Blogs > Cliopatria > Groupthink

Nov 13, 2004 2:34 am


In his perceptive comments about my colleague Ralph Luker’s posting, Charles Mutschler takes note of an article in today’s Chronicle entitled “Liberal Groupthink Is Anti-intellectual.” I don’t like the title—because I don’t think the kind of groupthink that author Mark Bauerlein discusses reflects the tenets of liberalism, at least as the ideology is commonly understood in the American political spectrum—but the authors of the OAH’s report on the “threats” to academic freedom would have profited from examining Bauerlein’s work.

Bauerlein observes that “at least in the humanities and social sciences . . . academics shun conservative values and traditions, so their curricula and hiring practices discourage non-leftists from pursuing academic careers. What allows them to do that, while at the same time they deny it, is that the bias takes a subtle form.” As he notes, “some fields’ very constitutions rest on progressive politics and make it clear from the start that conservative outlooks will not do. Schools of education, for instance, take constructivist theories of learning as definitive, excluding realists (in matters of knowledge) on principle, while the quasi-Marxist outlook of cultural studies rules out those who espouse capitalism. If you disapprove of affirmative action, forget pursuing a degree in African-American studies. If you think that the nuclear family proves the best unit of social well-being, stay away from women's studies.”

I would add to this list the new field of “Global Studies,” about which I’ve written elsewhere: despite an assumption that such a field would include a study of such topics as diplomacy, international trade and finance, and crossnational intellectual and religious issues, most “global studies” departments impose ideological litmus tests for new hires, demanding—as in the case of St. Lawrence’s GS Department--a familiarity “with the theoretical debates surrounding area, global, development; ethnic, native, or post-colonial studies,” fields known for their strong ideological bias.

Bauerlein lists three protocols of academic society that the OAH “investigation” ignored: the “False Consensus Effect,” in which “people think that the collective opinion of their own group matches that of the larger population”; a tendency toward the “Common Assumption,” or the conviction “that all the strangers in the room at professional gatherings are liberals”; and the “Law of Group Polarization,” which holds that “when like-minded people deliberate as an organized group, the general opinion shifts toward extreme versions of their common beliefs.”

A friend of mine who teaches in another CUNY social science department related to me a particularly good demonstration of the “false consensus effect.” Her department regularly meets for lunch, and in the weeks before the start of the Iraq war, discussion went to current events. Although she—and one other department member—supported Bush’s policy, she remained silent, since she didn’t have tenure. As they lunched, several senior colleagues repeatedly cast doubts on polls showing majority support for the President’s handling of Iraq, since, they remarked, they hadn’t encountered one person who supported Bush’s approach.

A job applicant at Brooklyn, meanwhile, received a first-hand taste of the “common assumption” rule. The candidate had published several thoughtful, strongly argued, critiques of multiculturalism in a conservative, Christian webzine. During his interview, as he later (accurately) recalled, a senior professor asked him disapprovingly about the dangers of bringing his politics into the classroom. It’s hard to believe that a candidate who had published, say, in The Nation would have received a similar question, especially since this professor’s website celebrates her own decision to combine her scholarship with activism for “assorted radical causes.” And, as my former Brooklyn colleague Jerry Sternstein has observed, this same colleague led the charge against granting an honorary degree to Eugene Genovese on the grounds that Genovese’s alleged membership in the NAS (of which he wasn’t even a member) testified to his holding conservative beliefs that put him outside the pale in academia. Hard to believe that if Genovese had been president of the Radical History Society at the time he was up for an honorary degree, he would have encountered the same reception.

Finally, Cliopatria readers have undoubtedly grown a bit tired of my writings on group polarization, as reflected in the often peculiar attempts to drive out the study of political, legal, and diplomatic history.

It is on this latter point in which I depart from Bauerlein’s argument. He warns against invoking “outside command,” since “that would poison the atmosphere and jeopardize the ideals of free inquiry.” Yet I see little indication that the leading figures in the academy are even willing to acknowledge that a problem exists, much less do anything about it. And here I return to the lamentable OAH Report.

The OAH Report cites the following “threats” to academic freedom:

--calls in the Higher Education Act to subject programs receiving government money to oversight by a government advisory board, a provision responding to suggestions of bias in Middle East Studies programs; and

--authorization in the bill support for “faculty and academic programs that teach traditional American history,” a provision, sponsored by New Hampshire senator Judd Gregg, on which I testified before the Senate Education Committee.

