The Intellectual Gap Goes to University

By Davidson, Sinclair | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, September 2008 | Go to article overview

The Intellectual Gap Goes to University

Davidson, Sinclair, Review - Institute of Public Affairs

Major reform is needed to fix the problem of academic bias, argues Sinclair Davidson.

Following a campaign by the Australian Liberal Students Federation, a Senate committee is investigating the level of intellectual diversity at Australian universities. It is well-known that academiaand more often than not those who are university educated-have a left-wing progressive bias.

The best and most comprehensive analysis of that left-bias comes from the United States. A recent US study found that 72 per cent of 1,643 academics identified themselves as being 'liberal' in the US sense and only 15 per cent as being 'conservative'. US academics are more likely to have left-wing views than the population and also to have views that are more progressive than the average.

Australian universities are unlikely to be much different. Anecdotal evidence supports the notion that Australian academics have left-wing views, and that these views may spillover into the classroom. One self-identified Greens Party member told his first year law foundations class that ? believe my role at the university is to teach you my opinion and [for] you to learn from it.'

Similarly a communications lecturer described John Howard and his 'blueeyed Aussie cultural jihadists' as the true fundamentalists endangering Australian society. These may well be isolated incidents and there could even be plausible explanations for this type of political commentary. There is nothing inherently wrong with holding firm political and economic opinions-even left-wing opinions.

The real issue lies in the consequences of that progressive bias. Progressive intellectual bias permeates the entire university structure before it reaches the classroom. In other words, classroom bias is a symptom of a larger problem.

For example, many conservatives allege that conservative academics are less likely to receive research funding, or be promoted, that conservative ideas are less likely to be taught in the classroom, and conservative ideas would be discouraged amongst the student population.

The overwhelming dominance of a single world-view within the university system generates and reinforces a series of misconceptions about university education.

The first myth is that good universities require substantial public funding. Certainly, good quality is never cheap. Yet many Australian academics would rather campaign for more public funding than work for more private funds. Nowhere is this more apparent than the incessant left-wing campaign against the so-called commercialisation of universities. This campaign has taken on an ugly undercurrent of vilifying international students.

The second widespread view is that universities exist primarily to promote an egalitarian society. The great irony is that many academics are both intellectual snobs and, often, intellectual bullies. Yet schemes to attract ever more students from low socio-economic backgrounds continue to be devised; never mind that individuals from those backgrounds may not want to attend university. After a generation of either free or highly subsidised university fees, there is at the moment no financial impediment to university education.

Academia in Oakeshott's absence

The greatest conservative philosopher of the twentieth century, Michael Oakeshott, has described education as the initiation of a human being into their inheritance of human achievement. In his 1950 essay "The idea of a university' Oakeshott describes a university as being 'a corporate body of scholars', 'a home of learning, a place where a tradition of learning is preserved and extended'.

There is nothing in Oakeshott's formation about public funding or egalitarianism. And we would be hard pressed to find an Australian tertiary course that prescribes Oakeshott as a required, or even recommended reading. It seems that he is not part of our intellectual inheritance-at least, not according to the Australian academic community. …

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The Intellectual Gap Goes to University


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