Acknowledging the "Knowledge-Politics Problem"

Steve Balch

Professor Neil Gross, lately emerged as a leading scholarly deflator of “conservative critics” of higher education, closes his most recent working paper, “American Academe and the Knowledge-Politics Problem” with a startling admission that essentially concedes the “conservative” case:

Although I cannot substantiate the claim here, my view is that the epistemological skepticism I found among professors of literature – a skepticism that, on some accounts appeared on the scene in the 1970s and 1980s and quickly spread, becoming institutionalized in a number of humanities and humanistic social science fields (Cusset 2008; Lamont 1987) – was one among a number of factors that helped to stimulate the most recent round of conservative critique of American higher education. This was not so because conservative critics were worried about postmodernism and allied intellectual movements per se (though some were) but because the widespread rejection of notions of objectivity and value-neutrality that such movements sanctioned, and the explicit politicization of research they opened up, undermined the legitimacy of the academic enterprise in the view of key constituencies of the conservative movement. If this is correct, then understanding how such fields became positioned as they were and are on matters of knowledge-politics while other fields retained their objectivistic [sic] orientation will be important not just from the standpoint of intellectual history, but as well for those who are interested in understanding the full range of institutional challenges presently faced by the American academic profession.

An “epistemological skepticism” has become “institutionalized in a number of humanities and humanistic social science fields,” opening them to “explicit politicization.” Who would have known?

Yet the spin on this story has, so far at least, not quite followed these lines. Reporting in Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik instead makes much of Gross’ finding that most faculty members who view their research as politically driven also “take seriously the idea that they should not try to force their views upon students, or at any time reward or punish students based on their opinions.” Conservative critics although correct about the leftist tilt of academe, can thus still be cuffed for underestimating its saving commitment to classroom fair-play. But if this is what commentators make most of about this paper, much is being made of little.     

Gross’ analysis is based on follow-up interviews with fifty-seven American professors (part of a national survey of academic social and political attitudes he did with Solon Simmons in 2006), dividing them into five “focal disciplinary categories” of sociology, economics, biology, engineering, and literature. His presentation of the results does not always provide full statistical detail, but the gist of it is as follows: Professors (as we know from earlier data published by Gross, Simmons, and many others) are typically liberal, particularly in fields like literature and sociology. Biologists, engineers, and economists take objectivity to be an unproblematic ideal, while most professors of literature and a third of the sociologists are skeptical about it, believing that political and value commitments necessarily enter into research. When it comes to teaching only two (3.5%) of the fifty-seven professors practiced “critical pedagogy,” that is to say, tried to convert their students; ten (15.8%) said they taught subjects where politics never came up, most of these being in biology and engineering; eleven (19.3%) declared that whether or not politics might be relevant to subject matter, professors should not disclose their political attitudes in class, engineering and economics being best represented in this category; while the remaining thirty-four (61.4%) claimed to adhere to a pedagogical strategy that Gross refers to as “transparency,” meaning that “they may, if they deem it pedagogically helpful, reveal to students what their own views are while also working to ensure that this does not foreclose discussion.” 27.3% of the engineers, 60% of the biologists, 50% of the economists, and 78.6% of both the professors of literature and sociology, fell into the “transparent” category.

What might someone of “objectivistic” bent make of this? First, those fields generally thought of as least politicized, and least capable of being so, contain the bulk of the professors who either lack the opportunity or inclination to address politically loaded subject matter. Not a shock. Second, that a surprisingly large percentage of biologists nonetheless find occasion to express political opinions in their classes. Third, in the two fields generally regarded as having content most likely to engage controversial issues (sociology and literature), overwhelming majorities don’t believe political utterance is verboten, most literature professors seeing politics as inextricably linked to their subject matter. Where politics can be, it apparently is.

What we can’t know from Gross’ account is how frequently professorial political views actually get expressed. Is it just an occasional comment in an engineering class apropos “bridges to nowhere,” or a biologist’s dig at creationist school boards, or something that’s part of a course’s warp and woof? Common sense, of course, suggests that there’ll be many more opportunities for a “transparent professor” in the social sciences and humanities, than one in the natural and applied sciences, to give vent to his or her views. As the one “transparent sociologist” whom Gross quotes at length puts it: “I’m a sociologist. I’m going to talk about race and racism. I’m going to talk about sex and sexism. I’m going to talk about social inequality and class in the United States.” In sociology the chances to wax about controversy would seem wall-to-wall. Indeed, inescapable.                    

But Gross offers comfort, indoctrination’s disavowal. The same sociologist continues: “I don’t try to push a particular agenda or a candidate or anything like that. If I find that I have said [something to this effect], I will quickly…say, ‘You know, this is just my personal opinion and I respect anybody else’s opinion and you don’t have to agree with me in order to understand the material that I’m trying to convey to you.’” She hopes, Gross tells us, to thereby remove “whatever power asymmetries might be present.” But there is an oddity here. Does the professor mean, implausibly, that when talking about “race and racism,” “sex and sexism,” and “inequality and class,” the subjects she regards as synonymous with sociology, she advances her views simply as her “personal opinion,” or as Gross puts it, “statements not to be construed as reflecting the authoritative knowledge she has as a sociologist, but simply… views she has as a fellow citizen”? Or does this reservation apply only to occasions when she blurts, “I’m supporting Ralph Nader” or “something to this effect.” The quotes Gross provides don’t allow this distinction to be teased out, though only the latter interpretation would have any internal consistency. Presumably when she addresses the issues at the heart of her discipline her observations carry full professional authority.

