February 10, 2004

No, You Didn't

Via Andrew Sullivan, this gem from one of our storied Duke professors on the lack of intellectual diversity at that fabulous institution:

"We try to hire the best, smartest people available," Brandon said of his philosophy hires. "If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire.

"Mill's analysis may go some way towards explaining the power of the Republican party in our society and the relative scarcity of Republicans in academia. Players in the NBA tend to be taller than average. There is a good reason for this. Members of academia tend to be a bit smarter than average. There is a good reason for this too."

Burness also noted that the humanities may be particularly oriented toward Democratic minds. "If you were to look at most business schools, you might find more people that were Republican than Democratic," he said. "If you look at the humanities in general, there's a great deal of creativity that goes on. In a sense it's innovation, and a perfectly logical criticism of the current society, in one form or another, that plays itself out in some of these disciplines. It doesn't surprise me that you might find people in humanities are more liberal than conservative."

I mean, why attempt to look at the problem from the perspective of the student? You know, that perhaps humanities courses turn off other points of view precisely because in the current climate no other real points of view are offered? I like to call that the circle jerk approach to academics: "We will only teach theory-based literary analysis, therefore students interested in reader-response will go elsewhere, therefore they are not creative/innovative/bright enough to study literature, QED."

It's stuff like this that makes me glad I turned Duke down for my undergraduate work. Of course, Professor Brandon does have a point about one thing. It takes excessive amounts of creativity and innovation to get your head that far up your ass.

Posted by Big Arm Woman at February 10, 2004 02:21 PM

Sometimes I wonder if they actually listen to what they say or if their ego has clogged their ears.

Want to hear another funny?

I went to grad school for ed psych. We had a prof on staff that was nationally famous. Came into the department, brought all sorts of power and attention to the university, and published left and right about good teaching methods.

So, what did he do when it was time to teach class? Stood up in front of the class and pontificated....one of those teaching methods that his research demonstrated to be a not-so-good teaching method.

Irony is alive and well and exhausted beyond belief.

Posted by: Di at February 10, 2004 04:15 PM


A couple of the smartest people at my college went to graduate school in the humanities -- I'm not at ALL sure I count myself as one of them. Others went to work for Arthur Andersen, to be woodworkers, to be crystal meth users....

Only a philsopher could be so certain about the ability of his fellow academics.

Posted by: Michael Tinkler at February 10, 2004 05:34 PM

Reminds me of the teenagers who want to dress like their friends to "express their individuality."

This man has a built in excuse for his comments as he believes that anyone who would be offended is too stupid to understand him anyway. If he ever leaves academia, he could make a lot of money in executive consulting.

Posted by: LittleA at February 10, 2004 05:36 PM

In John Stuart Mill's day, liberalism and conservatism meant something very different from what they do today. (For one thing, those stupid "conservatives" tended to come from the landed aristocracy...a social class which today is perhaps best simulated by members of the tenured professoriate.)

But today, people are called "liberal" if they reject the possibility of change in the educational system, regardless of its performance...and they value an illusory "stability" in Iraq more than they value things like preventing mass murder...and they have a strong bias against technology and even against logic. Today's "liberals" sound an awful lot like yesterday's "reactionaries."

Posted by: David Foster at February 10, 2004 06:03 PM

As I remember, the JS Mill quote to Packington was something like 'I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it. ' -- yes I'm a huge JS Mill fan. But what he was condemning, IMHO, was orthodoxy. And what could be more orthodox than modern liberalism on college campuses (campi ?)

Posted by: jz at February 10, 2004 06:51 PM

You're quite right about the self-selection that drives the homogeneity of the typically most left-wing academic departments. Who else but an aficionado could stand the atmosphere? I note that Brandon, apparently lacking any capacity for independent thought, confines himself to parroting Mill, and further apparently does not recognize that the term "conservative" (like the term "liberal") meant something rather different 150 years ago.

As long as we're getting snotty about intellectual gifts, perhaps we should tell this luminary that those in hard core physical sciences (many of us conservative in politics) tend to view those in the humanities as people who couldn't cut it in a serious field (uncharitable, I know, but let's face it, not entirely untrue). No one washes out of humanities and takes up physical sciences; the converse happens every day.

By serious I mean one characterized by heavy intellectual lifting AND subject to judgment by the ultimate standard: reality. No clever quip, turn of phrase, literary allusion, or specious deconstruction will create the illusion that you've solved a problem - only really solving it will do that.

To experience a scintilla of this phenomenon in a mundane context, young Brandon should never again call a repairman. When his house electrical system, TV, stereo, computer, auto, or whatever goes on the blink, he should fix it himself - without a manual – and face that moment of truth when he turns on the power.(God how I'd love to be there…at a safe distance, of course.) THAT's what it's like to do research in the physical sciences.

By the way, my own background as a faculty member in chemistry provides no factual information useful in fixing such things; it does provide intellectual skills in scientific method and logical analysis to which such problems yield quickly nevertheless.

Posted by: Occam's Beard at February 10, 2004 06:55 PM

More on this at my blog.

Posted by: David Foster at February 10, 2004 11:04 PM

This is why I'm not at Duke today. I talked to one of my friends, who is a very moderate center-right (he may even be slightly left of center) professor, who told me "you would not be welcome here - the academic staff will not tolerate someone as politically incorrect (meaning not leftist) as you are."

"Reminds me of the teenagers who want to dress like their friends to 'express their individuality.'"

Posted by: CW at February 10, 2004 11:13 PM

Funny, OB, I know plenty of scientists who--while fairly bright in their fields--couldn't analyze anything human or historic without resorting to cliches and conspiracy theories. They couldn't fix a lawn mower either, although they could, as you point out, analyze it and figure out how to do it. So could every humanities geek I know. Nice hypothesis, but it's based on ideology rather than real data.

Most of us in the second-, third-, and fourth-tier universities live in between the extremes, trying to teach our classes for the benefit of our students. Critical thinking, writing, and analysis are kind of important, and we try to get our students to do them without regard to ideology. I'm really sick of the bitching on both sides.

Posted by: Michael at February 10, 2004 11:51 PM

Intellectual masturbation. It must be good for him cause he is the only one getting off. It sure wasn't good for me.

Posted by: Robert Day at February 11, 2004 08:32 AM

I'm afraid its not just Duke. I analyzed recent political contribution data for faculty and staff members at the top 15 nationally ranked universities over the last three years and found that 84% of the funds were contributed to Democrats vs. only 12% to Republicans.

I guess diversity only applies to melanin and XX chromosomes.

Read the details at my blog: http://www.spartacus.ws/001052.html

Posted by: Spart at February 15, 2004 07:59 PM