By Richard Vedder
My former student and buddy Jim Wycoff, a successful investment guru in Cincinnati,brought an interesting story in yesterday's New York Times to my attention: "The 60s Begin to Fade as Liberal Professors Retire."
The story notes that many of the radicals of the late 1960s who stormed university administration buildings and burned American flags became professors a decade later, in the late 1970s, and now, three decades later, are starting to retire. Among the broader population, older people tend to be more conservative than younger ones, but amongst the professoriate, the opposite is the case --younger faculty are more moderate, more middle of the road, and, above all, less political in general than their older counterparts. Some of the older lefty ex-hippie professors complain about excessive "careerism" amongst their younger brethren, meaning, I suppose, they are more interested in their academic discipline and personal achievement than in protesting the latest perceived injustice in the world.
Why are the younger faculty on average somewhat less left-wing activists? Three explanations come readily to mind:
1) The proportion of faculty in the social sciences and humanities has declined relative to those in business, health care studies, the sciences, etc. These latter disciplines are less politically oriented and the politics there is tends to be more conservative.
2) Left-wing critiques of the world have been found wanting. The triumph of the West in the Cold War is a triumph of capitalism over flaky dreamy socialism/communism, and the younger crowd is bright enough to see that.
3) Related to the second point, life is pretty good in America today (the alleged recession notwithstanding). It is hard to be angry about the world when most material wants are being satisfied, life is longer and less painful and tiring that at any other time in human history, and you live in a country that is universally considered the most powerful and significant on the planet. And college professors, despite the customary grumbling, live pretty well, with a large portion of them having household incomes over $100,000 a year.
Whatever the reason, I think, if true, this is a healthy trend. College professors should stick to facts and evidence in both their teaching and research, and spend no time trying to convert the student body to their views. However, I am skeptical as to the extent to which this is actually happening, and the rise in speech codes and a sort of politically correct mindset is troubling. I want to see sparks fly on campuses, offering alternative interpretations of trends based on real evidence. But I also want professors to teach their subject, not speak up in class on matters on which they have no particular expertise. But the vast majority of faculty who speak up on issues are liberals and a sense of balance is usually missing. However, perhaps the trends are in the right direction, no pun intended.