For more than half a century, social scientists have taken for granted the fact that college faculty lean left. Some of the first systematic evidence of the faculty’s leftist politics was reported in 1958 with the release of Lazarsfeld and Thielens’s classic study, The Academic Mind. In 1975 Ladd and Lipset showed that faculty leftism persisted in the post-Vietnam era in their book The Divided Academy. More recently in The Still Divided Academy, my co-authors and I provide detailed evidence that faculty hold political views well to the left of both students and the public at large. Not only are right-leaning professors a tiny minority of the faculty, the left’s dominance among the professoriate tends to be more pronounced at America’s elite institutions. Cognizant of the left’s hold on many institutions, the University of Colorado’s Board of Regents recently called for a “climate survey” to determine whether liberal bias chills the free exchange of ideas on campus.
Given the academy’s educational mission, which presumably involves the transmission of both knowledge and social values, this profound ideological imbalance raises an obvious and important question. To what extent do the leftist faculty transmit their ideological world-view to the students? This is an inherently more difficult question, as it requires that we document subtle changes in students’ political views, and show evidence that the observed changes are as a result of the faculty’s influence. It’s not enough to point to a handful of cases where conservative students have been indoctrinated by their liberal professors. The real question is, what is the experience of the typical student on a college campus?
Research Confirms Students Aren't Sponges
Recognizing that some college instructors are pushing an ideological agenda in the classroom, there is scant evidence that students are being profoundly influenced by the political views of their professors. Indeed, a number of recent studies cast increasing doubt on the proposition that students are readily adopting the views of their liberal faculty. In our 2009 article for the Journal, PS: Political Science and Politics titled "I Think My Professor Is a Democrat: Considering Whether Students Recognize and React to Faculty Politics” April Kelly-Woessner and I track the partisan leanings of more than 1,000 individuals enrolled in undergraduate political science courses throughout the United States. Somewhat surprisingly, we found that students’ party preferences shift somewhat randomly over time, with only the slightest shift toward the Democratic Party.
In The Still Divided Academy, Rothman, Kelly-Woessner and I examine the question of faculty influence on specific political views like taxes, regulations and abortion. Using aggregate data, we look for evidence that student cohorts move leftward as a function of time. As in our 2009 study, we don’t find compelling evidence that students' views shift leftward. On social policy, fourth-year students exhibited slightly more liberal views than do first-year students. However, on a few economic questions, we find that students actually drifted slightly to the right. We noted, with some interest, that the shift tends to move students toward the views of their professors. However, the difference between cohorts was relatively small. Over all, students completing their education hold very similar views to those just entering the academy.
These snapshots of evolving student beliefs don’t suggest that faculty refrain from shaping student values, or even trying to influence their political views. Whereas some disciplines, such as political science, often shun partisan advocacy, many fields, including sociology, ethnic studies, and social work, openly advocate a distinct ideological worldview. If these and similar studies are correct, it suggests that student beliefs are surprisingly resilient. For every one student who is actively recruited to a leftist political cause, a vast majority complete their education with their values largely intact.
Considering Academia’s Persuasion Paradox
Since the left maintains a powerful hold on higher education, dominating a vast majority of disciplines and most individual departments, including political science and economics (see Klein and Stern’s essay in The Politically Correct University and Gross’s book Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservative Care?), what are we to make of the seemingly stable political beliefs of undergraduates in these presumably formative political years? While it is doubtful that there is any single explanation to resolve what I’ll call academia’s Persuasion Paradox, there are several probable explanations that may contribute to undergraduates’ apparent political stability. Although we do not yet have sufficient evidence to fully account for students' ideological development, it's worth considering the range of explanations.
Explanation #1: Faculty Truly are Committed to Impartiality
It is possible that students are politically unaffected by college because most faculty deliberately conceal their views in the classroom, or at least strive to cover both perspectives even-handedly. If most faculty cautiously avoid political advocacy, it would come as no surprise that students don't lurch leftward as they complete their college degree.
