Fighting Groupthink at Universities

Question: In what ways can professorial “groupthink” be harmful?

Louis Menand:  Well, you want diversity in any intellectual organization.  I mean, that’s how good ideas arise.  They have to do battle with less-good ideas.  If, to the extent that everybody is accepting roughly the same paradigms for inquiry and there’s certain expectations about what counts as good result of your research, that’s not very good for diversity and it’s not very good for intellectual ferment, which is what you want to encourage.

I mean, universities are set up to get people to work together by having them disagree with each other.  So one of the difficulties with relative homogeneity of opinion among professors is—I happen to be of the same opinion as most professors, most professors are kind of liberal Democrats—it’s just that it discourages people from getting into the profession, which it’s very difficult to get into anyway, because they feel they’re going to be discriminated against or shunned or just not included in the conversation.  I don’t think that necessarily would be the case, but it’s discouraging to people.

Basically what you want in any profession—I would say the same thing if I were a lawyer or a doctor—is you want bright undergraduates to look at your profession as something they would be interested in getting into.  If the barriers to entry are really high and there seems to be some requirement that you tailor your views to fit the views of your colleagues, it’s going to discourage people from entering and they’ll go do something else that’s got a, you know, more reliable track to a career.

So I do worry a lot about the time it takes for people to get a PhD, about the difficulty of finding employment, about the difficulty of getting tenure, and generally about the perception that undergraduates have, that this is a very high-risk career to get started. And I don’t want people to feel that.  I want people to feel this is something that would be fun to do, and doable.

Question: How can universities become more ideologically diverse?

Louis Menand:  Well, I think, I mean, there are lots of, there are ways in which universities will never be a reflection of the general opinion of the public and they probably shouldn’t be.  It’s generally sort of sociologically observed that the better educated people are, the more liberal they tend to be, which would suggest that professors are going to be more liberal than the general public.  And I don’t think that you want to see universities in any way trying to have any kind of quota system about political views, or views in general.  You want the market to work in the way the market works.

But I think that one of the things that would make it a little bit more likely to get diversity into—I would just say to oxygenate the system that we’re working in—would be to make it a little easier to get a PhD.  Sometimes I think we should just give more PhD’s, but even if we didn’t get more PhD’s, if we just didn’t, if we didn’t make it 8 or 9 or 10 years to get a PhD, I think it would encourage people to enter who would otherwise find lots of reasons why it wasn’t a very wise thing to do.

The "Marketplace of Ideas" author suggests steps American colleges can take to become more ideologically diverse.

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