Some years ago I recall reading the (possibly apocryphal) story of a conversation had by the Soviet Politburo in the late 1980s where the subject of potato-farming came up. These were Gorbachev’s years of Glasnost and the leadership was discussing ways in which they could modernize Soviet agriculture and de-couple it from the state apparatus. One of the men suggested that potato farmers should be made responsible for the harvesting of their own potatoes, to which the reply went something along the lines of “This would be impossible! Even in the United States, the Army is mobilized every year to help with the potato harvest!”
Now these were not stupid men. To the contrary, they were extremely well-educated and had been conducting the affairs of a world superpower for decades. And yet their limited worldview led them to believe, in all honesty, that potatoes simply could not be harvested without the intervention of the state (by employing the manpower of the army no less). That this anecdote seems farcical today, as it would have even at the time, tells us something profound about how inbuilt intellectual bias and limited experience can narrow the bounds of thought without the thinkers even being aware of the limitation.
When I started studying Middle Eastern history at university in my late 20s, I had heard all of the horror stories of liberal bias within academia, and I had steeled myself to endure, perhaps even to confront, this kind of ideological lopsidedness. Much to my surprise, I didn’t find it. Not anywhere. Not even from obviously left-wing professors teaching subjects that lent themselves wholly to progressive influence. Indeed, today’s Middle Eastern studies departments (it’s no longer polite to call them Oriental Studies) should be hotbeds of political correctness. But mine wasn’t. Or so I thought.
As my first year of study proceeded, I noticed something curious: as professors continuously bombarded us with information from numerous sources, there was remarkable agreement between the professors, the secondary sources they assigned, and the primary sources that were presented. It didn’t matter what the subject was, every conclusion was obvious and preordained, supported by every piece of evidence imaginable. Where there was any hint that it was possible to disagree with the professor’s premise that the position of women in Muslim countries was exemplary, or with the belief that Western imperialism was an unmitigated disaster, the ‘evidence’ would again be cited as definitive proof that any contradictory ‘misconceptions’ were completely false.
In one of my classes, I happened to run across a (derogatory) reference to an obscure academic that I had never heard of: Bernard Lewis. And I decided to look him up. As any professor of Middle Eastern Studies will tell you (no matter what their ideological position), Bernard Lewis is NOT an obscure figure. He is, in fact, a towering figure in the study of the Middle East. He has published over 50 books, written hundreds of articles, been consulted by Prime Ministers and Presidents, was personal friends with the King of Jordan and the Shah of Iran, was one of the first Western academics to be given access to the Ottoman archives, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseum. It is impossible to study the Middle East without studying Lewis. Not only is he still alive (he turns 99 this year), but he was still publishing until just a few years ago.
So why had I not heard of him?
The answer to that question is this: I hadn’t heard of Bernard Lewis because I wasn’t supposed to hear about him. And it wasn’t just Lewis who had somehow not made his way onto the reading list. It was hundreds of authors, publishing since the late 19th century and continuing today, who had simply vanished from the classroom literature. Why wasn’t I supposed to hear about these men and women? Because they didn’t fit the orthodoxy of the new academy. Entire schools of thought had to be excluded so as not to risk challenging almost everything I had been told.
For those not familiar with this field of study and its historiography, let me explain the above phenomenon as briefly as I can. In about the late 1950s, and continuing into the 60s and 70s, postmodernist thought began to question the way in which academics (in many disciplines) approached their subjects. Rejecting any claim to rational thought or universal truth, postmodernism became, in the words of Fred Halliday, “a debilitating intellectual fashion” that could either justify or condemn any viewpoint as and when demanded by ideological expediency. This mode of thought was most fully applied to the study of the Middle East by Edward Said in his landmark 1978 book Orientalism.
With postmodernism in vogue, scholars of the Middle East who insisted on drawing conclusions from historical facts and observable reality were out and the postmodernists were in. It was, essentially, the triumph of what we’d now call political correctness. No information could be disseminated that might compromise the goal of having students think the right thoughts, truth be damned. While postmodernism might not admit to the existence of objective truth and reality, it (ironically) has little trouble with asserting a uniformity of thought, belief, and opinion.
So here’s the takeaway for anyone interested in how liberal bias works in academia: the bias is inherent to the content. It isn’t overt. It isn’t even sub-textual. The bias manifests itself in a carefully curated package of thoughts and ideas that are presented as a cohesive and comprehensive whole. This is the sinister nature of liberal bias, and the unwary (students in particular) have almost no defence because any information that might contradict the party line has already disappeared down the memory hole. When presented with any information that doesn’t fit the model they’ve been given, I’ve seen many, many students react with confusion, outrage, or just dumb silence.
The result in the classroom is a narrow ideological perspective that students have been led to believe is of the greatest possible breadth. And it isn’t that there are questions that you can’t ask; that would be too obvious. It’s that there are questions that students don’t even have the tools to imagine.