By this logic, Title VI itself, which targets money toward area studies program, constitutes a threat to academic freedom. Yet while the OAH doesn’t want oversight of Middle East Studies funding (academics, apparently, are the only people in the country who are entitled to get federal dollars free from the requirements of oversight), the organization doesn’t argue that the government funding Middle East Studies programs constitutes a “threat” to academic freedom. And yet when the government seeks to fund fields in American history perceived as “traditional,” that does constitute a threat to academic freedom?

If this report represents the best the field can offer in defense of status quo, I see little choice but to seek outside assistance in the effort.

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006


I think your comment misses the point of the false consensus thesis--which I find very plausible. The thesis states that some people don't make their views known, and that their unknown views don't get figured into consensus conceptions of 'the consensus'. Unless you're saying that all of your colleagues always speaks up at the relevant time to make his or her views known (which seems pretty dubious), how would you know what the quiet ones are thinking if they don't say anything?

I came across a similar line of reasoning while challenging an Op-Ed by the English professor Michael Berube a few months ago. He claimed that it wasn't possible that conservative students were penalized in class for their beliefs by left-wing faculty because he had never seen it happen.

The obvious question to ask is, Berube's own case aside, how would he have been in a position to see such a thing happen if it did? A faculty member who penalizes students on ideological grounds is not necessarily going to say, "To whom it may concern: I penalize on ideological grounds!" Similarly, a conservative faculty member is not necessarily going to say that he/she is one. There is no way to know what either person is thinking unless they are in a confessional mood. But neither has a great incentive to be in that mood.

I've been teaching in a philosophy department of eight full-time faculty members for seven years. The question of God's existence is a canonical one in philosophy. And yet I have no idea *whatsoever* where six of eight of our faculty stand on that issue. The same goes for lots of their philosophical and political views: I have no clue. Academia puts a high premium on obliqueness when it comes to expressing one's own views.

The other day, I told a colleague that I believed that the Iraq war was justified. She was simply *blown away*. She couldn't have guessed it. Had I not made a point of telling her, she would never have guessed it. The assumption in our department is that no sane person could be for it.

Well, I'm sane. I also happen to be a loudmouth, but I know that not everyone is. I take this as a small confirmation of the False Consensus thesis.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

All you have to assume is that those who don't speak up *could* agree about many things. In that case, the thesis will be right about those things.

Jonathan Dresner - 11/16/2004

Would that the many pundits and wannabe pundits commenting on "mandates" and the "will of the people" took that into account.

Lloyd Kilford - 11/16/2004

I think it takes some intellectual rigour to *not* assume that the views of those who are silent reflect the views of those who have spoken up. It's like leaving an area of a map blank rather than drawing pictures of sea-monsters and writing "Here Be Dragons"; it shows that you don't have data, rather than putting in something to fill the gap.

Jonathan Dresner - 11/16/2004

That seems to me like a dramatic extension of the argument. If I assume that my entire audience is not hostile to my views, I'm guilty of a false consensus fallacy?

Tom Gunn - 11/15/2004

Alive and well is correct Ralph. I have been spreading the word and wellness as best I can. I came to you and KC and HNN via an Instapundent link.

I appreciate your comments as always and wish I had (michael)moore time to spend with you.

Out of curiosity though Ralph, what specifically am I wrong about? I would think you most of all would agree that the least of us politically would need the greatest protection from and by our fellows to hold a differing view.

For Mr. Burkart,

I believe tenure is suppose to guarantee academic freedom; I was moore concerned with the right to tenure when the track is followed. eg KC Johnson. Irregardless of the political philosophy of the candidate.

tom gunn

Russ Mitchell - 11/15/2004

I'm an Indy, and quite happy that way, but there's no question that Bauerlein's basic thesis is correct.

Now, with the caveat that data is not the plural of anecdote...

The BA thesis that couldn't be given a full "A," because it dealt with medieval military history, and one committee member objected to the thesis topic.

The 1996 GRE History practice test. It was amazing. I was able to score perfectly on the practice test simply by telling myself to choose the answer that was the most politically correct.

Then there was the Weberian harpoon on which the professor tried to hang me when defending my first master's thesis, on the grounds that the peasants of the Hussite Revolution couldn't possibly have cared about the religious implications of the Calixtine controversy... it *had* to be a Marxist style class struggle...

And that is leaving the universal stream of faculty editorial comment aside...

Ralph E. Luker - 11/15/2004

However perverse and misguided his _opinions_, Thomas Gunn is alive and well! His light is rekindled in my life. Evenso, he is wrong, of course.

Richard Henry Morgan - 11/15/2004

If I remember correctly, the trustees did make their misgivings known to Butler. In all other cases, as far as I know, for good or ill, the administration and/or the faculty did it to, or for, themselves -- particularly at Cornell, where the faculty folded like a cheap suitcase.

