Yesterday, I was on Armstrong Williams’ radio show. He is a conservative radio host and a somewhat controversial one. I thought we had a good time; there was laughter amidst the substance. At the end, he said he wanted to have me back on the show because I was so relaxed (he may have meant, “Compared to what I expected from a professor”) and because he couldn’t figure out my political perspective. I replied that I try to be neutral in the classroom and on the radio. I was gently challenging his earlier suggestion that young people are liberal because college professors brainwash them. But it’s also true that I had been circumscribed about my own political views.
If directly asked–on the air or by a student–I would not attempt to hide that I am a liberal, one of those who is prone to defend the actual record of Barack Obama (à la Jonathan Chait or Kevin Drum). But I am not going to volunteer such opinions in the classroom or in a public forum, because I do not imagine that they come from any special expertise. While wearing an official “educator” badge, I want to speak from some degree of authority. I can talk as an expert about youth voting, but not about the Obama Administration’s economic record.
I admit that I also wanted to be heard by Mr. Williams and his audience. If I had risen to the bait and said that Democrats have a better economic platform, they would have tuned out my comments on youth voting. And what I said about youth voting was independent, I believe, of my political views. This is not to say that our work on youth is value-free. We have an agenda and a mission. It is just somewhat orthogonal to the left/right political debate in America. On the radio, we actually had an interesting and quite candid discussion of the values underlying my professional work. For example, do we really want young people to vote if they do not know about issues? (I would say: No, but people who vote usually inform themselves to a reasonable degree. Low knowledge translates into low turnout, and part of the solution is better information.)
Professors do tend to stand somewhat to the left of the electorate. Whether that is a problem or not is a matter for interesting, and complex, discussion. In any case, the leftward tilt is not by any means evenly distributed: business schools are more conservative than sociology departments, and they educate a lot more kids. Not surprisingly, given the influence of parents, other adults, peers, the media, advertising, political rhetoric, and pop culture, the political impact of faculty appears to be very modest. One reason may be that a lot of us who actually hold liberal political views do not think it’s appropriate to teach accordingly.