Tag Archives: education

It Makes Sense Most College Professors Are Liberals

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

It's good we've got right-wing think tanks to look out for these things, because according to a report by the Adam Smith Institute (ASI), our colleges have a serious problem: They're far too left wing. The report identifies a pronounced left-wing bias among academics, especially in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

This is bad—the ASI says—because "social settings characterized by too little diversity of viewpoints are liable to become afflicted by group think, a dysfunctional atmosphere where key assumptions go unquestioned, dissenting opinions are neutralized, and favored beliefs are held as sacrosanct." For this reason, colleges ought to start promoting "ideological diversity," just as they would diversity of gender or race, presumably by positively discriminating in favor of right-wing academics.

There are at least three issues here. Firstly, is there really a left-wing bias among academics? It must be noted that the ASI report's methodology is far from watertight, leaning heavily on a sketchy survey studying voting intention among people with a college email address. Indeed, what ring of plausibility their hypothesis has is largely enforced anecdotally: Of course college lecturers are a bunch of lefties because, well... George Orwell mentions that it's a stereotype, basically.

That said: fair enough. As someone who has worked as a college lecturer, I have to admit: My own experience suggests the anecdotal evidence is correct—academics lean more left wing than the general population does. But that doesn't mean academia is a hotbed of revolutionary socialist sentiment. It just means your average college lecturer is pro-EU, politely liberal, and in favor of some sort of economic redistribution.

Secondly, why are academics more left wing? One answer might be: Left wingers are more intelligent than their right-wing counterparts. This is something you may have heard before because it was the conclusion of a psychological study from 2012 that still often resurfaces as viral news. This study's general hypothesis is: Stupid people are drawn to right-wing views because such views make them feel safe, insofar as they maintain the status quo.

The ASI report mentions this study, but dismisses intelligence as an explanation—largely because there is no analogous left-wing bias among people in the top 5 percent of IQ. The think tank does, however, find a partial explanation for the bias in the fact that being left wing correlates to what it calls "openness to experience," a personality trait, which, apparently, makes you more likely to pursue "intellectually stimulating careers like academia."

This notion of "openness to experience" sounds incredibly vague to me. The report defines it as follows: "People high on openness are more artistic, creative, and intellectually curious, and tend to prefer novelty and variety over familiarity and sameness." But in real terms, what does this mean? Enjoying meeting new people? Being into traveling? Perhaps—but why would enjoying those things make you more likely to be left wing? There are plenty of Tories who've been on gap years. And why would they make you more likely to become an academic? I know plenty of brilliant scholars who can barely stand to be in a room with unfamiliar human beings.

The "Ivory Tower" exists, but few college lecturers are trapped in this bubble at all times. And the world outside this bubble? Incredibly right wing and getting more so.

The seed of plausibility in this explanation consists of the fact that being "open to experience" suggests enjoying—and celebrating—diversity: of lifestyles, behavior, opinions, whatever. Which of course would correlate with "not being a racist piece of shit" and "wanting to work in a cosmopolitan environment" (like a college campus, for example). It also, crucially, entails wanting to think imaginatively and creatively about the world around you—which of course is vitally important if you're going to carve out a successful career in the academic humanities.

But then, equally, the report wants to trace at least some of the causes of left-wing bias in academia to what it calls "social homophily"—namely, "the tendency of individuals to associate with those who share their characteristics." And, of course, their general picture of colleges is of "ideologically homogeneous" places in which every member of staff is obliged to parrot the leftist party line on pain of being "shouted down" by their colleagues.

On the one hand: What exactly is it about right wingers that makes them think being told to shut up is the worst thing that can possibly happen to you? On the other: The report just seems to be directly contradicting itself here. Academics are open to different views and like diversity, but they also instinctively marginalize any dissenting views they encounter in their place of work? What gives, academics?

As far as I can tell, the ASI's mistake is that it seems to be assuming no academic ever has anything to do with anyone who is not employed by, or studying at, a college. The "Ivory Tower" exists, sure—and academics in general could certainly do more to communicate their research to a general audience—but few college lecturers are trapped in this bubble at all times. And the world outside this bubble? Incredibly right wing and getting more so.

In fact, it strikes me that the academic humanities are exceptional among skilled professions in that they involve comparatively little collaboration with this deeply Tory external world. This, to my mind, constitutes the best explanation as to why so many academics should be left wing: Because it's one of the few intellectually stimulating professions in which being a Tory doesn't help. The ASI report mentions this as the idea that jobs can become "politically typed." Intelligent, ethically minded left wingers are likely to become academics—because otherwise they'd have to, I dunno, become a management consultant, or write for VICE.

