Why Are Universities
Dominated by the Left?

Edward Feser

The hegemony of the Left over the universities is so overwhelming that not even Leftists deny it. Whether the institution is public or private, a community college or an Ivy League campus, you can with absolute confidence predict that the curriculum will be suffused with themes such as:

  • capitalism is inherently unjust, dehumanizing, and impoverishing;

  • socialism, whatever its practical failures, is motivated by the highest ideals and that its luminaries — especially Marx — have much to teach us;

  • globalization hurts the poor of the Third World;

  • natural resources are being depleted at an alarming rate and that human industrial activity is an ever-increasing threat to "the environment";

  • most if not all psychological and behavioral differences between men and women are "socially constructed" and that male-female differences in income, representation in various professions, and the like are mostly the result of "sexism";

  • the pathologies of the underclass in the United States are due to racism and that the pathologies of the Third World are due to the lingering effects of colonialism;

  • Western civilization is uniquely oppressive, especially to women and "people of color," and that its products are spiritually inferior to those of non-Western cultures;

  • traditional religious belief, especially of the Christian sort, rests on ignorance of modern scientific advances, cannot today be rationally justified, and persists on nothing more than wishful thinking;

  • traditional moral scruples, especially regarding sex, also rest on superstition and ignorance and have no rational justification; and so on and on.

Every single one of these claims is, in my view, false; in some cases demonstrably so. At any rate, in every case the opposite point of view can be, and has been, defended powerfully by thinkers as worthy as any the Left can muster. Yet you will, in the modern university, rarely hear these assertions seriously challenged. Each one is usually treated either as so obvious that any opposing view can be readily dismissed as motivated by ignorance or vested interest, or as so obvious that there is no opposing view worth the trouble of dismissing in the first place. The great thinkers of the past who defended such opposing views are treated as archaic museum pieces, silly caricatures of their arguments trotted out only to be ridiculed; thinkers of the present who defend them are, when not ignored entirely, also presented in cartoonish form before being consigned to the memory hole. Should you visit a modern university campus, you will encounter the "diversity" mantra so mind-numbingly often you will want to scream. What you will not encounter is a kind of diversity that matters most in the academic context: diversity of thought on the most fundamental issues of religion, morality, and politics.

Now all of this is, of course, old news, and has been documented in such studies as Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals and Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate's The Shadow University. What is surprising is how little attention is paid to the question of why the university has come to be so dominated by the Left. That is the question I want to consider. There have been various theories presented, and many of them no doubt contain part of the answer. But none has gotten to the nub of the matter, or so it seems to me; certainly none has gained much notice or widespread acceptance. The present essay will survey the theories that have been proposed so far, and indicate (what I take to be) their most glaring deficiency. Part II will attempt to develop a more adequate explanation.

Is the Left Correct?

One theory that can, I think, be dismissed as readily as right-of-center ideas are typically dismissed by most of the professoriate is the suggestion that Leftish views of the sort listed above are simply correct, and that the typical academic, being (so it is thought) more intelligent than other people, can see this more easily than others. Nor is it merely my own personal rejection of each of those views that leads me to say this. It is also because it is just naοve to suppose that the majority opinion of university professors or even intelligent people in general is a priori more likely to reflect reality than the opinion of the common man, at least where practical affairs are concerned. Counterintuitive as this claim may seem, there are in fact deep philosophical reasons why it should be so, reasons which we will be exploring. Suffice it for now to note that there are clear counterexamples to the claim that academic opinion is a reliable guide to the truth — the most glaring of which is the popularity of socialism, as an economic doctrine, among intellectuals for much of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Socialism as a vague kind of moral vision is, to be sure, very much alive among contemporary intellectuals; but, outside of the lightweight academic "disciplines," and particularly those completely innocent of empirical testing or theoretical rigor (contemporary literary theory, huge swaths of sociology, and much of what is done in highly politicized ethnic- and women's studies departments), no one takes socialist economics seriously anymore. The reason is not that intellectuals have gotten smarter, but rather that cold hard empirical reality has so decisively falsified socialism as an economic doctrine that even the otherworldly inhabitants of the Ivory Tower have had to take notice.

But — and this is the point — it shouldn't have taken a nightmarish seventy-year experiment in real-world socialism to break its grip over the intelligentsia. For it is not as if the theoretical arguments for the socialist economy were ever anywhere close to decisive in the first place: as a worked-out theoretical edifice, socialism never had much to be said for it, and was always more sentiment and bluff than serious, rigorous analysis, a way of expressing one's disapproval of capitalism rather than a realistic alternative.

