Academia and Lifestyle Bias

The other week Megan McArdle wrote a post about political bias in academia, inspired by this anecdote about psychologist Jonathan Haidt:

He polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center, starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.

“This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity,” Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal.

This post generated a record number of comments, many of them explaining reasons why this disproportion among academics was the result of something other than academia being a hostile environment for conservatives, which McArdle summarizes in a followup post as follows:

* Smart people are almost always liberal
* Curiousity and interest in ideas is a liberal trait
* Conservatives are too rigid and authoritarian to maintain the open mind required of a professor
* Education erases false conservative ideas and turns people into liberals
* Conservatives don’t want to be professors because they’re more interested in something else (money, the military)
* Conservatives don’t want to be professors because they’re anti-intellectual
* Conservatives hold false beliefs that make them ineligible to be professors

Well, as you can see, there’s an obvious lack of bias among the academics responding…

The follow-up post is quite long, and among other things does a good job of noting the ways in which bias could result in an increasingly liberal academy without people consciously saying, “That guy’s a conservative, we better refuse to give him tenure.” One of the ones that particularly struck me was:

Hidden tripwires Usually the dominant group doesn’t even realize they are there. For example, the low pay (and increasing reliance on unpaid internships for entree) of journalism often excludes people who don’t have, at the minimum, a family that could take them in and help cover the bills if disaster struck. It’s not surprising that the profession is so predominantly white and affluent even though everyone talks a lot about diversity.

Now, I’ve done my share of thinking about academia over the years. Going on in History or Classics had a certain appeal to me. But aside from the standard worries of “I’d be surrounding myself with a whole lot of people who would strongly dislike me for being Catholic and conservative,” the thing which made going into academia completely out of the question for me was that I planned to get married immediately after getting my BA and wanted to be able to support a family in the short term. One thing that was very, very clear to me, watching the friends I had who were in grad school or struggling to find tenure track positions, is that trying to make it in academia didn’t fit well with getting married and having children young. So I made a pragmatic call which I don’t regret: It was simply a much safer bet going into the business world than trying to make of go of it in academia, given our marriage and family plans. I would imagine that many others, in like circumstances, would do the same.

How does this relate to political bias in academia?

Well, there’s a two-way relationship between lifestyle and politics. On the one had, people who are conservative and people who are religious are two groups that tend to marry and have more than the average number of children. If you’re both conservative and religious, it’s even more so.

On the flip side, different lifestyles end up reinforcing different political interests. If you’re single and you move around frequently and have somewhat interrupted employment and use public transportation a lot and rely on the availability of grant and research money — you have a whole lot of reasons to support a generally progressive political agenda. If you are working in the private sector and struggling to buy a home and pay your taxes and have your kids educated in a way that you are comfortable with — you have a whole lot of reasons to support a generally conservative political agenda.

And, of course, this becomes self-reinforcing after a while. Once this (and other) selection factors and biases have resulted in the academy becoming populated mainly by strongly progressive people who plan to marry late and have few if any kids, there aren’t a whole lot of people to complain about the fact that the process of trying to make it in academia is heavily biased against people who don’t plan to marry late and have few if any kids. In fact, deviating from that norm starts to make it look like you’re someone who isn’t very serious about academia. And since you can count of people who are serious about academia, people whom you would want in your department, not to mind the kind of treatment that keeps them from feeling like they can marry and have kids while will in their 20s, you can of course allow it to get a little bit more extreme. Which will in turn make academia that much more unattractive to people who don’t want to follow the dominant cultural lifestyle of that profession.

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  1. “One thing that was very, very clear to me, watching the friends I had who were in grad school or struggling to find tenure track positions, is that trying to make it in academia didn’t fit well with getting married and having children young.”

    What you say is even MORE true about would-be academics who are conservative and female. I self-selected myself right out of the academic career I thought I wanted because it was so obviously incompatible with the way I wanted to mother.

    I have at least one female friend (not politically conservative at all, btw) who manages the academia-family juggle pretty well, at least it looks that way from the outside. Her husband is in charge of a good-sized chunk of child care for their 2 kids. She does important work, research that is good for families, and has a good influence on the medical students she teaches. I tip my hat to her and truly admire her. But what she does doesn’t look easy at all, and I’m not sorry that I didn’t attempt such a challenging lifestyle. Especially since I have twice as many children as she does.

  2. Why do we think that teaching is not a business? Does the efficiency and efficacy of an institution that seeks to make a profit while delivering the service people hire it for somehow destroy the teacher’s ability to teach or the student’s ability to learn?

    Perhaps if teaching was not so heavily subsidized by government, it would become a free market business and it would probably be cheaper, better and accessible to more people. Of course, that would probably mean that the diversity of ideas would explode and that may undermine the Leftist lock on academia.

  3. I’m in academia, and your post is, unfortunately, correct. There are two things, however, to add:

    1). The vast, vast, vast majority of people, including those in academia, are not “political” or “ideological,” even across the varied definitions of the words. They just don’t care about politics, although they certainly do care about the economy and cultural trends (especially as parents). (Important exceptions can be made for the “tenured radicals” that stormed the academy from the late 60s to the gender and race battles of the early 90s.) Yet the currents of socialization are very powerful, which leads us to….

    2). The hyper-ideological, who are very active in academia (especially the “critical theory” types that have infected the humanities and cultural studies). All good and decent people are of the left! Aren’t you good and decent? Here is the “conspiracy” of academic life – less of an explicit closed door to conservatives/traditionalists (right-liberals are in fact represented), and more of a strong socialization that keeps the door actively shut.

