Political Bias on Campus

And what should be done?

An academic Bill of Rights?

The Australian Liberal Students' Federation and the Young Liberals have unleashed an attack on leftwing political bias in university teaching. The problem is real but the proposed remedy may not be effective, beyond lifting awareness of the problem. An alternative is proposed.

Taking a cue from the US Students for Academic Freedom organisation, the Federation and the Young Liberals are pushing for an Academic Bill of Rights to promote changes to curricula, hiring of staff without regard to political affiliations, remedies for students who believe that they are being marked down for political incorrectness, etc.

Certainly there is cause for concern about the level of bias in course contents and the attitudes of many teachers towards conservative and non-left liberal ideas. 

Symptoms of the problem include:

1. The dozen or score of  economically illiterate books purporting to critique economic rationality, one of them edited by a man who is widely regarded as the leading public intellectual in the land.

2. A collection of papers, workshopped through the Academy of the Social Sciences, that emerged rather like a set of anti-Liberal Party political pamphlets.

3. Widespread incomprehension of the idea of Hayek and classical liberalism. So the leader of the opposition (now the Prime Minister) could launch a public attack on a crude caricature of Hayek without arousing widespread hoots of mirth or gasps of horror from opponents and supporters respectively. 

What everyone should know

The point is that nobody can consider themselves broadly educated at present without the same grasp of Hayek's ideas (in outline, not in detail) that we expect people with tertiary education to have on things like Darwinian evolution; Mendelian genetics; the way that the Copernican revolution and Einstein advanced physics.

Similarly everyone in the relevant fields should be familiar with work of Jacques Barzun on education and cultural studies, Rene Wellek on literary studies, Karl Buhler and Ian D Suttie on language studies, psychology and psychoanalysis, Bill Hutt on industrial relations, Peter Bauer on third world development, Stanislav Andresky on the methods of the social sciences, Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian school of economics.

A Bill of Rights?

The push for the Bill of Rights will generate a great deal of angst without any guarantee of achieving either the Bill or the desired improvements, even if the bureaucratic systems are put in place to support it. Top down intervention is most likely to generate resistance and resentment, to politicise and personalise the problems in a divisive manner.

A "bottom-up" alternative

A non-bureaucratic, "bottom up" alternative is proposed. At the very least this could run in parallel to the proposed Liberal initiative and it should enlist the support of people of good will of all political persuasions. Investigation and discussion should proceed on two fronts; one is the question of course contents, the other is the broad issue of what tertiary education is supposed to achieve.

Taking the second issue first. "Back to school" (Unleashed 2 May 08) revealed, yet again, a great deal of disappointment and dismay over the university experience for many students. The simple fact of the matter is that Australia followed the US experience, learning nothing from it, despite the clear warning in Barzun’s 1968 book on the American universities. The sector expanded too rapidly for the process of education to keep up: that is, the discovery of the disciplines and rewards of serious, though not pedantic, teaching, learning and scholarship. But that is a topic for another day.

Course contents and reading lists

On course contents, there is a need for a data base on what is being taught, a survey of course outlines and reading lists to identify courses that are not providing students with an introduction to the best thinkers and ideas in the field. This should lead to suggestions for improvements. This may be done in a manner that is contentious and divisive, but it should be possible to proceed in way that is illuminating and educational in its own right. The aim is to recruit the spirit of cooperative scholarship, using a base of evidence to advance the cause of learning and scholarship. There is no need to deny university teachers their own interests, their points of view and their politics. The question is how the courses stack up when they are examined in a climate of civil and robust debate.

The Liberal initiative has been smeared as an attempt to restrict freedom of speech. On the evidence in hand, it is no such thing. It is better described as a long overdue reaction to the radicalisation of the campuses in the aftermath of the Vietnam debate in the 1960s and 1970s.

The task of investigation, reporting and suggestions for improvements can start in a modest way, wherever people with time and energy are prepared to start the process. There was a small beginning a couple of decades ago, with a survey of  courses in politics at the 21 universities at the time. It was very hard to find any reference to Hayek and his work. What is the situation today, how much has changed in two decades?

The process needs to be sustained and it needs to generate debate on campus and beyond, wherever there are people with an interest in the life of  the mind, in education, in ideas, in maintaining good order in "the house of intellect" (as Barzun called it).

This article appeared under the heading An Academic Bill of Rights on the ABC Unleashed site on  16 May 2008  and generated almost 300 comments.