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Define “liberal”; define “academic”…

Rosemary Joyce

and speaking as a scholar, maybe I could engage with the question. Let’s take “academics” to mean “university faculty” and “liberal” to potentially have at least three different meanings.

Turn this formulation around: “why aren’t university faculty (aka “academics”) reliably politically right-wing (one of the several ways to understand “liberal” in the original formulation being politically to the left)”?

That is an easy question about which to speculate, starting with the possibility that people who choose the life of university faculty may include a higher proportion of individuals whose sexual orientation, religion (or lack thereof), or other personal aspect of identity is condemned or less supported by right-wing policies. Or we might, as some other bloggers here have, consider the possibility that conducting research on issues of public policy leads many members of university faculties to question the highly restricted role for government and the tendency to expect the free market to achieve the best for society that underlies right-wing political philosophy. My vote would be for the effects of teaching forcing university faculty to constantly examine what they believe, even if it is only to defend it, and the unusual effect that continually teaching young people may have on what might otherwise be a pattern of associating primarily with those of one’s own age.

In fact, though, I question the premise. I presume that university faculty vote across the spectrum of political opinion, which in the US is not exhausted by any polar pair of terms, such as right-wing/left-wing or liberal/conservative. Who do university faculty (OK, “academics”) advocate for in primaries? I like to say the one thing I know for certain is anyone I support won’t be the party candidate in the end. I wonder how common my experience is?

But what about those other meanings of “liberal”? In contrast with “conservative”, the question might actually be less about political faction and more about visions of social and cultural acceptability. Here, I do think academia fosters a less-conservative vision of the world. Even if you politically favor legislation defining marriage as between one man and one woman, if you are an honest denizen of the university, you know (1) it is not true that this has always been the case, even in the Judeo-christian tradition; and (2) as a statement of values, the exclusive model of marriage is normally violated as much as respected, with divorce and infidelity as the evidence.

And I go back to the peculiar fact that university communities are unusual places, where adults of all ages maintain close contact organized around discussion and debate. Age-stratification allows any group to assume that its experience of the world is both normative and good. But my reality comes up every day against new realities of my students. And that will continue throughout my life as an “academic”.

Finally, I am actually fairly unconvinced that the accusation that most faculty are “liberal” would hold up if we used a technically precise definition of what it means to be “liberal” as a political philosophy and a theory of the rights of individuals. But that would be fodder for a longer post. As a self-identified progressive (not liberal) who imagines I am one of those “academics” these generalizations are about, I wish we could have a more substantive debate or discussion about political and social philosophies outside the academy.

And that of course is why I object to the use of “academic” as the covering term for me and others like me. Especially in formulations that claim we are homogeneous sheep in thrall to one political party, “academic” echoes with the implication that we are removed from the real world, and thus innocent of responsibility for our actions, our teaching, and yes, our voting.

No one I know in the university community is “academic” in this sense. Like all other groups of people, we are engaged in the world, worried about it, and make our decisions about what the best way into the future is from a combination of knowledge and experience. Our experiences of being part of a multi-generational community that is constantly renewed with young people, dedicated to arguments based on evidence, undoubtedly do influence how we exercise our political power. “Academia” is not “liberal”: but university community members may well come to conclusions critical of policy directions based on simplistic claims about what is increasingly a diverse national population facing major challenges that cannot be solved by nostalgia for a past that never actually existed.


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Comments to "Define “liberal”; define “academic”…":
    • Rob

      You mentioned that your choice in the primaries is never the one that is voted in. That seems easy to explain too. A well educated person knows what they think is really important in politics, as opposed to most of the rest of us (myself included). You aren’t interested in the hype. For a political leader to be successful they usually are interested in the hype.
      — Rob

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    • Daniel

      I think that academia has now generated a rather self-replicating left-wing thought environment. More right wing views tend to be explicitly, or implicitly rejected, resulting in an almost self-selecting left-wing-ism. Students with less conformist views will tend either to shift their view, else to pursue non-academic careers. Academia is, of course, sufficiently open minded as to tolerate alternative views, and even to consciously embrace them. The conformity-pressure is certainly not (or only rarely) malicious or preordained. But it is difficult to deny its presence.

