Aired: March 21, 2009

A Liberal Education?

unilectureAre American universities bastions of liberal bias that are unduly influencing the politics of their students?  Settle in for an engaging debate.  Bruce Smith (George Mason University) says contrary to popular belief, the problem with U.S. education is too little politics, not too much. Taking the other side is Daniel Klein (George Mason University) who says the nature of university hiring tends to favor those on the left.  Also featured: David Kiracofe (Tidewater Community College) discusses the challenges of teaching recent controversial scholarship about Thomas Jefferson to high school and college aged audiences.


7 Comments on “A Liberal Education?”

  1. OpenMinded

    I find it very interesting that intelligent, educated, thinking people who teach at universities are branded “liberals”. In other words, if you ask questions and try to find the truth, you are “liberal”.

    Listening to you show today I was shocked to hear students say that they were cautioned to “beware” the liberal teaching that they would encounter in college.

    I guess parents who are not educated, intelligent, thinking people would rather have their children grow up just like them. To be yet another generation of “my country right or wrong”; another generation that never questions their government or their government’s motives.

  2. J. Tyler Ballance

    Few citizens object to a liberal pursuit of the truth. What the students were concerned about, was the onslaught of Leftist propaganda served-up by professors who insert their political dogma into every lecture.

    Most of our academics here in America, when surveyed, self-identify with the more leftward political positions. Most campuses are run by administrations who are aligned with the Left. The University of Richmond is a sad example of a once great institution that has degenerated into merely a center for leftist indoctrination. Last year, all of the guest speakers who were invited to take part in the “Leadership School” lecture series were from the far Left. Students who express pro-liberty, pro-Constitution, or (God forbid it!) Republican views, are harassed or banned from that campus.

    Having taught at a few colleges over the past two decades, I have seen the trends on campus turn increasingly hostile toward any positions associated with the Right. While some of those positions deserve to be ridiculed, a more healthy approach is to openly examine ideas from all sides and see how they stand up under rigorous debate.

    Universities must return to the pursuit of truth as their only mission and, along with the rest of society, return to a MERIT based system of hiring and promotion.

    Having a professor express a political opinion is not, in itself, a bad thing, as long as such opinions are clearly stated, as such, and students are not penalized for honestly expressing opposing views. Such exchanges of ideas, can serve as a basis for continuing the pursuit of truth, which is why the University exists.

  3. lydia

    i work with the producers of With Good Reason – we’re all glad to see that the debate is extending on to the website as well!

    what’s interesting to me about both of your posts is that you both seem to have slightly different meanings of the word “liberal.” i’d be curious to hear from anyone – what do you think the word “liberal” means in the context of university hiring?

    @J. Tyler – I was really surprised to hear what you shared about UofR students being banned from campus for their political views – can you share a specific example with us?

  4. Dr. J

    I was disappointed by this story when I heard it on Saturday for a number of reasons, including what seemed like plain old shoddy reporting.

    The discussion is supposed to be able “liberal bias” on campus, and yet both of your discussants stated that they were conservative (although one qualified this by saying he was Libertarian). Furthermore, your host tipped the balance even further right when she asked what “we” should do. One suggestion of what you might do, particularly in light of the claims by your guests to simply be seeking a larger forum for “debate,” would be to invite one of those “liberals” that you say are crawling out of every crevice on college campuses into the discussion. Surely, with so very many liberals everywhere the two guests could have scared up just one to represent the other side of this “debate”? Otherwise, it might look as though this program is exactly what they claim is happening on college campuses and lament so– locking out those that don’t agree.

    The implication of this discussion was that conservatives were not represented in larger numbers simply because liberals have barred their entry. The one moment I applauded was when the issue of the research results reflecting reality was raised– had not the professor simply spoken with colleagues rather than delving into why those who did not remain in academia had chosen another path? I would hope that the research might be done– and not with the loaded questions that your guest seemed poised to ask (didn’t you decide not to stay in academia because your thoughts were unwelcome in liberal journals and therefore liberal institutions wouldn’t hire you?), but rather simply open ended: why didn’t you become an academic? I suspect they might be surprised by the answers (after all, not all liberals stay either– I hold liberal political views and a PhD and decided I would rather not go through the grueling tenure process or live in adjunct limbo). Perhaps they will find that many of their conservative colleagues embarked on more lucrative paths, not because their dreams of academia were crushed, but because they preferred the higher salaries to be had in the private (and sometimes public) sector. Not having asked those who did not stay, and then making claims that bias had barred them access is sloppy at best.

