A new opportunity for linguists

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Senator Rick Santorum has taken over the lead in national polling for the Republican presidential nomination; and so there is increasing interest in his ideas for new national policies, for example as he explains them in this October 2011 interview with Shane Vander Hart.  As a linguist and a true conservative, I'm especially intrigued by a section that starts at around 25:50, where Senator Santorum promises to protect us against government interference in education by mandating an federal accreditation program to ensure ideological balance among teachers.

My transcription of this passage:

Interviewer: President Santorum,
you- you- you're-
you come into the oval office, are you going to initially
uh I guess, repeal Race to the Top or, because this is all done by executive order
Santorum: Yeah
uh we'll have a long laundry list of executive orders that will be repealed
Interviewer: you give you know waivers to the states and-
Santorum: and- and- and that will be one th- look
we're going to repeal all sorts of regulations that require the federal government
that inject the federal government into the area of education. I just think it's uh
it's- it's wrong headed that- though- and I'm ((amused)) with the idea
not on primary and secondary but on uh
on higher education that we'll tie higher education dollars to the new ((code-)) we'll call it well let me see we'll call it
uh it's not title nine, nine's a (( )) number these days uh
uh my favorite number is seven maybe we'll call it title seven
which is uh
or maybe we should make it an even number
you know, title two
uh and- and
saying that there should be an equal number
uh of conservative professors teaching our kids in colleges and universities that receive federal funds as liberal
and- and that we have organizations that are uh
certifying organizations just like we have certifying organizations that accredidate [sic] college, we're going to have certain organizations that will accredit- that will accredit conservative professors
uh that if you are to be eligible for federal funds you have to
provide uh an equal number of conservative professors as are liberal professors
so we have some balance uh when our children come to school
and not- and not in the process of being indocrinated by the academy
which is exactly what they are right now
and if we do not fight this battle of government control of education, primary and secondary,
and ((that)) the left's control of education post-secondary
then we are not going to have a country that's going to be free, because we have country that- that will be built
and educated on a model of socialism
a model of- of- of- uh that approves
and uh and condones and encourages government control of your life

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there were 1.7 million instructors in U.S. post-secondary education in 2008, so an effective federal program to prevent federal interference in education by monitoring and regulating the ideological outlook of post-secondary teachers would create several tens of thousands of highly-skilled jobs — not to speak of all the work for lawyers hired by individuals appealing their ideological classification. These appeals will often hinge on the interpretation of passages in published papers, conference presentations, or classroom recordings — and expertise in such interpretation is the core competency of linguists. These cases will also need expert witnesses to testify as to the meaning of words like conservative, liberal, radical, and so on, thereby creating a new opportunity for the application of corpus-based lexicography. And we can foresee an even greater need for computational linguists, given the increasing role of automated sentiment analysis applied to the papers, email archives, and Facebook postings of would-be post-secondary teachers.

Since I'm a conservative as well as a linguist, I do worry about unintended consequences. For example, there may be some negative effects on our international balance of payments. The process of ideological accreditation will require a great deal of expensive skilled labor; and there is large pool of experienced political commissars in the former Soviet Union, who are now under-employed and willing to work cheap. Senator Santorum clearly intends the federally-mandated ideological accreditation to be carried out by private-sector organizations, like those that now handle academic accreditation, and these accreditation agencies will be tempted to outsource much of the skilled but tedious work of compiling dossiers and evaluating them for ideological stance.The Chinese also have considerable expertise in this area, and might in the end pose an even bigger threat to American jobs, especially as monitoring of digital media becomes more and more important as a factor in ensuring accurate political classification of post-secondary instructors.

Still, I feel that Senator Santorum's proposal would be a win all around for linguistics and language sciences. Unfortunately, I think that he was joking, at least as far as the practical implementation of his idea is concerned.

A linguistic note: The whole business about "titles" can be rather confusing. For example, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has titles I through XI; and other famous federal "titles" include Title VI of the National Defense Education Act of 1958, later re-authorized as Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965;  Title IX of the National Education Amendments of 1972; Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990; etc.

Although these "titles" are just enumerated sections of bills passed by Congress, they find their way into the general vocabulary.


  1. The Ridger said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 8:59 am

    Ah, government control to prevent government control, or "it's okay if we're enforcing MY viewpoint."

  2. Barry Brenesal said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 9:03 am

    And they say we USians have no understanding of irony.

