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Ask a Redbird Scholar: Why is higher education so liberal?

The Quad at Illinois State University.

The Quad at Illinois State University.

Why is higher education so liberal?

Most studies show that college professors are not as liberal as is widely assumed. It is important to remember that many outspoken left-wing academics on political and social issues work in a small range of disciplines, usually in the social sciences and humanities—English, history, political science, sociology, etc. Universities are large institutions that encompass a whole range of disciplines, including those like business and technology, where faculty are not necessarily left-leaning or outspoken political advocates.

Andrew Hartman standing in front of shelves of books

History Professor Andrew Hartman

That said, it is true that academics as a whole lean left. Why?

In order to answer this question, we need to understand the role of institutions. Higher education operates by its own institutional logic, just like corporations or the military or any other institution. And just as other institutions tend to attract people with specific political values that match such logic—for example, corporations and the military tend to attract conservatives—so too does the university.

Left-leaning individuals gravitate toward the university for a range of historical reasons.

First, from the 20th century onward, American universities have been secular. They do not adhere to religious doctrine. So, people who want to explore knowledge free of religious dogma—especially Jews and other non-Christians, as well as atheists—have found the university a welcome home. Such people have tended to be liberal.

Second, the American university is where the promise of American life is studied, debated, and passed on to the next generation. As such, wave after wave of marginalized peoples—people of color, immigrants, women, gays and lesbians, religious minorities, the disabled—have looked to the university as the place to establish themselves as equal and deserving inheritors of this promise. Such a project, the expansion of the American promise and thus the university curriculum beyond white Christian men, has tended to be liberal.

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Third, the university system at its best does not operate by market logic. According to this ideal, knowledge is valued for its own sake, or for its ability to improve the human condition, not for its cash value. People who want to work according to this ideal not only believe in its purpose, they are also paid less. Such people tend to be liberal.

These three historical tendencies—there are plenty more—help make higher education liberal. This does not mean that conservative faculty, students, and ideas are unwelcome. In fact, empirical studies show the exact opposite.

Andrew Hartman, professor, Department of History

Our top faculty experts answer questions from the Illinois State University community in the “Ask a Redbird Scholar” section. To submit a question, email Kevin Bersett at kdberse@IllinoisState.edu or tweet it to @ISUResearch. Chosen questions and answers appear in each issue of Illinois State’s new research magazine, the Redbird Scholar. To read other “Ask a Redbird Scholar” posts, visit IllinoisState.edu/RedbirdScholar.

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