Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities
reviewed by Adam Weinberg - January 16, 2009
Title: Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities
Author(s): Bruce L. R. Smith, Jeremy D. Mayer and A. Lee Fritschler
Publisher: Brookings Institution, Washington D.C.
ISBN: 0815780281, Pages: 280, Year: 2008
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Have American universities and colleges become hotbeds of left-leaning activism? In this book, Smith, Mayer and Fritschler set out to evaluate the claim that universities are too left or liberal. In a systematic and non-partisan fashion (as a research team, they claim to span the left/right spectrum), they examine a refreshing amount of new and existing data. Their findings suggest that we are asking the wrong question. The question is not, are American universities somehow political skewed, but rather why is there so little discussion of politics on American campuses.
The authors use an array of data to explore a wide range of topics. They use surveys to debunk the popular myth that universities have become controlled by a left-leaning activist faculty. They use historical data and focus groups to explore everything from Tom Wolfes writings to the Pennsylvania Campaign for Academic Freedom. They explain important historical shifts like the rise of The American Council of Trustees and Alumni and FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). Along the way, there are interesting and unexpected tidbits of information and analysis. For example, in one chapter they present focus group findings suggesting that students of all political persuasions are deeply opposed to campus speech codes. Readers familiar with these debates will find interesting and unexpected historical and survey data. Readers not familiar with these debates will find the book accessible, rich and insightful.
The book starts with a chapter on higher education and the cultural wars. This chapter forms the foundation for a series of chapters that presents an historical overview of American universities, as it relates to the general topic. These chapters trace the steady growth and professionalization of academic disciplines and the professorate. The authors find that as faculty have come to focus on their research and sub-disciplines they have paid less attention to larger public issues. Despite the shift away from political activities, the authors trace the rise of public critique of professors as being politicized. Their historical analysis traces how conservative politicians and activists came to understand the utility of attacking the universities and faculty for larger political gains.
The second set of chapters explores an array of empirical data. The authors explore political attitudes of professors using a 2007 National survey that they conducted. They also review a number of surveys and case studies from the 1960s forward. As part of this, they analyze the impact of professors political attitudes on students and teaching, using both what faculty self-report and what students report about faculty. They also explore faculty behavior on hiring and tenure. The basic finding is, (t)hat political bias among professors has become an issue for certain political groups seems to reflect the cultural divides in American politics more than sweeping changes in behavior and attitudes among professors (p. 91). Or as they state later in the book, (t)he idea that the elite universities are rife with leftist politics, or any politics, for that matter, is at odds with the evidence (p. 198).
The most interesting parts of these chapters are found in careful analysis of how the professionalized academy has removed politics from campuses. They authors state,
(t)he notion that universities systematically favor liberals and exclude conservatives is wrong and misses the mark in our view. Faculty search committees largely pursue neutral expertise and specialized knowledge, and these qualities are usually defined in conventional academic terms, that is, faculties excessively stress research and publications in the hiring process. This kind of default position means that they usually emerge with colleagues averse to, uninterested in, and incompetent to discuss political issues in any serious sense. (p. 194)
The last part of the book presents a passionate call for more politics in higher education. The authors do not call for political activism but rather an education that includes a political dimension. They state,
(w)e are not comfortable with the idea that the major universities should be engines for general social change; they are neither organized for nor suited to such a role. We do believe that the major universities and the selective liberal arts colleges have a general obligation to provide moral and political education for their students in the framework of a liberal education, a responsibility many of them neglect at present. (p. 205)
The authors do not prescribe a way to reintroduce civic education back on campuses beyond recommending Robert Calverts To Restore American Democracy: Political Education and the Modern University. Interested readers might also be interested in the two recent volumes by Anne Colby, Thomas Ehrlich, Elizabeth Beaumont, and Jason Stephens, Educating Citizens: Preparing America's Undergraduates for Lives of Moral and Civic Responsibility, and Educating for Democracy: Preparing Undergraduates for Responsible Political Engagement.
Anybody interested in this public debate will find the book informative and provocative. Like most good research, the authors do a nice job of walking the reader through an array of testable assumptions, demonstrating where the logic works and where it breaks down. This book is particularly enjoyable because it examines this issue from so many different angles. This is a must read work for anybody interested in the current direction of higher education, as it relates to larger social purposes.
This book should also be read by graduate students who are interested in research and writing about large public issues; it is an exemplar of how to use multiple methods to examine and theorize about important public topics. The authors do an exemplary job of addressing a politicized topic (from all sides) in an open and non-politicized fashion. It was refreshing to read something on this topic that went beyond name-calling and ideology.
Colby, A., Ehrlich, T., Beaumont, E., and Stephens, J. (2003). Educating citizens: Preparing America's undergraduates for lives of moral and civic responsibility. New York: Jossey-Bass.
Colby, A., Ehrlich, T., Beaumont, E., and Stephens, J. (2007). Educating for democracy: Preparing undergraduates for responsible political engagement. New York: Jossey-Bass.