  4. It’s important to note that the proportion of liberals in academia varies a lot by discipline. Here is a good paper with breakdowns by field and subfield. Haidt was talking to psychologists, who are as a group among the most liberal (according to the paper, around 17% of professors in the Social Scientists consider themselves Marxists!) If we are talking engineering or elementary education, it’s much more evenly divided.

    Most explanations for why professors tend to lean left apply to all professors regardless of field. This suggests either that there is something else going on (maybe there is another factor that is more present in some disciplines than others, or maybe there is a countervailing factor that offsets the other factors somewhat in certain fields).

  5. I love it that academics think they’re not rigid or heirarchical. They’ll break you like a spirited horse, and make you follow every meticulous rule to guarantee that there’s no variety or dissention at all, and that’s just for a degree. To join their ranks, get tenure, or head a department you’ve got to lick shoes continuously. The entire experience is one of servitude to superiors and domination over novices.

  6. Most explanations for why professors tend to lean left apply to all professors regardless of field. This suggests either that there is something else going on (maybe there is another factor that is more present in some disciplines than others, or maybe there is a countervailing factor that offsets the other factors somewhat in certain fields).

    Fair point. (And I should probably caveat that my thinking on this is based on fields bridging between the Humanities and Social Sciences, which look to be the most heavily left-leaning.)

    Though it strikes me that there might be a sense in which the point I was raising might actually apply to different fields to different degrees: Skimming through that paper, it looks like the most heavily left-leaning fields are the ones where a credential would be the least useful in getting a job outside of Academia. Say you have a PhD in History, Classics or English. If you wash out in trying to get a tenure track position, will your academic credential and experience help you much in getting a private sector job? Not really.

    The most balanced fields politically look like they are ones where your credential might also qualify you for a non-academic job: Engineering, Business, Computer Science, Medical Science, Elementary Education

    To that extent, taking a run at getting into academia would still be hard on the lifestyle in the short term, but at least the long term risks are not as high.

    Also, Humanities and Social Science departments often have the greatest oversupply of candidates for available positions, so this might also both increase the lifestyle risk factor and give incumbents more room to discriminate based on worldview/culture/ideology.

  7. As a broken-down old high school teacher I have always been Republican. When I was young I was faulted for that; now that I’m older and the old Dim ways are changing I am faulted for not being Republican enough. Sheesh. My daughter-the-psychologist is a Republican too, but takes care to hide it. I dunno what “academia” is, exactly, but my professors in undergrad and grad schools were usually quite conservative.

  8. When I got my undergraduate degree in Education at the University of Illinois in the seventies, the Education faculty was skewed heavily to the Left. I do have to hand it to them that I still received good grades although I made no secret of my politics. (This included interrupting my educational methods professor when he was off on a political rant in class by telling him that he was preaching garbage, to the shock of my fellow students. The professor gave me an A anyway.) The law school professors were less political at the U of I, although we did have a few radical wackdoodles.

    I got the feeling when arguing with some of my professors that they hadn’t heard many conservative arguments, were unused to debating and really were just part of the great herd of independent minds and not doing much actual critical thinging on the issues, but simply going with a leftist flow.

    The area of my life in which I encountered the most free thinkers who didn’t engage routinely in groupthink, was ironically among my colleagues in the Army. It is a sad comment on our times when the military has more intellectual diversity than the academy.

  9. Most of my professors (in physics) were/are centrists. I have met only a small handful that were truly conservative and a few that were truly liberal. I never engaged my other professors who were/are outside of physics in political conversations, but some I did have the feeling that they were fairly liberal (one professor was a former member of the Black Panther party!)

  10. I’ve previously been active in a parish at one of the top public universities in the country, and I have some anecdotes about this.

    One includes a dept. head telling a fellow parishioner to his face that had he known my acquaintance was non-liberal/independent then he would’ve never voted for his tenure. Upon hearing this, the other academics present affirmed their knowledge of similar stories and examples. The person this happened to isn’t even slightly conservative. Another one about the same fellow: he’s a convert and when he was in RCIA & approaching Easter Vigil he mentioned his impending reception into the Church to someone in his dept who he knew was nominally Catholic for some reason; she said it would be best for him not to mention it to anyone else if he wanted to be on good terms with everyone and/or keep his job. Again, other academics present indicated this was par for the course. Welcome to the Politburo.

  11. The Achilles heel of the academy may well prove to be the inability of graduates to find jobs. As costs have risen insanely, there was always the expected payoff at graduation. But now that payoff seems less and less likely for graduates. Which will dissuade increasing numbers of students from enrolling in universities or at least the more expensive universities. Which will reduce revenues. And will require universities to compete for students on some other basis than arrogance. I see a day of reckoning arriving for bloated, tenured university faculties that may one day be starved of students and thus their fundamental reason to exist.

  12. Family issues and children are also my first major explanation for the tilt of academia.

    Part of my genius plan to retake academia involves becoming very wealthy and then endowing family studies departments or chairs for Allan Carlson clones.

    But I wonder if this would work, given that most “family studies” scholars would still have to put off childrearing until their 30s.

    My second major explanation for academic bias: non-discrimination laws and policies have been so strictly applied that they have created a de facto ban on even the most liberal conservative thinkers, who tend to be more indifferent towards accusations of “sexism, racism, homophobia,” etc.

    Anti-discrimination, not simply non-discrimination, is the ordering principle of the modern university. This explains both the monopoly of thought in academia and also its activist character.

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