College doesn’t make you liberal; liberals make colleges

Came across this nice column by Chris Mooney about the relationship between college and liberalism.  Short version: it’s the selection bias, stupid.  (And for the record, I think selection bias is one of the most important social science concepts that is massively unappreciated by the general public).

It’s certainly true that college professors are overwhelmingly liberal — as are scientists. As Ireported last year in The American Prospect, the best research suggests that just 14 percent of professors are Republicans. Similarly, just 6 percent of American Association for the Advancement of Science members back the honorable elephant of the GOP.

But why? Sociologist Neil Gross of the University of British Columbia, along with his colleagues Ethan Fosse and Jeremy Freese, make a compelling case that the liberalism of academia is partly driven by “self-selection“: for liberals, pursuing an academic career is naturally appealing. So they tend to stay at universities and pursue graduate degrees and doctorates, and ultimately, come to make up most of the professoriate.

By contrast, conservatives have a different set of values, interests, and priorities. They are, for instance, more likely to want to go into the business world and make gobs of money. Such things push young conservatives away from academia, or at least from staying there very long. Thus, they leave these institutions open to being dominated by liberals.

It certainly doesn’t help that the right has been attacking colleges for decades. So liberals have learned to like them, and conservatives have learned to distrust them.

Mooney endorses this sociological view, but then argues there’s likely some self-selection on the basis of psychology going on here as well:

It’s clear that humans beings have different personalities — some more open to new and abstract ideas and more exploratory, some more closed and defensive — and these personalities have strong political implications. I discussed some of this research in my last piece here, and much more extensively in my forthcoming book The Republican Brain.

If all of this is right — and the body of evidence is extensive and compelling — then liberals just arethe kind of people who like to hang out in places like universities and try out new ideas (and substances, and music, and… use your imagination). By this analysis, universities are a lot like coffee shops and Cambridge, Massachusetts: the kind of places where liberals just feel like they belong. And Santorum is as powerless in the face of this as we all are in the face of human nature.

Conservatives, supposedly, support tradition and stability and doing things the way they’ve always been done. And they support building the institutions of society in such a way as to realistically reflect who we are, and who we always will be.

Well, perhaps the liberalism of colleges and of scientific inquiry is a core part of that picture. And if so, not only is there no point complaining about it, but there’s every reason to be happy about it — at least if you’re really “conservative.”

Perhaps we’ll always have liberals, hanging out in colleges, pushing conservatives’ buttons. And perhaps we’ll always have conservatives feeling uneasy about it, or worse — denouncing universities as liberal bastions and claiming they’re indoctrination mills.

Just call it tradition.

Not a lot to add, mostly because I’m fairly well persuaded and I would say that it largely fits with my experience of the past 18 years of graduate school and professor-dom.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

3 Responses to College doesn’t make you liberal; liberals make colleges

  1. itchy says:

    I’m skeptical of … OK, actually I’m not. This seems right to me.

  2. Jon says:

    This argument which states that liberals are more likely to be at universities due to selection bias seems to present a chicken or the egg conundrum. It’s too 2-dimensional. A better explanation might come from investigating the history of the university. The university system started as monasteries back in the middle ages, which were religious orders… and are what would be perceived today as being quite conservative. Over the course of history the monasteries became universities. An ideological shift must have occurred between then and now. A lot has happened since the middle ages… I don’t know what led to what we see today… but I’m confident that by doing some serious digging, someone could figure it out. :)

  3. Jon says:

    Whoops, I made a mistake… in my previous statement “selection bias” should be replaced with “self selection”… I’m human, I hope you’ll forgive me. Anyways, I said that it seemed 2-dimensional, here’s why: It’s implicitly assumed that universities are liberal; it’s also assumed that people tend to orient themselves towards places that are like themselves, it’s that “self selection” assumption. Liberals like liberal places, conservatives like conservative places. At face value it seems to make sense. But it refers to the current state of the system; to answer the question of why it’s in that state, you need to know a little bit about what it looked like before.

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