Friday, July 22, 2005

Them Flashy Liberals

Todd Zywicki, in a post Justice-to-be John Roberts' law school days, wonders about what "type" of intelligence is desirable for a would-be law professor:
I have wondered whether legal academia today (perhaps even more than other academic fields) tends to place an undue premium on a "showy type of intelligence" as opposed to "controlled ... not-aggressive type of intelligence." I don't know, of course, whether this has always been the case. But it is my impression that this is the case today (there's no empirical test for this assertion, of course, so I could be completely wrong).
...[G]iven the institutional arrangement of modern law schools, it may be that this bias in inevitable. In particular, for whatever reason, law reviews today seem to overvalue novel, glib, and clever articles in the market, thus it may be that to the extent that the law school hiring process selects for "showy" intelligence, it may be an efficient response to peculiar market in which we sell our services, i.e., law reviews.

So, while at first glance the relative absence of people like "Professor Roberts" seems like a market failure in the professorial hiring market, it may be perfectly rational in light of the peculiar market for which future scholars are being selected.

Over at PrawfsBlawg, Ethan Leib concurs, and adds that:
I've benefited from this bias, not because I'm especially intelligent but because I liked to talk in class and get into arguments with people, where I seemed competent and able to hold my own. This disposition would get me almost nowhere in political science, my Ph.D. discipline. As long as one avoids seeming cocky and arrogant, "showy intelligence" pays dividends on the legal academic market.

I notice a similarity between this discussion and my claim that the desire for "novel scholarship" is partially to blame for academia's liberal slant (a thesis I originally hashed out with the help of Professor Zywicki). Zywicki explicitly makes the link between "flashy" and "novel" scholarship, which makes sense--after all, something new and groundbreaking is far more likely to make a splash than a piece that reiterates something already present in the canon--even if the latter is better written/analyzed/argued than the former. Professor Leib also provides support for the my theory in the form of a cross-application of "hostile environment." All else being equal, of course, there probably are as many outspoken liberals as outspoken conservatives. But in a law school environment that is predominantly liberal, many conservatives might reflexively self-censor themselves--thus skewing the amount of "flash" in the liberal direction. This is especially true considering that the only way to verify that one's academic setting is not biased against conservatives is to risk incurring any bias that is present. In a situation where even rumors of liberal hegemony run rampant--certainly true of American universities-this can cause the self-censorship even where there isn't any expressed hostility to conservative views. Hence, the "bias" (and concordant skew in partisan alignment) can exist even if there is no actual overt discouragement of conservatives to apply or to teach as academics. What does this give us? The magical condition loved by critical theorists (like myself) everywhere--a structural bias!

To be clear--this is my conclusion by combining the posts of Professors Zywicki and Leib together--neither has endorsed this theory (or rejected it, for that matter, but I don't want to give the impression that this was an argument they were making too). And to be fair, Professor Leib's post also poses a challenge to my theory: Why wouldn't this same desire for "flash" and resultant self-censorship be present in Political Science (where he says it isn't)? I'll admit I don't have a ready answer to this.

But all in all, I think that this adds some more heft to the claim that there likely is a liberal structural bias in academia.

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