Ron Schiller’s worldview is wrong

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By now, it is common knowledge that Vivian Schiller was forced to resign last week as CEO of NPR because of the embarrassing comments made by Ron Schiller (no relation), NPR’s fundraising chief. The fascinating part of this story, however, is the unvarnished liberal worldview Mr. Schiller displayed when he was asked for his opinions on such topics as the current state of the Republican Party, the Tea Party movement, and academia.

Mr. Schiller is certainly not the only liberal to hold the GOP and the Tea Party in such low esteem, but his claims suffer from the same vices he heaps upon his opponents. In fact, there is a growing body of empirical evidence that suggests that it’s actually the left that is increasingly ideological and anti-intellectual.

For five years now, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s (ISI) civic literacy initiative has been examining not only the widespread failure of American academia to advance civic learning, but also the consequences of this epidemic of civic ignorance among the body politic. Let’s take a look at Mr. Schiller’s incendiary comments in light of a few key findings from ISI’s research and see how they measure up.

Here’s Mr. Schiller’s first controversial claim: “In my personal opinion, liberals today might be more educated, fair and balanced than conservatives.”

When ISI surveyed a random sample of 2,508 American adults, in addition to giving them a basic 33-question multiple choice civic literacy exam, we asked them a battery of background questions, including whether they were liberal, conservative, or moderate, and whether they were Democrat, Republican, or Independent (13% identified themselves as both liberal and Democrat; 19% as both conservative and Republican). However, when we compared the civic knowledge scores of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, we discovered that the right outscored the left by four percentage points: 53% vs. 49%.

So much for liberals being smarter and better educated.

As for “fair and balanced,” here’s another comment by Mr. Schiller: “It’s much more about anti-intellectualism than it is political. A university also by definition is considered in this country to be liberal even though it’s not at all liberal. It’s liberal because it’s intellectual, the pursuit of knowledge, and that is traditionally something that Democrats have funded and Republicans have not funded.”

Put to the side for the moment the arrogant insinuation that the right lacks an intellectual basis for its positions. Mr. Schiller’s claim that universities are not bastions of liberalism is itself remarkable.

In 1999, in the most definitive study of the ideological and political identities of college professors conducted to date, the North American Academic Study Survey (NAASS) interviewed 1,643 college professors from 183 colleges and universities and discovered that among humanities faculty, 62% identified themselves as Democrats and 77% as liberals, compared to 6% Republican and 8% conservative. The numbers for social scientists were 55% and 66% Democrat/liberal, and 7% and 8% Republican/conservative.

A February 2011 piece in The New York Times provides further evidence of academia’s leftward tilt. The piece describes evidence of liberal bias unearthed by respected UVA psychologist Jonathan Haidt. When Dr. Haidt asked the roughly 1,000 Ph.D.’s in the audience at a recent conference if they would describe themselves as liberals, more than 800 raised their hands. Then Dr. Haidt asked for libertarians and centrists to identify themselves — about three dozen answered the call. When the conservatives were asked to stand up and be counted, a grand total of three bravely raised their hands (Dr. Haidt has also done research on why the left is so apoplectic about the Tea Party).

But the larger question is whether this clear liberal bias among university faculty has percolated down to the graduates themselves. To answer this question, ISI posed a series of attitude and opinion questions about American ideals, culture, and public policy to the same 2,508 Americans. We discovered that college on its own encouraged graduates to identify more strongly with the left-wing of the political spectrum. In fact, other than being a minority, female, or single, attending college exerted the strongest liberalizing influence of all variables examined. Similarly, there were five specific propositions where a college degree exerted an independent and statistically significant influence, and in each case, college led graduates to adopt a more liberal, secular worldview. For example, college made graduates more likely to support same-sex marriage and abortion, and less likely to support school prayer and biblical truth.

So, Mr. Schiller, which side is acting in an ideological and anti-intellectual fashion?

Mr. Schiller is entitled to his opinion, but the research suggests that Mr. Schiller’s worldview is more a product of a liberal echo chamber — one that is dominated by institutions like NPR and the academy — rather than a more sophisticated, nuanced, and empirically driven view of reality. Both the right and the left have a rich and rigorous intellectual tradition in America, and it’s high time for Mr. Schiller and his ilk to stop bashing the other side, and read a bit from the conservative canon.

Who knows, maybe they’ll discover that there’s more to conservatives than their guns and their Bibles?

Dr. Richard Brake is Co-Chair of ISI’s National Civic Literacy Board. For more details regarding ISI’s past and current civic literacy studies please go to www.americancivicliteracy.org.