Earlier this year, I gave an invited talk at a conference sponsored by the University of Caen on the procedures of proof in French medieval law. The conference, held at a medieval château, was open to le grand public — the general public. An audience of about 100 people showed up to hear a dozen academics talk about judicial duels, animal trials in medieval romances, torture, and other topics. A local official opened the proceedings, and during the coffee and lunch breaks, the speakers mingled with the le grand public.
I spoke with a retired corporate executive, a group of young law students, and a novelist who runs a local crêperie, as well as a doctoral student in history who was researching medieval noble courts in the regional archives. In nearly 30 years, I had never attended a conference attracting such a wide range of people. What, I wondered, are we American academics doing wrong? And could our tendency, at least among literature professors, to avoid the general public have anything to do with the widely discussed “crisis” in the humanities?
A few months before my trip to France, I was chatting with a publicist who works for a university in my state. His job is to publicize faculty research within his university and to the general public by pitching news articles or features to media outlets — online, print, radio and TV.
I asked him what he was working on right now. He told me that he was reading — or trying to read — a new book by a literature professor at his university. "What do you mean, trying to read?" I asked. He explained that the book, about a popular British novelist still widely read today, was impenetrable, and he simply could not make heads nor tails of it. The jacket blurbs from other literature professors praised the book as groundbreaking and worthy of a wide readership. But the publicist would read a chapter, a paragraph, even a single sentence over and over again without being able to understand it. The book had now been on his desk for several weeks, and he had no idea how he was going to finish it, let alone recommend or publicize it to others.
Wow, I thought. This is not a problem just for you, or the author. If a smart, dedicated publicist at a major research university cannot make sense of a newly published book about a major novelist still widely taught in English departments, this represents a problem for the whole profession of literature.
The problem, of course, is not new. For several decades now, literature professors have been retreating into a new ivory tower built from bricks of abstruse theory and mortar of impenetrable jargon. As a profession, we have abandoned the warm campfires of story where people once took comfort in meaningful narrative and each other’s company, and we have ascended the frigid heights of a new tower of Babel.
Moreover, in a strange irony, as the profession of literature has opened up by breaking down barriers to many previously excluded groups — including women and underrepresented minorities — an admirable record of progress, we have managed at the same time to close off our profession to much of the general public. Who woulda thunk it?
Higher education is now under fire everywhere, as tuition costs climb, legislators slash university budgets, the public views tenure as inexplicable or unjust, and skepticism grows about the value of the humanities or of a liberal arts education in general. It’s easy for academics to blame budget-cutting politicians, pragmatic university administrators, or a supposedly ignorant public, but we may bear some responsibility ourselves, as pointed out in a recent letter to The New York Times by a professor of Japanese studies at Tufts University:
“In recent decades the tendency has grown among academics to produce jargon-laden articles about obscure subjects that only their mothers and a few colleagues might appreciate. This tendency has helped alienate our core constituents — the intellectually curious public — who might like to read a stimulating academic work but who are too often befuddled and annoyed by baffling academic prose.”
Granted, academics in all fields, including literature, frequently write about topics or use terms that are difficult even for “the intellectually curious public” to understand.
No one expects the scientist to put her research on particle physics, dense with mathematical formulas, into “everyday language.” Or the linguistics scholar to report his findings on Indo-European velar consonants as a readable script for the evening news. But as the famous “Sokal Hoax” suggested nearly two decades ago, using technical language to share unavoidably abstruse research findings is different from the cultivated obscurity of some humanists, especially literature scholars, whose arcane theory and off-putting jargon often seem intended to drive off all but a tiny cohort of colleagues and acolytes who possess the secret code.
True, not all academics are good rhetoricians. Not every biologist can explain her subject in a layperson’s terms, nor can every sociologist turn his research findings into an immediate take-away. But literature professors? Our subject is very popular. People everywhere read novels, stories, poems, and plays — the things we teach and write about. Reading groups all over the country devour books. And we’re supposed to be good with language. So why do so many of us often keep to our own kind?
