In a guest blog at Scientific American, social psychologist Clay Routledge asks whether American (and presumably this applies to other countries) universities allot an excessive amount of attention to racial, gender, and cultural diversity, but insufficient attention to viewpoint diversity. He notes that his own field of study is particularly distorted by the prevalence of liberals over conservatives in most university departments:
Considering how harmful prejudice can be, most people would agree that it is a worthy topic of research. The problem isn’t the topic. The problem is how the personal ideologies of social psychologists can influence how the topic is studied. For example, social psychologists have long been interested in a possible link between political ideology and prejudice. To study prejudice one has to pick a target group. And guess what? Liberal social psychologists tend to pick target groups that are generally viewed as political allies (e.g., gay men and lesbians, atheists). The research then reveals that conservatives, compared to liberals, are less tolerant of members of these groups. And the liberal social psychologists proclaim that the finding supports the broader notion that conservatives are more prejudiced, less tolerant than liberals.
Social psychologists have now produced a rather large literature promoting this idea. However, when researchers have bothered to examine attitudes about target groups that tend to be conservative (e.g., evangelical Christians, members of the military), the opposite pattern is observed. It is liberals, not conservatives, who display intolerance. But there are far fewer studies that focus on such target groups, probably because there are very few conservative social psychologists.
So, it is not the methods per se, but the questions that are asked. As someone whose degrees are entirely in the field of economics, I would say that this criticism is one I often heard, although from the left: that mainstream economics takes the market economy and its power relations as a matter of fact, and confines its analysis to marginal changes to this or that policy within the existing market economy structure. And so I can see his point, although to note that its not just conservatives who find themselves in the minority in departments. Surely the changes in humanities fields since the 1970s have been through attempts to gain more diversity in fields dominated by conservative approaches?
But then we begin to part ways. Professor Routledge continues:
A lack of viewpoint diversity also has many practical consequences for university life. For one, some college campuses have become overtly hostile toward students who dare to openly question far-left orthodoxy. Likewise, the safe space, trigger warning, and microaggression movements that have emerged at many colleges are making it more and more difficult to have open discussions about controversial topics. Free speech is in real danger on many campuses and ideological diversity among faculty could help.
The paragraph is, I think by design, vague. What exactly is the “far-left orthodoxy” students might want to question? I teach at a big state university, see lots of diversity among student viewpoints, and have yet to see any student shunned, much less disciplined, for saying that single-payer public health insurance would represent government overreach, or that higher taxes on the richest 1% would produce harmful disincentives to investment and innovation. How does a desire by some students for “safe spaces” impinge on students’ ability to discuss controversial topics? I have taught as a faculty member since 1982 and have yet to come across a case where a student requesting, or a faculty member offering, a trigger warning has limited other students’ ability to read, watch, listen to, or discuss anything they want. A recognition of microaggressions is a part of students’ education: don’t make assumptions about others based on their race, gender, or other aspects of their person. We can still talk about controversial subjects in that framework. How would more “ideological diversity” among faculty change any of this?
Do we want young liberals to think it is okay to hide from ideas or censor speech they don’t like, or young conservatives to think college is not for them?
Again, what “ideas” is Professor Routledge talking about? Why so cagey?
I’m going to hazard a guess. If I’m wrong, tell me so. The “ideas” concern whether some people, including students, deserve full respect and equality. John Derbyshire was prevented earlier this year from speaking at Williams College not because, as the Washington Post headline has it, he has “provocative opinions”, but because he is a racist. He calls himself a racist. Milo Yiannopolous has been banned from many campuses not because he has “ideas” liberals want to hide from, but because he is on record in public media as being grossly racist, enough to get banned from Twitter, which, if you follow Twitter, you recognize as something of an accomplishment.
I have taught at all manner of public universities and colleges. My students have been there to learn, from their faculty and other students and guest speakers to campus, to read and engage in the arts, and, obviously, to gain qualifications that will enable them to earn a living. They don’t come to college to be in an environment where racists are invited to speak at the college because of their intent to offend. That’s not “hiding from ideas”.