What If…Political views and level of education are correlated?
March 11, 2019
The Pew Research Center recently published a report
indicating that a clear majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning
independents (let’s call them conservatives) believe that U.S. colleges and
universities have a negative effective on the country. On the other hand, nearly three-quarters of
Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (we’ll call them liberals) say
institutions of higher learning have a positive effect. Several news commentators have “explained”
these views by pointing to the clear majority of liberal faculty on our
campuses—liberal faculty biases lead to constricted, incorrect, or
inappropriate teaching, in turn causing ill effects on the country at large.
Conservatives are absolutely correct in pointing out the
preponderance of liberal faculty at colleges and universities. The
Washington Post reports the liberal to conservative faculty
ratio at 5:1. The
Washington Times pegs it at 12:1. So far, so good. The fallacy in this logic comes in the next
step, in which conservatives claim there is a liberal bias on campus,
discriminating against conservative faculty members.
Any first-term statistics student knows the mantra,
“correlation does not indicate causation.”
The fact that A (political views) and B (employment as college faculty)
fluctuate together (or inversely) is not the same as A causes B. The evidence provided cannot support the
conclusion that a lack of conservative faculty is indicative of discrimination.
In this example, B (small percentages of conservative
faculty employed) is clearly true, based on numerous surveys. The question we have to answer, based on
conservatives’ concerns, is B caused by A?
It is certainly possible—humans do, in fact, discriminate based on a
number of biases.
But, what if…B
results from an entirely different cause?
Aside from the medical field, the academic requirements for teaching at
the college and university level is arguably the profession requiring the most
formal education. Counting K-12,
undergraduate, masters, and Ph.D., most faculty members have some 23-25 years
of classroom experience. What if…the level of education required
to become a college teacher leads to liberal political views, therefore making
the pool of potential faculty members skewed liberal? What if Ph.D.s learn things that emphasize the
need for care and fairness, versus liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity (Jonathan
Haidt)? Would this indicate
that the more educated one becomes, the more likely she is to have liberal
Although the ratios of liberal to conservative faculty
mentioned above clearly favor liberals overall, it is also instructive to look
at data on a more granular level.
According to a study published in Critical
Review, liberal to conservative ratios vary greatly among
departments; from 44:1 in sociology to 6.5:1 in political science, to 0.5:1 in
finance. Out of 42 departments surveyed,
39 had more liberals than conservatives.
Only general business, finance, and military science were equal or had
more conservatives. The departments tend
to range from higher ratios in the humanities, arts, social and hard sciences
to lower ratios in engineering, business, and military sciences.
As a college professor, I am vitally concerned with the
effect of what I (and my colleagues) do in the classroom—on my current students
and the world in general. The Heterodox Academy,
a politically diverse group of scholars, was formed to combat “the
loss or lack of ‘viewpoint diversity.’ When nearly everyone in a field shares
the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is
discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.”
Although I seriously doubt the view that the lack of conservative
faculty on campus is a result of discrimination, I am also concerned with the
dangers of orthodoxy. For me, the most
important element of higher education is developing the ability to question
conventional wisdom and think critically.
As one of my favorite books suggests, faculty members of any stripe
should strive to teach “Ethics [or any other subject] Without Indoctrination”
(Richard W. Paul, Educational Leadership,
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by UNIBusiness or the University of Northern Iowa.