William Penn, professor of creative writing at Michigan State University, opened this semester by telling his new students America is "full of closet racists" and Republicans have "raped this country." He reassured the students, "Even if you are a Republican, I don't mean to offend you in this class," but added, "Outside of class is a different matter."
A student recorded Penn's ten-minute rant and sent the video to a conservative news site. Penn has been pulled from the classroom, but he's still drawing his salary.
Penn's behavior is an exception to the rule. Most professors, including liberal ones, maintain professional attitudes in their classrooms.
Penn's politics, however, are typical. Studies confirm that liberal professors dominate arts and humanities and social sciences departments. In business and applied sciences departments, liberals and conservatives are about equally represented. Generally, the more abstract and "intellectual" the subject, the more liberal the professors.
Why do professors and other intellectuals tend to be liberals? One theory is that young liberals are steered toward intellectual careers by their liberal teachers and professors. This is the "liberals tend to become intellectuals" theory.
Economist Thomas Sowell presents a different theory in his book "Intellectuals and Society." Sowell believes some aspects of intellectual careers prime their practitioners to accept the leftist worldview.
In other words, intellectuals tend to become liberals.
Sowell defines intellectuals as people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas, not tangible goods or services. Writers and academics are intellectuals. Brain surgeons and engineers, though highly intelligent, are non-intellectuals.
One difference between intellectuals and non-intellectuals is the standard by which their work is judged.
Non-intellectuals' work is subject to objective tests. A mechanic succeeds if his customer's car starts and fails if it doesn't. Unforgiving standards force non-intellectuals to respect reality or face consequences. A coach who clings to her pet strategy even as her team falls further behind will soon lose her job.
Since intellectuals' work deals with ideas, it's value is hard to measure objectively. Instead, intellectuals measure success primarily by their peers' responses to their work. A literary critic is a success if his peers find his theories "interesting" and a failure if they find them "ordinary." Whether his theories correspond to reality doesn't matter in any immediate sense. Since their work is done before the rubber ever hits the road, intellectuals can afford to cling to failed ideas (Marxism) and absurd notions (ecofeminism, anyone?) long after the losing coach has changed her game plan.
Sowell also believes since intellectuals spend most of their time dealing with abstractions, they can develop a narrow concept of what constitutes "knowledge" while non-intellectuals who have to perform in the real world tend to maintain a broader concept of knowledge.
A broad concept of knowledge includes abstract academic matters but also counts as knowledge the mundane skills and experiences people accumulate throughout their lives. The college professor is indeed knowledgeable, but so are the dental assistant who knows how to calm frightened children and the cafe owner who knows how each regular customer prefers his or her coffee.
Those with a broad concept of knowledge tend to be skeptical of centralized government because they sense that society is too complex and the sea of knowledge too vast for anyone, even a brilliant intellectual, to ever possess the amount of knowledge it would take to "run the country" or "direct the economy." It's better to have federalism and free markets, policies which keep decision-making localized, allowing citizens' knowledge of themselves and their communities to be put to use.
Intellectuals narrow their concept of knowledge when they emphasize abstract knowledge and neglect the value of mundane knowledge. This effectively reduces the sea of knowledge to a less intimidating lake. Therefore, intellectuals are more likely to believe a highly intelligent person actually could possess the amount of knowledge needed to run the country or direct the economy. This confidence in central planning places them squarely in the leftist tradition.
Another reason intellectuals may lean left is that the leftist worldview flatters their self-image in ways competing political visions don't.
Conservatives and libertarians blame problems like crime and poverty on man's flawed nature and nature's indifference to man. Therefore, while they champion policies that incentivize the production of wealth (the profits and losses system) and disincentivize crime (punishment), they doubt that social problems can ever be "solved" conclusively. The struggle to keep civilization from slipping back into poverty and savagery never ends. This worldview has little ego value to intellectuals who see themselves as great problem-solvers.
Leftists, on the other hand, see social problems as products of human error. Even natural disasters are now blamed on "man-caused" climate change. Since problems created by man can also be solved by man, leftists tend to think if they can identify the "source" of poverty or the "root cause" of crime, they can devise legislation or social programs to cure these maladies once and for all. Maybe, with the right set of environmental regulations, they could prevent hurricanes.
The leftist worldview offers intellectuals a vision of themselves as heroic saviors who use their superior intellects to lead humanity to a better tomorrow. Intellectuals are only human. They enjoy a good ego trip as much as anyone.
Thomas Sowell is not anti-intellectual. He just thinks intellect alone is not enough. It must be combined with knowledge, experience, and judgment to produce wisdom:
"The opposite of high intellect is dullness or slowness, but the opposite of wisdom is foolishness, which is far more dangerous."
Tommy Richardson lives in Erath county. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.