John Lemon argues that the #2 reason that academics tend to be lefties is that academics are very smart:

Academics, almost by definition, have excelled in schoolwork. That’s how one eventually gets selected to the professorial team. Most academics probably came from the top 5% of their college cohort. They’ve lived a life where they’ve been told they are “super smart” all their lives. I believe this naturally cultivates an intellectual arrogance which makes them believe they can solve any complex problem if they just put their mind to it. Social scientists and humanities professors likely feel they have special insight into the human condition, more so than those not selected into the professoriate, and hence they are tremendous social engineers.

The social engineering mentality tends to be more common among the Left, which sees the role of government to solve social problems. Those on the Right tend to prefer the free market and allow individual citizens to figure out a way around life’s trials and tribulations. This certainly is not a rule that is set in stone, and many conservatives have a social engineering streak when it comes to some social issues (e.g., homosexuality, drugs). (Being more of a libertarian conservative, I tend not to favor such social engineering via the government, but rather prefer the marketplace of morals to duke it out and come up with non-governmental sanctioning of various behaviors.)

While I see some merit in this argument, as well as reason #1, I also agree with commenter John Hudock, who notes that leftism has been especially prevalent on campus since the professoriate got taken over by Vietnam-era draft dodgers.

BTW: The #1 reason, lost in the great blogger archives, is that academics tend not to have any business experience.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Lemon says:

    I’m getting to the ’60s generation. It is part of my “socialization” response. Perhaps that will be part of reason #3.

    I am also learning to spell. I picked up my dictionary from over they’re.

  2. Paul says:

    #3 may well be – or this may have been part of #1- They have never had a “customer” to please.

    In business no matter what the level you are, you have someone to please. A boss, a client or more likely, both.

    Academics have no such responsibility. (especially in a tenure system) Basically (sorry guys) they show up at a certain time for a class and their responsibility is essentially met. They can be the worst educator on the planet but the students can hardly say “You can’t teach, I want my money back.” Those same students will leave class to have lunch and return their burger if it is burned, proving the local hamburger flipper has more accountability.

    Having no responsibility (especially monetary responsibility) allows academics the luxury of meddling in other people’s lives while not actually having any real world experience to draw on. (the perfect social engineer)

    People who actually work for a living (sorry again guys) and have customers to please and god forbid, a payroll to meet, are far more likely to expect others to solve their own problems.

    I hope I did not ruffle too many feathers, I have two PhD’s in the family and I have my Masters BUT I have also meet a payroll so I might be a tad more cynical (er, I mean, realistic) than most.

    I can’t find John’s part 1 so if I am parroting him it only serves to show his genius. 😉


  3. Paul says:

    FOOTNOTE: Having read the first comment here ( I see maybe I do not appreciate the pressures you guys are under to please a “customer.” (maybe)

    My observations come from my chair as a “consumer” of academia not a “vendor.”

    I many grant your milage may vary but I still think my point stands.

  4. James Joyner says:

    I think it’s a separate issue, really. Indeed, I don’t think the student *should* be thought of as a customer. Most students want to get drunk, get laid, sleep late, and do as little as possible. Why should they be in charge? The customer is really society at large and to a lesser extent graduate and professional schools. The duty of universities is to challenge students, make them work harder than they want to, and transform the way in which they process information. Thus, education isn’t–or, should I say, shouldn’t be– a business at all but rather a vocation.

  5. John Lemon says:

    James, you forget that most professors want to get drunk, get laid, sleep late, and do as little as possible. Why should they be in charge?

    I do think of the student as customer, but not in the “customer is always right” sense of the term. Rather, and I tell this to my students, that the better analogy is like hiring a personal trainer. The trainer will push you to your limit and you hire him to do this. You also want the trainer to ignore your whining unless you are really, really injured.

  6. jen says:

    This may seem to come from left…er…right field, but I have a different take on it. Maybe this is more a response to Steven’s posts at his blog, but I’m here, so…

    I think college serves two purposes with one common goal – to prepare young adults for the workplace.

    1. The first purpose is to educate, of course. Hence the ridiculous number of boring classes in subjects many have never cared about and will never use (sorry fellas), until the student hits their core courses in their chosen subject of study. Ideally, those courses will teach the student the ins and outs of the field they intend to work in after college.

    2. The second falls under what James joked about – getting drunk, getting laid, etc. – growing up and learning how to be a responsible adult. College is the transition period between childhood and adulthood. This is the time when adolescents move out from under their parents’ authority to their own – and they have to learn how to navigate the challenges of being truly independent. Sure, they’re not completely independent, usually, but it’s the transition to that.

    You will disagree with me, but I think #2 is as important, if not more important in the college experience as the coursework. For most students I think this is true – it’s not that they don’t care about the education part of college, they do (I did) – but that transition is key. It’s what’s going to enable them to be productive, responsible adults in the workplace. Whether or not they made straight A’s isn’t as important in my mind.

    Of course, I’m speaking as a mediocre student (2.8 GPA at graduation). But I grew tremendously as a person in my four years of college. So while my parents’ (who paid for my BA) wish I had studied more and made better grades, they are more proud of who I became as a person at the end of those four years.

  7. Kelli says:

    John, Paul, James, everyone,

    As a recovering academic myself I concur on most of them being knee-jerk liberals, but am unconvinced by the argument that all of us sat in the first row of the classroom our entire lives shouting “ooh, ooh, pick me!” and receiving accolades from teachers and other authority figures. I went to a top ten (okay, sub-Ivy) grad school and would not put the figure of those types at more than 30%. There were a lot of career switchers–teachers, military officers, non-profit types. A surprising number worked non-glam jobs like construction or oil-rigging before arriving. Who knows what their college gpa was? Mine wasn’t so hot.

    What we DID have in common was a passion for the subject matter and a personality type that craved spending the long, sunny days of summer in dark, cavernous libraries. Go figure!

    As for not knowing how to handle “customers” this too is less than accurate. You have to negotiate on rocky departmental terrain, suck up to students and advisors, pitch ideas to fellowship and selection committees. There’s a lot more salesmanship than meets the eye.

    The problem with academics is that they don’t even know how to defend themselves against charges that they can’t cope with “real world” issues. Most of them don’t want to believe it themselves! Kind of sad really. Put them in a job interview outside academia and they suck air like a dying carp.