David Thompson


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June 02, 2008



Leftism the opiate of the academics.


It is spreading to science, too. Witness the hysterical politics over climate change science.

alan b

I read your review of Indoctrinate U and bought it online. I recommend it.


"If students and faculty are spared serious, thoughtful contact with opposing arguments, their own views can easily become lazy, reflexive and glib."

This is why we keep getting the UCU etc calling for an academic boycott of Israel (and only Israel).



Indeed. It’s now pretty much an annual outing for a large subset of leftist educators. I remember seeing video of John Rose of the Socialist Workers Party holding court at one of these gatherings last year. Lots of admiring noises about Hizballah and Hamas and salacious talk of “disbanding” Israel. What’s eerie is that so much of this sentiment passes unopposed and is, for many, a sign of belonging. And, yes, one has to wonder if the UCU etc would be quite so ahistorical and morally incoherent if the members of those unions had a less uniform (and unchallenged) political worldview. In effect, they have a fiefdom; a little piece of socialist heaven.

Yet there are some, quite a few, who don’t think the political bias in academia matters. Of course, it’s very easy to dismiss trends toward monopoly, and the effects that produces, if one finds the prevailing ideology broadly congenial. The territorial aspect isn’t a trivial thing, either. I’ve had exchanges with several left-leaning academics who were quite explicit about their belief that academia should be “oppositional” to whatever it is they don’t like. In short, they viewed academia as “theirs” and as the place where their own political preferences *should* prevail, supposedly to “balance” or “challenge” the broader society.

Steve in San Diego

Essay on "consensus science."



Sorry David, but I'm coming to the conclusion that academias purpose is not to educate, but to be a tempting place where societies over-educated rabble-rouser's can rabble-rouse and do very little real harm to the economy/country.

Steven Conatser

Well said, although I would correct Evan Maloney's statement by reversing it: "And because they wanted to stay out of the fighting, they naturally opposed that war."

Speaking of academics and war, political demographer Michael Barone made some interesting points a couple of months ago (start with the paragraph that begins "Relying on exit polls" after he concludes his state-by-state analysis):



"The academic who hears the Rev. Jeremiah Wright declaiming, 'God damn America,' is not unnerved. He hears this sort of thing on campus all the time. The Jacksonian who watches the tape sees an enemy of everything he holds dear."


"It is spreading to science, too. Witness the hysterical politics over climate change science."

Well, I think it's pretty much established now that climate change is happening at least in part due to human activity. Like Bjorn Lomborg though, I don't agree with most Greens on the best way to tackle it.

As for the hysteria, some scientists have admitted that they often feel they have to compete with others if they are to be heard in the news - hence the shrill cries of apocalypse so they can report that the sea level rise is expected to be slightly higher than the previous estimate (or whatever).



I’m not suggesting that the state of American academia is comparable with the situation here, or that it necessarily signals how British universities may develop; but as Indoctrinate U makes clear, and as my own experience confirms, political “grooming” in the classroom tends to come from the left, often the far left. (See the earlier comments about territory.) The question thus arises of whether students will invariably have the wherewithal to challenge their professors’ views and defend or formulate their own. One has to wonder just how much testing of ideas there actually is once a near monopoly is achieved in certain areas of study. Not only for faculty seeking advancement or social acceptance, but more importantly for students who are mindful of their grades.

One might suppose, perhaps naïvely, that such educators will always act in good faith and encourage testing, even ridicule, of their own political beliefs. But ideologues and good faith don’t mix particularly well, and if some disciplines and institutions have come to be occupied by a high concentration of ideologues (think Duke, for instance), then good faith may be in short supply. The question, I suppose, is whether such pockets of ideology and bad faith are indeed harmless and should continue unopposed. Personally, I see no reason to surrender the bedroom to the dog just because it crapped on the floor.


Lovely metaphor. :)


I'm not convinced academics are so united. In the Dershowitz versus Finkelstein case, for instance, you might expect the pressure of PC conformity to act in Finkelstein's favour. Yet it is Finkelstein who has been denied tenure. I would be intrigued to know how that dispute fits into David's narrative.

There are plenty of right wing academics. Niall Ferguson at Harvard writes approvingly of imperialism, and how the world needs more of it. And there are oddball misfits, whose thinking just doesn't slot into left-right polarities. Stanley Fish, for instance, manages to annoy both left and right. Eagleton in particular hates him.



I’m not familiar with the case you mention, so I can’t tell you how, or if, it fits my “narrative,” if such it is. And I’m not suggesting that every academic who leans to the left lives in one big house, all agreeing furiously.

But the point remains that many humanities subjects, especially new subjects, are politicised, often heavily and in tendentious ways, and ratios of self-identified Democrats and Republicans in the “liberal arts” are, according to various studies, 20:1, 30:1, even higher in some cases. Once that level of broad consensus is achieved its underlying assumptions can easily become invisible. It can be assumed that whatever centre of political gravity prevails is some “natural” default from which everything else is measured. I’m thinking mainly in terms of broad assumptions, such as favouring governmental solutions to social issues, public subsidy, taxation, a disdain of national sentiment and the military, or various forms of identity politics and neurotic “sensitivity” – the rapid spread of “speech codes” being an obvious example.


You're worried that most Humanities lecturers are left wing, and that that gives them unfair influence in shaping the opinions of others.

In that case, what do you think about the power and influence of media moguls like Rupert Murdoch? It seems to me he represents exactly the same danger, only many, many orders of magnitude worse. His political influence in both the US and UK is probably far greater than that of every college lecturer put together. Politicians in the UK behave with craven obsequiousness towards him. They may well be, unfortunately, correct to behave like that. For some reason I can't recall Tony Blair ever caring about what any university lecturers thought about him, but he was always obsessed with courting Murdoch's approval.

