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The Methodological Connection to the Campus Climate (Part 2)

The Brief

This is the second  in a series of articles from BPC Fellow Steven F. Hayward on the decline of intellectual diversity among higher education faculty. The opinions expressed reflect those of the author and not necessarily those of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The first installment in this series invited us to consider whether the growing controversies over free expression on campus today are related to the narrowing of political diversity of college faculties, and whether declining number of conservative faculty might have methodological roots rather than purely ideological roots. Many observers believe ideological bias is responsible for the narrowing of ideological horizons on campus, and there is some circumstantial evidence of bias. Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr., for example, review some of the fragmentary survey evidence of ideological bias in several disciplines in Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University.

But deliberate bias may not be the primary cause of the lopsided ideological profile of colleges and universities. Hiring and tenure decisions are individual, case-by-case matters, often driven or constrained by the niche requirements of sub-fields that, as I posited, many conservatives self-select out of, creating a feedback loop depleting the pool of potential conservative faculty.

This circumstance requires a closer look, as the deeper causes may help indirectly explain some of the dysfunctional campus climate that stifles free expression. The story of how seemingly neutral methodological orthodoxies have hardened in ways that reinforce ideological orthodoxies is complicated, subtle, often unintentional, and requires some patient explication and reflection, starting with a brief look at political science.

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Changing Conventions Across Academia

Changing methodological conventions are common to every academic field, with many disciplines becoming wholly different from what they were just two generations ago. This process is what philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn in The Structures of Scientific Revolutions called “the disciplinary matrix.” His book famously illuminated how science changes less through steady or step-by-step progression than through crises and anomalies that generate whole new dominant “paradigms.”

The academic controversies in the physical sciences attract little general attention for the simple fact that, aside from the complexity of the subject matter that is beyond most laypeople, there is little political or social import involved.

Changing Conventions Within Social Science and Political Science

The scene changes when considering the social sciences. The social sciences deal with matters over which political opinion divides sharply and passionately, because, at the root, they are concerned with basic questions of justice.

This fact is often obscured by the senescence of the “fact-value” debate that arose while scholars were attempting to make social sciences more fully “scientific” and empirical. This effort, which began during the 17th and 18th century Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, culminated in the 20th century with the “positive” social science of thinkers like Max Weber. Moral claims (“values”) today are dryly described as “normative” issues and considered unscientific because they cannot be empirically grounded.

For much of the 20th century, conservatives were usually found on the “value” side of the fact-value debate, though many liberal and even radical left thinkers also resist narrow empiricism: Sheldon Wolin, Hilary Putnam, and Ian Shapiro, show that the fact-value debate remains alive, even if it is largely dormant or hibernating in most college curricula.  (For more on these periodic controversies in political science, see David M. Ricci, and Kristen Renwick Monroe, ed., Perestroika: The Raucous Rebellion in Political Science.)

One reason that there tend to be more conservatives found in political science, especially political philosophy, is the diversity of methodologies and subfields and vigorous intradisciplinary debate in the field. Ironically, this is also why political science, as a discipline, tends to be relatively less politicized than other social sciences. Traditionally, every political science department included political philosophy, with scholars concerned with what the positive social scientists isolate as “normative” questions.

However, today, some leading political science departments have considered discontinuing political philosophy as a subfield, suggesting it should be the province of philosophy departments instead. This is an entirely wrongheaded idea. Empirical political scientists do not grasp that today’s academic philosophy, rightly understood, is a foreign enterprise wholly incompatible with political philosophy.

But it also has the effect of deterring conservatives, who were disproportionately represented among political philosophy faculty, from entering academe at all. Allan Bloom may have put his finger on the heart of the matter in his Closing of the American Mind:

“Political Science is the only discipline in the university (with the possible exception of the philosophy department) that has a philosophical branch. . . Political philosophy . . . provides at least a reminiscence of those old questions about good and evil and the resources for examining the hidden presuppositions of modern Political Science and political life.”

Other subfields in political science that have attracted conservatives over the years are slowly dwindling. Public law, once a thriving subfield featuring many conservative professors, has been in decline for two decades or more. Increasingly, public law is being ceded over to law schools, even though law professors do not approach the subject in the same manner as political scientists, which means useful perspectives are lost. Political history has almost completely disappeared as a specialty in political science; in fact, the new editorial leadership of the American Political Science Review does not contain anyone from political philosophy or political history.

Up Next…

I’ll analyze why disciplinary methodology is converging much more so today than a generation ago, why this matters, why this has resulted in the questions of justice or “values” increasingly orphaned and politicized in unhealthy ways, and how this has unintentionally contributed to the excesses of campus “political correctness.”

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