A New York Times article reporting on studies that purportedly show that professors’ ideological views — overwhelmingly liberal — have no or negligible impact on students’ opinions has been plastered triumphantly on college bulletin boards across the land.
Conservatives’ worries about political indoctrination, according to reporter Patricia Cohen, are “overwrought,” indeed “fantasies.” The reactionary Don Quixotes have instigated a culture war, going so far as introducing “intellectual diversity” legislation and recruiting volunteers to monitor classrooms. At my community college, the headline, “Professors’ Liberalism Contagious? Maybe Not,” was circled in red magic marker, as if to suggest that those who still believe that our educational system harms young people might be ready for the meds.
I wonder which of my colleagues posted this article. Was it the one who wears the yin-yang ring, who one day during election season pulled a MoveOn.org email blast about Palin’s “Troopergate scandal” from the department printer, asking if I had seen this “news” item? Or was it the instructor who posted next to her office door a photo of Barack Obama and Joe Biden, signed by Biden with, “Thanks for your help!”? Or was it the instructor who shows Michael Moore and Al Gore movies as “documentaries”?
I am sure that none of these professors would go so far as to browbeat her charges and tell students whom to vote for. What with camera phones and all, there might be some backwards homeschooled kid who might send the video to Fox News.
In the interests of scholarship, though, the instructor would feel duty-bound to inform her charges about the nefariousness of the Bush administration — just as “facts” and background, mind you — along with the long litany of criminal acts and attitudes of the West, particularly the United States. All that she would say in this vein, whether in the context of history or literature, would be backed up by the “factual” support in textbooks.
So when students participate in the “studies” cited in the New York Times article and are asked on a questionnaire whether their teachers attempt to impose their ideology, they will probably say no. Asked whether they are vulnerable to persuasion by professors’ political views, today’s college student, steeped in self-esteem and flattery about his abilities as a “critical thinker,” is, of course, going to say that he came to his political views on his own, on the strength of the evidence before him and the critical powers of his own mind.
And this is the kind of interviewee a student reporter for the University of South Carolina’s Daily Trojan will quote for a concluding salvo to a syndicated article about “the results of studies … [that] refute the belief held by many conservatives that liberal college professors politically indoctrinate their students.” Freshman Christopher James’s assertion that “kids are way too smart to let themselves be swayed in one direction or the other” adds to the chorus of self-evident truth from desk seats in campuses across the country.
Yet, while students, teachers, and administrators in unison proclaim students advanced and sophisticated thinkers, studies, like one just released by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, show that knowledge of civics is rapidly declining — and that a college education makes little difference in alleviating ignorance. Test scores in reading comprehension and writing (argumentative) skills — the real tests of being able to think “critically” — continue to slip downward. These studies are backed up by my observations in the classroom, where I find myself increasingly needing to provide a definition for communism, and pointing out that, despite a scholarly estimation of the “brilliance” of Mao Tse-tung’s political strategy, he was a brutal dictator.
So what is going on in the classroom? If there is no bias and if teachers are simply teaching the material, and if students are such good thinkers, why don’t students know more about history and civics? Isn’t “critical thinking” a step beyond basic knowledge?
A lot of discussion and reading is going on. Anthologies are thickened with each new edition with verbiage from editors’ colleagues. Students come into class versed in vague theories about postmodernism and social justice, and esoterica like habits of a polygamous tribal chief of “African civilization.” They see Islam as the Religion of Peace, while Christianity is seen as handmaiden to Western imperialism.
I doubt that such a well-researched alternative as A Patriot’s History of the United States would find its way onto many reading lists, or its view into the introductory material of anthologies. Soviet dissidents like Alexander Solzhenitsyn are dismissed. The instructor is likely to follow the lead of most universities, and most recently Harvard, and substitute other types of literature, like “protest literature,” for formerly required British surveys.
Professors use school funds to attend conventions, where they meet at “round tables” and share strategies for surreptitiously introducing “gender” — all nine by famous feminist theorist Judith Butler’s count — into discussions about Russian history or Renaissance literature. Even where core curriculums are still in place, be aware: these teachers are infusing such Marxist-inspired theories. Even schools affiliated with Christian denominations have professors who brag, “Nobody knows. I teach the way I want to” — as one did to me last weekend.
So terms like Obama’s “spreading the wealth” and “redistributing income” clang pleasantly inside a freshman’s skull, echoing such cozy nostrums as “social justice” and “sharing.”
Yet, while asking one of my students why he was voting for Obama, I learned that he was for “change.” (Full disclosure: this was after the student brought up “change” as point of comparison to another “historic” personage whose speeches we were discussing.) But no one in class knew who Bill Ayers was, who the Weathermen were, and what they did. Such evidence of ignorance, however, does not dampen their estimation of their own decision-making abilities.
As anyone who has dealt with the four-year-old who insists “I know how to do it!” understands, arrogance is inversely proportional to age. Professors who themselves are perpetually in the stage of rebellious adolescence are not likely to recognize or report their own biases on surveys. Their students don’t know enough to know what they don’t know, and how much of it their professors are keeping from them.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, there are “studies,” and then there are damned studies.