Higher education is shockingly right-wing

Perhaps the stupidest idea that everyone takes for granted is that higher education in the United States is left-wing.

If "left" and "right" have any meaning at all, "right" describes a worldview under which civilized society depends upon legitimate hierarchy, and a key object of politics is properly defining and protecting that hierarchy.

"Left", on the other hand, is animated by antipathy to hierarchy, by an egalitarianism of dignity. While left-wing movements recognize that effective institutions must place people in different roles — sometimes hierarchical, sometimes associated with unequal rewards — these are contingent, often problematic, overlays upon a foundational assertion that every human being has equal dignity and equal claim to the fundamental goods of human life.

Whatever else colleges and universities do in the United States, they define and police our most consequential social hierarchy, the dividing line between a prosperous if precarious professional class and a larger, often immiserated, working class. The credentials universities provide are no guarantee of escape from paycheck-to-paycheck living, but statistically they are a near prerequisite.

The academy itself is incredibly hierarchical. Within a university, distinctions reign between a graduate student or postdoc, an adjunct, an assistant professor on tenure track, an associate versus full professor. These ranks are salient and consequential, treated as legitimate and earnestly policed.

Nothing is spared hierarchy in academia. Institutions are organized into pecking orders. Harvard University and Towson University are not the same. Everyone understands their relative rank, the social consequences of which are very real.

If you are an academic at a level beyond community college or adjunct professorship, you have devoted your life to swimming upstream, besting competitors who will relegated to lower ranks or simply expectorated from academic life. It is a key part of your job to rank and sort other people, whether they be the undergrads that you grade or the faculty your department hires. You strive to have your work published in "top-tier" journals.

To be an academic and be left-wing is like being a fish opposed to water. It is not persuasive. Or it ought not to be.

Of course it is true that the vast majority of professors "identify" as progressive or liberal or left. That is understandable! At a mass level, the left-wing view that we are fundamentally equal in dignity has won the day. Even political movements that claim to be right-wing, that act overtly to defend and entrench social hierarchies, must pay lip-service to egalitarian norms to have any success in our electral democracy.

Professors are people too. They don't like to think of themselves as the bone structure of our society's most consequentially oppressive hierarchy. Individually, they are wonderful people. And they are smart. They understand at some level that their role is problematic. But, individually, there is nothing they can do about that. They could opt out, cede their slot to the next striver, but that wouldn't change anything about the structure of our society and the role of academia within it. And it would cost them personally, tremendously.

So, successful academics hew a path quite analogous to that taken by so many graduates of the prestigious schools they run. "I'll work at McKinsey, or Goldman, or Google, because doing so will provide me with resources to do some good, later, somehow." Academics, like most of us, would prefer a less hierarchical society, but they tell themselves that the best they can do is gain some social power by... contending for an elite position inside the hierarchy and using whatever influence comes from that to further a less hierarchical ideal. This attempt to use the master's tools to dismantle the master's house is not very convincing on its face, so academics have to work unusually hard to convince themselves that they are not bad people. This encourages an unusually expressive and radical politics.

Universities become bastions of an ostentatious "leftism" even while these same leftists perform the workaday labor of sorting and excluding upon which our stratified society depends. I'm not a fan of psychological explanations for political difference, but it does seem a touch neurotic.

It is also counterproductive, in two respects:

  • While individually academics may be helpless to affect the unequal distributions of dignity and deserts which their vocations undergird, collectively they have tremendous capacity to reform and reshape academia. Instead of taking pride in how exclusive their institutions are, professors could work as a group to discredit the conflation of exclusivity and merit. If a Harvard degree is so valuable, professors could insist the university franchise as liberally as McDonalds and grow the freshman class to tens of thousands. That should be practical, if the value-add is actual education. If Harvard's value to undergraduates is based on scarcity and social connection, well maybe that's the kind of institution the very best academics, if their political commitments are real, should refuse — as an organized class, rather than as ineffectually expressive individuals — to participate in at all.

  • The combination of flamboyant left-wing expression and bitterly exclusive hierarchical norms that nearly everyone has experienced directly (perhaps at a high-school level when they were sorted as unlikely to be college material) discredits left-wing political activism broadly as a sham.

    Right-wing grievance entrepreneurs complain that they have been locked out of the institutions and must make a long march to retake them. They pretend that Gramsci and Marcuse have won the culture for "the left" and their only hope is some desperate hail mary. Don't be a fucking idiot and take them at their word.

    Right-wing grievance entrepreneurs go after higher education because its role in politics is incoherent and hypocritical, in a way that the public viscerally experiences. Universities are attacked not because "the left" is strong within them, but because the academy's paperthin but shouty commitment to equal dignity makes it easy to present the whole left project as fake, a trojan horse by which some sanctimonious elite is going to jam down arrangements under which their dignity and prosperity will somehow always be first among equals.

Academia is right-wing, structurally. Diversifying academia in the conventional sense, bringing more members of underrepresented groups into higher rungs of the hierarchy, would not alter that fact. Left academics who analyze structural injustice so assiduously might take this obvious reality into greater account.

Because as things stand, while academics sanctimoniously (and correctly!) opine about fascism and structural racism, the institutions they serve have become ever more consequential gatekeepers in an ever more extractive relationship with the students they purport to serve. Perhaps there are causes more proximate than 1619 why the public has become predisposed not to take alarms rung by earnest professors at face value.