    Furthermore, I was surprised not to hear Prof. Smith’s work on what impact the political persuasions of professors have on students’ political beliefs more openly discussed. (See: NY Times article from Nov. 2008. Because I thought the findings fascinating– so fascinating I remembered the article from almost six months ago when this discussion came on. Interestingly, the answer is: virtually none. Students arrive with the political attitudes learned from parents. If their attitudes change in college it has more to do with peers than professors. If this is the case, the fixation on the “liberal bias” of the college campus starts to feel like a straw man argument.

    I agree with both of your guests that debate– honest debate– is good. It’s good for the country, it’s good for society, and it is exactly what the university is supposed to be encouraging. (Though perhaps they can share that with George Bush and his ilk who claim that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is unpatriotic). But without having any actual evidence of hoards of conservatives having their academic dreams dashed for their political beliefs, this is little more than an attempt to restart the culture wars.

    One final thought: probably a good thing that you rethought having conservative affirmative action on university hiring committees. Otherwise, you might start losing spots in all of the areas where conservatives dominate to liberals brought in under your Political Affirmative Action Bill. All those lefty pacifists running up and down the halls of the Pentagon and the offices of contractors like Xe (ne Blackwater) and Northrup Grummond…..

  5. Elliot Majerczyk

    Dear Dr. J.

    First let me thank you for your timely and thought provoking comments. I anticipated that this show would elicit some discussion as to its content.

    We invited the coauthors of “Closed Minds, Politics and Ideology in American Universities” to appear on With Good Reason. The coauthors chose Bruce L.R. Smith to represent their work. We did not chose him because of any ideology he might profess. We invited Dr. Klein on because of the New York Times article you cited, and because he is a professor at George Mason University, like Dr. Smith. They could both be in a studio together in Washington and they both represent schools in our consortium. A mandate of With Good Reason is to showcase the work done in public universities in Virginia and George Mason University is a member of our consortium of public universities.

    I would like to disagree with your statement of implication of the discussion is that liberals have ‘barred’ the entry of conservatives. True, Daniel Klein did speak of a ‘groupthink’ that according to him may not give proper exposure to thinkers like Adam Smith or John Stuart Mill. He also stated that there may be some self censorship in terms of one’s academic progress, however he did not invoke any overt
    or covert activity to ‘bar’ conservatives.

    Dr. Smith emphasized that there was no significant ‘liberal’ bias or other kind found in the classroom according to his research. He in fact argued for more genuine and civil political discussion in our educational system.

    I would also like to disagree with the term ‘shoddy reporting’ to describe the episode. We at With Good Reason work to present an accurate reflection of the discussion our guests have with our host Sarah McConnell. We may agree with the viewpoints of our guest and often we do not. However we owe it to our guests and our audience to present a true representation of what transpired in the interview. I believe that the airwaves and our audience are open enough to
    receive alternate points of view presented through civil discourse, even if they sometimes differ from the norm.

    Again let me thank you for your articulate and helpful
    comments. I hope that you continue to provide us with valuable feedback as we strive to make “With Good Reason” a regular weekly time for insight and information for our listeners.

    Elliot Majerczyk
    Associate Producer
    “With Good Reason”

  6. Bob

    It’s interesting, though not surprising, that the two professors you highlighted are from George Mason which has carved a niche as a conservative and libertarian stronghold. The university has also profited greatly through donations because of its position.

    Even the host, Ms. McConnell even piled on using the term “non-leftist” and phrase “in order to improve our numbers” and the “liberal leaning bias as we call it.” Interestingly, for a story about liberal bias the discussion was incredibly biased toward the other side.

    Ms. McConnell has such a non-threatening speaking style it is easy to glide past the hackish quality of her comments and take them at face value.

    I am very interested to know who sponsors this program and whether any public dollars are involved.

  7. Daniel Klein

    One or two of the previous comments suggest that the show was an anti-left set-up. As it happens, Bruce Smith is one of three authors of the new Brookings book prompting the show. As I understand it, the other two authors are rather unlike Bruce, who seems to me to be a centrist Republican. As I recall, one of the other authors of the book was originally slated for the program, but subsequently withdrew. So I believe the program looked to get a Democratic party supporter to oppose me, but instead it fell to Bruce. “Liberal” and “conservatives” are happy to play out the accustomed grooves against each other, but are often reluctant to go up against libertarians. That’s one reason libertarians are so often excluded, they don’t fit the “liberal versus conservative” genre that producers and audiences are so accustomed to. I applaud “With Good Reason” for its willingness to get beyond the tired and failed “liberal versus conservative” routine.

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