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Groupthink in Academia: The Will to Submit

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

“Groupthink” is a phenomenon that social psychologists know well.  It was in 1972 that Irving Janis first coined the term, and since this time the concept of groupthink has been applied to the study of decision-making in various contexts.

However, all too rarely have scholars analyzed academia in terms of groupthink.  Yet there can be no question that contemporary academics at most universities and colleges throughout America (and beyond) are at least as much as and, truth be told, probably much more so than anyone else under the spell of Groupthink.

I have been teaching philosophy for the last 18 years.  I have taught at a variety of schools from the Southwest to the Northeast, colleges and universities, two-year schools and four-year schools, institutions that are research-oriented and others that are teaching-oriented.  I have never ceased to be both intrigued by and incredulous over the political and ideological conformity of the vast majority of the members of the academic class.

My intrigue and incredulity stem from the same source: Theoretically, academia is supposed to be a bastion of the free exchange of a rich diversity of ideas.  In fact, institutions of higher learning are supposed to be the freest place for the expression and testing of unconventional, unorthodox theses. According to this ideal, an academic is, almost by definition, a dissenter.

The reality, sadly, is an entirely different matter.

While there are always exceptions, faculty in liberal arts and humanities departments are overwhelmingly located squarely on the political left.  The latest proof of this—not that any proof is needed for anyone with just the most casual acquaintance with academia—is a study by researchers Mitchell Langbert, Anthony J. Quain, and Daniel B. Klein.  

The authors of the study investigated the voter registration of faculty at 40 “leading U.S. universities in the fields of Economics, History, Journalism/Communications, Law, and Psychology.”  What they found is that of 7,243 professors, 3,623 were registered Democratic while only 314 were registered Republican.

This means that Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly twelve to one.

The ratios of Democrat to Republican for the five disciplines are as follows: Economics (4.5:1); History (33.5:1); Journalism/Communications (20.0:1); Law (8.6:1); and Psychology (17.4:1).     

This is remarkable. The researchers admit that while they knew that there are far more Democrats than Republicans in academia, they were surprised to learn that the former outnumbered the latter by this large of a margin.

And many departments at schools throughout America have zero Republicans. 

Fourteen of the universities canvassed have a Democrat-to-Republican ratio of 20:1 and greater:

Boston College (22:1)

University of North Carolina (23:1)

University of Southern California (26:1)

University of California-Davis (26:1)

University of Maryland (26:1)

Brandeis University (28:1)

Princeton University (30:1)

Columbia University (30:1)

Tufts University (32:1)

Northeastern University (33:1)

Rochester University (35:1)

Johns Hopkins University (35:1)

Boston University (40:1)

These numbers are staggering.  Yet none of them come close to Brown University, which tops the list with a Democrat: Republican ratio of 60:1!

Sean Stevens, writing at Heterodox Academy, draws a conclusion from the study that is worth noting:

“While some of this discrepancy [between Democrats and Republicans] may be the result of registered Republicans, and other conservatives, self-selecting out of academia, the sheer size of the discrepancy suggests that self-selection may not be the only factor producing an increasingly left-leaning professoriate.”

Langbert, Quain, and Klein present some hypotheses to account for the overwhelming Democrat-to-Republican ratios in academia. According to most of these, institutional considerations figure prominently.  It’s not, necessarily, that their hypotheses are wrong; rather, they don’t go nearly far enough.

For example, nowhere do the authors note that the ideology shared by most of the inhabitants of the academic world just so happens to be one and the same ideology that pervades all centers of American cultural power and influence: From Washington D.C. to the national news media, from the entertainment industry to the educational industry, the Big Government-Multi-Cultural-centric creed of leftism or “progressivism” is ubiquitous.

It is like the air that most of us breathe.

This is relevant for at least two reasons.

First, nearly all institutions of higher learning depend upon government-funding for their very existence. With the all-too rare exceptions of those private colleges that are without the partisan imbalances on display virtually everywhere else, colleges and universities today, irrespective of their formal designations as “private” or “public,” are overwhelmingly public inasmuch as they milk at the breast of the State.

Can it be mere coincidence that academics, in exchange for the dollars that their comrades holding government offices coerce from taxpayers, fuel the very “system” that these self-styled “radicals” pretend to oppose?  Can it be mere coincidence that academics, in other words, share and promote the same politically correct creed on which the current American Regime relies, a creed that demands the potentially limitless expansion of the State?

Secondly, fear is arguably the greatest source of human motivation.  The tragic truth is that most people prefer to go-along-to-get-along at all costs. Most people, despite imploring their children to resist peer pressure, routinely succumb to the pressure of their own peers. Courage is the rarest of virtues.

Yet it requires tremendous courage to resist the Zeitgeist, the “spirit” of the times, for it is common knowledge that dissent from PC orthodoxy can come at a psychologically, professionally, and socially ruinous cost.  To repeat: The ideology of academia is most definitely not limited to academics; it is the ideology of the dominant American (and Western) culture.

As such, in resisting the leftism of their peers, dissident academics can feel like they're resisting a force of nature.  The alternative—park your brains at the door and join the herd—is clearly the path of least resistance.

This last brings us to a final point.  Hannah Arendt was correct in noting a link between moral vice and what she called “the inability to think.”  It requires courage to think, to critically assess the reigning orthodoxy. Those who lack courage may have the ability to think, but they lack the willingness to do so.

This lack of courage, this will to submit to the in-group, I believe, accounts for the groupthink that prevails among most academics.       

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