My Two Cents Worth

I read with interest the discussion yesterday among Paul, Scott and David Horowitz of David’s new book, The Professors. The discussion was triggered by Paul’s observation that he didn’t find the book very persuasive. The presence of 100 extreme cases on the faculties of America’s many colleges and universities says little, Paul argued, about whether liberal bias infiltrates the classroom in a more systematic and important way. A few cranks here and there, Paul suggested, are no big deal, and while liberalism may indeed be pervasive on America’s campuses, David’s book doesn’t prove it.

Here are two thoughts, which are not informed by having yet read The Professors. First, liberal bias in academia is closely analogous to liberal bias in the media. It is possible to demonstrate that an overwhelming majority of professors on certain faculties are registered Democrats, or to show that the overwhelming majority of political contributions by certain faculties go to Democrats (or worse). This has, indeed, been done, by David and others, much as it has been demonstrated that, for example, the Washington press corps consists almosts entirely of Democrats.

But most professors, like reporters, will argue that their political affiliations are irrelevant because they don’t influence their classroom teaching. That is something that, by its nature, cannot be measured objectively. Information on whether political bias seeps into the classroom must necessarily be anecdotal; the closest we can come to systematic proof is by compiling and tabulating the anecdotes.

There is at least one way, however, to get at the question of how representative these 100 professors are of academia in general (recognizing, once again, that they were chosen precisely because they are among the worst cases). That is by observing how well these extreme leftists fare in the academic world. You could write a book about the 100 most crooked lawyers in America, and there would be some appalling stories of greed and dishonesty. But such a book would also be filled with unhappy endings: disbarment and incarceration. From this you could infer that, while there are some crooked lawyers, that crookedness is not tolerated by, or typical of, the profession as a whole.

It seems to me that to the extent crackpot professors are hired, are granted tenure, are invited to speak at conferences and student events, publish their articles in leading professional journals, are given academic awards and honors, and so on, it is fair to infer that they are not anomalies, but rather that the academic world in general is a congenial pond in which they swim comfortably.

My second observation is that David is a polemicist–one of the very few true, effective polemicists on the right. There are different forms of evidence and different styles of argument. Exposing the worst abuses of one’s opponents is an effective and time-honored technique. Most people are neither as rigorously logical nor as well-informed about academia as Paul. My guess is that The Professors will tell a lot of people many things they didn’t already know about the academic world and, by stimulating outrage, motivate them to want to do something about it. If that’s right, the book will be a valuable contribution.

I’ll let you know if I change my mind after reading it!