The Left-Right Polarity and the Culture of Academia · 31 October 2005

Filed under: Press Coverage


Carson Jerema--The Manitoban--10/26/05

Currently, some American Republicans are trying to push a measure through Congress that would see the adoption of an "Academic Bill of Rights." The Bill would make it theoretically easier for conservatives to avoid discrimination in the academic world.

Conservative activist David Horowitz, who is championing the Bill, is concerned with what he sees as a liberal or left-wing dominance of American universities. And while Horowitz's prescription is radical and somewhat intrusive on the autonomy of universities, he is not alone in his criticism.

The Economist argued last year that, "debating chambers are becoming echo chambers," and that, "students only hear one side of the story on everything from abortion (good) to the rise of the West (bad)." According to a survey conducted last year by Daniel Klein of Santa Clara University, there are nine times as many Democrats as Republicans in faculties of arts.

American Democrats argue that Horowitz is attempting to institute a kind of "thought police" to give conservatism a breakthrough into one of the few areas of American public and political life where it doesn't already dominate. Whatever Horowitz's motives, the problem he identifies is an important one. Universities should promote the free exchange of ideas but instead are often rife with ideological posturing that can sometimes border on the dogmatic.

This is no less true in Canada than in the United States. And it is no less true of the left than of the right. But when it comes to academia the left appears to have the upper hand. This may be in part because right-wing intellectuals tend more often to join think tanks and private business.

There has not been a lot of concrete analysis in Canada devoted to the question of bias and ideology among university faculties. But a 1999 study published in the Canadian Journal of Sociology entitled the "Political Attitudes of Canadian Professors" stated that, "disciplines are characterized by distinctive ideological subcultures, outlooks and political styles." The study found that liberal arts professors in Canada are predominantly left-wing, as are their students.

Though it should be noted that while left-wing thought prevails in Canadian liberal arts faculties, some disciplines, such as economics and international relations, tend to be stronger on the right, in contrast to leftist strongholds such as history, sociology and environmental studies.

Left-right polarization
Left-wing, or so-called "progressive" politics, has done a lot for the advancement of social and political liberties, and the left has often been the guarantor of social, sexual and racial diversity. Paradoxically, however, intellectual diversity has not received the same status.

According to historian Martin Malia, the left's stance against monarchical Europe in the 19th century and its opposition to the inequities of capitalism in the 20th have imbued within social thought a "no enemies to the left" principle. The political right, which had defended monarchy in the 19th century, came to defend capitalism in the 20th, of which the inevitable result is hierarchy and social stratification.

Here, criticism of the right is clearly valid while the left is seen as champions of the people, a point that became more deeply entrenched after World War Two, with the perception of Nazism as the absolute political right. For Malia this is at the expense of the centre: "The thesis that Hitler was incomparably evil places moderate conservatives on permanent warning against all 'unsavory' allies to their right, and indeed against their own dark demons."

The consequence is a "no friends to the right" perception. This perception still permeates among those who would argue that the left is less susceptible to criticism because of its commitment to a better social order.

Malia illustrates the advantage of the left in academia by demonstrating the difficulties of comparing Stalinism to Nazism. Because communism is considered the ultimate left, even in its grossly perverted form (Stalinism), it is considered by some invalid or even repugnant to make comparisons with Nazi Germany, no matter how relevant such comparisons may be.

It would be simplistic to argue that the problem in academia lies simply in the points of view espoused by some leftists. The problem is with how arguments are framed. This, coupled with the imbalance in political attitudes in faculties of arts, can foster an atmosphere that promotes a one-sided approach to intellectual debate.

For example, an argument currently popular among left-wing social scientists is the framing of globalization in the context of neoliberal imperialism in service of the American capitalist class.

When using the framework of imperialism, it is difficult to counter with arguments that would be pro-globalization, because how can anyone support imperialism with a clear conscience? As such, it becomes notoriously easy to dismiss criticism.

One-sided debate is not, of course, unique to the left; right-wing intellectuals are just as apt to dismiss arguments in favour of the restructuring of the social order as naïve and utopian.

But, due to the present imbalance of intellectuals in liberal arts faculties, and the left-right polarity that exists, the unfortunate result is a culture that is unfavourable to intellectual diversity.

In the unlikely event that conservatives are successful in their push for greater representation in American universities, and if the same occurs in Canada (also unlikely), they might just be the saviours of the diversity and freedom of thought that the left has fought so long to achieve and maintain.

Carson Jerema is a fourth-year political studies student and the Manitoban's Comment Editor.