Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Why, asks TCS's Edward Feser, are universities dominated by the left? 

Tech Central Station's Edward Feser just published the first half a two-part essay that explores the question, why are universities dominated by the Left? This is a favorite question that troubles conservatives, particularly the relatively few "openly conservative" faculty members in the liberal arts colleges of major universities.

Professor Feser states the question and offers us several competing explanations that he finds wanting, and promises us his answer tomorrow. However, none of the traditional explanations today -- nor the explanation hinted at for Part II -- match my own proposed answer to Professor Feser's question.

Professor Feser paints with a broad brush, which in and of itself is no sin in an essay that by its nature is one big generalization. His opening salvo sets the stage:

The hegemony of the Left over the universities is so overwhelming that not even Leftists deny it. Whether the institution is public or private, a community college or an Ivy League campus, you can with absolute confidence predict that the curriculum will be suffused with themes such as:

capitalism is inherently unjust, dehumanizing, and impoverishing;

socialism, whatever its practical failures, is motivated by the highest ideals and that its luminaries -- especially Marx -- have much to teach us;

globalization hurts the poor of the Third World;

natural resources are being depleted at an alarming rate and that human industrial activity is an ever-increasing threat to "the environment";

most if not all psychological and behavioral differences between men and women are "socially constructed" and that male-female differences in income, representation in various professions, and the like are mostly the result of "sexism";

the pathologies of the underclass in the United States are due to racism and that the pathologies of the Third World are due to the lingering effects of colonialism;

Western civilization is uniquely oppressive, especially to women and "people of color," and that its products are spiritually inferior to those of non-Western cultures;

traditional religious belief, especially of the Christian sort, rests on ignorance of modern scientific advances, cannot today be rationally justified, and persists on nothing more than wishful thinking;

traditional moral scruples, especially regarding sex, also rest on superstition and ignorance and have no rational justification; and so on and on.

Anybody who has spent any time hanging around universities or living in college towns with open eyes and ears will have a hard time denying that this is substantially true, with a few qualifications. The faculties of elite, non-sectarian liberal arts colleges are probably more resolutely left-wing than those of major universities. Professors of medicine, business, engineering and even law are probably more conservative, or at least "less left," than their colleagues in arts and sciences. None of this, however, diminishes Feser's basic assertion. So why are the professors of our elite colleges so very disproportionately left wing?

Professor Feser reviews six widely-discussed explanations, and finds them all wanting (as do I). Feser's list includes:

The survival of the left-est theory, which holds that left-wing professors tend to promote into tenure people whose ideas they agree with the most. Feser agrees that this happens widely (I imagine much more in the humanities and social sciences than in the hard sciences), but it does not explain the progenitor leftist faculty: how did leftists come to dominate faculties in the first place?

The society as classroom theory, which is identified with Robert Nozick, a handsome, charismatic dude who was by no means a leftist. Nozick figured that most of his academic colleagues were socially inept geeks, and therefore were rewarded for compliance with the hierarchical educational system, but not rewarded "for any contributions he tried to make to the decentralized, unplanned sphere of voluntary interactions that constitutes the life of a young person outside the classroom (the playground, parties, dating situations, and so forth)." He or she will therefore view structured, centrally-planned systems as more "just" than unstructured, chaotic systems, such as markets.

The resentment theory, which is not far off from Nozick's explanation. The idea here is that intellectuals are simply aghast that they are not rewarded with money and popularity for their contributions when hacks, jocks, movie stars and CEOs are.

The philospher kings theory, which says that intellectuals believe that highly intelligent people are simply better able to "run things" than the rank-and-file, and only the sort of command and control structures proposed by leftist ideology would permit that result (monarchy being very out of vogue, and oh so unreliable in its support for intellectual elites).

The head in the clouds theory, which basically holds that left wing people are unrealistic romantics, and therefore tend to support unrealistic, ideological, do-gooder social policy. Feser has a good time with this one.

Finally, there is the class-interest theory, the essence of which is that intellectuals are increasingly beneficiaries of government largesse, and benefit more than other affluent and educated people from high taxes and the redistribution of the proceeds.

None of these explanations satisfies Feser, who hints at his favorite explanation:

The mystery only deepens when we consider that intellectual life was, for centuries -- even millennia -- not at all like this. The most influential views among Western intellectuals in particular once were, even when they were in error, of a decidedly down-to-earth and common sense nature where morality and politics were concerned, the Aristotelianism that dominated intellectual life through the Middle Ages being the chief example. There have always been eccentrics too, of course; but perversity, at least where theorizing about practical affairs is concerned, is largely a modern phenomenon. Indeed, it is only very recently in modernity that it has become something of the norm: specifically, with the great frontal attack on received ideas about human nature and society represented by late 19th- and early 20th-century thinkers like Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.