In many fields, particularly in the natural sciences, it seems plausible that faculty politics do not enter into the classroom or shape the views of students. Professors teaching nuclear physics, volcanology or paleobotany would have to go way out of their way to politicize their lectures. However, in the humanities and social sciences, academic disciplines often collide with contemporary politics. Unless the instructor is strongly committed to carefully balancing the curriculum, it is all too easy to inject politics into the coursework. Without systematic studies of instructional norms, it's difficult to know how many faculty deliberately embargo their political opinion, opting instead to present the material in a fair and balanced manner. Judging from the anecdotal evidence provided by conservative activists, it seems clear that many faculty deliberately politicize their classrooms.
Even if most faculty try to constrain their political beliefs, it seems improbable that their ideological worldview wouldn't inadvertently bleed into the classroom. As a point of reference, consider how journalism, which explicitly rejects editorial manipulation, nevertheless, tends to reflect the political views of its predominantly left-leaning practitioners. In his book, Left Turn, UCLA professor, Timothy Groseclose, provides evidence that nonpartisan journalists tend to cite the same sources as do Democrats in Congress. Even journalists, who are trained to be impartial and are consciously motivated to report a story fairly, often cover political controversies with undue deference to the liberal ideological perspective. Given the obstacles to impartiality in journalism, it seems probable that leftism among the faculty probably affects the curriculum. As such, it seems improbable, although not impossible, that faculty efforts to be impartial are the driving force behind students' political consistency.
Explanation #2: Leftist Influence Often Precedes College Coursework
Although college, dominated by the left, may provide students a less-than-objective worldview, the experience may not differ appreciably from the slanted messages they receive from their K-12 teachers, Hollywood and social networking. If students’ political values have already shifted left as a result of the messages they received in the 18 years prior to entering higher education, college may serve to maintain a liberal worldview, rather than drive students appreciably leftward.
Efforts to measure the impact of higher education on political development may be incomplete, as we tend to overlook the ideological influence that teachers, the media and social networking have on students before entering college.
Explanation #3: Many Students Aren't Listening
Like people outside of academe, students may not be easy to influence, either because they are set in their ways or because they are not paying attention. In either case, left-leaning faculty may have a difficult time molding students in their political image.
For professors pushing a leftist worldview, liberal students are clearly a receptive audience because left-leaning undergraduates are both interested in politics and receptive to the professor's ideas. Whereas the faculty can validate liberal student’s preexisting views, they can't, by definition, win converts. Selling liberalism to liberal students is preaching to the choir.
When interacting with conservative students, faculty do have an opportunity to win converts. However, precisely because conservatives come to college with a defined set of political beliefs, they won't easily accept the professor's political messages. The social psychology literature is replete with studies that confirm how resistant people are to accepting new ideas as people tend to discredit information that conflicts with their preexisting beliefs, or simply tuning out. As such most adults, including young college students, are capable of resisting countervailing messages. Scholars are just beginning to explore how conservative students adapt to a hostile ideological environment (See Binder and Wood’s book Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives).
It seems clear that they don’t readily accept hostile messages, or take what professors say at face value. Speaking as a conservative who attended two liberal undergraduate institutions, I suspect many right-leaning students opt to lay low. As an undergraduate, I quickly learned that it was sometimes necessary to regurgitate professors' leftist diatribes in order to demonstrate that I understood the assigned material. Prompting students to parrot elements of a liberal worldview is a far cry from meaningful indoctrination.
For proselytizing faculty, nonaligned students represent an entirely different challenge. Whereas non-ideological students enter college without a strong connection to either perspective, they tend to be especially uninterested in politics altogether. Accordingly, nonaligned students don't necessarily understand or care about abstract ideological debates on executive power, federalism, or civil liberties.
While non-ideological students are, in some ways, the perfect targets for political evangelism, faculty must first inspire them to care about politics. For students often distracted by friends, work, athletics, video games, and social media, getting them interested in politics can be an exceptionally difficult task.
The potential impact of a disengaged student body resonates with college instructors who often struggle to hold students’ attention. Whereas a generation ago, faculty often worried that students were daydreaming in class, today’s instructors are preoccupied with students surfing the web, blogging or reading Facebook. Far from being receptive to political indoctrination, nonideological students are easily in a position to tune out if a professor’s lecture degenerates into a political rant. Noting her difficulty in holding students' attention, one of my liberal colleagues once remarked, "I wish I could politically indoctrinate my students, but I can’t even get them to do the reading."
