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Define “liberal”; define “academic”…

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | January 23, 2010

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.