In Defense of Bias Within America's Universities

Archibald MacLeish, American poet and minister of propaganda during World War II, said in 1954, that, "The dissenter is every human being at those moments of his life when he resigns momentarily from the herd and thinks for himself."[1] MacLeish said these words knowing very well the repressive power of the social herd. He said these words knowing very well that more than the size of America’s guns or the tenacity of its Army, the bravery of its dissenters, the men and women willing to cast aside the warm comforts of intellectual conformity, is the most important defense against encroachments on beloved freedoms and ways of life.

Truth, the goal of the dissenter, is a peculiar concept. It is stubborn and uncompromising, yet elusive and unsettled. Bias too is truculent in its certitude, but forever unresolved. The distinction between the two – truth and bias – is no one’s job to determine. That’s the beauty of a marketplace of ideas, of pluralism of thought. Recent legislation, including the “Academic Bill of Rights” pushed by conservative intellectual David Horowitz, intends to broaden the ideal of “academic freedom” to mandate “intellectual diversity” on university campuses. The aim, simply, is to eradicate bias. However, in the process of eradicating bias, the locus of regulatory control is shifted to the student body. The uncomfortable student gains the prerogative to destroy truth labeled as bias, and the dream of higher education, the dream of answers, is subverted, only to be replaced by the dreary acceptance of political correctitude. In the quest for “intellectual diversity,” students gain new weapons to attack the dissenter who – if only momentarily – leaves the herd to think for himself.

The history of academic freedom is the history of liberal thought. It is no coincidence that the rise of academic freedom as a stated initiative paralleled the upsurge of free expression in Europe. The liberal outlook on knowledge states that all truth is questionable in various degrees, and from there, that the most important safeguard against myopia and bigotry is pluralism of thought. The protection of academic free thought thus facilitates the quest for knowledge in the liberal sense. Liberalism makes no judgment about the veracity of dissent; instead, it pits dogma against dogma, prejudice against prejudice, and truth rises to the top of the intellectual free-for-all. The function of academic freedom, broadly, is to protect this clash of ideas and values.

Pedagogy has never been a strictly asymmetrical process. Instead, thought is a collective enterprise between both teacher and student. Socrates’ great Athenian Schools functioned with a rich exchange of ideas between student and teacher. Though the teacher may have a greater depth of understanding, the reasoning went, the skepticism of his students helps to define anew his understanding of truth.[2] Late philosopher Sir Bernard Williams found the linguistic origins of “Truth” and “Truthfulness” to be, “connected with [the word] trust ... the word 'truth' and its ancestors in Early and Middle English originally meant fidelity, loyalty, or reliability.”[3] This dynamic between student, teacher, truth and trust establishes the working framework for the concept of academic freedom.

Though the United States’ understands the term academic freedom as a shield intended only to protect the dissenting professor from the scimitars of the masses, in fact, the concept was originally devised to protect much more. Originally derived from the German words Lehrfreiheit and Lernfreiheit in the 1850s, academic freedom is a three-way dynamic between the facility, the teacher, and the teacher’s students.[4] First, it is the freedom of the educational institution to progress unhindered by serious external restraint, to design its curricula and to hire its teachers. Second, it is the freedom of the teacher to voice his opinions without being stifled by majority consent. Third and last, academic freedom refers to the right of students to learn without indoctrination or authoritarian demands on the progression of their thought.[5] The boundary of this final freedom – the freedom of the student to learn – buttresses the demands for “intellectual diversity” within the classroom.

The call for “intellectual diversity” is grounded in contemporary politics. A number of surveys in recent years have indicated an overwhelming preponderance of liberal professors within America’s universities. The most reliable collection of quantitative data, the survey, “How Politically Diverse Are the Social Science and Humanities?” conducted by economist Daniel Klein and social scientist Charlotta Stern, indicates that professors in America’s universities vote, on average, Democratic over Republican fifteen to one.[6] Trumpeting the seemingly-benign, even progressive concept of “intellectual diversity,” conservative thinkers are proposing means for increasing ideological representation in higher education. At the forefront of this campaign is David Horowitz, who has helped to push his Academic Bill of Rights through a number of state legislatures in an effort to expand academic freedom’s embedded protection of the students, empowering them to lodge complaints against professors who violate a standard of nonpartisanship.[7]

The question of academic bias goes to the role o the university within society. The cardinal value of a university is the quest for truth. The university functions in order to seek a better understanding of truth, to disseminate that understanding, and to equip students with the tools to question it.[8] Because of this, diversity of thought should be rejected as a guiding principle of academics.