Explanation #4: Conservative Students Deliberately Avoid Ideological Minefields
Whereas most faculty identify with the political left, the bulk of outright political advocacy may be confined to select majors already populated by leftist students. The few conservative students who explore these politicized majors are often free to alter their course of study to avoid topics that seem closed off to a conservative worldview. Although there is little systematic evidence to sort out whether conservative students deliberately opt out of leftist majors, it seems reasonable to suppose that right-leaning students would instinctively avoid fields dominated by proselytizing faculty.
Even if a naive young conservative enrolled in an introductory anthropology course, thinking it would provide an evenhanded look at culture and civilization, she would quickly learn that the field is dominated by faculty that are often openly hostile to conservative social policy. As such, majors dominated by ideological faculty might act to repel nonconformists, thereby reducing conservatives’ exposure to conflicting points of view.
In my piece "Rethinking the Plight of Conservatives in Higher Education," I tell the story of my first (and only) sociology class, taken my sophomore year of college. I was shocked to discover that my professor was an avowed Marxist. Using this one course as a barometer for the discipline, I kept my distance from sociology courses thereafter. Whereas most students are probably aware that courses in gender or ethnic studies are inherently political, it is not necessarily obvious that psychology, archeology or English literature are often dominated by highly ideological instructors. As students stumble their way through their introductory courses, conservative students may well shape their curricular decisions, at least in part, to avoid ideologically charged majors.
In our 2012 article “Diversifying the Academy: How Conservative Academics Can Thrive in Liberal Academia” for the Journal PS: Political Science and Politics, Robert Maranto and I suggest that conservative faculty should (and probably do) adopt these conflict avoidance strategies as they move toward tenure. Academe might be left of center, but many clever conservatives can find islands of political tolerance if they know where to look.
Students' academic discretion would not only provide conservatives with the option of avoiding ideologically hostile majors, but also afford them the flexibility to work with faculty they perceive as tolerant of their political views. As a young conservative studying at UCLA, I was delighted to find professors, such as John Petrocik and Leo Snowiss, who approached political science from a minimally ideological perspective. I took four history courses with John Montaño, a masterful lecturer, who never once hinted at his own political views. Grateful that I had identified a handful of professors who weren't pushing a political agenda, I took a disproportionate number of courses from a relatively small pool of faculty
Ironically, if students commonly gravitate toward what they perceive to be tolerant instructors, then higher education's "liberal" approach to selecting a major and designing a unique course of study could be a major contributor to conservative students' seemingly stable political views.
Explanation #5: Academe's Persuasion Paradox is an Illusion
It's entirely possible that academia's persuasion paradox is, itself, an illusion.
Stephen Balch, founder and former president of the National Association of Scholars, remains skeptical that students aren't internalizing at least some of the faculty's political beliefs. Considering the evidence that many faculty actively try to shape the political values of students, he argues that it is inconceivable that instructors would consistently fail to transmit their most intensely held political beliefs.
Challenging the assertion that students are unmoved by faculty leftism, Balch points to a finding in our book The Still Divided Academy. Whereas the left dominates the faculty throughout academe, its influence is more pronounced at America’s most prestigious research universities. To the extent that the left holds a near-monopoly among the faculty positions at top institutions, students may come to see leftism as the only acceptable worldview among the social elite. Even if students aren’t moving left in higher education as a whole, America’s top students may be mentored in a uniquely insular environment. Over time, this elite socialization would have a important impact on the evolving political beliefs of many of America’s best and brightest students.
Whereas the jury is still out on whether student’s political stability holds true at America’s elite institutions, Balch raises an important point. Researchers shouldn't ignore the possibility that, despite some of our preliminary findings, higher education does indeed shape students' outlook in subtle but important ways.
It is unlikely that academia's persuasion paradox can be resolved with any single explanation. It seems probable that students' apparent political consistency is driven by a combination of faculty restraint, conflict avoidance, and outright political uninterest. Given our limited understanding of student attitudinal formation, it will take years to sort out these competing explanations.
