Do Liberal Professors Indoctrinate Students?
A new study finds that, while college professors are overwhelmingly liberal, that fact does not have much impact on the politics of their students.
A study that will appear soon in the journal PS: Political Science & Politics accepts the first part of the critique of academe and says that it’s true that the professoriate leans left. But the study — notably by one Republican professor and one Democratic professor — finds no evidence of indoctrination. Despite students being educated by liberal professors, their politics change only marginally in their undergraduate years, and that deflates the idea that cadres of tenured radicals are somehow corrupting America’s youth — or scaring them into adopting new political views.
The study’s authors — Gordon Hewitt of Hamilton College and Mack Mariani of Xavier University, in Ohio — write that they believe too much time has been spent debating the proper methodologies for testing whether there is a political imbalance on college faculties. If the danger of such an imbalance is that it is hurting students, the key question is whether the imbalance leads to an otherwise unexplainable shift in student political attitudes.
The scholars find some self-selection, with students who enter college as conservative slightly more likely to be found at relatively conservative institutions, and so forth. But over all, they found only slight shifts in political leanings (albeit to the left) during the students’ four years. The analysis also found explanations other than faculty ideology — gender and wealth, for example — that correlate with the modest political shifts that took place. Whether the students attended a college that was more liberal or conservative did not correlate with the shift — which it would have had liberal professors been engaged in indoctrination, the authors write.
Even with the slight shift to the left of students, the authors write, college students graduate with a smaller share of people identifying as “far left” than does the 18-24 year old cohort of the U.S. population.
This finding comports with my own experience, both as a student and as a professor. Even attending a state school in the Deep South, my political science and history professors were predominantly (but not exclusively) liberal. But debating them tended to reinforce my conservative leanings. Years later, teaching political science courses to predominantly conservative students, I oftentimes found myself taking a Devil’s Advocate stance simply to force them to challenge their own preconceptions. (Which, on reflection, made me wonder if my own profs hadn’t done the same thing.)
Another thing to keep in mind is that politics simply is a non-factor in most college courses. Even now, when I imagine campus politics, like that in the country as a whole, is more polarized than at any time since the Vietnam era, there’s likely not much political talk in the math, science, engineering, and foreign languages courses.
A funny thing, though. Look at the actual results published in the study:
The changes here strike me as more than “slight shifts.” The number of students self-identifying as “far left” more than doubles while the “far right” cohort drops nearly a third. There’s a ten percent drop in conservatives and a 25 percent jump in liberals. That’s hardly insignificant.
The report above claims that the researchers “found explanations other than faculty ideology — gender and wealth, for example” to explains these shifts. Without seeing the statistical analysis, I can’t evaluate that claim except to say that it’s implausible. Presumably, after all, the cohort’s gender remained relatively constant. And students tend not to have significant changes in their financial status during their college years.
It is, though, interesting that there are significantly more self-identified “far left” and “far right” ideologues in the non-college sample. Whether this reflects self-selection (perhaps extremists are less likely to want a college education), the ameliorating effects of college (exposure to analytical techniques and opposing viewpoints tends to blur black-and-white thinking), caution (educated people are more likely to want to appear reasonable) or some other factor would be worth examining.
Image: Huhboy via Google