Radical Activism, or Poor Choices?

"Radical activism" taking over the University of California? I wish.

August 5, 2012

"Radical activism" taking over the University of California? I wish. Then I wouldn’t have found myself filling my brief scattered moments of otherwise free time today responding to an inane op-ed by the California Association of Scholars’ own John Ellis and Charles Geshekter that blames UC graduates’ failure to demonstrate they have learned anything “at school” to  unsubstantiated classroom-based recruitment to the Democratic dark side.

I’d ignore it, but I’ve encountered a frightening number of people who actually entertain the notion that a college education is naught but liberal brainwashing. In the interest of illumination, here’s my cursorily considered response to Ellis and Geshekter’s claims:


  • “Political activists want conformity.” The boys seem to forget that activists exist on the political right, as well as on the political left. They also fail to recognize that political orientation may not even matter. Conservatives can be tree huggers, and UC students tend to reject tuition increases, regardless of how they vote in Presidential elections.
  • “Democrats in the classroom have silenced the political right on UC campuses.” (Apparently, faculty who are Republicans do not similarly silence the Left in their classrooms.) In fact, faculty members’ political party identification has virtually nothing to do with the course approval process and catalog publication and dissemination. There is no evidence to support the claim that the dynamics of classroom discussion follow from the instructor’s politics; however, class discussion is very likely affected by subject matter covered in a lecture or seminar. Contrary to popular belief that arguments exist on “both” sides of any issue, there can be far more than two vetted scholarly positions to consider, or just one. For example, increasing temperatures are associated with climate change and the United States has expanded globally.
  • “Activism is contrary to education.” I could be the odd scholar-(environmental) activist out here, but I have yet to convince a single student to abandon modern urban/suburban life for the commune. That said, I have managed to encourage them to consider why someone might take such drastic action, as well as how an environmentalist might manage the contradiction inherent in becoming a parent and – gasp! – relying on a car for transportation. That said, there are precious few of us anyway. The pressure to publish for UC faculty is sufficiently intense that no strictly rational academic takes time away from research to recruit student activists. In many cases, the process of securing the golden ticket, read publication in peer reviewed journals, tempers the views as well as the behavior of scholars on the fast (tenure) track, and beyond.
  • Radicals …er, actually Democrats…are to blame when college students fail to learn. Ellis and Geshekter could be onto something here. There is arguably a relationship among democratic political identification, liberal education, and positive learning outcomes. According to Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift, the students most likely to learn to think critically and reason analytically are those who take courses in the humanities and social sciences – precisely where Ellis and Geshekter locate all those radicals.


Still, I think it’s far more likely that students who don’t learn simply make poor choices – "in the academic courses they take, how much they are working outside the classroom, how much they are studying, how much they are partying."
June 8, 2012

Op-Ed that inspired this piece: http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-ellis-uc-bias-20120520,0,6773276.story

Juliann Emmons Allison is Associate Professor of Political Science at University of California, Riverside. Her research and teaching interests include environmental politics, gender and politics, international relations, and political economy.


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