Now let’s take our sociologist at her word when she claims not to penalize students simply for having politics “different from [her] own,” despite what we know about the frequent gap between what people say and what they do, as well as what they believe they do and what they do in fact, especially in situations where they clearly know what they are supposed to say and do. Let’s go even further and assume that all sociologists who would make this disavowal are true to their word, despite the improbability of such universal self-discipline. It would still be the case, given the prevalent leftism of sociologists, that students taking their courses would repeatedly hear authoritative pronouncements on the engrained racism, sexism, and class inequality of American society. To be sure, they wouldn’t be graded down if they disputed them, but would these repeated pronouncements fail to make an impression? And if they did, what of the cumulative effect of the same or similar messages communicated in the classrooms of many other fields?

The erosive drip-by-drip effect of unopposed cultural critique is precisely what conservatives fear about today’s collegiate experience, and Gross provides nothing that will allay it. He can tell us that most professors find the coercion of opinion unethical, but not that they represent much divergent opinion, or feel obliged to withhold their opinions from their students.

It’s also a bit surprising to hear Gross quote professors to the effect that their classroom judgments matter little because, in the words of one literary scholar “the students are not stupid you know,” or in Gross’ summing of their collective apologia “they [students] are not delicate young things prone to indoctrination, but critical consumers of information and opinion.” Obsessed with hierarchical power in the world at large, sociologists and literary critics apparently take solace in individualism when confronted by their own.

Gross confirms another suspicion of higher education’s worried watchers, that the understanding scholars have of the meaning of academic freedom is experiencing a self-interested drift. He tells us first-off that his respondents generally had a hard time addressing the subject, their replies being “short, halting, and unelaborated,” concluding that they don’t seem to have “given all that much thought to the concept.” (Suggestion to university high commands: Faculty workshops on academic freedom might be at least as useful as those on sexual harassment). Nonetheless he is able to classify them into three broad groupings: Those, 32% of the total, who define academic freedom largely in free speech terms, which is to say “the right to work on any topic of their choosing, to say about it anything they might like, or to otherwise express themselves freely in print, in lecture, or in other settings”; Those 47% who regarded it as “a professorial prerogative intimately bound up with responsibilities,” defined by one as “the ethical codes of my discipline” and another as “objectivity”; and those 21% who fell somewhere in between. The rights-oriented view was most over-represented among literature professors, 50% adhering to it, and the prerogative view among economists, 62.5% giving it their support.

The founders of the AAUP to whom we owe academic freedom’s original American formulation were of no doubt about its attendant obligations. Here’s how the organization’s 1915 Declaration of Principles lays it out: 

The liberty of the scholar within the university to set forth his conclusions, be they what they may, is conditioned by their being conclusions gained by a scholar's method and held in a scholar's spirit; that is to say, they must be the fruits of competent and patient and sincere inquiry, and they should be set forth with dignity, courtesy, and temperateness of language. The university teacher, in giving instructions upon controversial matters, while he is under no obligation to hide his own opinion under a mountain of equivocal verbiage, should, if he is fit in dealing with such subjects, set forth justly, without suppression or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators; he should cause his students to become familiar with the best published expressions of the great historic types of doctrine upon the questions at issue; and he should, above all, remember that his business is not to provide his students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves, and to provide them access to those materials which they need if they are to think intelligently.  

It is unlikely that any of Gross’ interviewees have read this resounding statement, only recently and under pressure resurrected from the AAUP’s vaults for website display. Too bad, as it is worlds away from the language of the First Amendment, which concerns rights rather than – what academic freedom was intended to be – an earned privilege. (Second suggestion to university execs: treat this classic pronouncement like a well-heeled donor’s name, to be emblazoned over the entrances of campus buildings.) Interestingly, Gross takes note that several of his prerogative-oriented respondents expressed concern that colleagues with a more rights-oriented perspective had helped “politicize academic discourse” engendering a campus climate “that seemed to them decidedly unfree.” One literature professor went so far as to observe that the only threat to his academic freedom had come “from the Fascist Left inside the faculty, not where we traditionally assume it comes from, from outside forces wanting to squelch unpopular views.” Free academic speech for me but not, perhaps, always for thee.

So what to make of this latest round of research? As Inside higher Ed would have it, that conservative critics of professorial behavior are “correct about humanities professors’ leanings, but incorrect about their views of what classroom responsibility entails” because most of these humanities faculty deny the gravest of the allegations made against them? Or, as a less blinkered examination of Gross’ paper would surely convey, that in class after class students confront professors representing a constricted range of views and having few compunctions about letting them shine through. (Suggestion to higher education journalists: take off those rose colored glasses.)  

* * *

Editor's note: This is the third report by Neil Gross and/or Solon Simmons to which NAS Chairman Steve Balch has written a response. Here are the first two studies and Steve's rebuttals:

1. The Social and Political Views of American Professors, Neil Gross and Solon Simmons

Response: Imaginary Moderates: An Academic Report Boomerangs, Steve Balch

2. Ascriptive Justice: The Prevalence, Distribution, and Consequences of Political Correctness in the Academy, Solon Simmons

Response: Some Social Science that Fails to Score, Steve Balch


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