Conservatives in the Academy III: Not Capable?

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As noted in previous essays, there is a diversity issue in higher education: liberals (or at least Democrats) significantly outnumber conservatives (or at least Republicans). Since the subject of diversity has long been addressed by conservatives, it makes sense to use their approach when inquiring into the lack of ideological diversity in the ivory towers.

When faced with claims about a lack of diversity in an area (such as a dearth of minorities or women), conservatives tend to have two replies. The first is one that I addressed in an earlier essay: the seemingly excluded group freely chooses not to go into that area. For example, one might try to explain the low relative numbers of minority tabletop gamers (D&D players, for example) by claiming that minorities are generally not interested in these games. The second explanation is that the seemingly excluded group is not as capable as the dominant group(s). For example, the shortage of women in top business, military and academic positions might be explained in terms of women being less capable than men in these areas. The more charitable might soften this claim by asserting that the excluded group is capable in other areas—areas in which they are more proportionally represented or dominant. For example, it might be claimed that while women are less capable than men when it comes to science or business, they are quite capable as nurses and grade school teachers. In some cases, these assertions are obviously true. For example, men dominate American football because the strongest men are far stronger than the strongest women. As another example, women are obviously vastly more capable than men as wet nurses or surrogate mothers. Since conservatives tend to find this explanation appealing, it is reasonable to advance it to explain the dearth of conservatives in the academy.

Put bluntly, it could be claimed that conservatives generally lack the ability to succeed in higher education. While there are some exceptions, the ideological distribution is fair because of the disparity in ability. This is analogous to how a conservative might claim that the lack of women in the upper levels of business, academics and the military is in accord with the distribution of ability: most women are not as capable in those roles as men, hence men justly dominate. Likewise, most conservatives are not as capable in higher education as liberals, hence liberals justly dominate.

One obvious reply is that ideology is different from sex or ethnicity. Conservatives can be of any sex or ethnicity (though they are overwhelmingly white and tend to be male) because ideology is a matter of the values a person accepts and not what they are. As such, it could be claimed, the idea that conservatives are less capable than liberals would make no sense. It would be like saying that deontologists are less capable than utilitarians, that impressionists are less capable than surrealists, or that Yankees fans are less capable than Red Sox fans. This does have some appeal, but I am reluctant to abandon the conservative explanation so quickly.

This reply can be countered by arguing that while ideology does not change a person’s capabilities, a person’s capabilities can determine their ideology. That is, people with certain non-ideological qualities would tend to be conservative while people with other qualities would tend to be liberal. While psychology is not even an inexact science, it does show some interesting claims about the differences between conservatives and liberals. For example, conservatives tend to be more afraid than liberals and hence have a greater desire for safety and security. Given these differences, it makes sense that people who tend to be conservative would be less capable than people who tend to be liberal in areas in which these differences would have a meaningful impact. Higher education, it can be argued, is just such an area: the qualities that would make a person more likely to succeed as a professor would also tend to make them liberal. In contrast, the qualities that would make a person more conservative would tend to make it less likely that they would be successful at becoming a professor.

While some liberals would be tempted to say that conservatives are stupider than liberals, this need not be the case. After all, becoming a professor is obviously not just a matter of being smart—most smart people are not professors and not all professors are smart. Conservatives can be just as intellectually capable as liberals, yet some of the other qualities that make them conservative could impair their ability to become professors. One factor is that the process of becoming a professor typically involves having one’s most cherished ideas questioned, challenged and even attacked over the course of years—something that those inclined towards being liberal might handle better. As charitable conservatives might say that women and minorities are well-suited for some areas, a charitable liberal might say that conservatives are well-suited for areas outside the academy.

If it is true that what makes people conservatives or liberals is relevant to their ability to become professors, then there are various solutions to the problem of diversity. One is to engage in a process of affirmative action for conservatives: preferential hiring and lower standard to balance out the numbers. The conservatives who oppose affirmative action would not be able to accept this approach—unless their stance on the matter is purely a matter of self-interest rather than a matter of principle.

A second approach is to see if the academy can be modified to be more inviting to conservatives without such affirmative action. For example, it might be that the way grad school classes are taught that tends to weed out conservatives from the ranks of professors. While conservatives are generally not fans of efforts of inclusion, they would presumably welcome such efforts when they are to their advantage.

At this point, some readers are no doubt thinking that the real reason conservatives are lacking in the academy is that liberals are to blame. It is to this that I will turn in my next essay.


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