• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Take a Skeptic to School

No brainwashing here, I swear.

November 29, 2016



It should be lost on nobody that the Professor Watchlist is the brainchild of a college-age young gentleman named Charlie Kirk who has never set foot in a college classroom, but is nonetheless certain that “It’s no secret that some of America’s college professors are totally out of line. Everyday I hear stories about professors who attack and target conservatives, promote liberal propaganda, and use their position of power to advance liberal agendas in their classroom.”

Charlie Kirk “hears stories.” He’s not the only one. That our institutions of higher education are run as liberal (or worse…socialist), indoctrination camps seems to be an article of faith among many. Some non-trivial number of people even believe that Trump’s election is a deserved punishment for the runaway PC crowd, that the ivory tower elitists have it coming.

I’ve never recognized this critique of higher education as remotely reflective of reality, at least as I’ve experienced it. I’ve never felt particularly elitist. I’ve never been paid more than $35K a year for teaching college. I currently make about $11/hour adjuncting one class. I’ve never had a title, I wasn’t selected for a tenure track position by my own colleagues, and sometimes when I enter a room, my dog leaves.

I try to put in an honest day’s work providing what my employers ask for while doing my best to follow my conscience. I think that makes me fairly unremarkable as people go.

College campuses as bastions of renegade leftism bent on destroying our capitalist republic also don’t mesh with my experience. For one thing, if higher ed was stuffed with practicing Marxists, the humanities wouldn’t have an adjunctification problem.

There’s other reasons as well. Studies show that college students tend to be more likely to hold on to their religious beliefs than those who don’t attend college.

Other studies show that exposure to professors tends to have a moderating effect on students’ politics, with conservative students becoming more liberal and liberal students becoming more conservative. (It’s exposure to other students that makes them more liberal overall.)

The “liberal indoctrination” narrative also presupposes that students arrive in college incapable of critical or original thought and are instead shaped to specification by the nefarious professorate. In fact, students prove more than capable of resisting ideas (even leftist ones) they find unpalatable.[1]

My personal experience reflects all of the above. My students would be hard pressed to identify my politics since, like “Dean Dad” Matt Reed, I’m inclined to play Devil’s Advocate in any given moment, Ayn Rand one day, Karl Marx the next.   When I was at Clemson, in a contemporary literature course we ended up talking about faith so much I was given an invitation to address the local Campus Crusades for Christ chapter by a couple of students. They were surprised to hear I was a non-believer and promptly invited me to church, worried for my soul.

And really, as I’ve written in the past, in terms of world view, I believe my students have had far more impact on changing my mind than vice versa.

Yes, the vast majority of college faculty identify as liberals, but this is as true at community colleges at it is at 4-year institutions and yet, we don’t often hear about the culture war in that sector. It’s only when “elitism” gets into the mix that one runs the risk of hitting an enemies list.

I know that indoctrination is a myth, and yet it’s a myth with real belief and persistence behind it, a myth so powerful that a 22-year-old conservative activist has convinced donors to put $1 million behind his website that aims to identify the worst offenders in spreading “leftist propaganda.”

I also know that I’m never going to puncture this myth with a blog post making an argument filled with links to back up my claims, so I want to encourage everyone to join on to an initiative I’m calling, “Take a skeptic to school day.”

If possible, find someone who believes that students are “snowflakes,” professors are Marxists, and every other possible terrible stereotype about the people and processes of higher education, and invite them for a day or a week or a semester and see if their minds aren’t changed.

Don’t put on a show, no “best behavior” necessary, simply do the work and let the work be witnessed.

My first choice for companion would be Charlie Kirk because it might be fun for him to meet some equally smart people his own age, including people who see the world differently. He could not only sharpen his arguments against a less receptive audience, but he might bring over a convert or two as well.[2]

And the invitations need not be limited to conservatives either. I would be happy to host Jonathan Chait, or David Simon, two liberals who have expressed dismay over what they view as the creeping PC “illiberalism” on college campuses. I would love them to see and experience the more complex stories behind the lives our students lead than what they’re getting from their 20 thousand foot views strongly influenced by reports from more rarefied institutions.

My students are not so different than anyone else. They’re trying to have lives of value, worried about a world that seems hostile to those goals. They are worried about getting jobs after graduation that they won’t hate, and paying off the loans and debt they’re accruing. They are strong and capable and have great successes. They also have the capacity to make mistakes and be broken.

They are human.

I’m also not so pigheaded to think that I might not benefit from being accompanied by someone who sees the world differently. I know I have my own share of blind spots, and having them identified would make me a better instructor for all my students. I am also human.

Best of all, I think we may remember that our institutions matter, that they are indeed made up of diverse individuals serving many different needs and are therefore worth preserving.

And at the individual level, we might find that we have less to fear from each other than some might want us to believe, that tracking and seeking to punish those who may see things differently isn’t nearly as satisfying as it sounds.




[1] It also defies sense that a single course in a single semester taught by a single professor could have the effect of “brainwashing” a student. Exposure to an idea isn’t the same thing as absorbing the idea as a core value.

[2] Although, if his political views moderate as the studies suggest will happen, will that make me guilty of brainwashing him?


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