Liberal Brainwashing / Brainwashing Liberally

There's a difference.

August 12, 2012

In my course policies, under a section where I explain my teaching philosophy, I include this quote from Cornel West:

“I want to be able to engage in the grand calling of a Socratic teacher, which is not to persuade and convince students, but to unsettle and unnerve and maybe even unhouse a few students, so that they experience that wonderful vertigo and dizziness in recognizing at least for a moment that their world view rests on pudding, but then see that they have something to fall back on. It's the shaping and forming of critical sensibility. That, for me, is what the high calling of pedagogy really is.”

I’ve long ago lost the source material. I’m pretty sure it was a television interview, probably something I came across on YouTube. When I read it, I hear it in West’s preacher’s cadence, a long pause after “pudding” followed by a speeding up through “but then see that they have something to fall back on.”

I will admit to occasionally being irked by West’s penchant for attention-seeking and self-promotion, but I have yet to find another quote that so succinctly and accurately captures what I believe about teaching at the college level.

Unlike Barack Obama and me, Cornel West is an avowed socialist. He is perhaps the kind of professor conservatives warn against, though he is not on David Horowitz’s list of 101 Most Dangerous Academics.

Despite co-authoring, what I believe is the first parody book of the George W. Bush administration, I also didn’t make the list, probably because I am not an academic, or famous, nor -- I hope -- dangerous.

Maybe it’s election season that explains some of the recent uptick in anti-professor rhetoric, since this is the occasion for us to retire to our collective camps. During the primaries, Rick Santorum spoke derisively about liberal college professors trying to “indoctrinate” their students. Mitt Romney (Harvard, J.D, M.B.A '75) criticized President Obama's foreign policy advisors by saying, “That may be what they think in the Harvard faculty lounge, but it’s not what they know on the battlefield!”

The charge is that liberals, as the dominant political persuasion on campus, have created their own totalitarian fiefdoms, where dissent from orthodoxy is verboten, an accusation bolstered by the worst abuses of the tenure system, or political-correctness gone overboard. A recent Inside Higher Ed story on “Hate Crime Hoaxes” is taken as a kind of proof of the liberal university fostering a climate of intolerance towards conservatives, where students can make administrations dance if they play the proper PC tune of oppression by the majority.


This narrative put forward by Santorum and others, that the young people entering colleges and universities are somehow being compelled to replace their religious faiths with “godless liberalism” turns out to be not so much true. As shown in study after study, attending college has no discernable effect on the degree of one’s religiosity. Yes, 64% of those attending college report “curbing” their church attendance habits, but this is better than the 76% of non-college attendees who report the same thing.

If college students indeed become more “liberal” it doesn’t necessarily appear to be at the expense of their faith.


I recently had the pleasure of reading Ken Bain’s book, What the Best College Students Do, a kind of flip-side companion to his previous work, What the Best College Teachers Do.

As he did previously with teachers, Bain works backwards from successful people, and tries to find out what they got out of college and how that has ultimately led to lives that we can view as simultaneously productive, and maybe more important, happy.

Not all of Bain’s subjects necessarily did well in college as measured by grades (though many did), but each of them experienced something vital there that propelled them forward to these interesting and exemplary lives. Often this took the form of exposure to ideas about creativity or a culture or point of view they had not previously experienced.

Bain’s subjects include people like Will Allen, a pioneering figure in Urban Farming and a Macarthur Genius grant recipient, and Stephen Colbert, who hosts a cable television show, as well as those in more conventional careers like medicine and law.

Early in the book Professor Bain describes a kind of idealized academic world, “a place in which students find deep meaning in everything they learn. In that universe, learning changes who people are and how they view the world. It makes them into better problem solvers, more creative and compassionate individuals, more responsible and self-confident people. Students are able to think about the implications and applications of what they learn. Not afraid to make mistakes and full of questions and ideas, the citizens of this place easily and happily explore new areas with ease while possessing a deep humility about how complex the world can be. Learning remains an adventure.”

When I read this passage, I mostly nodded along, thinking wistfully about a class filled with these people, a literal dream come true. At the same time, in examining Bain’s vision for what he and I (and likely many others) feel is a nearly perfect atmosphere for learning, I see some language that might give conservatives pause.

By this definition, the purpose of learning is to “change” who people are and how they view the world.

Ideal learners are “compassionate” rather than “competitive.”

Additionally, many of Professor Bain’s most compelling examples of ‘best students” in the book are people who have made issues of social justice the centerpiece of their adult lives.

Glenn Beck believes that when liberals speak of social justice, it’s code for “Forced redistribution of wealth with a hostility toward individual property rights, under the guise of charity and/or justice.”