Murdoch has, on several occasions, bought publishing companies, purely to stop them publishing books he personally doesn't want people to read. Do you think that sort of thing is okay? I don't think it is. Murdoch's business interests in China mean he doesn't allow Fox News to push too hard with stories which put China in a bad light, even though that's what would make sense in terms of Fox's editorial orientation.



Whatever your views of Rupert Murdoch, he does not, so far as I know, have significant influence over the career advancement of educators or the grades and free expression of their students. And it’s students we’re talking about. People are free to choose whatever newspapers they find agreeable; they’re free to disagree with the content, or choose a different source of news. You and I can badmouth Murdoch in detail and at length with remarkably little risk. But as the film above makes clear, dissent in the classroom can be, and sometimes is, a very different situation, with real consequences. I don’t see how Murdoch exercising influence in ways you find disagreeable excuses the influencing of students in disagreeable ways.


Rupert Murdoch has massive influence over the career advancement of politicians, journalists and writers and their free expression - in several countries. You are simply not free to read certain books critical of Murdoch. He bought the publishers of these books so he could kill them off.

Tony Blair had secret meetings with Murdoch when he was Prime Minister to discuss national policies. It is rumoured that Murdoch intends to give Blair a senior position in Newscorp as a quid pro quo.

All 175 newspapers owned by Murdoch editorialized in favour of the Iraq War. Isn't that a "Flattering Consensus"?

Steven Conatser


Both academia and the media are dominated by liberals. The fact that you can name one academic and one media mogul as exceptions hardly negates an overwhelming imbalance that is proven by decades of independent studies.

Horace Dunn


Rupert Murdoch's influence is considerable, of course, though in the media world he contends with the likes of CNN and the BBC which, between them or even seperately, have an influence that equals, at least, that of his own media. I noticed recently that the coverage of the Olympic torch procession was covered, in the Murdoch-owned media, in a way that wasn't entirely flattering to the Chinese government. This might suggest that Murdoch's much-publicised keenness to endear himself to the Chinese state, does not necessarily result in a uniform message being sent from the media outlets he owns.

But even if we agreed (as yet we might) that Murdoch's influence on the world is far from desirable, I wonder whether a key function of academic institutions should be to provide a "balance" to what you see as Murdoch's excesses. You didn't say this, of course, but it was you that raised Murdoch's name in a conversation about academic discourse, so the non sequitur is yours and not mine.



“Isn't that a ‘Flattering Consensus’?”

Again, like Horace, I’m not sure what your actual point is. We’re talking about academia and influences on students. Are you suggesting that bias in academia, even egregious bias, is somehow justified by biases in other areas of life? It’s not clear to me whether you *are* suggesting this, but it seems pretty much implicit in *how* you’re arguing. If so, who said that large chunks of academia should, as it were, belong to any one political viewpoint? Just whose education is it?


A serious and genuine campaign for human rights will find itself opposing both right wing juntas, communist tyrannies and theocracies, and sometimes even supposedly liberal democracies which let their standards slip. That's where the consistent application of principle inevitably leads. A serious and genuine campaign against monopolistic attempts to control opinion and stifle free speech will find itself opposing both campus speech codes and Murdoch's excesses. That's where the consistent application of principle inevitably leads.



Hm. I think, then, we’d agree that “monopolistic attempts to control opinion” are generally a bad idea, even if the prevailing opinion is one you or I might find agreeable. It seems to me that people only revisit their assumptions, insofar as they ever do, in the face of contrary argument and the testing of ideas. If I’m right about something, I like to know why I am; and this tends to happen when my arguments and assumptions have bashed against someone else’s and bits have broken off. What doesn’t break off is (probably) sound. At least until the next collision comes along.

I’m just not sure how well that squares with your earlier comments, which suggested, perhaps inadvertently, that bias in academia wasn’t a concern, or was some kind of “balance” to offset other biases elsewhere. My argument against this – which perhaps I didn’t make clear – is that academia is a uniquely important environment in this regard and has unique forms of leverage. It is, for many, where political worldviews are first formed. Thus an effective monopoly among faculty of one broad outlook is disadvantageous, and sometimes sinister. The education should belong, as it were, to the students, not the faculty.


"academia is a uniquely important environment in this regard"
what about the right wing tabloids. what about them?



Well, do you really think the function of higher education is primarily, or significantly, to oppose the rightwing press? (Or any publications that deviate from the views favoured by, say, the Guardian and Independent?) Is that what academia is for? If so, who said so? And who pays for it?

I think people generally buy newspapers with some awareness of their broad political leanings. Very often, that’s precisely why people buy a given paper, or watch a given news channel. It is, very often, a choice, made by adults. Academia is not – or shouldn’t be – treated in the same way. Its function isn’t to impress upon students the political preferences of educators and their unions – whether directly or in terms of teaching methods, the curriculum and what it does or doesn’t contain.

It’s also dubious to claim, as some do, that academia should be “oppositional” to whatever the supposed “middle-class, bourgeois” consensus is. The Guardian’s own middle-class readership of around 300,000 is in very large part made up of teachers, social workers, educational advisors, broadcasters, media types, etc. The paper’s influence is thus much greater than its limited sales would suggest. Many of the views propagated by the Guardian are, to a significant degree, the views of the current educational establishment. (Max Hastings famously said of his writing for the Guardian that “it is read by the new establishment.”) One therefore cannot claim that such views, as expressed by many educators, are particularly “oppositional”. They are, very often, a restatement of orthodoxy among the political, educational and media elite.

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