The Chronicle Review

Well, Naturally We're Liberal

Dave Cutler for The Chronicle Review

February 07, 2010

I've never understood why some people find it so hard to explain the "liberal bias of the academy." A recent article in The New York Times walks us through a virtual museum of contemporary theories, most employing some of the shiniest state-of-the-art statistical and conceptual tools that current social research has to offer.

True, common sense puts in an appearance now and again, but any actual member of the academy will come to feel that it's a case of swatting a fly with a front-loader. For most of us, at least in the liberal arts, the answers are obvious and part of our everyday existence.

I add the qualification in that last sentence because it doesn't make sense to speak of the political persuasions of the academy as a whole. Anyone who has been to a faculty meeting lately, at an institution of any size, knows that faculty members from business schools are typically the most conservative, followed, in order, by the natural sciences, the social sciences, and finally those pesky liberals in the liberal arts.

Of course, not every liberal-arts professor is politically liberal, nor is every business instructor politically conservative. But by and large, this alignment is pretty clear to all of us without a lot of expensive research. If the academy seems to list to the liberal side in comparison with the general population, it's certainly not thanks to an overabundance of liberal business professors, pinko natural scientists, or Marxist social scientists. Rather, academe leans left because it takes a proportionally significant number of liberal-arts professors to hone the basic intellectual skills that we expect of college graduates: things like interpretive reading, cogent writing, critical thinking, and a sense of a shared historical tradition and the major issues currently confronting our society and world. If those abilities and insights aren't addressed by the liberal arts, then they certainly won't be in Introduction to Finance, Calculus II, or Biochemistry.

So the real question isn't why academe is so liberal, but rather, Why are instructors in the liberal arts so, well, liberal? I think there are three basic reasons, all of them what common sense might predict, all rather obvious, and none in need of fancy research involving such things as "occupational role modeling" and "vocational engendering."

First, as the Times article notes, virtually all instructors in the liberal arts are aware of the disparity between their level of education and their financial situation. There's no secret that the liberal arts are the lowest-compensated sector of academe, despite substantially more advanced study than business instructors and the equivalent of those in the natural sciences. Just as important, there are few opportunities for liberal-arts scholars to supplement their incomes by serving on government and corporate boards, filing patents and licenses, and, of course, obtaining generous research grants. You don't have to be a militant Marxist to recognize that people's political persuasions will align pretty well with their economic interests. It's real simple: Those who have less and want more will tend to support social changes that promise to accomplish that; those who are already economic winners will want to conserve their status.

I don't mean to suggest that issues of conscience beyond the confines of crass self-interest don't play an important role for many in the liberal arts, but their basic economic condition virtually assures that those in the liberal arts will be natural-born liberals. Who, after all, would want to preserve a situation in which others who are equivalently educated and experienced—doctors, engineers, lawyers, scientists, colleagues in other areas, and, yes, chief executives—receive vastly more compensation, sometimes by a factor of 10 or 100? I wonder what would happen to the academic political spectrum if liberal-arts professors were compensated the same as those in other areas. If an enterprising sociologist wants to conduct such an experiment, I'll certainly volunteer as a subject.

Such an experiment, however, isn't necessary. Just look at countries where college and university professors across disciplines are paid more or less the same. In Germany, where I did a good deal of my graduate work and have been a visiting professor on numerous occasions, compensation is determined by civil-service rank rather than academic field. Probably because German conservatives have rarely attacked academe as a hotbed of liberalism, and privacy laws prevent such polling of civil servants, the sort of studies reported on in the Times aren't generally available. But my own experience indicates that German professors and instructors are paid roughly equivalently across disciplines and in comparison with other nonacademic professionals, so they tend, for the most part, to be moderate or even conservative. Although here in the United States we hear about radical European professors—Derrida and Habermas come to mind—they are notable precisely because they are so exceptional.

A second reason that liberal-arts professors tend to be politically liberal is that they have very likely studied large-scale historical processes and complex cultural dynamics. Conservatives, who tend to evoke the need to preserve traditional connections with the past, have nonetheless contributed least to any detailed or thoughtful study of history. Most (although, of course, by no means all) prominent historians of politics, literature, the arts, religion, and even economics have tended, as conservatives claim, to be liberally biased. Fair enough. But if you actually take the time to look at history and culture, certain conclusions about human nature, society, and economics tend to force themselves on you. History has a trajectory, driven in large part by the desires of underprivileged or oppressed groups to attain parity with the privileged or the oppressor.