      Perhpas a more interesting question is when it started. I would have thought that it can be rooted back across the French revolution, with its challenges to monarchy, tradition and the church. Whether that be the case or not (and i dont know) it is certainly the case that throughout the 20th century Western academia advocated communism more than almost any other sector of society (in the earlier parts of the century trade unions and poorer sectors were attracted to commuism too).

      Today communism is less popular, but strong antagonism to traditionalism, conservatism, America, Israel, capitalism, religion, and other values abound in disproportion to mainstream opinion. All the above were traditional targets of communism.

      None of this makes the academic world right or wrong. Academic politics is a fascinating area of study, and ripe for serious research. A historical survey might prove frutiful.

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    • Damenschuhe

      “In my country (as with most other western countries) most Academic people are quite liberal. This is mostly because of their education and their experience in dealing with educated people. Judging from my personal experience most academics are very liberal and open for new things.”

      That´s true…

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    • I read most comments, and I assume that not all of the united states. The academic circle in Latin countries, has been educated in other countries. In theory, the average citizen should be interested in campaign proposals, but the reality, at least in my country, is what we are interested only immediate, resolves my daily life.

      It is very important to note that the “red circle” (as we call the “intellectuals”), is far from the average citizen. And I think also in your country.

      Landing these ideas, proposals, and interests to the common citizen, is a titanic task! Because daily problems that dictate most elections.

      Ninel

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    • In my country (as with most other western countries) most Academic people are quite liberal. This is mostly because of their education and their experience in dealing with educated people. Judging from my personal experience most academics are very liberal and open for new things.

      [Report abuse]

    • Yes I think that all your points where correct whether “Liberal” or “conservative” the only points here whether you live your life as it be or as what you are, as long as you are happy on what you are whether “liberal” or “conservative”.

      This is my point of view as nowadays people may see only the mistakes that we make and not the good things that we bring.

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    • You mentioned that your choice in the primaries is never the one that is voted in. That seems easy to explain too. A well educated person knows what they think is really important in politics, as opposed to most of the rest of us (myself included). You aren’t interested in the hype. For a political leader to be successful they usually are interested in the hype.

      [Report abuse]

    • Interesting proposal; and I appreciate your generosity in imagining that I know what I think is really important in politics. I do think you may be right that I personally don’t respond to promotion of candidates the way I am supposed to, but that I would attribute to being trained in anthropology, which makes us ask about the motivations and meanings in everyday communication.

      But I also want to reiterate my original point, which is simply that I think it is possible to over-homogenize an idea of how academics identify, or for that matter, how people in general identify in political terms. I don’t think “who’s the liberal candidate here?”. “Liberal” and “conservative” in this sense are meaningless or overly vague.

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    • I was raised a conservative and held conservative views for quite a while. However, I also have a rebellious side that always wants to break away from restrictive rules and societal norms, and seek freedom. Over time that side of me won and I now have more liberal views mostly on social issues.

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    • Jim

      The short answer is that academics by definition are committed to open-minded, free inquiry, in which questioning of established wisdom is encouraged; conservatives are often committed to an ideology, in which preconceptions trump the open-minded pursuit of new knowledge. Recent psychological studies have suggested a fundamental difference between “liberal” ways of thinking, which are able to tolerate several contradictory ideas simultaneously, and a non-immediate resolution of these contradictions, and “conservative” thought, which needs the reassurance of established, unquestionable verities. Hence, “liberal” vs. “conservative” may boil down to a difference in cognitive styles. Academia by definition would attract more of those with a “liberal” cognitive style, for the reasons given above.

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    • I think you argument is completely wrong Jim. I think there are just as many liberals as conservatives committed to an ideology. I was a liberal until I read arguments for the other side. I realized that growing up around liberals I never considered the other side a formidable opponent. Now I don’t consider myself a conservative, but I think liberals throw away limited government arguments without giving it an open mind, as you suggest liberals have by definition. Pick up a Milton Friedman or Thomas Sowell book and get back to me.

      Rosemary says, “Or we might, as some other bloggers here have, consider the possibility that conducting research on issues of public policy leads many members of university faculties to question the highly restricted role for government and the tendency to expect the free market to achieve the best for society that underlies right-wing political philosophy.”

      I guarantee you that many professors here don’t understand wealth, freedom, or how to get the best results for society through politics.

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