31 March 2008

Bias In Higher Education

We've written a number of times about the ideological divide at BYU. Generally perceived as a conservative school, like other institutions, BYU has a largely liberal professoriate. We think this is due, in part, to what happens to these professors when they go to grad school. Most of the dominant theories and professors in most of the graduate disciplines--certainly the humanities and social sciences--are liberal ones. This is especially true in any discipline where political ideology can possibly have any influence: engineering, business, hard sciences pretty much don't count here.

At BYU, the generally conservative student population (the political faith of their fathers) runs into their liberal professors. No one is giving bad grades for being conservative. And we haven't heard of any anti-Republican/business/Bush rants. But we have personally witnessed, for example, a debate about gender and the role of "social constructs" in defining gender identity. Certainly the science is not settled, but this was a history class and the popular side, the one promoted by the professor, was the one that said that social constructs define gender identity, not any inborn or innate or inherent sense. Those who argued for social constructs=gender identity were the ones "in the know." They adopted the typical liberal posture of, "if you knew better, you'd agree with us."

We don't want to get sidetracked by the substance of the debate, it's only an example. The point is that BYU is like every other university in the country in the sense that liberal professors wield great power in influencing the politics of their students. There may be 10% fewer registered Democrats (thought we doubt it) and they may be less strident than Ward Churchill, but they affect students just the same.

This was brought home to us this weekend in conversation with one of our friends, a broadcast journalism major. We had spoken before about internships and post-grad job prospects, so we knew about her anti-Fox News bias. We mentioned to her that Drudge had recently listed that Fox News programming had double the viewers of its next closest cable news competitor. This surprised her.

We've asked her before about her dislike of Fox News and she really wasn't able to give us a good answer. It had something to do with the fact that they (her journalism school) didn't like Fox News because they're biased or something and everyone else is, what? Giving us 'just the facts, please, ma'am?' Right.

There's just a kind of attitude towards non-liberal ideas, attitudes and institutions that infects higher education and if you want to get along and be accepted, you have to fall in line.

Sometimes these attitudes infect without the student even knowing it. We've seen this happen with our friends in grad schools (the ones who didn't go to MBA school). Without them even knowing (because they aren't taught as such), they learn to believe in all the -isms of the day: nihilism, relativism, utilitarianism, feminism, multiculturalism, postmodernism, whatever. Our grad school experience at UCL and seminars at Cambridge and Queen Mary was slightly different to the experience of American students. Because they were British institutions, their politics don't divide sharply down party lines. Of course there were more and less acceptable points of view--on Iraq, for example--but we felt our UCL professors were less (if you can believe it) ideological than many of our BYU professors. And certainly less ideological and postmodern than many of the professors teaching our friends in grad school.

This strange difference may have been a product of the fact that BYU professors know about public perception of their school (religious, conservative) and feel like they have to veer hard to the left in order to be accepted when they go to conferences. Again, this isn't true of everyone, but it's certainly true of many.

Back to BYU's J-school. Most editorial pages of most newspapers around the country have a consistent ideology. The Wall Street Journal is conservative, the NYT, Washington Post, USA Today, and LA Times are liberal. The same is not true of BYU's student newspaper, the Daily Universe. There is no coherent and consistent ideology. This is, of course, a result of the fact that the editorial board changes every semester. Different students + different backgrounds + different politics = constantly changing editorial ideology. Fine. But it is here that we see this tension between largely conservative students in a liberal dominated field (according to polls we saw back in 2004, 70% of journalists voted for John Kerry. Journalists do not mirror America.). Young BYU students, ready to liberate themselves from their parents, try out the new ideas they learn in their intro to comms classes. Thus, their reporting and opinion writing is a grab bag of conservative background, liberal journalistic training, and frosh and soph grammar and writing. Point being, sure, the DU often seems juvenile or poorly written, but we shouldn't hold it to an unfair standard.

The most invidious biases are the ones people harbor but about which they are unaware. That journalists in America and professors in higher education (and at BYU specifically) prefer Democrats is not the problem. Problems arise when the echo chambers they inhabit begin to make them think that their biases are the way the world is, rather than just one perspective.

This is the theme that unites our examples: our history class discussion of social constructs and gender, and our friend's J-School taught opinion of Fox News. They don't see the opposing view in terms of differing opinions, they see it in terms of right and wrong, smart and stupid, progressive and antiquated, enlightened and ignorant, educated and, well, uneducated.

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buruboi said...

This is interesting. Liberal professoriate (good word) at BYU..haha

I'm sure there are instances of liberal biases in certain classes and even liberal trends in some departments (English). But wouldn't you imagine there is a greater bias to the right even among grad-level professors? I really have no empirical data to back that up, but it just seems at a school like BYU, the conservative ideology would be well represented (Doesn't BYU's law program have a huge emphasis on protecting the traditional family?)

I've never been bothered much by the political persuasions of those that instruct me. Perhaps I'm merely aware that everyone has a bias that most be taken into account when evaluating their argument.

Another, more surreptitious bias in education at BYU is the propensity of the administration to invest in only the top 5% of its student body. The majority of scholarship programs, internships, and extracurriculars are intended for those students who would be successful no matter where they attended college (you know, the ones that turned down MIT to be around those of their same faith). While they certainly deserve access to these opportunities, BYU is largely ignoring the very qualified 5%-15% of the student body that could excel if giving access to similar opportunities.

BYU's, of course, is trying to bolster the prestige of the university by obtaining road scholars and such. That's a fair motivation. Its just sad that its being done at the expense of the rest of the student body.

Dan said...

Good points.

I know the term "postmodern" is thrown around a lot and can mean a wide variety of things. However, there are ways of being both conservative and postmodern. There are ways of being postmodern without being ideological.

I think something similar could be said for most of the other -isms you've mentioned.

It seems like the problem has less to do with a belief in specific -isms, and more to do with arrogance and ideology. As you say, "Problems arise when the echo chambers they inhabit begin to make them think that their biases are the way the world is, rather than just one perspective"

Which, by the way, can be seen as a description of the way some postmodernists see the world.