Inside Higher Education reports that the University of Colorado, Boulder will pay a private company to conduct a survey of “intellectual diversity” on campus. Although the survey will include questions on curriculum and pedagogy, its real aim is to investigate political bias in the classroom and broader life of the university.
Many conservatives take it for granted American higher education is a repressive ideological monoculture. But this judgment is typically based on isolated cases or unsupported assumptions about liberal professors. For their part, progressives often insist that there’s no groupthink, prejudice, or outright discrimination in academic life. Yet it just so happens that one rarely encounters Republicans, conservatives, or traditionalist Christians on campus.
If rigorously conducted, the Colorado survey could provide hard data on the political and intellectual conditions at a major university. That would be an important advance over the present war of anecdotes.
At the same time, studies of political bias can distract attention from the issues that should be most important to conservatives. Contrary to the standard conservative critique, the main problem is not the assignment of books by Howard Zinn, or instructors making jokes about George W. Bush. Rather, it’s the erosion of the traditional humanistic curriculum. Critiques of Western civilization or dead white males played a role in this development. But its main cause, particularly in the last several decades, has been the growing emphasis on the vocational aspects of higher education–a shift in which populist and business-oriented conservatives and libertarians have enthusiastically cooperated.
So I’ll be interested to find out how many Boulder professor identify as progressives or attend church, and whether Republican speakers are invited to campus in the same numbers as Democrats. But I care much more about how many students graduate having completed courses in the basics of American history, or the treasures of English literature. Conservatives shouldn’t aim for proportional representation on the faculties of glorified tradeschools. Rather, they should confront American colleges and universities with the ideal of liberal education in its highest sense.