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Do Liberal Professors Indoctrinate Students?

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:

Do Liberal Professors Indoctrinate Students?

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

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. DC Loser says:

    Most parent can’t get their teenagers to listen to them, what makes people think professors can?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  2. James Joyner says:

    Most parent can’t get their teenagers to listen to them, what makes people think professors can?

    Well, profs have the decided advantage of giving periodic tests which require students to demonstrate that they’ve absorbed the material.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  3. Mark L says:

    Teens ignore what their ‘rents say as part of the growing-up process. It’s virtually a biological phenomena to develop independence and autonomy.

    Part of that process does involve latching onto other adults as role models. It reinforces autonomy while benefiting from the wisdom of experience. I can’t number the times I have told my teenaged son to do something and been ignored, only to have the boy do that task after being asked/directed to do so by another adult he respects — like his scoutmaster. It’s not just me, either. My son’s scoutmaster complains that his son does not do things he asks the boy to do, but that if I ask/direct the scoutmaster’s son to do so, that boy does it without complaining.

    So, yeah, I can see professors influencing the opinions of their students.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  4. Jay L says:

    “There’s a ten percent drop in conservatives and a 25 percent jump in liberals. That’s hardly insignificant.”

    If they’re self-identifying, the shift may not be very significant. One possible explanation is that, rather than changing one’s views, four years of college simply re-defines the terms.

    In American politics especially, terms like liberal, moderate and conservative describe maybe a dozen fundamental views on which everyone agrees, and a couple where there may be differences.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  5. Anon says:

    Yeah, politics doesn’t come up often in the computer science department where I teach. I know the political leanings of a few of my colleagues, but not most of them.

    Most of my students in class are international students. Of the domestic students, I have no idea what their political leanings are, and, frankly, couldn’t care less.

    I have one domestic Ph.D. student. Even after a few years, I still have no idea what his political leanings are.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  6. Grewgills says:

    he 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…
    …Without seeing the statistical analysis, I can’t evaluate that claim except to say that it’s implausible.

    The following appears to address your concern,

    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.

    It will be interesting to sift through the stats when the report is published.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  7. Steve Plunk says:

    James, I doubt you were an average student. The average student is more likely to formulate opinions and ideas based upon what the profs are selling. It should also be noted there are more places to indoctrinate that just the classroom. Guest speakers, special programs, course offerings, and orientation programs all have impacts.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  8. Michael says:

    Yeah, politics doesn’t come up often in the computer science department where I teach.

    You mean you don’t have grand VI vs. Emacs debates? What kind of second-rate CS program are you running there?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  9. From my experience at another southern state school, liberal professors had very little impact on the liberalism or conservatism of their students. We did have one liberal professor in the faculty who refused to write letters of recommendation for any student she deemed unacceptably right-wing — and she proudly publicized this policy in the department — but other than this there was no noticeable ideological pressure from faculty.

    Assuming that private universities have a similar faculty make-up, could an elitism factor, rather than faculty influence, be driving the leftward shift at the private schools as shown in the table?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. Anon says:

    Yeah, politics doesn’t come up often in the computer science department where I teach.

    You mean you don’t have grand VI vs. Emacs debates? What kind of second-rate CS program are you running there?

    That’s religion not politics. Emacs is for wussies who can’t handle modes.

    Garbage collection is also for wussies. So I guess I do indoctrinate my students.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  11. Andy says:

    Perhaps they found that the left-leaning subdemographics were simply more likely to still be around for a fourth year, hence the gender and wealth explanations. Are women more likely to graduate than men? I’d guess yes, by a small amount.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  12. Jeffrey W. Baker says:

    Although I studied mechanical engineering, which is entirely apolitical, I did feel that my professors outside my major tried to push their personal ideology on students. For example, in the economics department which was formerly influenced by Phil Gramm, the professors were notorious for overtly pushing supply side theories. So, at least in my experience, it was the right wing of the faculty who were guilty of trying to shape the students politics.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  13. WR says:

    I’m always fascinated by the rightwing terror that any American who is exposed to “bad” thinking — whether it be liberal philosophy or unfair criticism of our country by African-American pastors — must be irredeemably polluted and brainwashed. How little respect one must have for the American people to assume that simply listening to a differing viewpoint will change their beliefs. And how little faith they must have in their own philosophy to assume that anyone who hears something different will abandon it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 4

  14. just me says:

    Honestly, I attended college and grad school in the south, and in general my degree program had a variety of veiwpoints among the professors.