Motivated by a healthy scientific curiosity about academe’s role in shaping societal attitudes, researchers should take a second look at students’ stubborn political dispositions. If undergraduates’ political values are stable, largely because leftist faculty manage to contain their political views, it would represent a vindication of higher education's mission to train students to think for themselves. On the other hand, if ongoing research finds evidence that conservative students maintain their worldview by fleeing from highly politicized disciplines, then at least some of the right’s criticisms of higher education are justified. In either case, unraveling academe’s persuasion paradox represents one of the next great challenges for social science, as we consider how higher education plays a role in shaping the views and values of the nation, and indeed the world.
Imagine a bright sunny day at a major league baseball park. It’s the middle innings of a good, but not notable, game. The lead-off batter hits a long ball down the third base side that arcs foul and heads for the seats. Just as it’s about to land in the bleachers, a gloved hand seems to appear from nowhere and snags a souvenir. The crowd goes wild and the recipient waves his trophy for all to see.
But what’s the big commotion really all about. The ball itself is only worth a few dollars. If that same person found something much more valuable, like a $20 bill, on the sidewalk, people might congratulate him, but no one, let alone thousands, would stand and cheer. The cheering has little to do with the value of the ball, but rather the process of receiving it. Some in the stands will say to their friends “Nice catch, huh?” Others may remark on the preparation needed for someone to bring a glove to the ballpark and stay alert enough through the entire game to be ready for just that moment. Everyone will appreciate that few get the chance to make such a "big catch." But few will say, "Wow, he got a great baseball out of that!"
This scene provides a lesson to those of us in academe: While the knowledge we create has value, it’s the process of creating that knowledge that generates passion and excitement. This lesson probably seems trivial to many of us who have spent our entire careers pursuing our passions in the lab or the library, but unfortunately, too few of those outside of the academy appreciate this basic reality, and this lack of appreciation is in large part our own fault. More than 1 million students earned bachelor’s degrees last year in the United States and more than 600,000 others received associate degrees. That’s 1.6 million people who voluntarily signed on to serve as academic apprentices to us. We had the chance to show them how to make the great catch, but too often we simply gave them the baseballs.
Think of an undergraduate history course, for example. If you ask most undergraduate students to tell you about what they learned in their history courses they will talk about dates, or major social-political upheavals, or great battles and their consequences. But surprisingly few can talk about how that history was written, the scarcity of contemporary records for some events, the difficulties of verifying first-person accounts, the recasting of events over time to be consistent with changing political perspectives.In other words, they have received the baseball, examined it, and come to understand it; but we failed to share with them the excitement of how it came to be. Similarly, too many students come away from our natural science courses thinking that science is knowledge consisting of equations, principles, and specific laboratory techniques, like titration.
I am of course generalizing in many ways. Chemistry majors understand that science is about discovery and history majors have wrestled with trying to reconcile contradictory sources, but most students in history classes are not going to become historians; for many this may be the only history course they take from a real historian. How unfortunate that those students didn’t come to appreciate what historians are and what they do. And the same holds true for most students in our introductory science courses.
How the world would be different, if each year more than a million people left our institutions understanding what we, as faculty, do with all of that time that we’re not in the classroom, what excitement there is in discovering something no one else has ever known, and the value that these discoveries bring to society. Those million-plus people become voters and taxpayers and some of them become corporate leaders and politicians. The world could be a very different place if they better understood faculty work and why universities are important.
This is not simply another call to include undergraduates in research. That is important, but not sufficient. Clearly, students who spend several years, or even a semester or summer, working closely with a faculty mentor in research are likely to come to understand the importance of knowledge creation and the impact such work has on faculty, students, and society. But, given the pace of expanding national enrollments versus the pace of expanding the faculty, we will not be able to offer that kind of experience to the majority of our students any time in the foreseeable future.
Instead, we must reshape our courses to reflect our passions for discovery as well as the ideas and facts that those passions have generated. The current emphasis on team-centered learning and “flipped” classrooms provides an opportunity to rethink not only how we teach, but what we teach. Much of the work to date, however, has been on the incorporation of student skills (participation in a team, student-led learning, etc.) into existing courses. We must also use this opportunity to create course objectives that are defined not simply by content and student skills, but also by creating an understanding of the nature of the discipline(s) upon which a course or curriculum is built. In the future, our courses must be designed to help students appreciate the processes of discovery that define our disciplines, and they should make evident to our students the rewards and the excitement that comes from creating knowledge using those processes.
