Toward the end of last year, I went to an academic conference. I’ve attended quite a few in the past – they’re one way of keeping up with the latest thinking in one’s subject, especially valuable for independent writer/researchers like me who work largely alone, only occasionally dipping into the academic milieu. Generally, I’ve enjoyed these conferences, though they are perhaps more fun in retrospect, or at least after one has given one’s paper, when one can relax. But this one left me depressed.
Don’t get me wrong. It was a nice enough conference. The organisers had gone to some trouble to make attendees feel welcome. There were thoughtfully arranged extra-conference activities, and an elegant dinner, complete with a piper and a man in a kilt telling jokes between the main course and dessert.
And as humanities conferences go these days, it was fairly civilised. No-one told us we shouldn’t clap (too triggering) or asked us what pronouns we would like to use. The kind of casually misandrist comments one hears at these events (“pale, male and stale”) were few and far between – I had to wait a whole six hours, till teatime on the first afternoon, before I heard one. As I said, it was a nice enough conference.
It was its very niceness, however – its pleasant ordinariness – that made it depressing. For even more than the niceness, what struck me was the ideological homogeneity of the attendees, who were mainly university academics and senior staff from large, state-funded cultural institutions. Almost everyone, so far as I could discern, seemed to be a cultural Marxist of some kind; almost everyone seemed to be a feminist; and many seemed to be a post-modernist in some form or other. Of conservative scholars (by which I mean scholars who do not necessarily accept the assertions of cultural Marxism, feminism, post-modernism etc) there seemed to be none; maybe a few were present but if so I missed their papers.
Even more striking was the fact that no-one seemed to find this imbalance odd, or concerning. It was like a scene from some ideological apocalypse, where even the memory of conservative scholarship had been wiped out. There was only one ideology now, it seemed, in this brave new academic world: left-wing, feminist, “correct.”
My fellow conference attendees, I hasten to add, were not unusual or eccentric; on the contrary, they were highly typical of the intellectual class that dominates our universities and major cultural institutions. They represented the full flowering of a leftward shift that has been going on for at least 40 years across the Western world. This has been driven in part by a general liberalisation in society’s beliefs and mores, but more especially by the feminisation of the workforce at our educational and cultural institutions, for women in these places are markedly more likely to be left-wing in orientation than their male counterparts whose views are spread more evenly across the political spectrum, as a US survey has shown. One indicator of this leftward shift has been the virtual disappearance of conservative academics from university humanities departments: according to a UK study, fewer than 12% of humanities academics at British universities support right-wing or conservative political parties. An American study suggests even this figure is too high in relation to certain departments: it showed that conservative professors in the US make up just 3% of Literature faculty members. There is no reason to think that New Zealand differs greatly in this respect.
Some critics may object that these figures reflect the fact that conservatives self-select out of university employment because the pay is too low, but while this may be a factor it cannot explain the startling decline in the number of conservatives in university humanities faculties over the past 40 years. A more likely reason for their poor representation lies in the increasingly hostile atmosphere which conservatives face, and the discrimination practised against them by hiring panels, of which there is plenty of anecdotal evidence. It would be very foolish these days for a candidate applying for a position at a university humanities department or major state-funded cultural institution to reveal that they were pro-life or pro-Brexit.
My own personal experience backs up the findings of the UK and US surveys noted above. When I was at university in the early 1980s, lecturers who espoused conservative views certainly existed in the English department, alongside others of a more radical orientation. As a result, I was exposed to a range of critical approaches and ideologies, and I was able to compare and contrast, and arrive at my own conclusions. I soon realized that there was no one truth and that those who said there was, or implied there was, were naïve, or dishonest. It taught me to think sceptically, critically, and not to accept an assertion simply because it was made by a person in a position of authority.
Sadly, I believe this variety of critical or ideological approach no longer exists. In today’s universities and major cultural institutions there is broadly speaking one, left-wing narrative when it comes to history or literature or society. And this narrative is only becoming more dominant, as older, more middle-of-the road academics retire, to be replaced by increasingly radical younger faculty members, who in turn make appointments that reflect their far-left political positioning. Already, there is a large gap, ideologically speaking, between our universities and the general public; and this gap is widening into an abyss.