If a crisis should never be wasted, now would seem to be an especially good time for us to be reaching out to the general public, giving talks to alumni or civic groups, participating in programs at the local library, or just talking to people outside of academe about our teaching and our research and why it’s important. Not that it should take a crisis to pry us out of our offices and classrooms.
There are plenty of excuses for avoiding the public and staying in our own comfort zone with our fellow academics: People won’t understand my work. I don’t want to dumb it down. It’s a waste of time. I’m too busy. But how long can we remain in our protective tower before the growing pressures around its base — budgets, politics, anger, ignorance — cause it to crack apart and come crashing down?
* * *
A couple of years ago, while I was having a cavity filled, my dentist startled me by asking if I would give a talk to his Rotary Club. He’s a dedicated reader, and we always have a good talk about books, at least when my mouth isn’t full of dental equipment. But now he was asking me if I would give a talk, as he held his drill at the ready.
I quickly said yes.
The Rotary Club meets quite early in the morning — 7:30, to be exact, although they do serve you breakfast.
The meeting was held at a restaurant, and about two dozen local businesspeople and other club members were there, including my dentist. Over breakfast, I chatted with the people sitting near me, and then, as the dishes were being cleared, I was shown to a little lectern set up on one side of the room, as everyone settled down to listen.
The talk was on my recent book about a celebrated duel in medieval France. By now, I had given quite a few talks on this topic — a series of invited lectures around the state for a literary society, some talks at local bookstores, and several more at historical societies or book fairs. I had also done some radio interviews and even appeared in one television documentary, so I not only knew the subject back and forth but also had had some practice talking about it outside the academy.
Still, I had prepared carefully, trimming down an originally much longer talk to just 15 minutes, making it as interesting as I could, and including some informative background about the Middle Ages. I used short, punchy sentences written for a listening audience, and I strenuously avoided confusing academic buzzwords, such as “hegemonic” and or “subaltern.” I provided some history and analysis of the medieval judicial duel, even describing the specific legal conditions required for a duel in late 14th-century France. But mainly I told a story — about characters, and places, and remarkable events — since that’s what seizes people’s attention and helps them follow what you’re saying.
The talk went well and was over in no time. I got some good questions afterwards, and then had a chance to talk with a few more people, some of whom had children or grandchildren at my university and seemed to enjoy hearing from a member of the faculty. My dentist was obviously pleased, too.
As I was getting ready to leave, one of the Rotarians came over and asked if I would do the same talk for the local Optimist Club, to which he also belonged. Sure, I said, a little surprised to be asked again so quickly.
Two weeks later I was back in the same part of town, giving the same talk, to another early-morning and equally enthusiastic group. And once again, I found myself actually enjoying it. After talking to the Rotary Club, and the Optimist Club, I’d gladly talk to the Pessimist Club, too, if there were one.
* * *
One of my friends is a commercial pilot, a lawyer, and an M.B.A. Very smart and accomplished, he also claims to be “very unliterary.” But he can explain with great clarity the most arcane technical, legal, and financial matters.
Whether we’re talking about the global financial crisis, or a legal case in the news, or a recent airline mishap, I’m always amazed by how well he can explain a concept, a problem, or a situation so that I can understand it, and how he can do so in such an interesting and memorable way. Above all, he tells a good story.
Not all experts are good explainers. But every profession needs people who can describe a complicated thing in clear, everyday language to others — to members of the general public. And right now, when the profession of literature has some explaining to do, we could really use some more people like this.
If we in literature departments, and in the humanities generally, are as smart and accomplished as we think we are, and our work is as important as we claim it is, and the public appreciates us as little as we often say, why don’t we get out there more and talk to people about what we know and what we do?
What are we afraid of?
Eric Jager is a professor of English at the University of California at Los Angeles. His next book, Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris, will appear from Little, Brown and Company, in 2014.