  3. anon said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 9:44 am

    It took me an embarrassingly long time (not until after a series of fruitless Google searches) to understand the "as a true conservative" bit. That said, you may be happy to note that your record appears clean (as far as superficial Google searches go). With this article standing up as sole testament of your political leanings, you'll be very well positioned when the time comes.

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 10:56 am

    Perhaps some of this could be handled by exchanges. For instance, my employer—the faculty is overwhelmingly liberal—could trade with Bob Jones University, with equally exciting results at both places. (I did not mean "classical liberal". Possibly most of us are "romantic liberals".)

    On an almost linguistic note, I'm surprised that Sen. Santorum thought this kind of extended, satirical joke was appropriate for a campaign, not just for a late-night bull session. He does know vastly more about getting elected than I do.

  5. a George said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 11:03 am

    In Europe, Vice-president of the European Commission and Commissioner responsible for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, Viviane Reding, is threatening to take legal measures to force a 50/50 male/female representation in boards
    http://ec.europa.eu/commission_2010-2014/ [no newline]
    – is merely the early, softer approach.

    This is not unlike future President Santorum's idea but much cheaper. The true problem is that at present there are generally not enough qualified women around to account for 50% of board membership – unless you consider being female a qualification in any subject area. To avoid this sticky problem the following solution has been mentioned: give all women on a board (i.e. elected based on true qualifications) two votes. This will increase the representation of women in decisions and it will demonstrate the value society puts on a female and relevant input. Possibly demographics will require three votes per qualified woman.

    Transferring this to the future Santorium, it would be a much cheaper solution to merely give each conservative professor two votes. How does that sound?

    [(myl) But professors don't vote (qua professors) about anything that matters to anyone but them. The parallel in this case would be to have conservative professors teach twice as many courses. As a conservative myself, I would object to that solution.]

  6. Joe said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 11:49 am

    Well, since everyone knows that 1) everyone is either a registered Democrat or registered Republican and 2) all Democrats are liberal and all Republicans are conservative, all you need is a 50-50 split of Democrats and Republicans (i've actually read studies working on these assumptions)

  7. MattF said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

    We can also have special venues for the necessary and beneficial alteration of incorrect opinions, with very special staffing requirements.

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 12:49 pm

    @Joe: I often think that's comical – Fal, lal, la!

  9. a George said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 1:28 pm

    @myl – aren't there any examination committees deciding pass/non-pass? Peer review with double count? The only problem will be deciding who deserves getting double weight – you apparently do – self-confessed and all. However, I have the comforting feeling that there is a very broad spectrum once you open the box of conservatism.

    [(myl) Well, OK. But Senator Santorum is worried about the indoctrination of the nation's children, and the only way to fix that quickly is to modify teaching loads in inverse proportion to political prevalence. On a longer time scale, hiring quotas would of course be necessary, though you have to worry about people whose political views evolve over time. Re-education camps might help — and if you work it right, you can get some science and engineering done cheaply that way at the same time — but the record there is mixed, and the recidivism rate is a concern.]

  10. Olivia said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 2:01 pm

    I agree that there is a lack of balance when it comes to the ideological leanings of professors. But would doing something to change this PREVENT "federal interference in education." It would in fact be a perfect example of federal interference in education. Also, I don't see how the problem it's aimed to address actually counts as federal interference. The ideologies of professors has nothing to do with federal interference as professors are not the federal government.

    Furthermore, if the imbalance was the other way around, I think most conservatives would say it was a ludicrous waste of resources AND an example of "big government" getting involved where it doesn't belong.

    [(myl) It's always regrettable when we need to destroy an institution in order to save it. Still, what's right is what's right…]

    Santorum should go to some colleges and talk to young voters there. I think that is all it would take to see that despite an uneven ratio of "conservative" and "liberal" professors, there is no shortage of right-leaning college students. At least that's how it was at the state school I went to.

  11. a George said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 2:17 pm

    – ah, a compassionate society indeed: re-education and recidivism. Point taken: I have to give in to your original vision: this is going to be work-intensive. Much better than bumping people off, though. As Flanders and Swann used to say, "it all makes work for the working man to do".

  12. Smartass Remark said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 2:37 pm

    The only correct way to remove government interference is to remove government funding. If you pick and choose who gets funding, you're discriminating. As well as incriminating.

  13. Jon Weinberg said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 3:10 pm

    Senator Santorum's emphasis on "children . . . being indoctrinated by the academy" might lead one to think that the problem was those pesky liberals in fields like anthropology and sociology. That overlooks the real danger — liberals outnumber conservatives in university hard sciences and math departments by a factor of more than six to one! What accreditation teams will protect the children from that scourge?