There has grown up a deadly uniformity in the intellectual culture of our universities and major cultural institutions. Too often, people in these organisations sound the same, write the same, think the same. Look at scholarly articles and books produced by academics in university humanities departments, for example, and you will very often see the same ideology at work (basically cultural Marxism), the same postmodern thinkers being referenced (e.g. Foucault), and the same conclusions being reached (broadly, that society and its cultural productions are racist, sexist etc). The effect is to narrow and stifle intellectual discussion, replacing the lively, nuanced debates of the past with a dull consensus that focuses obsessively on power dynamics and claims of oppression. This uniformity has a deleterious effect on our universities and major cultural institutions, and arguably on society generally, since discussion and debate – the presentation and analysis of opposing viewpoints – are essential to the progress of civilisation. At the very least, it leads to boring articles, boring books - and boring conferences.
Especially concerning is the effect on the young. Already in some universities a BA student can spend three years doing their degree and never come across a conservative academic. Some students no doubt find out about alternative approaches, but if so they tend to do it outside the department, online. The average university book shop, you can be sure, will be of little help – there will be precious few books by conservative thinkers on display there, if any. Visitors to major cultural institutions find themselves in a similar boat. Overwhelmingly, the dominant ideology informing the exhibitions, literature etc will be left-wing in orientation. Other ways of interpreting society and history simply don’t get a look in.
It’s a sorry state of affairs. I would go further, in fact, and say it is an indictment of our universities and major cultural institutions. In the case of the universities, students are entitled to expect that in the course of their studies (for which they pay handsomely) they will be exposed to a wide range of thinkers, so they can learn to think critically and sceptically. But in the current intellectual climate this wide-ranging exposure is something students too seldom get, except perhaps in a few instances where they stumble across a conservative scholar who can point them, quietly, in another direction. The result is a generation of students who have been indoctrinated rather than educated. This is bad for them, and bad for our society. It is one factor, I believe, behind the increasingly extreme “cancel” culture that characterises many modern campuses.
Of course, some institutions are more egregious than others in their failure to provide a variety of ideological viewpoints (in the universities, sociology departments come to mind). Pockets of traditional-style scholarship still survive, and one will always be able to point to this or that conservative professor or museum curator working away safe and unmolested. But my point is that such people should not be exceptions or anomalies, rare birds flying above a sea of Labour and Green-voting cultural Marxists. After all, isn’t diversity good? Aren’t we always being told that we, as a society, should be more tolerant of diversity? So why is the most important diversity of all – diversity of thought, of belief, of intellectual approach – the one diversity that is so often missing from today’s universities and major cultural institutions?
Solutions to this problem exist. Institutions could be encouraged to address the problem of bias, for example, to make sure that left-leaning hiring committees don’t just appoint left-leaning candidates. If the bias is unconscious – and we are told these days that all of us display this form of bias in one way or another – then there needs to be special training to combat it. Such special training is routinely deployed these days when it comes to other forms of unconscious bias, such as racial or sexual; why not use it to address this problem?
Of course, I know this won’t happen. The people who could institute such change – the VCs, the CEOs – are either afraid to confront the problem of ideological imbalance, fearing ostracism from colleagues and retribution from activists, or else are actively complicit in maintaining it, seeing it as their way of pushing forward the revolution they dream of from the safety of their armchairs. Government action is a theoretical possibility, and a centre-right government might think about doing something to address the problem, passing provisions of the kind we have seen in the British Education Act which require a balanced presentation of opposing views in school lessons that deal with politics. But such provisions would come up against objections relating to academic freedom, and would be hard to put into law, and still harder to police.
The only solution, as I see it, is for the “customers” of these institutions (e.g. students in the case of universities) to demand they be presented with a variety of ideological viewpoints and approaches in their courses. If certain institutions refuse to provide this, then students should vote with their feet; the force of the market will soon make recalcitrant universities see sense, as their enrolments decline and they find themselves unable to pay large professorial salaries. It sounds a harsh solution, but this is a significant problem, and it needs to be solved. For once, the modern recasting of students as “customers” could be made to work for the advantage of students, rather than against them.
None of this will happen overnight, if it happens at all. The forces of the intellectual status quo are strong and determined, and they won’t give ground without a fight. But I will know that some kind of ideological balance has been restored when I can go to an academic conference and not know in advance, with depressing certainty, the kind of papers I am going to hear. That would indeed be a nice conference to attend.
Dr John O’Leary is an independent writer/researcher based in Wellington. He has published numerous scholarly articles and book reviews, and two books: Savage Songs & Wild Romances (2011) and A Peculiar Gentleman (2016). He is currently working on his third book, a study of Sir George Grey’s intellectual life.
 See John A Shields, “The Disappearing Conservative Professor”, National Affairs 41 Fall 2019 (https://nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-disappearing-conservative-professor).
 See Adam Smith Institute 2 March 2017 (https://www.adamsmith.org/research/lackademia-why-do-academics-lean-left)
 See Shields.