How a Leftist Echo Chamber Became the New Norm on Campus

By Phillip W. Magness

A pronounced and growing hostility to free markets has turned the academic humanities into an ideological echo chamber. Over the past 20 years, faculty in English, history, foreign languages, and philosophy have shifted sharply to the political left, resulting in a nearly complete exclusion of dissenting perspectives from these fields.

My previous investigation of this trend found that the most biased majors on campus are now struggling to attract new students, whereas disciplines with greater balance are seeing their majors increase. Ideological homogeneity may comfort faculty and students who already share in a common set of beliefs, but it’s also off-putting to the nearly two-thirds of incoming college freshmen who do not hail from the political left.

A new study of student attitudes about socialism and capitalism provides strong confirmation of the echo chamber effect taking hold of these same disciplines.

College students as a whole have a roughly even divide in their political beliefs, with a clear plurality classifying themselves as moderates and smaller groups identifying on both the left and right of center. In the humanities, however, the political left overwhelmingly dominates the student landscape as well as the faculty.

According to a recent survey by College Pulse, 78 percent of philosophy majors, 64 percent of anthropology majors, and 58 percent of English majors state that they hold the economic and political system of socialism in a favorable light. Unfavorable opinions of socialism account for only 21 percent of philosophy, 20 percent of anthropology, and 24 percent of English majors, with the remainder undecided.

When measured as a whole, 51 percent of humanities majors have a positive opinion of socialism while only 27 percent view it critically. On the flip side, 54 percent of students in the same humanities majors have a negative view of capitalism compared to only 32 percent in support.

Source: College Pulse Student Survey, 2019

The leftward skew of students in the humanities stands in sharp contrast with other academic disciplines, and particularly those with actual competency in economic matters. Only 26 percent of economics majors view socialism favorably, while 61 percent have a negative outlook. The further one strays from actually studying and specializing in the analysis of economic behavior, the more positive their outlook on centrally planned economic systems becomes.

Perhaps not surprising, socialist sympathizers among the student body also appear to have an extremely superficial and often muddled understanding of the concept. Although they are remiss to concede the point, such confusion likely extends to socialism’s faculty sympathizers as well. Scholars in these disciplines tend to form their opinions of socialism from an intellectual affinity for its abstract idealization as found in Marxism, critical theory, and other like-minded schools of philosophical thought on the far left. Social scientific analysis of economic behavior, and specifically socialism’s abysmal track record, seldom enters into the equation.

Philosopher Jason Brennan has made this point at length, noting that academic advocates of socialism usually present the system in its abstract ideal. They then deploy that unrealistic standard to critique “failings” of capitalism as it actually exists in the real-world, while neglecting the dismal parallel real-world track record of socialism. When one ideal form is compared the other, or alternatively their non-ideal performances are considered, capitalism consistently outperforms the socialist alternative on both economic and ethical grounds. Standard reference material on socialism from the academic humanities nonetheless remains curiously neglectful of the vast literature on its abysmal performance in practice, and particularly critiques from social scientists who work in this area.

An economist who studies prices, scarcity, and trade-offs has a direct professional awareness of economic policy making, and with it the untenable nature of socialist economic planning. A political scientist who studies comparative government would similarly know the immiserating and often deadly history of socialist economic systems in the countries that have attempted to implement them.

But what training does a literature professor have that permits him or her to competently opine on economic regulation, on tax policy, on public finance and budgeting, or on centrally planned resource allocation by the state? How about the creative-writing professor? Or the fine arts professor? The Spanish or German professor?

Far too often, faculty in these and other humanistic disciplines venture well beyond their own training and expertise to offer highly ideological pronouncements on social scientific matters that they are ill-equipped to even address. As each of these disciplines drifts deeper into a politically homogeneous echo chamber, such opinions are increasingly isolated from both internal and external scrutiny by scholars who do possess the requisite expertise.

While hostility to free markets and capitalism has clearly taken root among both the faculty and students who work in the humanistic sectors of the academy, there is some hope for an eventual course correction that either restores some balance or sees these fields wither and decline. Ideological echo chambers may be comforting to those within them, but they are also a self-defeating strategy for attracting new customers from beyond that echo chamber’s walls.

By only catering to students on the far left of the political spectrum, the humanities have adopted an exclusionary attitude toward other political viewpoints — including those that still comprise a clear majority of the student body. That almost assuredly means an increased concentration of socialist sympathizers among the majors that they do attract, but it also means the much larger and excluded remainder will vote with their feet and head over to the STEM fields, to the business school, and to pre-professional degrees that offer both greater ideological balance and less of an emphasis upon politicizing their course content. 

Sign up here to be notified of new articles from Phillip W. Magness and AIER.

Phillip W. Magness

Phil Magness is a Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is the author of numerous works on economic history, taxation, economic inequality, the history of slavery, and education policy in the United States.