The late Native-American leader Wilma Mankiller wisely observed that “Whoever controls the education of our children controls the future.” It’s a great way to explain why it’s so important to determine whether the country’s schools at all levels generally have stayed in the business of transmitting knowledge and learning techniques to students, or whether they’re becoming propaganda operations.
Scarily, there’s abundant and seemingly surging evidence of the latter, and though I’m not big on arguing by anecdote, I certainly was alarmed by my stepson’s own recent experiences at Dickinson College, where in his humanities and social science courses, he contended he was both fed a diet of woke-ism and regularly belittled for being a white male.
So when I first heard about a massive new report on “Academic Freedom in Crisis: Punishment, Political Discrimination, and Self-Censorship,” I was expecting to see a detailed case that American higher education had passed the point of no return on political correctness, critical race theory, and intolerance of dissents from them. Instead, the March study from the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology contained a noteworthy amount of evidence that traditional notions of academic freedom – which logically, anyway, go hand-in-hand with non-overtly politicized notions of education – retain surprisingly (to me, anyway) strong support on U.S. campuses.
Not that the study, by University of London political scientist Eric Kaufmann, doesn’t serve up plenty of findings to worry about. But these were some of the most encouraging of the many results compiled and discovered by the author that stood out:
>Of the academics surveyed in various studies in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada who consider themselves to have ever been victims of what Kaufmann calls campus authoritarianism, only 0.03 percent report being dismissed from their jobs or being “deplatformed” (barred from forums or debates held either in person or on social media). And the U.S.-specific numbers are probably lower, since elsewhere in the study it’s made clear that academic freedom’s position in the United Kingdom and Canada is much more precarious. (p. 13)
>A much higher but still distinctly minority share (23 percent) of such respondents report being “threatened by disciplinary action for speech.” (p. 13)
>Only seven percent of U.S. respondents in a survey conduced by the author would favor a “campaign to oust” an academic for “dissenting” (i.e., negative) views on the value of diversity. Only eight percent would support similar efforts either regarding a colleague believing traditional parenthood as superior, or one backing a “restrict immigration” position. A higher, but still decidedly minority (18 percent) would support such a campaign against a colleague believing that “a higher share of women and minorities lowers organizational performance.” (p. 23)
These findings cover what Kaufmann calls “hard authoritarianism” in higher education. But he’s also studied forms of “soft authoritianism,” which he defines as “not being hired, promoted, awarded a grant, or published in a journal.” Of course, he notes, “both matter for academic freedom. Active social bullying is more punishing than social ostracism, which is in turn worse than socially avoiding someone or not including them in one’s social circle.” And all can damage careers. But here the picture looks unexpectedly encouraging, too. For example:
>Kaufmann admits that the sample size is very small, but his own poll found that just 22% of US academics “admit they’d discriminate vs a [Donald] Trump supporter in hiring.” He claims, however, to have come up with a methodology that can determine the share of respondents who would act on such views without admitting to them; This figure is a much bigger 40 percent – but still a minority. (p. 139)
>A separate, larger study found that “17% of [U.S.] conservatives and 16% of centrists would discriminate against a leftist hire whereas only 14% of American academic leftists would discriminate against a conservative hire.” Not only are these percentages low, but I interpret them as showing that such prejudices can work both ways – and possibly cancel out each other’s impact to some extent. (p. 146)
>Similarly, and returning to his own surveys of U.S. academics, Kaufmann found that “24% of leftist academics would rate a right-leaning grant lower while just 16% of right-wing academics would rate a left-leaning grant lower. However, in terms of papers, right and left discriminate against each other at a similar rate (13- 14%), and for promotion, right-wing academics are somewhat more likely to discriminate against the left than vice versa (16% vs. 13%).” (p. 150)
>Using his methodology for uncovering concealed biases, the author writes that 26- 48 percent of American left-wing academic staff would discriminate against a right-leaning promotion, grant, or paper and 26-32 percent of those on the right would do so against their left-leaning equivalents. Again, these more controversial numbers are higher, but still represent minorities. (p. 150)
And positive results aren’t simply confined to the realm of actions and potential actions. For example:
>Kaufann’s survey found that Americans academics profess to prioritize “academic freedom” over “social justice” by 58 percent to 26 percent. Moreover, only 38 percent of American academics in the social sciences and humanities (SSH) view themselves as “activists” – and they’re clearly among the most politicized groups on campuses. (pp. 59 and 100)
>Moreover, according to the author, it’s not even clear that “academics are more likely to discriminate on political grounds than professionals in other sectors.” (p. 182) In other words, there may be no special discrimination problem in higher education – although its aforementioned crucial role in “controlling the future” arguably makes its politicization more dangerous.
In this vein, Kaufmann’s report does present evidence that the presence of activist, agitprop-spouting professors is having an outsized and damaging impact on students. Thus he cites a 2019 U.S. study reporting that:
“…55% of students feel that the ‘campus climate prevents me saying things I believe.’ Fully 82% of conservative students said they had self-censored at least once in class, compared to 40% of liberals. On politics, race, gender, and sexuality, about 30-35% of Republican students are reluctant to share their views in class compared to 15- 25% for Democrat students. While these numbers show a substantial chilling effect, they indicate that right-leaning students are somewhat less inhibited in expressing their views than right-leaning academic staff.” (p. 170)
In addition, there’s reason to think that the (largely woke) politicization of American colleges and universities could worsen in the coming years, as Kaufmann presents considerable evidence showing that younger academics tend to be less tolerant and more willing to act on their progressive biases than their older counterparts.
But perhaps most revealing was Kaufmann’s decision to end his analytical section on an unmistakably bright note: “Fair-minded leftist academics outnumber the hard-authoritarian left by a factor of two or three (even in SSH fields), and offer an important base from which to build a future consensus in favor of academic freedom.” And if someone who’s investigated the subject so thoroughly, and clearly began with such grave concerns, can see reasons for hope – albeit with the need for continued vigilance and pushback – who am I to disagree?