Academe's Persuasion Paradox
Matthew Woessner considers theories about why liberal professors don't indoctrinate students with their views.
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.
Matthew Woessner is associate professor of political science and public policy at Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg. He is the co-author of The Still Divided Academy: How Competing Visions of Power, Politics, and Diversity Complicate the Mission of Higher Education (Rowman and Littlefield, 2011).
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