Just as few of us will have the chance to snag a foul ball at a major league baseball game, so too will few of us succeed in making that really big discovery that redefines a discipline. But, all of us can appreciate the excitement of such a discovery and feel envious that it wasn’t us who made it. Those emotions are what drive us as faculty members and our students deserve the opportunity to see and understand that passion, as well. It will make them better students and better future citizens.
Kim A. Wilcox has just finished his tenure as provost at Michigan State University, and is returning to the faculty.
What an exciting year for distance learning! Cutting-edge communication systems allowed colleges to escape the tired confines of face-to-face education. Bold new technologies made it possible for thousands of geographically dispersed students to enroll in world-class courses. Innovative assessment mechanisms let professors supervise their pupils remotely.
All this progress was good for business, too. Private entrepreneurs leapt at the chance to compete in the new distance learning marketplace, while Ivy League universities bustled to keep pace. True, a few naysayers fretted about declining student attention spans and low course-completion rates. But who could object to the expansively democratic goal of bringing first-rate education to more people than ever before? The new pedagogical tools promised to be not only more affordable than traditional classes, but also more effective at measuring student progress.
In the words of one prominent expert, the average distance learner "knows more of the subject, and knows it better, than the student who has covered the same ground in the classroom." Indeed, "the day is coming when the work done [via distance learning] will be greater in amount than that done in the class-rooms of our colleges." The future of education was finally here.
2012, right? Think again: 1885. The commentator quoted above was Yale classicist (and future University of Chicago President) William Rainey Harper, evaluating correspondence courses. That’s right: you’ve got (snail) mail. Journalist Nicholas Carr has chronicled the recurrent boosterism about mass mediated education over the last century: the phonograph, instructional radio, televised lectures. All were heralded as transformative educational tools in their day. This should give us pause as we consider the latest iteration of distance learning: massive open online courses (MOOCs).
In response to the "MOOC Moment,"skeptical faculty have begun questioning venture capitalists eager for new markets and legislators eager to dismantle public funding for American higher education. To their credit, some people pushing for MOOCs speak from laudably egalitarian impulses to provide access for disadvantaged students. But to what are they being given access? Are broadcast lectures and online discussions the sum of an education? Or is an education something more than "content" delivery?
To state the obvious: there’s a living, human element to education. We who cherish in-person instruction would benefit from a pithy phrase to defend and promote this millennia-tested practice. I propose that we begin calling it "close learning." "Close learning" evokes the laborious, time-consuming, and costly but irreplaceable proximity between teacher and student. "Close learning" exposes the stark deficiencies of mass distance learning such as MOOCs, and its haste to reduce dynamism, responsiveness, presence.
Techno-utopians seem surprised that "blended" or "flipped" classrooms – combining online media with in-person discussions – are more effective than their online-only counterparts, or that one-on-one tutoring strengthens the utility of MOOCs. In spite of all the hype about interactivity, "lecturing" a la MOOCs merely extends the cliché of the static, one-sided lecture hall, where distance learning begins after the first row.
The old-fashioned Socratic seminar is where we actually find interactive learning and open-ended inquiry. In the close learning of the live seminar, spontaneity rules. Both students and teachers are always at a crossroads, collaboratively deciding where to go and where to stop, how to navigate and how to detour, and how to close the distance between a topic and the people discussing it. For the seminar to work, certain limits are required (most centrally, a limit in size). But these finite limits enable the infinity of questioning that is close learning. MOOCs claim to abolish those limits, while they paradoxically reinstate them. Their naïve model assumes that there is always total transparency, that passively seeing (watching a lecture, or a virtual simulation) is learning.
