Heterodox Academy, a new organization aimed at promoting viewpoint diversity in the social sciences, has produced a striking chart illustrating the leftward shift of American academics over the last generation:
— Paul Kirby (@paul1kirby) January 3, 2016
What might account for the pronounced rise in the number of self-identified liberals at the expense of moderates and conservatives, starting in the mid-1990s? The Heterodox Academy post speculates that “things began changing in the 1990s as the Greatest Generation (which had a fair number of Republicans) retired and were replaced by the Baby Boom generation (which did not).”
This probably tells part of the story, but we suspect there is more going on here than organic generational replacement. One possibility is that the story told in the graph represents the legacy of the “canon wars“—the intense battles over humanities curricula between traditionalists and multiculturalists that took place during the 1980s and 1990s. Despite some consequential traditionalist protestations, like Allan Bloom’s blockbuster 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind, “its generally agreed,” as Rachel Donadio has written, “that the multiculturalists won the canon wars.” The multiculturalist victory had at least three consequences: a reduced emphasis on what was traditionally called “the Western canon” in general education classes, the expansion of the “studies” departments (African American studies, gender studies, Jewish studies, Chicano studies), and the implementation of “harassment” codes that, in practice, were more often used against people who opposed the multiculturalist project. Whether or not you approve of these developments, it’s easy to see how they could have made scholarly minded students with traditionalist leanings less inclined to get a PhD and enter an academic humanities or social science department (the Heterodox Academy posts notes that most of the conservatives in the chart come from STEM departments and professional schools).
Progressives sometimes argue that the dearth of conservatives in academia can mostly be explained by self-selection, rather than discrimination, and is therefore not a cause for concern. But this argument fails to take into account the way that changes in academic culture affect self-selection. If certain academic departments are seen as overwhelmingly catering to liberal interests, then conservatives will be less likely to join them. And if the multiculturalist victories in the 1980s and 1990s account for some of the leftward shift among the professoriate in the last generation, then the current leftwing agitation on college campuses (and resulting administrative acquiescence) seems likely to have a similar effect.