This course is an intensive introduction to some main themes in social theory. It is required of first-year Ph.D. students in the sociology department. Each week we will focus on something grad students complain about when they are forced to take theory. You are required to attend under protest, write a paper that’s a total waste of your time, and complain constantly. Passive-aggressive silence will not be sufficient for credit.
1. Introduction: This Has Nothing to Do With My Research Interests
2. This is All Just Obfuscatory Bullshit and Empty Jargon
3. It’s Not Like We Can Even Predict Anything
4. Isn’t It More Complicated Than That?
5. Aren’t These Things Mutually Constitutive?
6. But What About Power?
7. We Could Easily Fix This Mess With Some Basic Math
8. This Field Is Sexist and Racist to Its Rotten Core
9. What is Theory Without Praxis?
10. THANKSGIVING BREAK. If You Can Call It a Break
11. Look, If Everything Is Socially Constructed, Then Nothing Is
12. Can You Believe We Didn’t Read Any __________?
13. Conclusion: This Whole Project Was an Exercise in Symbolic Violence
Kieran Healy is associate professor of sociology at Duke University.
Wednesday started as a fairly normal day. I got out of bed bleary-eyed, stumbled down the stairs, and walked outside to get The Bloomington Herald-Times. As my eyes scanned the front page, an Associated Press story headline grabbed my attention: "Daniels Targeted 'Propaganda,' Critic." Frankly, I wasn’t too surprised to see that, given the multiple recent revelations of government spying. Nor was I shocked, as I started reading, to learn that Mitch Daniels, former Indiana governor, was virulently opposed to the writings of the late left-wing historian Howard Zinn. But as I read further in the article — based on e-mails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act — something else stopped me in my tracks: one of those opponents was me.
Let me explain.
In the summer of 2010, I taught a one-week module on the history of the labor movement as part of a three-week institute for high school teachers at Indiana University in Bloomington, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was called "Social Movements in Modern America: Labor, Civil Rights, and Feminism." Along with Professors Jeffrey Ogbar (University of Connecticut) and Jennifer Maher (Indiana), and supervised by Professors John Bodnar and Ted Carmines at Indiana, I worked with a highly motivated, talented and diverse group of high school and middle school teachers from around the United States.
In my section of the course, I focused on the history of labor organizing in the meat-packing industry. The week culminated with a field trip to a unionized slaughterhouse in Louisville. It was an intense week — with five hours of instruction per day — but also one of the most rewarding of my career. These were ideal "students" and they really appreciated the opportunity to expand their horizons. At the end of the week, they handed me a card with notes of gratitude from all participants.
Three years later, I still look back fondly on that experience. But I will never think of it in quite the same way, now that I know that Big Brother, aka (then) Governor Daniels, was watching.
It was February 9, 2010, a few weeks after Howard Zinn had passed away. Governor Daniels had just sent his staff an e-mail denouncing Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States, and asking staff if they could assure him that "it is not in use anywhere in Indiana." In short order, Scott Jenkins, the governor’s education adviser, e-mailed his boss with the URL to our institute website, prefaced by the comment: "Oh, and this is why my children will not go to IU." He added, "Zinn along with other anti American leftist readings are prominently featured." He also quoted from our site, which contained a detailed schedule of readings, and which informed teachers that they could earn professional development credit for attending.
Three minutes later, Daniels fired back the following: "This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state. No student will be any better taught because someone sat through this session." It's unfortunate, to say the least, that Daniels viewed our curriculum about three social movements that transformed the lives of millions of Americans for the better to be "crap."
But in a sense, it was precisely to combat such attitudes that we offered the institute in the first place. Despite the changes that have taken place in the teaching of U.S. history — most obviously exemplified by Black History Month — most American students still get the message that the real movers and shakers in history are the wealthy and powerful; or if they learn about grassroots activists — such as Rosa Parks — they learn about them as heroic individuals, not part of a movement.
