Thursday, October 20, 2005

Leftish Bias on US Campuses: a problem with no solution

Teddy O’Reilly, a senior majoring in history, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, writes in his column in The Daily Cardinal, “the nation’s oldest independent student newspaper”, on “Changing Views for the Class”:

It is another political piece, somewhat controversial, because it raises issues of free speech and liberty. It opens:

“David Horowitz, the California Trotskyite who switched sides during the Reagan 1980s, has emerged as the avatar of the liberally oppressed. At his urging, U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Georgia, has proposed legislation to “project the principle of intellectual diversity” and support Horowitz’s academic Bill of Rights, a document designed to combat the classroom indoctrination perpetrated by liberals and other lefties. But getting the federal government involved in the classroom is certainly an odd way for conservatives to push increased tolerance.”

See what I mean? The details of the campaign need not detain us – you should read the report at: and make up your own mind.

Frankly, and on a personal level, I am broadly sympathetic and agree with what Horowitz complains of, because of the impression I have of US academe that there are symptoms of political bias in its campuses, which I find disturbing, though this only reverses the bias the other way from either side of the 2nd World War. However, waves of ‘political correctness’ (an infantile form intimidation) are now on a scale well past the point of parody.

Teddy O’Reilly concludes with

“Horowitz’s plan and Kingston’s congressional resolution remain Mephistophelean remedies. Neither would grant such new-right conservatives what they seem to want—namely, more power in the marketplace of ideas. So, to quote a string of conservatives stretching back to Adam Smith, let “the magic of the market” do its work without the sort of “government regulation” that Horowitz and Kingston demand. As students (and professors), we should be suspicious of people who want to regulate us while simultaneously calling for the deregulation of their own affairs.”

I am not sure why Adam Smith is classed as a ‘conservative’, possibly a meaningless label in mid-18th-century Scotland. Most authoritative assessments would describe his politics, and certainly his instincts, as Whig not Tory. By any standards he was certainly radical (though never revolutionary) and his proposals, which he did not push as a ‘man of system’ (a term he reserved for fanatics and people of intolerant predilections). Perhaps, ‘sceptical Whig’ is a more accurate, if vague, label for Adam Smith (see Donald Winch, 'Adam Smith’s Politics’, Cambridge University Press, 1978, for the authoritative account).

Why Adam Smith is linked to ideas about ‘the magic of the market’ is another question, given that Smith was well informed of how markets work and he never suggested there was anything ‘magical’ about them. This is probably a case of the usual misapplication of Shakespeare’s ‘invisible hand’ (Macbeth, 3:2) into anything that mentions Smith’s name and markets in the same sentence.

O’Reilly is right though to draw attention to the difficulty of arguing for free speech, the removal of political bias in the recruitment of faculty and in the grading of students’ performance, while suggesting legislation to enforce what should be the ethos of what being an academic community is all about.

You cannot force people to be virtuous, a point made by Smith in his “Moral Sentiments”, and I suggest this applies to tolerating ideas disapproved of by academic biases. It remains a problem, though, that currently is a blemish on US academe.


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