Moreover, critics of socialism had always predicted the tyranny and economic incompetence that it turned out to exhibit when implemented, on the basis not only of common sense (which should have been enough) but also of sophisticated theory — including the arguments of Mises and Hayek, who had, beginning in the 1920's, presented objections so powerful that it is difficult to see how any honest man could thereafter take socialism to be the rational default position in economics and politics.

In short, had neutral, dispassionately evaluated intellectual considerations alone ever been most intellectuals' motivation for adopting socialism, it would have been a minority view at best decades before the fall of communism. Here we have a vivid example of how emotion and fashion can, to the detriment of cool analysis, have as much of a hold over the mind of the intellectual as over that of the "ordinary" man — albeit that, in this case, we are dealing with emotions and fashions that have (for reasons we'll be looking at) more of a pull on intellectuals than on others.

Other Explanations

But there are, as I've said, more promising accounts of the phenomenon under discussion, which I want now to consider in turn. The first might be called:

1. The "survival of the left-est" theory: The idea here would be that university professors will, chatter about diversity notwithstanding, tend to take on as colleagues only those who are in broad agreement with themselves where matters of politics, morality, and culture are concerned. Since professors tend to be left-of-center, those noticeably right-of-center will tend to get "selected out" when hiring and tenure decisions are made. Now this is, without question, a very large part of the story.

The trouble is that this theory explains at most how a Leftish professoriate will come into being once the number of left-of-center academics reaches a critical mass, and how it preserves itself thereafter. But why does it ever attain critical mass in the first place? And why aren't there any significant countervailing conservative forces that might potentially reverse the trajectory, or at least preserve an ideological balance? It would seem that there must be something in the very nature of the profession itself that inclines its representatives in a leftward direction. That, anyway, is what each of the other proposed theories have suggested. There is, for example:

2. The "society as classroom" theory: Robert Nozick, in his essay "Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?" suggested that the explanation we are seeking may lie in the formative years of the average intellectual. He is typically the sort of person who, in school, did well academically and not so well socially. That is, he was rewarded for his exemplary compliance with the directives of a central authority (the teacher) who implemented a comprehensive plan (the curriculum) within a regimented social setting (the classroom); he was not rewarded for any contributions he tried to make to the decentralized, unplanned sphere of voluntary interactions that constitutes the life of a young person outside the classroom (the playground, parties, dating situations, and so forth). He thus naturally tends to think the first sort of setting more reasonable and just than the latter, and in generalizing (perhaps unconsciously) to the level of society as a whole, will accordingly tend to favor policies that involve centralized planning by governmental authorities rather than the unplanned results of free interaction by citizens in the marketplace. Related to Nozick's theory is:

3. The resentment theory: Not only in their preparatory years, but also in carrying out their life's work, intellectuals are bound to see themselves as treated unjustly by their peers. As Ludwig von Mises emphasized in The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, the higher monetary rewards accruing to businessmen, athletes, and entertainers in a capitalist society — to, we might note, the very same sorts of people who, in youth, would have been more popular on the playground and at parties than the nerdy bookworm — are resented by intellectuals, who see their own, less lucrative work as being of far greater importance. If P. Diddy's latest album sells millions of copies and Prof. Doody's magisterial five-volume history of Liechtenstein sells precisely 106 copies, all of them going to university libraries, Prof. Doody begins to wonder whether a free market is the fairest way of distributing economic rewards.

Now someone could, of course, prefer Doody to Diddy and yet fail to see how it is unjust (as opposed to just tough luck for Doody) that his fellow citizens do not agree. But this brings us to:

4. The "philosopher kings" theory: Many an intellectual is likely to see it not just as an injustice to himself that others do not appreciate his work, but as an injustice to those others too: it is, in other words, of such great value that these others do themselves a disservice in not preferring it, and are also done a disservice by any society which aids and abets them in their slovenly intellectual (and other) habits. For their own good, then, people ought not to be allowed very much freedom of choice, and experts in running human affairs ought to be found to direct their lives for them. The intellectual, fancying himself to be just such an expert, selflessly volunteers to do the job.

Here we have in effect the ideal of the "philosopher king" and with it another possible explanation of why intellectuals tend toward the Left, viz. the prospect that increased government power might give them an opportunity to implement their ideas. As F.A. Hayek suggests in his essay "The Intellectuals and Socialism," for the average intellectual, it just stands to reason that the most intelligent people ought to be the ones running things. Of course, this assumes they are in general capable of running things better than others are, an assumption many of these purportedly always-questioning minds seem surprisingly unwilling to question. Yet there are very good reasons for questioning it, some of which are related to the failure of socialism discussed above.

