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Academics and politics

There's an excellent discussion going on over at Stanley Fish's NYT column about the role of political beliefs among college professors. I tend to agree with Fish. The University of Colorado's attempts to recruit conservative faculty members are misplaced and should embarrass all Coloradans.

In my own experience, I've found that a diversity of political views within the student body is far more important for a student's experience than that within the faculty. As Fish argues, most competent professors can and do bracket their own political views in the classroom. But students, in conversations outside of class, can't and shouldn't do the same thing. This means that if you're on a campus where 98 percent of your fellow students are liberal (or conservative), you're unlikely to encounter a serious challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy in your conversations at lunch and in the dorm.

I speak from experience. As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I couldn't make any political statement wihout being strongly challenged by some fellow student who profoundly disagreed with me. After transferring to Reed College, all the students were so overwhelmingly liberal that my left-leaning statements were given a free pass, while my right-leaning statements were appropriately and skillfully attacked. Fifty percent* of the arguments that I would have had at Chicago, disappeared at Reed. I loved both schools, but the politically more diverse student body at Chicago made for a more interesting intellectual experience there.

As for the faculty at both schools, I couldn't tell a thing about their personal political beliefs from their classroom teaching.

*I like to think that orthodox liberals would strongly object to about half of my political positions.

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