Thursday, August 28, 2008

Liberal Professors

It seems as if at least once a year, somebody publishes a book about how almost all college professors are liberal, and I notice that this Glenn Beck fellow devoted a show to advising conservative students how to survive and thrive at colleges, which Glenn seems to think are all liberal.

Of course, there are lots of problems with the assumption that most college professors are liberal. There's the definitional problem. Indeed, to political economists, "liberal" still refers to so-called free-market expansion connected to some kind of republican (small r) captitalism. Last year, for example, I heard an economist say that the occupation of Iraq was an experiment in bringing "liberal capitalism" to the Middle East, and he meant liberal as in Adam Smith not as in George McGovern.) Also, "liberal" and "conservative" have been pummeled, misused, and food-processed in the media so much that they'e become empty signifiers. Murray Edelman has observed that, to create a political spectacle, one has to create enemies, and one way to do that is to soil the category-name of your political opponents.
It used to be that environmentalists were automatically judged to be liberal, but with big chunks of glaciers melting daily, etc., environmentalism has become what I have long suspected it to be: practical. Neither Left nor Right but Necessary. People used to mock recycling as a Lefty idea, but now municipalities have well oiled (so to speak) recycling programs, ho -hum. Vaguely responsible fiscal policy used to be associated with conservatives, but the most fiscally conservative president since 1980 has been . . . Clinton, according to the data, and the most fiscally giddy has been Bush II, who cut taxes during a war, which is kind of like quitting your job and maxing out your credit cards at the same time. It's as conservative as a drunken first-time gambler playing craps in Las Vegas. Whoopee!

Maybe the real problem with the liberal-professors thesis, however, is that the people purveying it don't know what professors do most of the time. For example, today I was advising freshmen about what classes to take. What did we discuss? Where they're from, how well they do in math, what their short-term and long-term interests are, and (drum-roll please) what classes will actually have seats left in them when this group registers on Friday. The only political topic that came up was whether to try to take introduction to American politics or introduction to political theory, and once again, the choice hinged mainly on what was open. So even if I had wanted to advocate on behalf of my eccentric politics, I wouldn't have had the time or opportunity.

More to the point, I don't have the slightest interest in advocating on behalf of my politics. I'm tired of my political ideas because I hear them all the time in my own head. 'm much more interested in what students's political views are and even more interested in how they express and support the views. That is, I'm interested in their rhetoric (not in the sense of "empty rhetoric" or "political rhetoric," but in the sense of how they present arguments, go through a reasoning process, and make appeals to authority, history, logic, and so on.) Also, in my experience (mostly from observation), if you want to be sure to dissuade young adults of your views, political or otherwise, try to convince them of the views. Parents of teenagers and young adults will know whereof I speak.

Professors spend a lot of time preparing for class, reading essays or lab reports, going to committee meetings, trying to carve out time to do research, driving their kids to soccer-practice, going to the grocery store, attempting to do something helpful to the cardio-vascular system, blogging, checking email, and so on. If there is a professor out there who wants to distribute copies of the Communist Manifesto to his or her students, I 'd bet that he or she has lost the copies somewhere in the back of the station wagon or under heaps of students' essays on the desk.

So if you saw Glenn Beck's show or read one of these books, and if you're conservative, and if you're worried about liberal professors, I hereby give you permission to chill out. On the list of things to worry about, you probably want to place "liberal professors" at around the 50,243rd slot, or lower. Seriously.

On the other hand, if you're worried that certain professors will induce students to read poetry, then your concerns are well founded. Poetry strikes fear into liberals and conservatives alike. Iambic pentameter--the great equalizer.
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