Magazine article The American Prospect

Data Comes to the Culture Wars: A Sociologist Runs the Numbers on Charges of Liberal Campus Bias

Magazine article The American Prospect

Data Comes to the Culture Wars: A Sociologist Runs the Numbers on Charges of Liberal Campus Bias

Article excerpt



Harvard University Press


Remember the good old days of the early culture wars? Oh, how I wistfully long for the late 1980s and early 1990s, when higher education was under sharp attack. It was then that Allan Bloom called out his colleagues for closing the American mind, and E.D. Hirsch surveyed the scene and wondered where all the cultural literacy had gone. Faculty, graduate students, and liberal defenders of American higher education bristled against these charges, to be sure. Yet this was elevated discourse compared to the knuckle-dragging anti-intellectualism of today's assaults on the academy.

Gone are Bloom's and Hirsch's pious--if precious--reverence for great ideas and students capable of tussling with them. Now we are left with the spectacle of conservatives trying to outflank each other by trash-talking "liberal intellectuals" and the refuge they find in American universities. Only by understanding how crucial these attacks are to conservative identity can we make sense of the jockeying among the GOP field this last election cycle. Newt Gingrich, a former history professor, mocked the class from which he came. Mitt Romney sought to discredit Obama for having spent "too long'--three years--at Harvard, when he himself spent four years there. Rick Santorum called the president a "snob" for championing universal access to higher education. Young Americans don't need "some liberal college professor ... trying to indoctrinate them," he said.

Neil Gross's Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? enters the ongoing debate about the position and role of the academy in American life at a high-stakes moment. Critics and defenders disagree over how much, and at what cost, higher education is implicated in our fractious political culture. They wrangle over the university's place in an increasingly privatized public sphere. Should it be a haven from or responsive to market imperatives? The hand-wringing and finger-wagging intensifies nowadays every time committees are hastily called to assess the mysterious causes of dwindling enrollments in the humanities, or departmental chairs receive "advice" from administrators to be open to educational "innovations" like replacing faculty with online courses.

An American professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, Gross first examined postwar American academic life in Richard Rorty: The Making o fan American Philosopher (2008). There he employed the "new sociology of ideas"--a smart synthesis of the sociology of knowledge, historical sociology, and intellectual history--to examine the contexts that Rorty, one of the most influential thinkers of the late 20th century, worked within and against as he made his way from analytic philosophy to neopragmatism (and academic superstardom).

Five years and a wealth of additional research on the American university later, Gross has applied his sociology of ideas to examining the question of "professorial liberalism" in higher education. Until now, the characterization of a staunchly liberal professoriate has annoyed progressives and disturbed conservatives, while remaining a curiously underexamined trope in American political life. As Gross's study shows, it is a product of long-standing misguided assumptions and overdrawn conclusions about American academics' politics. Gross offers an impressive range of hard social scientific data to soften the hyperbole and help set straight the terms of our debate.

A MORE APPROPRIATE title for this book might be Are Professors Liberal? The answer, Gross's large-scale survey data tell us, is a little more than liberals would like to admit and a lot less than conservatives would have us believe. His survey research indicates that in simple terms of party affiliation, 51 percent of American professors identify as Democrats, versus 35 percent of the voting-age American public. …

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