The Academic Bill of Rights rests on the liberal concept of intellectual pluralism, mandating that professors provide, “students with dissenting sources and viewpoints.” The Academic Bill of Rights states that, given the, “unsettled character of all human knowledge,” teachers are obligated, “to promote intellectual pluralism” and thus “protect the principle of intellectual diversity.”[9] It is sloppy thinking, however, to progress from the premise that 1) truth is always challengeable to 2) challenges must always be provided. As discussed, “pluralism” and “diversity” are fundamental aspects of liberal education, of a system that depends on the emergence of answers within a marketplace of ideas. However, “intellectual diversity” is a means to the ends of truth. It is a not an ends within itself. The goal of “intellectual diversity” confuses truth with the pursuit of it, and resolves instead to always leave the questions open.

Though broad questions of knowledge and truth may never be put to rest, much truth in an academic sense is localized. Simply, if all things are theoretically questionable, then a fact must be measured to a standard of certainly. The world is round is accepted as truth because it is a statement measured to a certain standard of certainty. Though, theoretically, new evidence could emerge that proves the world to be flat, or square, or cylindrical, it is accepted as fact that it is round nonetheless. Diversity of thought may have been an important means to reach the conclusions (that the earth is round), however, the ultimate goal was truth, not diversity. Mandating diversity and not truth leaves the question of the earth’s geometry open to a hopeful many.

Diversity of thought, though important, is stratified on an academic, not political level. True intellectual diversity is not found in broad-based domestic or foreign politics; true intellectual diversity is predicated on interdisciplinary interpretation. The fact that fifty-four philosophy professors admitted to voting Democratic and only four admitted to voting Republican in Daniel Klein’s survery, therefore, indicates very little about their interpretations of the subject matter.[10] Stanley Fish, Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Humanities and Law at Florida International University, made the point:

When I teach [John] Milton, I teach a Milton who is basically a theologian, whose only interest is in a certain set of theological problems allied to the imperative of obeying God. Other people teach a feminist Milton, or a psychoanalytic Milton or a historicist Milton, or a revolutionary Milton. Those aren’t my Miltons. Neither do I say that their Miltons are, in fact, interesting or worthy of study. I say their Miltons are wrong.[11]

Disciplinary interpretation of subject matter leads to diversity of thought; it is a misguided assumption to correlate political interpretation with academic interpretation. The former has no place in the classroom and the latter is inherent within the classroom. The fact that thirty times as many anthropologists voted Democratic as Republican indicates very little about their understanding of the curriculum or their interpretations of the cultural development of humans.[12]

In his search for truth, scholarly and scientific self-respect mandates that a certain professor stay allegiant to his beliefs. Fish remarks, “I say their Miltons are wrong” because, as an expert in his field, he has arrived at his version of truth. He is not willing to undermine his destination in the name of diversity. Asking a professor to provide a diverse array of opinions undermines the role of the institution in its quest for understanding. Similarly, a class on Christianity should not be obligated to teach militant atheism. A class on Peace Studies should not be made to investigate military conflict resolution.

The inevitable outcome of pursuing an ends (in this case, diversity) that is in fact a means is that one reaches a destination quite unlike what one desired. By perverting “diversity” to be an ends when in fact it is a means, one reaches an ends that is unfortunately but undeniably political. The fact that the goal of “intellectual diversity” is not grounded in academic necessity leads its pursuit to become fueled by political desire, the desire to alter the academy to reflect a partisan vision of United States’ political composition – affirmative action for conservatives.