Now, it is true that there was an excerpt from Zinn’s People’s History included in the readings for our opening session, a roundtable on the theory and history of social movements. It was a chapter on the civil rights movement entitled, "Or Does It Explode?"
But the reason I put it there illustrates just how misguided and harmful it would be to try to censor Zinn’s ideas. In designing that session, my aim was to help teachers appreciate the challenge of explaining how and why social movements develop. In addition to reading Zinn, the teachers were assigned a wide range of pieces based on social movement theories, some of which actually challenged aspects of Zinn’s account as romantic and misleading. (I found Zinn inspiring when I first read him, but now, for my money, Zinn is actually not left-wing enough.) So, by including Zinn, my aim was not to shove his views down teachers’ throats — precisely the opposite. Which is also why I included both pro-union and anti-union websites on the syllabus. After all, the purpose of education is to help people think for themselves. That is why censorship strikes at the heart of the educational mission.
Finally, in regard to Daniels’s claim that no student would benefit from their teachers having sat through our institute, I can’t prove that we had a positive effect on the "end-users" in cities all over the country. But I can let the teachers speak for themselves. Here’s what some of them said on my thank-you card:
“What an amazing informative week.”
“You have turned one of the ‘boring’ chapters into a relevant & interesting theme in U.S. history.”
“I have learned so much and been truly inspired.”
“You successfully ‘changed’ me and the way I see the world.”
“Your enthusiasm is contagious.”
“I learned a ton. This will be very useful for me in my teaching.”
So, despite his disparagement of the value of what my colleagues and I taught, I want to thank Governor Daniels and his associates for reminding me of how much I enjoyed that summer institute and why I love teaching.
Carl R. Weinberg is senior lecturer in the College of Arts and Sciences and adjunct associate professor of history at Indiana University at Bloomington.
The most memorable thing about the 2002 science-fiction movie Minority Report was its depiction of advertising in a few decades -- in particular the scene of Tom Cruise hurrying through a mall, besieged by holographic, interactive invitations to have a Guinness or use American Express, and asking him how he liked the tank tops he’d purchased at the Gap. The virtual shills address him by name (the character’s name, that is) thanks to retinal scanners, which are as ubiquitous in the 2050s as surveillance cameras had become in the century’s first decade.
They are pop-up ads from hell, swarming like hungry ghosts to devour everyone’s attention. (The people Tom Cruise rushes past are presumably getting their own biometrically personalized shopping advice.) The scene feels uncomfortably plausible; it’s the experience of being on the Internet, extended into public space and rendered inescapable.
How effective the film is as social criticism probably depends on what you make of the fact that a quarter of its budget came from product placement. Minority Report’s critique of advertising turns out to be, in part, critique as advertising.
Now, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that people have become so resistant to hard-sell advertisement (dodging TV commercials with their DVRs, ignoring or mocking how ad agencies target their desires or insecurities) that they have lost influence. By the 2050s, our psychic calluses should be really thick.
The bad news concerns what is taking the place of the hard sell: a range of techniques discussed at some length in Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Advertising (New York University Press) by Michael Serazio, an assistant professor of communications at Fairfield University.
“Cool” advertising, as Serazio uses the expression, does not refer only to campaigns that make a product seem hip, hot, and happening -- so that you will be, too, by buying it. The adjective is instead a nod to the contrast between Marshall McLuhan’s famous if altogether dubious categorizations of “hot” media, such as film or print, and the “cool” sort, chiefly meaning television.
A hot medium, goes the theory, transmits its content in high resolution, so that the recipient easily absorbs it through a single sense. A cool medium, with its low resolution, demands greater involvement from the recipient in absorbing the message. Someone reading Aristotle or watching "Citizen Kane" is more or less passively taking in what the hot medium bombards the eye with, while the “Gilligan’s Island” audience finds its senses quickened (auditory and tactile in particular, according to McLuhan) by a need to compensate for the cool medium’s low level of visual stimulation.
