Are Liberal Professors Brainwashing Our Youth?

BlogHer Original Post

There's a widespread belief in the U.S. that college and university faculty are liberal, even radical, in their political beliefs, and that these faculty use the lectern as a pulpit to preach their radical doctrines. They're corrupting our youth! They're brainwashing our best and brightest!

Me, I don't buy into this alarmism. First, I've never seen a faculty member discuss politics or culture in a way that was inappropriate for the course context--and I've been in and around higher ed for 15 years and affiliated in one way or another with seven different institutions in three states. Does that mean professors don't occasionally spout off inappropriately? No. But it's rare, and my gut tells me that professors at both extremes of the political spectrum are just as likely to rant.

Second, the best and brightest are going to recognize when they're being indoctrinated and will make a considered decision to resist, remain neutral about, or absorb a professor's philosophy.

Third, data from several studies suggests that faculty are not as liberal as they are perceived as being--and that college and university faculties as a whole are trending moderate as professors forged in the crucible of the 1960s civil rights movements move toward retirement.

There are other forces at work as well that keep the academy from veering ever leftward. The New York Times reports:

Changes in institutions of higher education themselves are reinforcing the generational shuffle. Health sciences, computer science, engineering and business — fields that have tended to attract a somewhat greater proportion of moderates and conservatives — have grown in importance and size compared with the more liberal social sciences and humanities, where many of the bitterest fights over curriculum and theory occurred.

At the same time, shrinking public resources overall and fewer tenure-track jobs in the humanities have pushed younger professors in those fields to concentrate more single-mindedly on their careers. Academia, once somewhat insulated from market pressures, is today treated like a business.

Kevin Carey of The Quick and the Ed says that one of the professors profiled in the New York Times article, Michael Olneck, is just the kind of person who should be teaching today's students:

[H]e fought for civil rights when many people were trying to extend the nation's centuries-long subjugation of minorities. Then he fought for getting the country out of a war it ruinously decided to extend, followed by protesting the criminal Nixon administration. Frankly, I'm glad someone who ended up so decisively on the right side of history chose to spend his career teaching young Americans. Better professor Olneck than one of the many people, still alive today, who were wrong on all counts.

Aunt Agatha and The Bloodthirsty Liberal have different ideas. They're not so sure Olneck and his ilk are the best people to mediate civil discourse in the academy. Agatha opened the discussion in her post NY Times Notices Academic Leftist Bias, and the discussion continued--complete with a response from Olneck himself--in Knocking Opportunity and Knocking Opportunity, Part 2. An excerpt from the series of posts:

My two cents: I’m sure he’s a good guy, but perhaps the professor doesn’t truly recognize the extent that his position of power leads his students to view the world through his lens? And he may not even be fully aware of how much his own perceptions and opinions were formed over the years by his contemporaries. Through various close friends, I’ve had the opportunity to sit outside at the University of Wisconsin, overlooking the lake, sipping beers, and enjoying the students, faculty, and even faculty from other other universities that were trained in Wisconsin. I’ve known two generations of students there. The faculty bias around certain “hot topics”, Iraq, affirmative action, Republicans, etc., is loud with a few beers, casual, and smug. There is no question that they are “right”.

Robots don’t teach classes; people teach classes. A student would need to suffer a pretty serious social disability, an inability to pick up on almost all social cues, to miss this the fact that certain issues are completely settled in the minds of their professors. Students, when alone or in small groups, either buy into it completely or, if they disagree, openly discuss ways to write “to the test”, meaning to the faculty bias. (I’ve known students who have cranked out the “easy A’s” by writing paper after paper after paper about race and gender inequality, specifically to please the teacher.) It is interesting that someone who understands “privilege” as an academic concept, meaning white privilege which is embedded into the culture and which is available to us day in and day out at the expense of people of color, would be so tone deaf to the power of the professor in the classroom.

Hoo boy, do I ever know those students who are trying to pander to me and my beliefs. Their papers are usually pretty bad, their efforts transparent. I'm politically progressive, and the last thing I want is for students to parrot my opinions back at me. Instead, I want to see students' thought processes at work; I want to watch them learn to use evidence and critical thinking to construct an argument. Nothing pisses me off more, in fact, than when a student panders to me rather than take the project seriously as an opportunity to grapple with interesting issues and grow intellectually.

Of course, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that some faculty members and administrators abuse their power--but I suspect this is the case, again, at either end of the political spectrum. Erin O'Connor of Critical Mass shares some observations I find frightening:

I have watched brilliant undergrads be unable to embark on graduate study--because they dared to question the politicized intellectual orthodoxy of their professors and so could not get good letters of recommendation. I have known others who were shunned by professors who found their interest in traditional topics beneath them. I have seen students and faculty blackballed for going against the grain--and I have seen faculty and students stand by and watch it happen, either because they thought the blackballing was well deserved, or because they were afraid of what would happen to them if they spoke up. I have seen hiring decisions turn on such questions as race, sex, and national origin, when those were not politically correct; I have also watched those perpetrating such fraud mask it with elaborate intellectual rationales--grounded, usually, in criticisms of the scholarship--for why the individual in question is professionally undeserving.

New Kid on the Hallway muses about the study's definition of "activist" and the place of activism in the academy today:

I would say that fewer people in American society overall are as "activist" as the Baby Boomers were (not going to try to tackle reasons why since that's a huge sticky mess), so it makes sense that faculty from later generations are not as activist. I don't know whether academia has become disproportionately less attractive to academics or not, but once one has made the choice to enter academia, I don't think the pressures of the profession today make combining professoring and activism as manageable as was the case in the 60s and 70s.

Doctor J had a similar reaction:

I'm not entirely convinced that it is accurate to describe the younger generation of faculty (according to the article, "younger" means "between 26-35") as lacking ideological "commitment," though I can appreciate the significant differences between the manner in which such commitments are manifest in the 60's generation and how they are manifest in people of my generation.

Lisa Chamberlain of Slackonomics finds just as interesting as the political shift the influx of women into academia--and the accompanying shift away from explicitly political concerns to more everyday issues (albeit ones that remain highly politicized) such as paid family leave. Read her post, especially her reflections on "post-feminism."

Want to know more? Check out the charts from the study's working paper provided by Razib at Gene Expression.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks helps university faculty improve their teaching. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toy Box.

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