The astute reader will have noticed that, at least as I have described the situation, the era of common sense coincides with the medieval Age of Faith, while the thinkers cited as heralding the era of perversity are the great representatives of modern atheism, a kind of Four Horsemen of the secular Apocalypse. And here, I believe, lies the answer to our riddle. For if the great minds of the Middle Ages saw their mission as upholding a religious view of the world, so too, would I argue, do the intellectuals of the modern world. Here Rothbard was, in his own somewhat crude way, the closest to the truth: the modern professoriate is best understood as a kind of priesthood, and its religion is Leftism.

So there are six background theories -- each of which is useful but not ultimately satisfying -- and a seventh that Feser will elaborate on in his essay tomorrow, which I look forward to reading.

I have an eighth explanation, which we can call "the economic self-selection theory." I believe that elite service businesses, including large law firms, investment banking firms, consulting firms and advertising agencies, compete with academia for our top students. In the last thirty to thirty-five years, that competition has come increasingly in the form of massive wage disparities that did not exist before the mid 1960s, and -- coupled with the draft deferment policies during the Vietnam War -- has distilled from an entire generation of elite students a left-wing residue that has chosen graduate school and the scholarly life instead of professional school and the money-gathering life.

The context of my father's career choices, compared to my own, illustrates the point vividly.

In 1960, when my father entered graduate school at Harvard after a stint in the Navy, the starting salaries at the elite law firms in New York were no higher than the starting salaries for junior professors at major universities. Sure, lawyers would earn more over their lifetime, but from the vantage point of 1960 my father did not view himself as giving up an enormous amount of money to become a professor.

Even in early 1969, when my father accepted his first tenure-track job at the University of Iowa, he made as much money as junior associates at Cravath, Swaine and Moore, approximately $12,000. He knew that those lawyers would make more money later in their careers, but the differences were not such that he would have expected a radically different standard of living. Again, he had no sense that he was making any sort of noble sacrifice to be a historian -- he loved history, and he thought he was fairly compensated, certainly compared to his peers who went to law school.

During those years, the elite law firms, investment banks and consulting firms were small organizations that recruited small numbers of people, and academia was exploding because of the huge surge of students in the baby boom, including women (who were now going to college in record numbers), and men trying to defer their draft commitment to avoid going to Vietnam.

By the mid-1980s, though, the situation had changed radically. The enormous Vietnam-era horde of newly-minted PhDs started looking for jobs in the teeth of the demographic bust that began with the big decline in births during the 1960s. Universities no longer needed to bid up salaries to pay for new faculty, and professorial pay -- especially in the liberal arts -- collapsed in constant dollars. My father maintained that his own pay declined by more than 30% compared to the Consumer Price Index between 1968 and 1983, when he gave up the chairmanship of the history department in Iowa City to become a librarian in Princeton.

Meanwhile, the elite service businesses were exploding, and they vacuumed up huge numbers of top students. By the mid-eighties the top law firms were hiring whole classes of new JDs and paying them more than $60,000 per year in starting pay, rising to over $100,000 by the mid-nineties. These people were only three years out of college, making what seemed like bundles of money to their college classmates still searching for a dissertion topic. And there were a lot of them hitting the jackpot: the entering cohort at Latham & Watkins during the fall of 1986 included 67 new lawyers, and Latham was only (more or less) the tenth biggest firm in the country that year. At the same time, assistant professors in major universities were making $25,000 - $30,000, less than half what the young lawyers earned. And the disparities widened with seniority. In 1986, Latham partners only ten years out of law school were making well over $300,000 per year, which was at least five times what their peers in academia were earning. The gaps are even wider today.

Unlike students entering graduate school in 1960, undergraduates in 1975, 1985 and 1995 knew that if they elected graduate school instead of professional school they were making a fundamental economic decision that would have a huge impact on their standard of living. I believe that this must have had at least two consequences.

First, graduate students seeking a career in academia now must self-consciously reject money, because they aren't paid much to be professors, at least compared to their alternatives. Since our professors now overwhelmingly come from a pool of people who have self-consciously rejected money, is it surprising that they adopt political views that diminish the value of money as a basis for allocating the finer things in life? Of course not. They are left-wing because it validates a decision that they had to make in order to become professors in the first place.

Second, the elite service industries are taking an ever greater proportion of our top students. The law firms, investment banks, consulting firms, public relations firms and technology companies are paying a lot more than colleges and universities, and they offer immensely interesting and stimulating careers (whatever their other shortcomings). Economic ups and downs aside, they are hiring staggering numbers of our smartest people. Does this mean that academia is getting relatively less capable people than 30 or 40 years ago, when the alternatives to the scholarly life were not so attractive? Probably.

This second consequence probably has no bearing on the political views of academics, but it is interesting to think about from other perspectives. If the elite service firms are taking a large proportion of our most capable undergraduates and leaving a biased residue for the universities, are we eating our seed corn?


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