Sunday, September 04, 2022

The Socioeconomic Roots of Faculty Might (at least partially) Explain the Persistence of Ideal theory?

Higher education is a real privilege and joy to work in. But in many ways it can also be a very insular work environment, serving as a "echo chamber" to reinforce the beliefs and aspirations of a homogeneous elite group in society.

This is how I have long felt about "ideal theory" in political philosophy.  I have written about this many times here before, and in my published work, so I won't repeat my grievances against the paradigm again.  But this study in Nature Human Behaviour helps explain (IMHO) why so many in my discipline had been in the grips of "reflective equilibrium" ("let's derive theories of justice that validate the moral sensibilities of other ivory-tower elites!") and "abstraction" ("let's simplify the messy empirical realities of the world so that we can delve deeper into our hypothetical thought experiments vs actually attending to the realities of injustice") for so many decades.

Consider, for example, the educational origins of two of the most prominent non-ideal theorists- Charles Mills and A. Sen.  Mills did his first degree, in physics, at the University of West Indies in Jamaica.  And Sen first attended Presidency College in in Calcutta, before going on to elite universities to pursue other degrees (and I believe his father had a PhD, so he did come from an educated family within India).  By contrast prominent ideal theorists all attended elite universities from the start of their education:  Rawls did his undergraduate degree at Princeton, Cohen at McGill, Dworkin at Harvard and Nozick at Columbia University.  One's socio-economic background does shape the questions, methodologies, etc. of one's research projects.  Had more scholars in the discipline come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds during the 1970's-1990's I really doubt that ideal theory would have had so much sway in the field for so long.  

A sample from the study:

Professors play a unique role in the knowledge economy: they both train the next generation of thinkers and generate new scholarship, which informs national policy and advances scientific discoveries. But the professoriate has never represented the sociodemographic characteristics of the population it serves. While the diversity of the educational pipeline has been extensively studied in terms of race and ethnicity, and the links between parental income and occupational status, and their children’s educational attainment are well documented, there exist comparatively few systematic studies on the socioeconomic roots of professors or how their socioeconomic origins interact with institutional prestige.

....Research has shown notable socioeconomic differences in not only whether individuals attend and complete college, but also where they attend, with more advantaged students attending more selective institutions. Students completing degrees at highly selective institutions are more likely to come from the top 1% of the US income distribution than from the bottom 50%15. Students from more disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds who attend college, particularly those who attend selective colleges, also have different experiences on campus that are less conducive to academic success than their higher socioeconomic peers.