Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Color-Line 2.0 on Campus

Readers of this blog know that I have been talking about the significance of political prejudice for awhile now. Recently, I introduced the idea of what I refer to as the color-line 2.0. Here's some of what I said at that time:

W.E.B Du Bois famously identified the problem of the 20th century as "the color-line". While Du Bois was referring to race, which is certainly in the running as an equally central challenge facing the 21st century, I'm beginning to think that the color-line may have a new twist over the next 100 years. The new color-line will be about the divide between people based on politics and ideology, the color-line 2.0 if you will. We have all become acquainted with the new color-coded America divided among the red and the blue. I'm not sure where this color-code started but it has become a fixture of public discourse. What's more, for many of us it has become internalized as a kind of "color-consciousness", a way of sorting who's in and who's out, who we should love and who we should fear, and who's America is more "real".

The New York Times has a piece worth reading about so-called "liberal bias" among social psychologists and related disciplines in the academy.

Dr. Haidt (pronounced height) told the audience that he had been corresponding with a couple of non-liberal graduate students in social psychology whose experiences reminded him of closeted gay students in the 1980s. He quoted — anonymously — from their e-mails describing how they hid their feelings when colleagues made political small talk and jokes predicated on the assumption that everyone was a liberal.

“I consider myself very middle-of-the-road politically: a social liberal but fiscal conservative. Nonetheless, I avoid the topic of politics around work,” one student wrote. “Given what I’ve read of the literature, I am certain any research I conducted in political psychology would provide contrary findings and, therefore, go unpublished. Although I think I could make a substantial contribution to the knowledge base, and would be excited to do so, I will not.”

The politics of the professoriate has been studied by the economists Christopher Cardiff and Daniel Klein and the sociologists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons. They’ve independently found that Democrats typically outnumber Republicans at elite universities by at least six to one among the general faculty, and by higher ratios in the humanities and social sciences. In a 2007 study of both elite and non-elite universities, Dr. Gross and Dr. Simmons reported that nearly 80 percent of psychology professors are Democrats, outnumbering Republicans by nearly 12 to 1.

The fields of psychology, sociology and anthropology have long attracted liberals, but they became more exclusive after the 1960s, according to Dr. Haidt. “The fight for civil rights and against racism became the sacred cause unifying the left throughout American society, and within the academy,” he said, arguing that this shared morality both “binds and blinds.”

“If a group circles around sacred values, they will evolve into a tribal-moral community,” he said. “They’ll embrace science whenever it supports their sacred values, but they’ll ditch it or distort it as soon as it threatens a sacred value.” (Read the whole thing here)

Having been a student in several colleges and universities, studying a variety of disciplines and now as an adjunct faculty member, I've experienced personally or witnessed the phenomenon Dr. Haidt is talking about. I've always found it troubling even when many of the liberal ideas that tend to dominate these settings are ones that I agree with.

In too many situations, academic institutions use their power to protect and promote particular ideas while implicitly or explicitly suppressing others rather than functioning as opportunities for students to engage a truly diverse set of views and form their own. When this happens, education becomes indoctrination and professors become agents of propaganda. I believe that this process is at once a reflection of political prejudice and a producer of it. It represents the operation of the color-line 2.0 on campus.

To counter such tendencies, we must recognize that finding the truth about any subject requires truly independent investigation in an atmosphere that welcomes a unity in diversity of viewpoints and approaches. 'Abdu'l-Baha put it this way:

"If...people meet together to seek for truth, they must begin by cutting themselves free from all their own special conditions and renouncing all preconceived ideas. In order to find truth we must give up our prejudices, our own small trivial notions; an open receptive mind is essential. If our chalice is full of self, there is no room in it for the water of life. The fact that we imagine ourselves to be right and everybody else wrong is the greatest of all obstacles in the path towards unity, and unity is necessary if we would reach truth, for truth is one... When we are in earnest in our search for anything we look for it everywhere. This principle we must carry out in our search for truth...It means, also, that we must be willing to clear away all that we have previously learned, all that would clog our steps on the way to truth; we must not shrink if necessary from beginning our education all over again." (Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 136)

The good news is that I have met faculty and students who are animated by this spirit of inquiry and are attempting to learn how to teach and learn in ways that reflect it. We need many more. We also need to create a culture within the academy where political prejudice is challenged with the same degree of passion as prejudices of race, gender, class and so on. Prejudice in any form is bad for the academy and bad for our society.