In the section where Professor Bain gives guidance on selecting good instructors, one set of questions the student should ask is, “Does the professor model integrity, raise important ethical questions, focus in any way on values, encourage reflection, and help students think about their meaning and purpose in life and the kind of person they want to become? Does he or she foster self-examination, a sense of justice, empathy, and social responsibility? Is the instructor demonstrably interested in helping students become critically thinking, curious, creative, caring, and compassionate individuals?”

Am I wrong to think that Glenn Beck, among many others, shudders at the thought of a “liberal” at the front of the room guiding these points of discussion?

Couldn’t this indeed by a recipe for liberal brainwashing?


One of the factors critics who believe universities are in the liberal brainwashing business overlook is the students themselves.

This conservative critique posits a cadre of students that are unformed, little lumps of clay just waiting to be molded into appropriate shapes by their liberal professors.

Yes, our students are young, sometimes sheltered, often naïve, but in my experience they actually arrive at college with values and attendant beliefs that are well-grounded, and which they’re more than happy to defend, and bless them for it because otherwise this job wouldn’t be so darn interesting.

Our students indeed come with that “critical sensibility” that Cornel West finds so important, critical sensibilities that may be unsettled, or even unhoused (often temporarily), but which nonetheless, in the end, belong to them and not their professors. If a student replaces their own world-view with that of their professors, I can promise you that it is temporary, a faze, something they will grow out of and through, just like how I no longer think it’s cool to wear my hair in a mullet and I do not air drum to Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight."

Not often, anyway.


One of David Horowitz’s “most dangerous” professors is the anthropologist, Nicholas de Genova, formerly of Columbia University, who made it to the list because of an anti-war speech in which he wished “a million Mogadishus” on U.S. soldiers. He went on to say, “The only true heroes are those who find ways to defeat the U.S. military.”

This is the sort of statement that provides a lifetime of fuel for the charge of liberal indoctrination, but I note that even the organizers of the protest – liberals all –  at which de Genova made these remarks, condemned them, with Eric Foner (another member of Horowitz’s most dangerous) declaring what one would hope is obvious, “The antiwar movement does not desire the death of American soldiers.”

But what about those impressionable students in Professor de Genova’s classroom?

Let’s go to the source, Ratemyprofessor.com:

“I thought he was a fantastic professor! I do not think he is anti-american (sic) at all! He was very helpful and approachable, also I guess it helped that he is easy on the eyes.”

“Incredibly knowledgeable about Marx.”

“Shows signs he endured some sort of Marxist re-education at a low point in his life.”

“Imposes his warped political views on students. No desire to be objective or make rational arguments.”

“Forget the hype and go with an open mind. If the world doesn't look different, something is wrong with you.”

“One of the best professors I have encountered in academia. His scholarly work is outstanding, his teaching commited, (sic) his commentaries on papers is comprehensive and reflect his dedication. the negative comments of others are clearly politically motivated. He does make his politics clear, but theres (sic) no need to worry if you don't agree.”

“The worst professor at Columbia.”

What you will see, if you check into the ratings of a number of these “most dangerous” professors, is that their students are more than capable of being challenged by so-called “radical” views, and come out the other side with both sense and sensibility intact.

It would be kind of awesome to be thought of as dangerous, but the powers of the college instructor are far too limited to approach anything like danger. It is simultaneously thrilling, dismaying, and wholly appropriate that they hold most of us in such limited esteem.

The conservative critique of a liberal academia is a kind of caricature with our worst features exaggerated until they dominate the frame, not so different than how Capitalism begins to look dicey when it’s judged exclusively by the measure of its worst actors such as Bernie Madoff or the Libor “Banksters.”

I like to think that a good education helps students to figure out exactly who is baby, and what is bathwater. A critique of the excesses of Capitalism is not a call to overthrow the system. The entire professorial bunch shouldn't be tainted by one extreme apple.


So, I do not believe that I am liberally brainwashing my students, but what I will cop to is a desire to brainwash them liberally - liberally as in thoroughly, generously.

I think of it this way: I want my courses to be a high pressure hose of ideas and concepts and approaches that, if I do my job well, will indeed wash around inside their heads. If this material is worthy and worthwhile, it will wash away detritus that hasn’t been doing them any good and not replace the old ideas with something else specific, but clear the way for new ideas of their own making to form.

Sometimes I’m sure this results in a student who can be categorized as “more liberal” than they were before, but I reject the notion of looking at changes in political orientation as a category of assessment for the effect or quality of education.What I hope for is that they are challenged in the best possible ways. What I feel confident in is that this is also a student who – in the words of Ken Bain – continues to possess, “a deep humility about how complex the world can be," and for whom, "learning remains an adventure.”

I believe that this - as Cornel West, Professor of Christian Studies at Union Theological Seminary says – is indeed the high calling of pedagogy.


It’s impossible to brainwash anybody about anything in 140 characters or less: @biblioracle.


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