriousness" because so perverse is this report in conception and so quixotically oblivious to the inescapable facts, that it might easily be mistaken for a send-up. And so two-thirds of the way through a first scanning of its summary I concluded that some Swiftian wit had pulled off a brilliancy here. How else to explain a finding like, "It is not possible with any precision to calculate a ratio of Democrats to Republicans at the sampled institutions"? Or the closing admonition, addressed to critics of liberal-left bias on campus, that "passing off personal opinions as facts is not science"?

What a nonscientist might call the real facts about campus bias can readily be found elsewhere — if not on every campus, then certainly on every elite campus (the AFT report laments that community colleges have not been sufficiently represented in the samples). Those real facts are also on entertaining parade in one essay after another of a book I recently edited called "Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journeys." In a genuinely unexpected outcome, the single most common characteristic of these particular political conversion stories was precisely: radicalization rightward in reaction to an overwhelmingly left-biased humanities faculty on one elite campus after another.

In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that bias on campus not only influenced this generation of conservative journalists, authors, and think-tankers; it is actually part of what catapulted many out of the university and into the ranks of the right. Those who would prefer not to acknowledge the problem, such as the author and consumers of the AFT report, do themselves no favor by pretending it does not exist. Ironically, by encouraging ideological blowback, they may actually be creating another generation of academic refugees.

To give just a few examples from what could be a longer list: "I watched with horror as the multicultural yahoos took over the humanities" (the Manhattan Institute's Heather Mac Donald). "I'd been preaching freedom of speech, but I had to leave the academy for the world of policy think tanks before I'd ever get a chance to practice it" (Ethics and Public Policy Center senior fellow Stanley Kurtz, formerly of Berkeley, Chicago, and Harvard). "Of course the vast majority of the faculty [at Harvard] were on the left" (Hoover Institution senior fellow and former Harvard professor Peter Berkowitz). And perhaps most tellingly: "Because I studied neither economics nor Straussian philosophy [at the University of Chicago], I never met a conservative professor, and I knew only one conservative student" (David Brooks) — this, about the one and only top-twenty campus in America that is supposed to be at all friendly to conservative ideas.

Are things any better now in the groves than they were 15, 20, or 25 years ago? Talking the other week with a dozen or so college students at CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference) didn't suggest as much; my sample felt as embattled, and as energized by being embattled, as many of the authors in the anthology. Admittedly, neither "Why I Turned Right" nor the CPAC minglings adds up to a scientific study whose methodology would pass muster with the sort of gatekeeper who puts the words "faculty bias" in quotation marks. On the other hand, who needs social science to settle this?

Let's try instead Dr. Johnson's famous method of critiquing Bishop Berkeley's "idealism" (he kicked a stone and said, "I refute it thus"). A high school senior of my acquaintance recently was interviewed for admission to an Ivy League school. Because he is interested in government, he asked about the political scene on campus — specifically, whether there was any variation of opinion among professors there. The response was immediately reassuring. Despite what the young man may have heard, this alumnus of the institution told him, there was real diversity on this campus. Such diversity! In fact, this alumnus could actually name a professor in the arts college as a known man of the right.

As it happens, I know that professor. He is the same faculty member who was the only non-liberal/left member of that same faculty two decades ago, when I happened to attend that university myself. That's what is meant by "diversity" on campus. And there, with all due respect to the social scientists and the methodological nitpicking of their "faculty bias" study, is just one among many stones one could kick to refute anyone who suggests otherwise.
By Mary Eberstadt