In Praise of Ideological Openness · 15 April 2011

By Daniel B. Klein -


Many people, some conservatives included, say we need to get ideology out of the college classroom. Some professors say proudly, “my students never come to know where I stand.”

I practice an opposite approach. I tell students that I am a free-market economist, a classical liberal or libertarian.  And I am not suggesting that it is wrong to be ideologically reserved. Different styles suit different professors.
And of course some professors go much too far in pressing their ideological judgments and requiring conformity, even forms of activism. But we should not fall into simplistic ideals of neutrality and objectivity. There is an ethical high-ground in temperance, but that does not necessarily mean reserve and circumspection. One can open up about ideology without falling into intemperance. Here I meditate on some merits of being open about your own ideology, even somewhat outspoken, when teaching a college course.
When listening to testimony on financial regulation, we like to know whether the testifying expert has a vested interest. And we like to know if he has other sorts of commitments that might affect his interpretation and judgment.
An individual’s ideological commitments are like his religious commitments, in that they run deep and change little. They suffuse his professional and personal relationships; they suffuse his sense of self. They are like vested interests, only deeper and more permanent. 

Don’t we all like to know where the speaker stands?

For a professor in the social sciences or humanities, his ideological sensibilities bear on his professional discourse. Some say, just be truthful. But truthfulness leaves things vastly under-determined. There are a lot of truths out there, most not worth bothering with. Professors must make judgments not only about whether a statement is true, but whether it is important.
Part of the professor’s job is to select and formulate the most important things. Governmental institutions are the most powerful institutions in society. It is natural to instruct students in their understanding of government and in ways of judging its actions and policies.
The professor selects certain issues as most important. For an issue, he or she must select and formulate positions as most important. For each position he must select and formulate arguments, for and against, as most important.
Two professors can each teach a course in labor economics and make all of their statements reasonably true, by our lights. But the two courses may nonetheless be very different in ideological flavor. We may object strongly to one of the courses, not for its errors of commission, but its errors of omission.
Moreover, truth itself is embedded in interpretation. Two alternative ways of interpreting are not always neatly ranked in “truth” value. Different professors will appeal to different authorities, such as those published in the “top” journals or by Harvard University Press. But is HUP an unbiased authority? (One study finds the press tilting left.) In the background the professor makes judgments about the authorities, the evidence, and the materials.
And in satisfying truthfulness, statements are malleable. A statement made categorically might be untrue, but when qualified with “often” or “sometimes” it becomes true, or at least arguably so.
There is courtesy in telling your students your ideological views. It alerts them to watch out for whether you give counter-arguments short shrift. It invites them to think critically about how your ideological sensibilities affect the lesson.
Openness alerts students to the fact that other professors see things differently. I tell students that I think that the minimum-wage law should be abolished, but also that a large portion of economists do not support such a reform. Self-disclosing informs students that economists are heterogeneous. It teaches them a healthy suspicion of those who would pretend otherwise.
Disclosure also clarifies the competition of ideas. They may take you to personify an outlook or philosophy. My students might associate me with the school of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, or Adam Smith, maybe with television personalities such as John Stossel or Andrew Napolitano. Openness helps them relate the classroom to the wider discourse.
Also, openness invites students to go deeper. Knowing that I am interested in advancing classical liberalism, they more readily approach me about that. This is a natural development in the student-professor relationship.
It can be dangerous to pretend that ideology can be separated from scholarly judgment. On such an idea, the universities may assure us that their faculty members know to “keep their ideology out their teaching.” Are you reassured?
And if professors simply make their teaching ideologically bland, is that really an improvement?
For me, “ideology” is not a dirty word. My complaint about the professoriate is not that they are ideological, but that – speaking here within the context of our generally fairly liberal culture – so few of them belong to ideologies of the more enlightened sort.
Ideological self-disclosure has been defended by several economists but especially the thoughtful social democrat and Nobel laureate Gunnar Myrdal (1969). His being enthusiastic for social democracy may have been a lapse in wisdom, even in his small, homogeneous land of Sweden. But his arguments for ideological self-disclosure have many merits.
Adam Smith, too, would likely smile on self-disclosure. He wrote:
“Frankness and openness conciliate confidence. We trust the man who seems willing to trust us. We see clearly, we think, the road by which he means to conduct us, and we abandon ourselves with pleasure to his guidance and direction. Reserve and concealment, on the contrary, call forth diffidence.”
Daniel B. Klein is professor of economics at George Mason University and chief editor of Econ Journal Watch. He has written several articles and studies on the ideology and groupthink of the professoriate.