Flat White

Time to end the closed shop of ideas at university

8 June 2018

7:44 AM

8 June 2018

7:44 AM

Imagine, if you will, a parallel universe in which the ANU accredits the Ramsay Centre. The Centre produces a mission statement on the ANU website:

The Ramsay Centre aims to deepen Australia’s understanding of Western Civilization and histories and ensure Western civilisation knowledge, perspectives and experiences are respected, valued, accessed and incorporated into all learning environments at The Australian National University (ANU) and beyond.

The horror. How can a university centre be truly scholarly and yet so partisan? The ANU was surely right to reject its application for accreditation, right? But here it gets a little awkward for the ANU.

Let’s make one minor adjustment to the mission statement. Replace “Ramsay Centre” with “National Centre for Indigenous Studies (NCIS)” and “Western Civilisation” with “Indigenous.” Behold:

[The] NCIS aims to deepen Australia’s understanding of Indigenous cultures and histories and ensure Indigenous knowledge, perspectives and experiences are respected, valued, accessed and incorporated into all learning environments at The Australian National University (ANU) and beyond.

This is what you will find on the ANU website right now.

The NCIS goes much further than Ramsay in its affirmation of the value of a particular culture and its open aim to spread such an appreciation throughout the ANU. Yet it is only Ramsay that is decried and protested as biased.

That universities – Humanities departments in particular – tend to be skewed to the left ideologically is not even contested by academics. It’s a proven fact, and it’s why Ramsay was decried by students and academics while no one ever said a word against the NCIS.

A 2016 study of British academia produced by the Adam Smith Institute in London (ASI) found that “Around 50 per cent of the general public supports right-wing or conservative parties, compared to less than 12 per cent of academics.” Two researchers from Manchester Metropolitan University critiqued the ASI study, not because they disagreed with its finding that academics are disproportionately left-wing, but because they disagreed that this is unfair to conservatives and that it necessarily means that teaching will be biased.

A 2017 US study based on a sample of 5,197 tenure-track academics from fifty-one of the sixty-six top-ranked liberal arts colleges in the U.S. found that the Democratic-to-Republican ratio across the sample is 10.4:1. The upshot is that academics are creating citizens in their own image. In 2016 the Pew Research Centre in the US produced a study showing that highly educated adults are far more likely than those with less education “to take predominantly liberal [leftist] positions across a range of political values.”

Let’s look at this from a different angle. One of the most powerful arguments that academia is systemically skewed against women is that even though women make up 50 per cent of the general population they have traditionally been a small minority on university faculties. Ok, fair point. But where else does this logic take us?

In Australian elections, roughly half of voters vote for parties that could be described as conservative to varying degrees. This reality is hardly mirrored in Humanities departments at our universities. Unless you think that conservatives simply aren’t as intelligent or curious as leftists, what could explain it? Could there be a systemic anti-conservative bias operating that is not unlike the patriarchy that kept out women for so many years?  Yes, there is, but like sexism, it is nearly impossible to prove other than by looking at the ratios of society and faculties and seeing that something just isn’t adding up. Talk to conservative academics and they’ll tell you stories of ideological bullying and bastardry. A lot of conservative students will have their own stories as well.

I am not calling for lecturers to abandon their political or ideological biases. Humanities lecturers should aspire to be fair in their analyses but not necessarily to strive for some mythical “centrist” approach to their subject matter. They should, however, exercise self-restraint in the lecture and tutorial rooms, doing their best to open up discussion for all points of view and to make conservatives feel welcome and valued.

From what students have told me – a conservative academic – over the years, I don’t think students want neutral lecturers, nor do they want ideologues. They want university faculties with a decent range of views, conservative and leftist. Intellectual diversity and a collision of ideas is what students find exciting and stimulating, as opposed an insipid gruel of ideological uniformity.

In other words, the problem with humanities departments is certainly not that they contain leftists, even bona fide Marxists. The problem is that they contain hardly any conservatives to offer balance and a true diversity of views.

In their 2018 book Why Democracies Die Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue “the fundamental problem facing American democracy remains extreme partisan division,” fuelled by economic inequality but also ideological polarisation. This became spectacularly apparent in the Trump campaign and its divisive aftermath. Levitsky and Ziblatt rightly say that Trump is not the cause but the symptom of polarization that has been emerging for a generation in the US. In fact not just in the US, but to a large extent in Australia too, as evidenced in the same-sex marriage debate, which didn’t descend into civil war, but frequently descended into civil hate.

Could it be that if the universities had greater equality of both leftist and conservative academics then over time social polarisation could be ameliorated? Could it be that part of the problem of social polarisation is that thousands of impressionable minds go through the universities every year without encountering serious defenders of conservative views? Could it be that thousands leave university every year with the impression that conservative views have no defence, and that conservatives, therefore, need not be rationally engaged with, as opposed to decried as narrow-minded and reactionary?

Let’s say the Ramsay Centre is biased towards a general appreciation of the Western canon. This makes it unique on the university campus only in so far as it is conservative, not because it is biased. Academics have spectacularly failed to create ideologically neutral spaces for learning. Nor have they aspired to any such neutrality.

Good luck to the NCIS, I wish them well, but let’s not fabricate some pious myth about neutrality and objectivity in the university to justify excluding the Ramsay Centre. That’s merely to continue doing what faculties have been doing for decades, unfairly keeping conservatives out of their leftist clubs.

Dr Stephen Chavura teaches politics and history at Macquarie University and Campion College, Sydney.

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