The game of abstraction concerning the role of the education institution now snaps into a much more sordid reality: the call for “intellectual diversity” is fueled by the political desire to stifle radical liberalism. An apt analogy can be made between “intellectual diversity” within the classrooms and the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) Fairness Doctrine. Inaugurated in 1964, the Fairness Doctrine mandated reasonable opportunity for both sides of a political debate to air their opinions. This might sound reasonable; however, the Doctrine was soundly abolished in 1987 because it functioned not as a check on fairness, but as an instrument for political vendettas.[13] Political scientist Jesse Walker remarks, “In theory, [the Fairness Doctrine] promoted the free exchange of ideas. In practice, it was a way politicians or interest groups could harass stations that aired views they disliked. (The Nixon administration, for example, used it as a club against coverage of the antiwar movement.)”[14] Though the destination of print and news media punditry is not truth, the analogy is still valid. Under the rhetorical guise of “intellectual diversity,” like the Fairness Doctrine, a great number of voices can be attacked and purged and disinfected of controversy.

Throughout American history, patriotic clamor about subversive American professors has come in undulating waves. During the 1920s, a war-weary America strove to “return to normalcy” by persecuting professors that revealed any sympathies for the Russian “reds.” [15] In the 1950s, McCarthy Hearings sought to disinfect America’s higher education of incendiary voices. Now, with progressivism dead and liberalism severely wounded, the threat of a leftist coup d’état on America’s government is nonexistent. Why then, must the dissenter who travels from the herd be lassoed and forced back into line?

During the periods of academic suppression in the past – dark scars on America’s history – “big brother” was the government; now, if “intellectual diversity” becomes a mandated goal, the regulatory force is the student, benighted as he may be. In January of 1920, Mitchell Palmer arrested 6,000 citizens without trial because they had allegedly penned communist and anarchist treatises.[16] From 1951 to 1955, the Responsibilities Committee headed by J. Edgar Hoover and endorsed by Joseph McCarthy disseminated derogatory information about over 400 school teachers and college professors to their employers. [17] These acts of academic censorship were headed by governmental powers. The new, broader concept of Academic Freedom, on the other hand, extends the regulatory powers not to the government, but to the student. Teachers would no longer be the ultimate arbiters of their own curriculum. If legislation mandating political diversity is passed, then new shields will be burnished for students to use against any ideas that threaten their presuppositions about the way the world works, any thoughts that might upend picture-perfect concepts of reality. Each complaint by a student would necessitate a detailed investigation into the accused professor’s syllabus and teaching. It would necessitate careful monitoring of the teacher’s intellectual expression. Education is not about compounding students’ assumptions about the world; it’s about revealing new perspectives, no matter how unsettling they may be. The political result of the seemingly-progressive ideal of “intellectual diversity,” is an Orwellian gaggle of students, flexing their muscles to decide what their teachers teach – thought police on skateboards.

There is a fundamental methodological error being committed when one asserts that a certain ideology is disproportionally underrepresented in a university setting and that therefore, that ideology poses a threat to the minority – an allusion to James Madison’s famous “tyranny of the majority.” This argument tacitly assumes that college students are passive and frail, susceptible to indoctrination. This infantilization is unworthy of the liberal doctrine of Marketplace of Ideas. Instead of destroying students, underrepresentation should empower them to fight harder, to shine a light on their own preconceived notions, to vindicate their own beliefs. The plight of the ideological pariah invokes the verses of the Shel Silverstein poem, A Boy Named Sue, popularized by singer Johnny Cash. The male protagonist is named Sue, and is consequently forced to defend himself throughout his life:

Well, I grew up quick and I grew up mean,
My fist got hard and my wits got keen,[18]

Of course being the minority is uncomfortable, but who said education was about being comfortable? When you tread against the norm, you have to overcome a greater academic burden, to prove your case with greater precision. The goal of the university should be thought-centric. Students should be taught to question the status quo, to question prevailing assumptions, to think for themselves. Bias achieves these goals because it forces individuals to adduce their convictions with evidence. Janny Scott of The New York Times writes in 2005 about Chief Supreme Court Justice’s experience in a predominantly liberal Harvard University campus during the 1960s and how it aided in his political ascendance. She references a fellow member of the conservative Federalist Society:

Asked how the experience of being a conservative in the Ivy League at that time influenced what he did afterward, Steven Calabresi, one of the Federalist Society's founders and a 1983 Yale Law School graduate, said: “Enormously. I think in retrospect it was probably one of the most important things that happened to me as I was growing up. We were inspired to start the Federalist Society because of that.”[19]

The experience conservatives had in liberal universities forced them to vindicate their convictions. Surely, in a mature society, an individual knows not only his mind, but that of his opponents. This mutual understanding is a prerequisite of democracy. Bias necessitates active pursuit of understanding; diversity legitimizes passivity.