That makes as much sense as any of the sage of Toronto’s other ideas, which is to say not a hell of a lot. Nonetheless, Serazio gets as much value out of the distinction as seems humanly possible by adapting it to the contrast between the old-school “hot” ad campaign – with its clear, strong message that you should buy Acme brand whatchamacallits, and here’s why – and a variety of newer, “cooler” approaches that are more seductive, self-effacing, or canny about dealing with widespread cynicism about corporate hype.
A cool ad campaign, when successful, does not simply persuade people to buy something but creates a kind of spontaneous, intimate involvement with the campaign itself. The consumer’s agency is always stressed. ("Agency" in the sense of capacity to act, rather than where "Mad Men" do their business.) The Dorito’s "Fight for the Flavor" campaign of the mid-‘00s empowered the chip-gobbling public to determine which of two new flavors, Smokin' Cheddar BBQ or Wild White Nacho, would remain on the shelves and which would be pulled. Bloggers and tweeters are encouraged to express their authentic, unscripted enthusiasm. “Buzz agents” are given free samples of a product, chat it up with their friends, then report back how the discussions went. (With word-of-mouth campaigns, the most important is authenticity. Fake that and you’ve got it made.)
And at perhaps its most sophisticated level, cool advertising will cultivate the (potential) consumer’s involvement almost as an end in itself – for example, by providing an opportunity to control the behavior of a man in a chicken suit known as Subservient Chicken.
Let us return to the horrible fascination of Subservient Chicken in due course. But first, theory.
Foucault plus Gramsci equals about a third of the stuff published in cultural studies -- of which “critical industry media studies,” the subspecialty into which Serazio’s book falls, is a part. The conceptual work in Your Ad Here is done with Foucault’s line of power tools, in particular his considerations on governance, while Gramsci seems along mostly to keep him company.
Advertising as governance sounds counterintuitive, given the connotation of state power it elicits, but in Foucault’s work “government” refers to processes of guidance and control that may be more or less distant from the state’s institutions. The teacher governs a class (or tries) and a boss governs the workplace.
Over all, “management” seems like a more suitable term for most non-state modes of governance, and it has the advantage of foregrounding what Serazio wants to stress: Foucault’s point is that governance doesn’t mean giving orders and enforcing obedience but rather “structuring the possible field of action of others” in order “to arrange things in such a way that, through a certain number of means, such-and-such ends may be achieved.”
Governance (management) in this sense is a kind of effective persuasion of the governed party (the student, the fry cook, etc.) to exercise his or her agency to perform the necessary functions of the institution (school, fast-food place) without being subjected to constant external pressure. Insofar as governance is an art or a science, it is through recognizing and anticipating resistance, and preventing or containing disruption. (Some remarks by Gramsci on hegemony and resistance also apply here, but really just barely.)
“Cool sell” advertising counts as governance, in Serazio’s book, because it tries to neutralize public fatigue from advertisement overload -- so that we’re still incited to spend money and think well of a brand. That’s the common denominator of viral marketing, crowdsourced publicity campaigns, plebiscites on snack-food availability, and so on.
It occasionally sounds like Serazio is criticizing these methods as manipulative, but I suspect that’s actually high praise, like when one horror fan tells another that a torture scene in "Hostel" gave him nightmares.
Which brings us back, as promised, to Subservient Chicken, whose role in promoting the Burger King menu remains oblique at best. But he undeniably garnered an enormous amount of attention -- 20 million distinct viewers generating half a billion hits. “By filming hundreds of video clips of a man in a chicken suit,” the author says, “and writing code for a database of terms that would respond to keyword commands for the Chicken to perform those videotaped actions, [the advertising agency] concocted something that was, its own words, ‘so creepy, weird and well-executed that many people who visited… thought they were actually controlling this person in a chicken suit in real life.’ ” I can’t help feeling this calls for more extensive Foucauldian analysis, but I won’t be sticking around to see how that turns out.
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.