Carl Patrick Burkart - 11/15/2004

Were the actions that were taken in the instances that you describe the results of interference (for good or ill) by trustees or legislators?

Richard Henry Morgan - 11/15/2004

There may indeed be an historical dimension, with a commitment to academic freedom waxing and waning over time, in concert with some other variable. Running against that though, is the factor of individual institutional tradition. Columbia rolled over for the Red Scare, and then repeated the same for the SDS. Chicago told the red hunters to go fish, and they also expelled protesters who thought they had a right to trespass. Cornell, well ... is there any better example anywhere of an institution that capitulated, happily, to threats? And the guy to whom they capitulated is now on the board of trustees there. It's just so precious.

Carl Patrick Burkart - 11/15/2004

I think it would be interesting to compare the current state of "academic freedom" with earlier eras. Is a wider range of opinion tolerated in state and private institutions now than in, say 1900-1930, or 1930-1960? What was the result of trustees or state legislators getting involved in "ideological diversity" or other issues of academic freedom. Oddly, the historical dimension seems missing from this discussion.

On a similar issue: if it is true that conservative academics are more tolerant of dissenting views, then I would submit that this is due to their position as a minority in academia who have an interest in safeguarding the rights of dissenting minorities. In other words, I think this situation (which may or not exist) has structural roots rather than anything inherent in the conservative philosophy. (I offer William F. Buckleys _God and Man and Yale_ as an example of conservative opposition to academic freedom).

Tom Gunn - 11/15/2004


What you are describing is the progression of what you went through in your tenure battles.

There is hope!

If you limit yourself to just two 'sides' and label them conserv and liber you will find that the conserv side while supporting its agenda demands and protects the rights of all irregardless of the politics of the principals.

The liber side sees nothing wrong with supporting its agenda while doing everything in its power to annihilate the opposition.

The hope springs from the fact that these observations are not new but are part of the history the liber side refuses to acknowledge. That is their undoing and is what has given rise to the adages and truisms. eg Study your history or be condemned to repeat it.

The revolution is coming. The recent election in the US is just one indication of it. Even with 30 years of liber institutions of higher propaganda turning out indoctrinated students eventually rl instructs and backlash is the result.

The one good thing in all this is if armed conflict results the libers are woefully out gunned. Just ask Ralph Luker, Bellesiles not-with-standing.

tom gunn

Jonathan Dresner - 11/15/2004

The false consensus fallacy is only a problem if you assume that people who don't speak up agree. I don't assume that. Perhaps I'm really exceptional in that regard. I've been assuming not.... oops.

Robert KC Johnson - 11/14/2004

I agree with Mark on the need for more federal action: there has to be some counterbalancing effort--whether from the government, alumni, or trustees. The Duke History Department example comes to mind--32 registered Dems, no registered Repubs. It certainly is possible that such a department isn't operating from the false consensus approach, but it's hard to believe a department of Duke's prestige could come up with such a ratio if its members weren't engaging in some form of subtle ideological screening, whether when the candidates came to campus or (more likely, in my opinion) in designing job descriptions.

I think Jonathan is correct that we encounter remarkable political diversity among our students; I've had the exact same experience. As we see from websites like, however, many professors seem to think that their student bodies fall into the exact same ideological spectrum as the professoriate, and therefore seem to have no problem making blatantly partisan comments in the classroom.

Jonathan Dresner - 11/13/2004

The False Consensus thesis seems dubious to me. I've always been aware of conservatives, moderates and other dissenters among my colleagues. Not only that, my primary contact at work is not my colleagues, most days: it's my students, and I don't -- can't -- assume anything about the a/political or a/religious or other views of my students.

mark safranski - 11/13/2004

I think the phenomenon is partly derivative from the herd mentality historically prevalent on the Left that emotionally castigates those who wander from the party line. And it's partly a conscious, Gramscian, will to power to change the culture by deliberately politicizing all fields of knowledge at the point of the gatekeeper institutions.

Really, the only way to deal with these people, a minority of whom are quite fanatical totalitarians, is to check their moves harshly in a courtroom so that universities, feeling the dangers of liability, return to a role of neutral umpire of academic freedom as a legal self-preservation strategy. That and to have the Feds follow through on expenditure of Federal funds with requirements to observe civil liberties in the same manner as racial and Title IX gender equity civil rights issues.

Lloyd Kilford - 11/13/2004

I think that this in particular is a good point - exposure to differing views is a good thing; even if your own view doesn't change at all, it still makes you aware that thoughtful and intelligent people have considered the options and made a different choice.

It's like teaching in a university in another country. You become aware that what you thought were immutable ways of doing things - teaching, organisation, research strategies - were really only one choice amongst many.

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