As Hayek himself has famously argued, large-scale social institutions are simply too complex for any human mind, however intelligent, to grasp in the amount of detail necessary to create them from scratch or redesign them from top to bottom in the manner of the socialist economic planner or political or cultural revolutionary. The collapse of the French Revolution into bloody chaos, its immediate Napoleonic sequel, the long decay and sudden collapse of the Soviet empire, and the institutionalized lunacy that was communism in general are only the most vivid and undeniable confirmations of this basic insight.

Still, the intellectual is forever a sucker for the idea that things would be much better if only everyone would just go along with the vision of the world he and his colleagues have hashed out over coffee in the faculty lounge and in the pages of the academic journals. As Hayek put it in The Fatal Conceit, "intelligent people will tend to overvalue intelligence," and they will even find it scandalous to suggest that intelligence is the sort of thing that can be overvalued. But of course it can be, as long as it has limits, which even the most brilliant human being's intelligence does. To see this requires nothing more, though also nothing less, than simple humility — something intellectuals tend to have in short supply, especially if their intellectual accomplishments are great.

Yet even in the absence of humility, wouldn't the intellectual, being by profession a critical thinker, eventually just come to see the cold, hard evidence against his being terribly effective as a social engineer? Not necessarily; at least, not if we endorse:

5. The "head in the clouds" theory: This might be the favored theory of the average non-intellectual: the notion that professors and other intellectuals are, however clever where abstract or theoretical matters are concerned, utterly lacking in common sense and everyday wisdom where practical affairs are concerned — that they are "out of touch" with the real world. So, since left-wing ideas are paradigmatically unwise, contrary to common sense, and unconnected to reality, it is no surprise that intellectuals are drawn to them. There is surely considerable merit in this theory, given that even the most empirically-oriented thinkers inevitably tend to emphasize the construction of theoretical models — models which might take considerable effort to construct and articulate, and on the success of which one's professional reputation may well rest. Intellectuals are thus understandably disinclined to give such models up, and often will, at least unconsciously, choose the model over the facts if the facts seem to conflict with it.

There is also the consideration that the average college professor functions, in his day to day life, within a highly artificial environment. His absurd faith in the United Nations, say, or tendency at least to flirt with pacifism, becomes less mysterious when one considers that he is used to resolving disagreements, not through force, nor even through an appeal to an opponent's self-interest (economic or otherwise), but via high-minded and near-interminable discussion and debate — in the classroom, at academic conferences and in journals — undertaken in an attempt to persuade and understand. He finds it easier to believe than most do, then, that disputes with Third World dictators, terrorists, and other thugs might be solved if only we "just keep talking." After all, the people he deals with from day to day all tend to be as amenable to such civilized jawboning as he is. So isn't everyone, at least deep down?

The average academic also lives rather comfortably, whatever complaints he might have about the purportedly undeserved higher earnings of businessmen and entertainers. He may teach two or three courses a semester, come in to work only three days a week, and have summers off (and even the five or so courses taught by a part-timer coupled with freeway shuttling between campuses are hardly the equivalent of burger-flipping). If he's got tenure, he's got it made: good health care and other benefits, the occasional sabbatical, and job security for life. It can easily seem that everyone could live that way if only taxes were raised high enough and the right regulations written. It never occurs to him, unless he is an economist (and sometimes not even then) that the specific economic forces that make his cozy lifestyle possible are isolated, highly idiosyncratic, and artificial, parasitic upon a larger economic order that would be undermined were the state to try to impose the professorial standard upon everything done within it. Nor is he typically familiar with the real-life circumstances of, and pressures upon, the average businessman. That such a person probably prefers talk radio to NPR, and the Reader's Digest to The New York Review of Books seems sufficient, in the intellectual's mind, to exclude him from the sphere of his sympathy. Plus, it is not as if the intellectual knows nothing of the world of business: he has, after all, read Dickens and seen Death of a Salesman. What more could one ask?

Finally, even the worst teacher has what the entertainers, athletes, and salesmen he often resents all crave: a captive audience, full of young, ignorant, and naοve people who assume him to be infallible. This can naturally go to one's head, and lead to delusions of competence. The professor makes his living lecturing to people, and most of them think he's pretty smart. Who could be better qualified, then, to lecture to society as a whole? And if he's fortunate, and his ideas really do get a hearing from policy makers and the public, he's not likely to pay much of a price if they turn out to be wrong-headed. Repeatedly falsified apocalyptic predictions have made many a fundamentalist preacher into a laughingstock; they made Stanford University eco-alarmist Paul Ehrlich into a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant winner. The eggheads who gave us the Great Society inadvertently created an entire underclass: millions of children have grown up without fathers in the decades since, but the eggheads kept their tenure. The average person would get fired or put in prison for such incompetence; the intellectual is merely advised to add a new Afterward to the next edition of his book.

