Thursday, November 11, 2004

Liberal Groupthink

There is a really terrific article in the Chronicle of Higher Education today (via Memeorandum) that discusses the "liberal groupthink" prevalent on university campuses. Here is an excerpt:

After Nixon crushed McGovern in the 1972 election, the film critic Pauline Kael made a remark that has become a touchstone among conservatives. "I don't know how Richard Nixon could have won," she marveled. "I don't know anybody who voted for him." While the second sentence indicates the sheltered habitat of the Manhattan intellectual, the first signifies what social scientists call the False Consensus Effect. That effect occurs when people think that the collective opinion of their own group matches that of the larger population. If the members of a group reach a consensus and rarely encounter those who dispute it, they tend to believe that everybody thinks the same way.

The tendency applies to professors, especially in humanities departments, but with a twist. Although a liberal consensus reigns within, academics have an acute sense of how much their views clash with the majority of Americans. Some take pride in a posture of dissent and find noble precursors in civil rights, Students for a Democratic Society, and other such movements. But dissent from the mainstream has limited charms, especially after 24 years of center-right rule in Washington. Liberal professors want to be adversarial, but are tired of seclusion. Thus, many academics find a solution in a limited version of the False Consensus that says liberal belief reigns among intellectuals everywhere.

Such a consensus applies only to the thinking classes, union supporters, minority-group activists, and environmentalists against corporate powers. Professors cannot conceive that any person trained in critical thinking could listen to George W. Bush speak and still vote Republican. They do acknowledge one setting in which right-wing intellectual work happensnamely, the think tanksbut add that the labor there is patently corrupt. The Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and the Hoover Institution all have corporate sponsors, they note, and fellows in residence do their bidding. Hence, references to "right-wing think tanks" are always accompanied by the qualifier "well-funded."

I first encountered "groupthink" when I worked at the NASA Johnson Space Center. The term describes the process by which a group can make bad or irrational decisions. In a groupthink situation, each member of the group attempts to conform his or her opinions to what they believe to be the consensus of the group. At NASA the decision-making process was ultimately held to account in the Challenger disaster in 1986; and the concept of groupthink was cited to explain how NASA managers and culture subtly discouraged any thinking/dissent that went against its decision-making--thus leading everyone to conclude that things were "safe" when they actually weren't.

In a similar manner, the intellectual elites on campuses all over the country, have insulated themselves from any dissent or even mere questioning of their ideas. They control the curriculum, the reading list, and the grading. Students are not only NOT encouraged to think for themselves, they are actively DISCOURAGED and pablum-fed the "truth" as their liberal professors see it.

The only argument I have with the Chronicle of Higher Education article is: what took you so long to notice???? This state of affairs is hardly a recent development on campus. When I was in college at the University of California, Riverside back in the late 60's, early 70's, it was already very noticeable. The Vietnam war was raging, and any student who dared to defy the picket lines (as I did) could count on the scorn and contempt of their professors and fellow students. My saving grace was one or two professors who actually agreed with me that closing down the university to protest the war seemed counterproductive. Nowadays, as one of the very few conservative/libertarian faculty, I rarely meet ANY faculty whose views are to the right of "extremely liberal".

The blogsphere has coined the term "liberal cocoon" to describe this phenomenon in the media and in academe; and it is that "cocoon" --a lack of intellectual diversity--that leads to groupthink. Shouldn't our universities be more than a multicultural menagerie fostering conformity in thinking? I want my daughter to be exposed to a diversity of IDEAS in her schooling; far more than I want her to be exposed to different cultures (She can travel and freely expose herself to whatever cultures interest her, if she chooses). First, I want her to be free to THINK, DISCUSS, and QUESTION.

If you have a son or daughter about to go to college, I think it would be a great idea to have them read this article. As Miguel de Cervantes wrote, " forewarned is forearmed; to be prepared is half the battle."

No comments: