The Activist Professors

The “liberal professors are destroying higher education” line of thinking is nothing new in conservative thought. Even if the discussion is a little odd (when was the last time anyone trying to figure out the political leanings of, say, America’s retail managers?) most Americans can probably not too far off. Maybe it’s nobody’s business but it is hard to find an English professor who will admit voting for John McCain in the last election.

But here’s why it’s a problem, says Naomi Schaefer Riley in a piece in the Washington Post: these professors are liberal activists.

Riley, an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values, believes that professors are so involved with that activism that they’re not teaching the liberal arts very well. As she explains:

It is becoming harder and harder to find professors devoted to teaching traditional academic subjects for their own sake, to undergraduates who lack the basics in the humanities and the social and natural sciences. The academy has not become politicized because of a few radical professors. Rather, entire departments and university administrations see the goal of higher education as political. At a time when the percentage of students needing remedial education is at an all-time high, when the need for job training beyond high school is pressing and when we worry about how even our top students will compete with their peers around the world, political activism should be at the bottom of any university’s list of priorities.

Liberal academics now see activism as part of their jobs.

The classroom became politics by other means…. Just consider the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison….

The Nelson Institute says its mission is to act as a “catalyst and model for interdisciplinary collaboration on environmental initiatives across departments, schools, and colleges, and including governmental, private, and non-profit entities.” It sponsors film festivals on “environmental justice” and sustainability projects for students. Its scholars worry about how the temperature in Wisconsin is climbing and try to come up with ways that citizens can reduce their carbon footprints. Its magazine criticizes the oil industry. It sends undergraduates to work in internships for environmental advocacy organizations.

Maybe students should learn the “foundations of undergraduate education first.” They’ve got plenty to time to be activists.

Interesting idea, but has anyone managed to demonstrate that political involvement makes people less effective professors? I’m not even talking about political indoctrination here. Riley seems to imply that this problem has something to do with work distribution. These professors are so caught up in trying to reform the system; they’ve run out of time to actually teach.

Perhaps I’m biased here, but does anyone else think political involvement might actually be a rather good form of education? It seems that aside from something like civil engineering or mathematics, most academic subjects have an important political component.

After all, if you’re taking environmental studies it’s probably because you’re interested in the environment. If a professor can connect what you’re studying to something going on in the news, it seems like that’s a pretty damn good way for students to learn information.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer