by Herbert I. London
As you might guess, discrimination is high on the agenda at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference where psychologists discuss racial prejudice, homophobia, sexism, and so on. Remarkably the most controversial speech at this year's meeting was by Professor Jonathan Haidt from the University of Virginia.
After polling his audience on political views, Haidt found that almost all were politically liberal. He counted a grand total of three conservatives. "This," he noted, after pointing out that the 40% of Americans describe themselves as conservatives, "is a statistically impossible lack of diversity."
Professor Haidt concluded that social psychologists are a "tribal, moral community" united by "sacred values" that hinder genuine research and damage the credibility of the discipline. Further, this insularity blinds researchers to the hostile climate they have created for non-liberals.
When women or minorities are underrepresented by a factor of two or three in social psychology research, discrimination is invariably employed as an explanation; but when conservatives are underrepresented by a factor of more than 100, alternate explanations are sought. Almost all the research on the Academy points out the overwhelming liberal bias that prevails among the professoriate. In so many instances I am familiar with, young conservative scholars are fearful of expressing their political views since this could be used against them in tenure and promotion decisions.
Dr. Haidt argues that disciplines such as sociology, psychology and anthropology have long attracted liberals, but they became exclusive after the 1960's when the fight for civil rights against racism became a "sacred cause." According to him, if a group circles around sacred values, it will evolve into a "tribal, moral community" in which science will be embraced when it supports the cause, and dismissed when it doesn't.
All one has to do to affirm this conclusion is recall how Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard, was ostracized for wondering whether the preponderance of male professors in math and science might be due partly to the variance in brain structure among men and women. For many academics, his was simply not a permissible hypothesis..
Dr. Haidt has urged his colleagues to focus on shared science rather than shared moral values. To the surprise of many, the Society voted to put a statement on the group's home page welcoming psychologists with "diverse perspectives." In some quarters this is a notable victory.
While applauding Dr. Haidt's efforts, and noting that he is a former liberal turned centrist who did not deliver his remarks out of some political bias, there is still much to be done and spoken about in institutions of higher learning. Despite the fact that Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly twelve to one in American universities, this is not on its face cause for concern. It is the translation of political views into specific curriculum orientations that poses the great challenge.
After all, if education is to be open and predicated on rational exchange, sacred causes should not influence the character of instruction. Those students recruited into the circle of moral doctrine are in fact detached from the essential elements of scholarship.
Professor Haidt has revealed a fundamental truth about his discipline. But many disciplines are facing the same problem. The question that remains is the extent to which higher education has been compromised by the intrusion of "sacred values "over "scientific dispassion," and the extent to which recovery is possible.
Herbert I. London
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