A Columbia University neuroscientist, Stuart Firestein, recently published a polemical book titled Ignorance: How It Drives Science. Discouraged by students regurgitating his lectures without internalizing the complexity of scientific inquiry, Firestein created a seminar to which he invited his colleagues to discuss what they don’t know. As Firestein repeatedly emphasizes, it is informed ignorance, not information, that is the genuine "engine" of knowledge. His seminar demonstrates that mere data transmission from teacher to student doesn’t produce deep learning. It’s the ability to interact, to think hard thoughts alongside other people.
In a seminar, a student can ask for clarification, and challenge a teacher; a teacher can shift course when spirits are flagging; a stray thought can spark a new insight. Isn’t this the kind of nonconformist "thinking outside the box" that business leaders adore? So why is there such a rush to freeze knowledge and distribute it in a frozen form? Even Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng concedes that the real value of a college education "isn’t just the content.... The real value is the interactions with professors and other, equally bright students."
The corporate world recognizes the virtues of proximity in its own human resource management. Witness, for example, Yahoo’s recent decision to eliminate telecommuting and require employees to be present in the office. CEO Marissa Mayer’s memo reads as a mini-manifesto for close learning:
"To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together."
Why do boards of directors still go through the effort of convening in person? Why, in spite of all the fantasies about “working from anywhere,” are “creative classes” still concentrating in proximity to one another: the entertainment industry in LA, information technology in the Bay Area, financial capital in New York City? The powerful and the wealthy are well aware that computers can accelerate the exchange of information, and facilitate low-level "training." But not the development of knowledge, much less wisdom.
Close learning transcends disciplines. In every field, students must incline towards their subjects: leaning into a sentence, to craft it most persuasively. Leaning into an archival document, to determine an uncertain provenance. Leaning into a musical score, to poise the body for performance. Leaning into a data set, to discern emerging patterns. Leaning into a laboratory instrument, to interpret what is viewed. MOOCs, in contrast, encourage students and faculty to lean back, not to cultivate the disciplined attention necessary to engage fully in a complex task. Low completion rates for MOOCs (hovering around 10 percent) speak for themselves.
A devotion to close learning should not be mistaken for an anti-technology stance. (Contrary to a common misperception, the original Luddites simply wanted machines that made high-quality goods, run by trained workers who were adequately compensated.) I teach Shakespeare, supposedly one of the mustiest of topics. Yet my students navigate the vast resources of the Internet; evaluate recorded performances; wrestle with facsimiles of original publications; listen to pertinent podcasts; survey decades of scholarship in digitized form; circulate their drafts electronically; explore the cultural topography of early modern London; and contemplate the historical richness of the English language. Close learning is entirely compatible with engaging in meaningful conversations outside the classroom; faculty can correspond regularly with students via e-mail, and keep in close contact via all kinds of new media. But this is all in service of close learning, and the payoff comes in the classroom.
Teachers have always employed "technology" – including the book, one of the most flexible and dynamic learning technologies ever created. But let’s not fixate upon technology for technology’s sake, or delude ourselves into thinking that better technology overcomes bad teaching. At no stage of education does technology, no matter how novel, ever replace human attention. Close learning can’t be automated, or scaled up.
As retrograde as it might sound, gathering humans in a room with real time for dialogue still matters. As educators, we must remind ourselves – not to mention our boards, our alumni, our students, and those students’ parents – of the inescapable fact that our "product" is close learning. This is why savvy parents have always invested in intensive human interaction for their children. (Tellingly, parents from Silicon Valley deliberately restrict their children’s access to electronic distractions, so that they might experience the free play of mind essential to human development.) What remains to be seen is whether we value this kind of close learning at all levels of education, enough to defend it, and fund it, for a wider circle of Americans – or whether we will continue to permit the circle to contract, excluding a genuinely transformative educational experience from those without means.
Scott L. Newstok teaches in the English department at Rhodes College.
I’m conferencing with students
On their first drafts
And this one has taken the course
Twice before and failed
And he brings me only two pages
Of the six I assigned
And he says he’s having trouble
With the summaries
And also should he put the thesis
In the introduction
Or just where do I want it to go
And I say it depends
On if you want to start with a question
And then examine
How others have responded to it
And then your answer
Would be your thesis in your conclusion
But then I realize oops
He’s standing before a vending machine
And I won’t take his dollar.
Laurence Musgrove is professor and chair of English and modern languages at Angelo State University.