August 28, 2005

Leftist Bias in Academia

It is fashionable on the right to speak of leftist academics as a bunch of traitors who hate America. And while there is nothing that justifies this steady-stream of mind-numbing venom, there is a speck of truth buried in these charges.

I earned two college degrees at UC-Santa Cruz, a university well-known for its liberal bent. During these years, I was exposed to many critiques of the capitalist system and American foreign policy, as well as many alternative histories of non-European peoples. Many of these works were immensely illuminating and exposed me to knowledge I never knew existed, and probably would never have sought out on my own.

Nowhere, however, was I required to read of Stalin’s death camps, Mao’s collectivization schemes, or Cuba under Castro. Despite the many legitimate critiques of capitalism I was introduced to, nowhere was I presented with comparisons between the material progress in Communist Russia and Eastern Europe and the progress of the rest of Europe and the United States, nor the sorry state of human rights in the non-capitalist regions of the world. In addition, it was rare when critiques of the modern capitalism-democratic state were accompanied by much in the way of solutions or alternatives; it was simply enough to sight injustices and inequities and leave it at that.

I only am speaking for myself, but from conversations with many friends and acquaintances throughout the years I know my experience was not unique. While liberal-leaning universities in America are not a hotbed of anti-American radicalism, many do inculcate young minds with a particular type of bias; when in doubt, America, capitalism, and corporations are usually the wrong-doers. In a particularly unscholarly vein, this assumption is never fully explored or critiqued, but accepted a priori. While it is absolutely essential for students to question some of the fundamentals of Western civilization, when done in a vacuum devoid of historical context or intellectual rigor, this becomes largely an exercise in indoctrination.

Universities are particularly susceptible to this type of myopia because many intellectuals live in the world of the tenured system where rarely, if ever, they have to pay a price for their biases and many left-leaning departments tend only to hire their own. Mass murderer extremists like Che Guevara can easily become symbols of adventure, rebellion, romanticism, and the type of angst that is so attractive to people in their 20s (and older professors clinging to their youth). But imagine the reaction if people on the right started wearing Pinochet t-shirts.

America is the dominant power in the world culturally, economically, and politically and is thus the obvious target for all critics of all stripes. Since there is a lot to legitimately dislike about America, this makes it all the easier. The knee-jerk reaction to blame America (or capitalism) for everything becomes almost instinctive, and is reinforced almost everywhere in many liberal academic settings. Unfortunately, this mindset has done great harm to liberal causes because it has allowed the left to easily be caricatured, and it has sent out thousands of well-minded energetic students into the world with a skewed perspective that is unconstructive, and historically inaccurate.

A few years after graduating college I was lucky enough to have both the time and motivation to fill in many of the blanks that had been left in my education. I read dozens of history books and many primary sources on religion, economics, and politics. I discovered that despite many unjust episodes in American history, America truly has been an amazing experiment in freedom and the promotion of human rights, and I’ve had to rethink my earlier opposition regarding some (not all) of America’s foreign policies. I also discovered that communism, despite its professed aims at egalitarianism, was a morally bankrupt and wicked system from its inception. While many on the Left were unaware of the mass murder carried out under communist regimes, it is true that many simply wanted not to believe, since the dream of an alternative to the capitalist rat-race was too alluring.

Over time, I have grown to appreciate how, despite its faults, the free-market system that has been developed and promulgated over the past 200+years has probably done more than any other ideology in history (religious or otherwise) to improve humanity’s material conditions and promote individual liberty. And now that I have a larger historical context with which to form these judgments, they are analytically more sound and I can defend them based on facts and reason, not simply slogans. Also, because my understanding is more nuanced and balanced I have a much better appreciation of the ways in which the current system can be improved, since there still is much work to be done.

In summary, while I find it ironic that the right is now calling for affirmative-action-style mandates that require more balanced university curriculums there is some truth to the charge that many universities in America promulgate a leftist bias. And just as it weakens and cheapens religion to have it enforced on people, it weakens and cheapens many powerful and legitimate leftists critiques to have them presented in such a one-sided manner. Truthful ideas should be able to stand on their merits and withstand scrutiny from a full range of critiques and hostile voices. In fact, in the classes that I teach, episodes of lively and well-informed debate between people of different ideological perspectives are where some of the best learning takes place. Academia has a responsibility to subject all types of ideas to honest inquiry; those ideas that cannot endure should be relegated to the dustbin of history, where they belong.

Jason Scorse