All of which brings us on to the third issue, namely: Is this left-wing bias in academia a problem? To which my answer is, as you might expect: of course not. The problem, in fact, is that the rest of the world has a pronounced right-wing bias. And, as I've already quoted the ASI as identifying above, "social settings characterized by too little diversity of viewpoints are liable to become afflicted by group think, a dysfunctional atmosphere where key assumptions go unquestioned, dissenting opinions are neutralized, and favored beliefs are held as sacrosanct."

Undermining one of the few sanctuaries of left-wing sentiment we have left would only compound this issue. If the ASI actually believe its own rhetoric, it ought to set its sights on government, banking, journalism, and big business. Leave our already marginalized colleges out of it.

Follow Tom Whyman on Twitter.

How to Treat Teachers, According to Teachers

Teaching is largely a thankless job. The pay is low, the work never ends, and students and parents can sometimes lack respect—a real shame given the colossal scope and importance of the task at hand. Things only seem to be getting harder. Some teachers believe the public school system is under attack, and many are uneasy about what a Trump presidency could mean in the classroom, not unfounded given his choice to head the Department of Education. Good teachers have the capability to shape lives for the better and become profound role models. But that's becoming harder too given the attention of students' has now turned from the head of the class and into their handheld devices. If the American education system is in crisis, the least we can do is listen to the people who work in it. As such, we asked several teachers with various years of experience how they'd like to be treated by students and parents. 

Kayla, Spanish Teacher, Three Years

I'm a black Spanish teacher at a predominately white school in the Deep South. Many of my students are initially surprised when they see me, and there can be some tricky racial issues to deal with. Once, a student emailed me about something she'd seen on social media, a Facebook post written by a student who was mad about a quiz. She tried to claim it was a pop quiz, but I had been announcing it all week. That night, she made a meme of me: "When your Spanish teacher is black I guess you can't expect them to be organized." 

What you do online is your business, but if it impacts other students perception of you, me, or our class, we have a problem. I always want my students to tell me when they are unhappy with my classroom. No matter how disrespectful, obscene, or occasionally racist they do it, I'd rather it be directly. 

Daniel, Science Teacher, 21 Years

When I first started teaching, it was much easier to guide my students' attention. Paper, pencils, and a wall clock were all there were to stare at. Nowadays, students are much more prone to distraction. Every student has access to a school laptop and usually his or her own phone, which can become a toxic mix of stimuli. I need my students to treat me with the same amount of attention they give to their apps. I tell my students to think of my class as an app—a science app. Only it's better than Facebook because it might get them into college. I know it sounds corny, but framing it this way actually works for more students than you'd think. The worst thing students can do is never look up from their devices. If one student is totally engrossed in his or her phone, it gives everyone else permission to do the same.

Anne, History Professor, Ten Years

I am fortunate enough to work with exceptionally bright students who want to change the world for the better. They often ask questions or provide a perspective that is a pleasant surprise. I welcome students to attend my office hours as frequently as they like for a deeper discussion about whatever topic has resonated with them. This sort of open intellectual discourse is why I went into this profession.

However, debate and one-on-one attention must be reserved for a time and space outside of my classroom. It is absolutely detrimental when, during a lecture, students choose to interrupt me at the wrong time. Frequently, it is to challenge my narrative and assert their own version of historical events or cultural trends. The social justice movement has been big on our campus. This is a net positive, but I have found many students developing a very aggressive approach to enforcing alternative history and correcting perceived historical wrongs.

Kara, Kindergarten Teacher, 31 Years

When I think back on positive experiences, it really has been because parents invested the time in finding out what their kid was doing and getting to know me, and I invested the time to know them. For me to have a productive and pleasant school day requires a relationship with the kids. I need to know the kids and what makes them tick, and they need to know me and what my expectations are. Every kid needs something different. And getting to know the family helps me be a better teacher. They share information about what is going on in their kids' life with me—like how the dog died last week or that they're moving—so if there is a meltdown going on I know why, and it's not just, "I didn't get to sit on that rug square!"

Steve, Math Teacher, Nine Years

I know math can be intimidating for a lot of kids, so I try to keep the mood in my classroom light. I like developing inside jokes and banter with each of my classes. I want my students to feel comfortable working through problems together and less afraid of being wrong. The issue with this approach rises when my students feel too comfortable in the classroom. High schoolers are obviously keen on feeling accepted, and class-clown types are the absolute worst when it comes to this. I've had a couple of particularly rambunctious class clowns who are always on the lookout for an opportunity to make an obscene joke. Students need to know that, at the end of the day, this is a classroom and I am a teacher who must be shown a certain level of respect. Most students understand those limits, and it helps me when they keep the others in check. It can be a difficult balancing act, but it is always great when the rest of a class knows how to contain their laughter to inappropriate behavior. They provide a little bit of positive peer pressure for the rowdier students who take advantage of the relaxed classroom atmosphere.

Follow Jay Stephens on Twitter.