There are some buzzwords in university lingo today that will win you 10 points just for the utterance. Diversity, open-mindedness, heck, you could squeeze 20 out of multiculturalism. Ironically, though, the seemingly universal adherence to these creeds among college faculty is not an aid but a threat to education.
UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute reported that an overwhelming majority of college professors, particularly in the humanities and liberal arts, consider themselves to be liberals. The word “liberal” is defined as being free from bigotry, or broadminded. The problem is the “diversity” that they’re promoting is actually strictly limited to those modes of thought that earn their stamp of approval. The one thing liberal faculties are actively squelching is intellectual diversity.
In reality, it doesn’t matter which way they collectively lean. Right or left, the results are equally detrimental based on several social effects that Michael Bauerlein laid out in an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education. The first is a “False Consensus Effect.” Take a lot of professors who essentially align on issues. Effectively eliminate any opposition or challenge, like debates, panels and seminars representing other views. Cut them off from the nonacademic world, and what happens?
“The simple trappings of deliberation make academics think that they’ve reached an opinion through reasoned debate – instead of, in part, through an irrational social dynamic,” Bauerlein explained. As they hear their own thoughts reaffirmed by their immediate circle, they erroneously conclude that their way of thinking is shared by the greater population.
Enter the problem of “Common Assumption.” Whether or not professors will candidly admit it, anyone who has spent time on campus here can attest to a tacit undercurrent of liberal thought. It’s what causes professors to comfortably let fly caustic political remarks in a room of 50 individuals with the false assurance that they will be universally received with chuckles and amicable nods. The fact is, tolerance on their terms doesn’t extend to those who hold divergent views, and anyone who would call them out on this inconsistency has been squeezed out of academia. Liberalism on campus becomes more narrow-minded and less truly liberal in proportion to the monopoly it gains.
The detriment here is not just the hostile environment in which dissenters find themselves. The main issue is that this trend counters educational progress. When liberal educators create liberal curricula and rely only on each other to corroborate their rhetoric, it is not only decidedly closed-minded, but it allows them to neglect to qualify their assertions.
A debatable position is “… put forward not for discussion but for approval,” Bauerlein said. “With adversaries so few and opposing ideas so disposable … the majority expands its power throughout the institution, but its thinking grows routine and parochial.”
In a gathering of academics, the common ground should be the goal of intellectual development, not solidarity in views. Feeling too comfortable not only dulls intellectual prowess but causes uncontested radical views to seem less so, pulling the group even more unnaturally to one side.
According to the UCLA study, “Faculty today are more likely than ever before to believe that American colleges and universities are promoting multiculturalism.” Imagine if this was truly the case. In a women’s studies class, you could examine scholarly arguments for both traditional family units and alternatives and acknowledge the validity of each side. You could advocate patriotism or prefer one religion over another without being labeled intolerant. You could recognize an opinion as such, and independently form your own. This would foster true intellectual development and true unadulterated liberalism.
Currently, the professorial cult, as a self-proclaimed elite, is conditioning a generation to believe that enlightenment is synonymous with radical liberalism. Maybe that generation will emerge thoroughly indoctrinated. But I think we have the intellectual fortitude to recognize academia for the cloister it is and to examine it as one small niche of the broader, truly diverse spectrum of scholarly thought.
It’s an irony that a university education actually shelters us from exploring divergent thought, and it’s a credit to us if we can refuse to passively accept the trap of groupthink.
Elizabeth Vaughn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.