Monday, November 26, 2007

The Liberal Academy

If you're even tangentially part of the academy, you're probably aware of the eternal debate over whether and why American colleges and universities are so politically liberal. Myself, I think that American higher education is laudably, permanently liberal (though often in some pretty shallow ways) largely because the goals of liberalism as a political movement are so directly related to the goals of higher education - for instance, equipping people to think critically, rather than reverently, about those who hold political, social, economic, or some other kind of power, and to act to alter present arrangements of power, rather than simply maintain them.

A new study proposes that one reason conservatives are underrepresented in the academy is that people who are politically conservative prefer to either get jobs right out of college (rather than pursue PhDs) or to start families (again, rather than pursue PhDs). Interesting stuff:

The study — “Left Pipeline: Why Conservatives Don’t Get Doctorates” — argues that the much debated minority status for conservatives in higher education may be the result of differing priorities of graduating college seniors of different political persuasions. The study presents evidence that conservatives are significantly more likely than liberals — at the point when college students decide whether to apply to graduate school — to value raising a family and having money. In contrast, liberals at that point in their lives are significantly more likely to value writing original works.

The authors of the study do not dispute that conservatives are a distinct minority in academe and that the imbalance is problematic. They also hold open the possibility — much proclaimed by other authors at the conference of the American Enterprise Institute where all of the work was presented — that there may be bias against conservatives (although they question whether this has been proven). But the authors of the work on the pipeline say there is considerable evidence that could show conservative self-selection out of academic careers.