    I saw more of a liberal/conservative shift in other classes (social work was probably the worst) what I found for myself is that it wasn’t all that indoctrinating, but at times it was frustrating at times, if I felt the professor was trying to indoctrinate or push a certain viewpoint. I was less conservative then than I am now.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  15. mars says:

    Honestly, what’s the big surprise? Self-identified conservative & far-rights decrease during college, because college is doing its job: teaching these kids to think.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 4

  16. floyd says:

    Hey, let’s all just forget about the prior 13 years of exposure to NEA members.[lol]
    “Kodachrome”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  17. To say that a cohort drops by nearly a third when that cohort is nearly insignificant in the first place (1.3%) is misleading. A difference of 0.4% is very little difference. And since I haven’t read the study, these differences are meaningless unless this is a longitudinal study.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  18. James Joyner says:

    And since I haven’t read the study, these differences are meaningless unless this is a longitudinal study.

    Given the setup and reporting, I presumed it was in fact longitudinal. Otherwise, not much point in comparing 1999 to 2003, we could simply compare 2003 entering frosh and 2003 seniors. Indeed, if it’s not a longitudinal study, using separate years would seem to make the study worse, since the external political climate would influence the results.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  19. Jim Ringo says:

    One methodological quibble. Is there any reason to believe that all ideological shift caused by the liberal instruction would all occur in the time measured?

    Surely, many people could shift ideologically in punctate ways, admitting in interview (or to themselves) a shift well after they have actually made it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  20. Bithead says:

    Most parent can’t get their teenagers to listen to them, what makes people think professors can?

    Because when offered against the real world, big government liberalism is a far easier sell.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  21. Bithead says:

    How little respect one must have for the American people to assume that simply listening to a differing viewpoint will change their beliefs.

    That Democrats have dominated the Congress for the last 70 years would seem a confirmation of the reasons behind this contempt.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. Colatina says:

    I would probably be more disturbed to see no change at all in political views as students go through college. I don’t know if it should be toward the left or the right, but the kind of knowledge that should be the focus of a liberal arts education should cause some kind of change in the political views of young people, which would proabably register on ideology research. Some of the conservative criticism of higher education amounts to a demand that college be strictly vocational, and that it leave political socialization and the formation of political values up to the family, church, and workplace (which as we all know, are completely evenhanded and open-minded when it comes to politics!). When any change at all in political views is seen as a horrifying finding about higher education, we’ve got a problem with the way we see education. Can anyone imagine being horrified to discover that the political views of the Founders were formed by their educational experience (many of them explicitly argued that education must do this)? Perhaps the conservative complaint about academia is really about left-wing ideas themselves, not about diversity or balance at all. That argument would be a lot more interesting, and a lot more consistent with conservatism. But many conservatives can’t pull that off, and so they prefer to argue that their ideas are embattled rather than arguing that they’re better.

    I went to a very conservative liberal arts college (which I still love dearly). My experience there was contrary to the claims of conservative critics of academia. #1: the fact that these conservatives supposedly had leftism crammed down their throats all through school didn’t make them more open to new ideas (speaking of many of them, not all). They caricatured and ridiculed left ideas in class just as badly as left-wing profs are claimed to do. Foucault was dumb and hey did you know that he was really really gay?; Rawls was kind of important, but not as important as Allan Bloom. #2: Most (but not all) of the conservatives profs I’ve had have liked being in conservative departments. They didn’t crave differences of opinion and a diversity of views any more than left-wing people do. Being in the minority doesn’t make you virtuous. Some conservatives understand this point in every other case of a minority except their own. By definition because I’m a prof that has tended to vote Democratic (even though most of my students can’t guess this and I’m probably in the center or on the right of the academy), I’m part of the unthinking, PC group-think of academia, but also by definition, Bush supporters are supporters of diversity of opinion and open-mindedness. That’s the assumption behind the claim that changes in ideology and voting patterns of profs amount to a “criticism” of academia.

    There was an AEI paper that recently studied the effect of the left-leaning professoriate on students going to grad school. They found that lower grad school attendance among conservatives was not due to intimidation by left profs or conservatives feeling unwelcome in the academy (conservative students, unlike many conservative critics of academia, actually report a high level of satisfaction with college), but lifestyle choices (having a family), and differences in values (making money over freedom and spontaneity). So conservatives are, in general, challenged by alternative views but not intimidated to the point that they’re driven away from higher education.

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