The limits of the "liberal" academy?

It's that time of year when all things academical start to grate on my nerves. So when lisa @ Sociological Images put up a post earlier today about a recent study by researchers Neil Gross and Ethan Fosse that seems to confirm the "professors skew liberal" stereotype, I grumbled my way over to check it out.

As studies go, it's making the relatively modest claim that about 43% of professors self-identify as "liberal," only 9% as "conservative," while the remaining are dumped in the "moderate" pot. As Lisa writes:

The study measured a number of reasons why college professors may be more liberal. Among others, they argued that already liberal people may be drawn to academia because they perceive that academics are liberal. That is, just as women are drawn to teaching and men to construction work because these jobs are gendered, academia is a politically-typed job that draws people who identify as liberal already.

They also speculate that the relative low pay, given the high educational attainment that the profession requires and high status that it brings, may lead professors to lean towards democratic principles of economic redistribution.

What caught my eye here was the emphasis on "democratic principles of economic redistribution." While I'm not arguing this isn't a laudable democratic concern, I notice that what is left out of the definition is any interest in deeper challenges to cultures of hierarchical authority (that is: a broader interest in small-d "democracy"). In fact, the argument seems to be that academics are pissed that "the high educational attainment that the profession requires and high status that it brings" result in professional academics who -- far from being invested in anti-hierarchical, democratic politics, are instead simply pissed off that their "high status" profession isn't rewarded financially.

Not that there isn't a reason to be pissed off about a system that requires a relatively high initial financial investment (re: student loans) when compared to future income. I just think that to equate that economic frustration with a more general "liberal" outlook on life points toward a very narrow definition of what liberal politics is about. In fact, it suggests that people who are upset about the so-called "liberal" academy should be far less threatened by academics than they profess to be: according to this study, anyway, even those 43% of faculty who self-identify as liberal may be less interested in questioning the hierarchical structure of society than they are about gaining access to it's upper economic echelons. In other words, they just want a bigger piece of the pie.

What this study tells me, actually, rather than confirming the "liberal" stereotype, is that if I want radical questioning of hierarchical power relations -- particularly as they relate to knowledge, education, and worth -- I'm probably going to have to look somewhere other than academe. (Or at least not expect to be welcomed with open arms when I keep asking "what legitimizes your authority?") Folks who are invested in the high social status their chosen profession brings them aren't going to be too excited about questioning whether that status has any deeper meaning or legitimacy.

You can read more about the study at Inside Higher Ed and find a PDF of Gross and Fosse's working paper, which I look forward to reading when I have the chance, at Neil Gross's web page.

1 comment:

  1. Anna, I love your blog. That is all.