It’s true that a nasty byproduct of free speech is bigoted ignorance; of the thousands of professors employed throughout the country, some inevitably will extend their powers of persuasion too far. Those professors should be fired. As is unfortunately the case, on the most fundamental level, freedom of speech empowers brilliance and bigotry in the same fitful stroke. No student should be penalized for his or her philosophical orientations; however, the way to combat bias is with more speech, not less. "One of the strengths of science," writes the philosopher of science David L. Hull, "is that it does not require that scientists be unbiased, only that different scientists have different biases."[20] Bias should not be eradicated. Instead, it forces others to examine their own deepest prejudices and substantiated them with evidence. If they can do so, then they are right; if they are unable to, then they are wrong. This response to bias is the goal of education. It is the search for truth. The distinction between someone possessing truth or merely possessing bias is for no one person to decided. To oppose bias or to substantiate truth, one must foster the habits of minds that provide for analysis and self-reliance, that require the use of evidence and causality. “Intellectual diversity,” on the other hand, dignifies bigotry as legitimate and passivity as an end-product. This is not a good idea gone awry; instead, it is a fundamentally misguided idea traveling in the only direction it can. “Diversity” is an academic Trojan horse, which, despite its intentions, will unleash its repressive might on the dissenter who tries – if only momentarily – to resign from the herd and think for himself.



[1] Lewis Lapham, Gag Rule (New York, New York: The Penguin Press, 2004), 1.

[2] Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy (New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 89.

[3] Bernard Williams, Truth and Truthfulness: : An Essay in Genealogy (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2002).

[4] Kenneth Kemp, “What is Academic Freedom?” (Dissertation, University of St. Thomas, 2000), 6.

[5] Richard Hofstadter, Academic Freedom in the Age of the College (New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), 327.

[6] Daniel B. Klein and Charlotta Stern, “How Politically Diverse Are the Social Sciences and Humanities?

Survey Evidence from Six Fields,” Academic Questions 23 (November 2004).

[7] Full text of the Academic Bill of Rights can be accessed at

http://www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org/abor.html.

[8] A discussion between Bill Wasik, Stanley Fish, David Gelernter, Lani Guinier and Elizabeth Hoffman about

the purpose of the university can be found in “Affirmative Reaction,” Harper’s Magazine,

September 2005, p. 63.

[9] Academic Bill of Rights, http://www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org/abor.html (2006).

[10] “How Politically Diverse,” p. 17.

[11] “Affirmative Reaction,” p. 67.

[12] “How Politically Diverse,” p. 23.

[13] Steven Simmons, Fairness Doctrine and the Media (University of California Press, 1978).

[14] Jesse Walker, Chilling Effects, http://www.reason.com/links/links091703.shtml (September 2003).

[15] Warren Harding’s 1920s campaign statement, 1920 Presidential Campaign Slogans, http://www.presidentsusa.net/1920slogan.html (2002).

[16] Palmer Raids, http://chnm.gmu.edu/courses/hist409/red.html (2003).

[17] M. Stanton Evans, Blacklisted by History: The Real Story of Joseph McCarthy and His Fight Against his

Enemies (New York, New York: Crown Forum, 2006).

[18] Shel Silvertein, A Boy Named Sue, http://www.toptown.com/hp/66/sue.htm (2004). The song was

recorded by Johnny Cash on February 24, 1969.

[19] “Robert’s Roots as a Conservative,” The New York Times, 21 August 2005, p. A1.

[20] “In Defense of Prejudice: Why Incendiary Speech Must Be Protected,” Harper’s Magazine, May 1995.

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