Wednesday, September 7

The Pernicious Concept of 'Balance'

Demands for more political "balance" on the campuses are one of the scarier developments in today's intellectual climate. David Horowitz's campaign for a misnamed academic bill of rights and the related legislative initiatives it has inspired aim not to enhance academic freedom but to discredit the university as an independent institution.

"Balance" is a pernicious concept, implying as it does both that all ideas are equally valid and that they can be unproblematically defined in academe as liberal or conservative -- especially by outside observers who have only passing knowledge of what is being said or taught. Some conservatives have expressed outrage that the views of professors are at odds with the views of students, as if ideas were entitled to be represented in proportion to their popularity and students were entitled to professors who share their political or social values. One of the more important functions of college -- that it exposes young people to ideas and arguments they have not encountered at home -- is redefined as a problem.

To a radical right that feels entitled to dominate not only government but all social institutions, the academy is a particular irritant: It not only allows liberals and leftists to express their views, but provides them with the opportunity to make a living, get tenure, publish books, and influence students. Indeed, the academy is inherently a liberal institution, in the sense that it is grounded in the credo of the Enlightenment: the free pursuit and dissemination of knowledge for its own sake.

But the right's charge that the professoriate is dominated by liberals requires some, pardon the expression, deconstruction. For the right, "liberal" has become an epithet -- roughly equivalent to the "Godless Communist" of an earlier era -- that applies to anyone who is not a conservative Republican or a Christian fundamentalist. Most people who are attracted to academic life fit that definition for fairly obvious reasons: We prefer reading, writing, and research to business; care more about job security than the chance to get rich; and are comfortable with (secular) Enlightenment values. The balance-mongers make much of polls purporting to reveal that most professors vote Democratic, but that says less about the liberalism of professors than about the fact that what used to be the right-wing lunatic fringe is now the Republican mainstream.

As a practical matter -- no matter how much proponents of balance protest that they are merely trying to raise awareness of this issue -- redressing the "underrepresentation" of the far right in academe requires coercion: the intimidation of offending liberal professors by students or infiltrators who monitor their classes, and pressure on legislative officials, donors, and trustees to influence faculty hiring decisions and the curriculum.

That said, it is equally important to acknowledge serious internal obstacles to intellectual freedom and diversity on the contemporary campus. The real political debates in academe have mainly to do not with voting behavior but with the social implications of scholarly and pedagogical methods and disciplinary paradigms. And those debates are too often settled, or stifled, by the ubiquitous tendency of academic departments to exclude or marginalize scholars whose approach diverges from prevailing orthodoxy. While conservatives talk as if that practice is confined to the academic left, in fact the disciplinary police are often profoundly conservative. Economists' exclusion of dissenters from free-market libertarian orthodoxy; psychologists' ostracism of psychoanalysts; philosophers' marginalizing of those who emphasize social and political rather than linguistic problems -- all contribute to a pervasive positivism that silences critical thinking about the present socioeconomic system. Nor is the phenomenon absent from the hard sciences: It may be harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a biologist working on something other than the genome to get a job or a grant these days.

All these pressures for conformity come at a time when the mainstream public conversation has diminishing space for serious social criticism. Trade publishers by and large refuse to publish it; leading review media tend to ignore it; fewer and fewer periodicals feature it. There is increasing disdain for the essay, the traditional vehicle for much social critique. The need to make a living has pushed more writers into the academy (whether they are really suited for it or not). Now good academic jobs are drying up as universities hire fewer tenure-track faculty members. That, too, is chilling.

Ellen Willis is a professor of journalism and director of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University.