Consider the Greek struggle against Persian tyranny, the struggles to preserve the Roman Republic, the peasant uprisings of the Middle Ages, the American and French revolutions, the abolitionist and civil-rights movements, and now movements on behalf of other groups—women, Latinos, homosexuals, and the physically impaired. As President Obama recently put it, any open-minded review of history (and perhaps especially American history) teaches at least one clear lesson: There is a "right side of history," Obama said­—the side of those who would overcome prejudice, question unearned privilege, and resist oppression in favor of a more just condition.

If you don't study history, whether because it doesn't pad quarterly profits, isn't sufficiently scientific or objective, or threatens your own economic status, then you won't know any of that. But most of those in the liberal arts have concluded that there really isn't any other intellectually respectable way to interpret the broad contours of history and culture. They are liberal, in other words, by deliberate and reasoned choice, based upon the best available evidence.

Finally, most liberal-arts professors come from a background of liberal education, which emphasizes the role that values play in human affairs. (I admit that "values" is sort of a tired, old-fashioned notion, but no other word covers the same territory.) More important, they've learned that values inevitably conflict, and they have developed the skills to interpret these clashes with nuance, envisioning various forms of resolution or mediation. In a certain sense, from Plato to Hegel to Derrida, philosophy—the paradigmatic liberal art—has been engaged with nothing but those questions.

It is this open perspective on what types of values can be considered legitimate, the various ways they can be approached, and the different redefinitions or reconfigurations that they may assume that most differentiates liberal-arts faculty members from their colleagues in business, law, medicine, or the natural sciences. (I don't mention the social sciences here, because there is no longer any really meaningful line that can be drawn between the humanities and the social sciences.) All of those other fields are structured around specific values that remain relatively fixed: profit and exchange in business; justice and social utility in law; health and wellness in medicine; objectivity, explanation, and prediction in the natural sciences. The liberal arts are distinctive because they are open to considering any of those values outside their narrow professional contexts.

Despite all the panicky alarms sounded not so long ago by some conservatives against the "relativism," if not "nihilism," implicit in the (alleged) poststructuralist hijacking of the liberal arts, it turns out that there has proved to be much more agreement on what constitutes the good life than most of the critics realized. Or maybe they have realized: It is, just as they charge, some sort of a broadly liberal point of view.

It is because we liberal-arts professors have a personal stake in our relative economic status; we have carefully studied the actual dynamics of history and culture; and we have trained ourselves to think in complex, nuanced, and productive ways about the human condition that so many of us are liberals. Most of us agree with President Obama that there is a "right side of history," and we feel morally bound to be on it. Although we'd like to see some parity in compensation with our colleagues, we chose our fields with full awareness of the tradeoff. Part of our compensation lies in knowing that our studies can complement our standing on the "right side," rather than having our basic commitments dictated to us by the limitations of other, narrower professions.

So all you journalists and researchers: Enough with this assumption that liberal-arts professors are liberal as a result of naïveté, as if our tweed jackets and pipes, as the Times article put it (how much of that do you really see these days?), render us ignorant of the ways of the world. Drop this idea that we were somehow coerced into being liberals by peer pressure or role models. And most of all, don't condescend to suggest that we may just be, as one expert quoted by the Times did, free spirits (read: malcontents and misfits) who couldn't cut it in the serious professions (like Dick Cheney, Kenneth L. Lay, and Jeffrey K. Skilling did?) and found our impecunious niche in teaching the liberal arts.

We're here and mostly liberal by practical deliberation, factual investigation, and rational and moral conviction. We don't mind the lower pay (well, not that much), but don't demean us, when most of our conservative critics would be hard-pressed to make anything remotely approaching the same claims. Remember that one of our most vigorous critics, Sarah Palin, was reportedly unclear about significant events in American history (the First World War? Hmm, lemme think ...) and had to be given grammar-school geography lessons by her campaign staff. But who knows, if Palin had more of a grounding in the liberal arts, she might have ... nah!

Jere P. Surber is a professor of philosophy at the University of Denver.