  14. GeorgeW said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 3:23 pm

    So, are neo-liberals liberals?

  15. shane said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 4:31 pm


  16. Stuart said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 5:21 pm

    Since Santorum seems to believe the likes of Romney and McCain are dangerous liberals, I think he could have serious problems with this. I'd be surprised if you could find 850,000 people more right wing than Santorum, let alone 850,000 with a passing interest in putting up with a roomful of whiny 18 year olds. (Also, I can kind of see why he wants this in liberal arts, but would it apply to math and physics, with its worryingly feminist fluid mechanics, etc?)

    [(myl) Well, of course Senator Santorum is not going to classify 1.7M post-secondary instructors personally. We'll need a large bureaucracy to decide on the criteria for political classification, and to assign each would-be instructor to his or her place on the spectrum. Or in the multi-dimensional space, more realistically — and ensuring equal coverage across all regions of all dimensions will pose some algorithmic problems, as well as adding a phrase or two to all job ads ("The successful candidate will be a leading expert in soft-condensed-matter research and in the use of optical tweezers, with an international portfolio of research publications and a demonstrated commitment to Geonomics and to the Gold Standard…").

    As for those whiny 18-year-olds, I suspect that their morale (or at least their demeanor) will be improved by some of Senator Senatorum's other policy changes.]

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 7:13 pm

    @MYL: I don't want to take bread out of anybody's mouth, but isn't race- and gender-based affirmative action done by self-identification? Of course, academics are probably less trustworthy than undergrads, for example.

    @Jon Weinberg and Stuart: Politics occasionally comes up even in the physics and math classes I teach. I try not to let the students feel that they have to agree with me, so I avoid various subtly biased words (such as "pinhead") that I might otherwise use.

  18. dw said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 7:28 pm

    Any comment on the latest "misspeaking" from the Santorum aide who spoke of President Obama's "radical Islamic policies" instead of his "radical environmental policies"?

    I don't buy it as an innocent slip– the words aren't similar enough.

  19. D.O. said,

    February 21, 2012 @ 1:07 am

    Technology will save the day. True conservative Prof. Liberman can record all necessary lectures in Linguistics, which will be broadcast to all linguistics classrooms across America. Attendence will be mandatory. All examinations will also be written by Prof. Liberman and given uniformely across the country. There will be some problems with grading if Prof. Liberman prefers not to give multiple-choice tests, but that can be worked out later.

    [(myl) I don't think that this will fly: the political accreditation agency will be mandated to enforce balance. Then again, I'm not sure how to fit Senator Santorum's calls for exorcism in higher education into this framework:

    [Satan] was successful. He attacks all of us and he attacks all of our institutions. The place where he was, in my mind, the most successful and first successful was in academia. He understood pride of smart people. He attacked them at their weakest, that they were, in fact, smarter than everybody else and could come up with something new and different. Pursue new truths, deny the existence of truth, play with it because they're smart. And so academia, a long time ago, fell.

    And you say "what could be the impact of academia falling?" Well, I would have the argument that the other structures that I'm going to talk about here had root of their destruction because of academia. Because what academia does is educate the elites in our society, educates the leaders in our society, particularly at the college level. And they were the first to fall.

    Presumably Satan doesn't get equal time. But it's not clear how to identify his minions, except perhaps that they "pursue new truths".]

    By the way, 1970-80s Russian joke (somewhat off-top): a man comes home and turns his TV to channel 1. Leonid Brezhnev reads a speach. He turns to channel 2. Leonid Brezhnev reads a speach. He turns the TV to channel 3. A man in KGB uniform says with a stern expression: "You will regret this turning!"

  20. Education or Indoctrination? | The Observatory said,

    February 28, 2012 @ 10:37 am

    […] To Beck, Santorum charged that the reason President Obama wants to send every young person to college is because they are "indoctrination mills."  To Vander Hart, Santorum suggested that even though he believed there should be less federal regulation of education that he would support a requirement, enforced by accreditors, that colleges have equal numbers of liberal and conservative professors as a condition of receiving federal financial aid.  You can read a transcript of that conversation here. […]

  21. [links] Link salad peels back the rind | jlake.com said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 1:56 pm

    […] A new opportunity for linguists — Senator Santorum promises to protect us against government interference in education by mandating an federal accreditation program to ensure ideological balance among teachers. A dissuasion of this idea by Language Log. Teachers trend liberal for the same reason journalists do: It's difficult to keep trumping reality with ideology when your job is examining the world in an evidence-based way. […]

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