• Email
  • Print

Or None of the Above

In response to:

The Professors: A Survey of a Survey from the May 18, 1978 issue

To the Editors:

Serge Lang’s attack on the Lipset-Ladd survey of professors’ attitudes (NYR, May 18) confuses two distinct questions. First, was this particular questionnaire well-devised? Second, should professors willingly submit to being polled on their views covering a wide range of general subjects, including their moral and political convictions?

On the first issue, Lang wins an easy victory. The authors of the questionnaire phrased their questions with a peculiar mixture of low-level shrewdness and insensitivity, eliminating options in a way that effectively warped the results. Perhaps they honestly failed to comprehend the range of choices in certain areas that would be meaningful to minds of a different persuasion than their own. The simplistic quality of the questionnaire may have kept large numbers of self-respecting persons from filling it out, leading, as Lang suggests, to a serious misrepresentation of the views of the academic community as a whole.

Yet, mixed in with these justifiable points in Lang’s critique, one finds suggestions of another kind, to the effect that the very effort to gain a representative impression of professorial attitudes on matters other than those having to do with concrete academic policies is somehow impertinent. On this larger issue, historians such as myself must disagree. Our curiosity leads us to try to describe and to account for collective states of mind, whether in the elite or in wider sections of the population. Increasingly, as historians, we wish to get beyond the chance leavings in correspondence files to obtain evidence that enables us to speak with more developed confidence about the thought and actions of a given group at a particular moment. A survey done with greater skill than Lipset and Ladd could muster becomes an immensely valuable source for this kind of historical understanding. Why should professors throw up barricades to exempt themselves from such efforts?

The rise and fall of patterns of attitude in diverse sections of a society form the very stuff of social history. Yet when an outsider (someone from another field, such as history or sociology) asks a professor what he or she really thinks, that person is all too inclined to bristle as if defending some jealously guarded preserve, in the manner of citizens’ groups who have objected to the inclusion of religious questions on the United States census. It seems uncomfortable to admit that one’s views might conform to patterns larger than oneself, or might be translatable into a vocabulary one has not personally coined. In fact professors, like other people, merge into clusters in terms of their convictions far more often than they prefer to admit. Later generations will have some interest in knowing what share of professors, and of what backgrounds and disciplinary affiliations, took a certain line on the lively subjects of their day—yes, such as the use of marijuana or American policy toward Rhodesia. This kind of intellectual curiosity was, I am sure, a major motive behind the Lipset-Ladd questionnaire, and it is to the further discredit of its authors that they were not forthright in so informing those invited to answer it, hence inspiring distrust rather than natural sympathy and further ruining the undertaking.

The sad thing about all this is not that professors were systematically asked their views on premarital sex, but that so often, as in this case, those with the drive to conduct such an enormous operation of this kind lack the imagination that can probe with genuine discernment and with the respectful posture that elicits honest, willing responses. Unfortunately this means that a huge share of the statistics that have been gathered on attitudes, values, and states of mind ends up being sheer rubbish, and that the very idea of trying to sample a group’s state of mind is improperly thrown into discredit.

Laurence Veysey

Professor of History

University of California, Santa Cruz

Serge Lang replies:

I am happy to have Professor Veysey’s agreement that “The 1977 Survey…” may give rise to serious misrepresentation of the views of the academic community as a whole. I particularly appreciated his comments on the need for surveyors to have respectful attitudes toward their colleagues. Nowhere in my NYR article, however, do I deal with the question he raises whether “professors should willingly submit to being polled on their views covering a wide range of general subjects, including their moral and political convictions.”

If the word “should” is taken with an imperative meaning, I would react by reiterating that I do not tell my colleagues what they “should” do when presented with this or similar circumstances. For instance, a colleague recently received a questionnaire from King Research, acting explicitly for the National Science Foundation, and asking for information about communication procedures (publication of research papers, computerization, etc.). I told him I would have filled it out if I had received it, but that his decision was not mine to make.

If the word “should” is taken with a more hypothetical interpretation, then I do not reject a priori the possibility of replying to a request from a historian, political scientist, or sociologist asking me for information about my beliefs. But obviously I cannot endorse such requests in advance. I shall deal with concrete instances if and when they arise. The question is not whether “I should willingly submit to being polled.” The question is: by whom, when, about what, for what purpose, in what context, etc. Of course, I must form my own opinion of the competence and “sensitivity” of those making the request. I did not think one could find in my article “suggestions of another kind, to the effect that the very effort to gain a representative impression of professional attitudes on matters other than those having to do with concrete academic policies is somehow impertinent.”

Many people have told me that my criticisms of “The 1977 Survey” are “obvious” once made, but that they would not have seen them in the first place. I have tried to stimulate people to rely on their own judgment and to develop their own critical sense—not only toward surveys but toward other matters as well.

  • Email
  • Print