restricted access 6. The Politics of Politics in the Classroom
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In the preceding chapters we discuss the modest shift in faculty political attitudes that occurred in the 1980s. The traditional vocabulary of liberalism-conservatism has limitations when we seek to understand contemporary political reality.1 So we do not rely on our survey findings alone, and in this chapter we broaden our focus to account for the political motives behind the higher education debate. Faculty political attitudes might appear more liberal because of contrasts with broader public attitudes on certain issues, such as gay rights, abortion, evolution, family values, and other matters.2 The country has moved in what we could loosely call a center-right direction on some issues, creating more distance from college professors even if they have not changed much.3 One of the present authors recalls his dad warning him in 1953 as he departed for college, “Well, son, there’re a lot of liberals over there [at the University of Minnesota], but what are you going to do? You have to get an education, and you’ll get a good education.”4 But the political issues that swirl around the universities today move in a potentially more dramatic fashion and operate according to a new and more complicated logic, which helps to explain why the idea of political bias in the classroom has surfaced as an issue in recent years. 6 The Politics of Politics in the Classroom 92 ch06 6/30/08 10:47 AM Page 92 Classroom Bias as a Failed Issue Demographic change of any kind is gradual; political change, though influenced by demographics, can be quite rapid. Seldom will politics merely follow a logic derived from demographics or other social trends. As with any political issue, the specific context and the behavior of political actors will determine whether, and when, an issue becomes salient. The political scientist John W. Kingdon has identified various overlapping stages in the emergence of an issue: activating elite opinion, mobilizing interest groups, attracting sustained media attention, and finding political champions to push the issue.5 Classroom bias, compared to issues such as global warming, workplace safety, or children’s health, is a concept that is nebulous from the start. Yet the concept is amenable to the same kind of analysis: how does elite interest crystallize , how does a cause gain media attention, what triggers interest groups to organize a campaign and carry forward the fight, and when do political champions pick up the cause in legislative chambers or in the electoral arena? Under what conditions, in other words, can we expect an assault on university radicals to emerge as an issue? In 1966 Ronald Reagan gained political momentum by attacking radicals at the University of California. He accused radicals of hurting the university, and once elected he continued to attack them for harming public higher education. Reagan’s critics within the public university accused him of shortchanging the public universities (and favoring private higher education), but he never interfered with what was taught or intervened in hiring decisions or other internal decisionmaking. In the 1990s the attack on “political correctness” in the universities did not have an obvious electoral goal, but this did not dissuade a number of academic observers from detecting a far-reaching assault on higher education.6 Elite opinion, inside and outside the academy, was activated on both sides, and a great deal of media attention focused on the “culture wars” in the universities. But Kingdon’s other stages—interest group activity and political champions—did not develop in the 1990s. Thus no sustained campaign was directed toward achieving any goal, there was little focused attention, and there was even less impact on public policy at either the state or federal level. Classroom bias as a political issue has continued to run into problems. Although it has advanced to the stage of organized interest group activity, the opposing interests have largely checked and neutralized each other (not an altogether bad outcome from the point of view of many participants). But few politicians have taken up the cause, and those who have wish they had not. Thus the final and critical link—finding a political champion—has been the The Politics of Politics in the Classroom 93 ch06 6/30/08 10:47 AM Page 93 missing ingredient. This has been so despite the ascendance of conservative thought in national and state politics during many of these years. The overall result has been that classroom bias as a serious political issue has achieved, at...


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