Now with a set-up this cushy, intellectuals might be expected to do everything in their power to preserve their pampered existence. This brings us to:

6. The "class interest" theory: This was a favorite of Murray Rothbard, who delighted in turning Marxoid tactics against their usual wielders. On this theory, the professoriate is, all its self-serving noblesse oblige sanctimony aside, hardly the disinterested Educator-of-the-People it presents itself as being. It is, instead, little more than yet another grubby special interest group, struggling alongside the other herd animals of the welfare state for access to the governmental teat. Being more articulate than those others, however, it can more effectively mask its true motives, and do so in a way uniquely pleasing to its master: it presents itself as a new priesthood, whose socialistic religion offers the state a justification for its existence in return for permanent employment in the state's propaganda factories — "public" schools and universities — and the opportunity to create the plans the state's officials will implement, fresh off the intellectuals' drawing board. The Leftism of intellectuals is readily understandable, then, given that it is precisely the ideology one would expect of the class of the state's professional sycophants.

Now as should be expected of any account inspired by the Marxist theory of ideology, this sort of explanation can be taken too far; and no conservative ought to emulate the vulgar Marxist's penchant for knee-jerk dismissal of all points of view opposed to his own on purely ad hominem grounds. Still, there is no reason to doubt that intellectuals — who do, after all, put their pants on the same way as everyone else (even if they are smarty-pants) — are susceptible to self-interested rationalization to the same extent as anyone else. And it does indeed pay for an intellectual to support left-wing policies: policies which inevitably amount to jobs programs for "policy experts," viz. intellectuals themselves.

More to the Story

Thus have the few theorists who've turned their attention to our topic spoken. That these theories each have much to be said for them is, in my estimation, evident as soon as one considers them. Still, they seem to me to fail, even when taken collectively, to tell the whole story. For none of them accounts for a noteworthy fact about the views often taken by left-of-center intellectuals: the sheer perversity of those views — the manner in which they not only differ from common sense, but positively thumb their nose at it with contempt. The "head in the clouds" account would lead us to expect intellectuals to be eccentric; but even that theory does not lead us to expect them to be mad. Yet what is it but a kind of madness to believe such things as, for instance, that punishment does not deter, that freedom is possible without private property, or that there is no biological basis for male-female psychological and behavioral differences? It is true, of course, there are many intellectuals, including left-of-center ones, who do not believe such claims. But there have been a great many who do believe them, and, more to the point, it is of the essence of modern intellectual life that such claims, and many that are even more bizarre — e.g. that marriage is comparable to rape and sexual intercourse an expression of contempt for women (Andrea Dworkin), that Soviet communism would have been worth the murder of 20 million people had it worked out (Eric Hobsbawm), that Greek civilization was "stolen" from Africa (Martin Bernal) — are regarded as at least "worthy of discussion." The rankest claptrap is given the most serious consideration, while common sense and tradition are dismissed without a hearing. Why is this so?

The mystery only deepens when we consider that intellectual life was, for centuries — even millennia — not at all like this. The most influential views among Western intellectuals in particular once were, even when they were in error, of a decidedly down-to-earth and common sense nature where morality and politics were concerned, the Aristotelianism that dominated intellectual life through the Middle Ages being the chief example. There have always been eccentrics too, of course; but perversity, at least where theorizing about practical affairs is concerned, is largely a modern phenomenon. Indeed, it is only very recently in modernity that it has become something of the norm: specifically, with the great frontal attack on received ideas about human nature and society represented by late 19th- and early 20th-century thinkers like Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.

The astute reader will have noticed that, at least as I have described the situation, the era of common sense coincides with the medieval Age of Faith, while the thinkers cited as heralding the era of perversity are the great representatives of modern atheism, a kind of Four Horsemen of the secular Apocalypse. And here, I believe, lies the answer to our riddle. For if the great minds of the Middle Ages saw their mission as upholding a religious view of the world, so too, would I argue, do the intellectuals of the modern world. Here Rothbard was, in his own somewhat crude way, the closest to the truth: the modern professoriate is best understood as a kind of priesthood, and its religion is Leftism.

Developing this theme will be the task of Part II.

Edward Feser is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and author of On Nozick (Wadsworth, 2003).
First web published on February 13, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Tech Central Station - www.techcentralstation.com

My thanks to Tech Central Station for allowing this reprint.

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26 feb 2004