Concerns About ‘Leftist Indoctrination’ in Higher Ed Are Inaccurate. But This Doesn’t Make Them Unreasonable.
There is a long-running narrative in right-leaning circles that universities are “indoctrinating” students. Despite the persistence and ubiquity of these claims, they do not appear to be correct.
Contrary to some popular talking points, people are actually not gullible, stupid, or naive. They can tell when people are trying to manipulate them, and they usually respond negatively to such efforts. Consequently, when professors try to push their politics on students, these efforts generally end in failure.
Likewise, despite widespread narratives that professors routinely punish students for diverging from their preferred worldviews, the reality is that ideological leanings of professors and students seem to have a negligible impact on grades — in part because teachers inflate almost everyone’s grades to avoid dealing with complaints or complications, and in part because professors rarely feel threatened by dissent from students (in the way they might be if challenged by peers) and often don’t take students’ perspectives too seriously to begin with (for better or for worse).
In light of these realities, one might think it’s perhaps not the students who are being indoctrinated but rather the people who are concerned about indoctrination. Maybe the reason people are worried that professors might manipulate their kids is because Fox News and other right-wing outlets are brainwashing them into believing a bunch of lies.
“Fake news” is a common term in contemporary left-leaning spaces — used to explain everything from vaccine hesitancy, to discomforting survey responses, to people voting “against their interests” (as we choose to define them). It’s an especially convenient view for knowledge economy professionals to hold because it dissolves profound political, cultural, and socioeconomic differences into a technocratic issue: If only we can find ways to adjust opponents’ informational diets, everyone will simply agree with us and do the things we think they should.
The reality of the situation is more complicated. Students are not being brainwashed by leftist professors. However, people concerned about indoctrination are not being brainwashed by right-wing media either. Instead, the liberal indoctrination thesis is a reasonable, albeit incorrect, inference that many laypeople make based on realities they regularly observe in the world.
Institutions of Higher Learning Are Skewed
It is just a fact that faculty and administrators at institutions of higher learning lean overwhelmingly left. As a consequence, students are rarely exposed to conservative, libertarian, religious, or other thought in their coursework — certainly not in a charitable way.
Often this is unintentional. Professors believe they are just conveying the facts — they are unaware that there is a morally and empirically defensible alternative view with respect to many issues they care about because they have not been exposed to those positions themselves. And even professors who are interested in featuring more ideological diversity in their syllabi (for instance) often don’t know where to begin. After all, you need representative and high-quality work if you want students to take a view seriously. Yet, to present, say, the best conservative thought on an issue, one would have to be pretty darn familiar with the landscape of conservative thought on that issue. Most faculty decidedly are not.
Hence, even people who recognize the problem often struggle to implement a solution. It would take a significant investment of time or energy for most professors to be able to understand, cultivate, and incorporate valuable perspectives that have been systematically excluded from the fields they participate in. Many professors don’t feel like they have that kind of time given their myriad other teaching, research, and service commitments. Put another way, the absence of nonleft and nonsecular positions within many courses is often as much a problem of structure as it is one of agency.
Moreover, precisely because university faculty and administrators lean overwhelmingly left, it can be easy for them to assume that the same is true of students (when, in reality, students are more ideologically heterogeneous than almost anyone else on campus with perhaps the exception of nonadministrative staff). Assuming they are in a room full of fellow secular liberals, a professor might make an offhand joke or comment about Trump or Republicans or evangelicals, viewing it as a harmless way to lighten the room, unaware that there might be a Trump supporter in their class (or that a student’s parents or other close relatives may belong to the populations that are being disparaged) — and the instructor may be creating a horrible situation where they are using their position of authority to casually mock or dismiss a student’s deeply held beliefs or trash their families while said student’s peers laugh along.
Situations like this do occur — typically products of ignorance and carelessness rather than malice. However, most professors would be horrified to find out that they had inadvertently created such a hostile climate for one of their students and would work to make things right if it was brought to their attention.
Granted, there is a minority contingent of professors who, quite explicitly, aspire to use the classroom to advance their political agenda. Many others are committed to professionalism but also clearly hope that leading students to question popular norms and expectations or exposing them to facts and ideas they weren’t previously familiar with will (indirectly) lead young people to adopt views more proximal to their own.
Moreover, in any profession there are some people who are just not great at their job. Teaching is no exception. For instance, there are instructors who fail to see or describe complicated situations with sufficient nuance, who are unfamiliar with, disinterested in, and uncharitable toward alternative ways of looking at the world. Many of these folks are not trying to push propaganda per se. They believe they are simply teaching what should be uncontroversial truths (to the exclusion of what they perceive to be straightforward and pernicious errors) when, in reality, they are doing their students a disservice both in the content they present (or don’t) and in the ways they are failing to model important intellectual virtues.
Although grossly incompetent or hard-core activist professors are relatively rare (with the latter especially scarce outside of fields like humanities, education, or the social sciences), institutions of higher learning are extraordinarily left-wing spaces, and the political and ideological commitments of professors do shape everything from their course materials to their lectures in nontrivial ways, directly and indirectly, intentionally or not. These are not illusions generated by right-wing media; they are structural realities of the profession.
Students Often Do Seem to Change
Another driver of liberal indoctrination perceptions is the reality that many do know students who went away to college ostensibly religious, heterosexual, and/or conservative and then returned from college overtly secular, queer, and/or progressive. There are two core questions in cases like these:
- Did the student actually change, or did they merely appear to change because long-standing feelings that were formerly suppressed or concealed have now been made overt and explicit?
- Assuming the student actually changed over their undergraduate career, who drove that change most? Was it faculty? Administrators? Peers?
Let’s start with the second question: University admissions criteria tend to select for people with highly idiosyncratic cognitive profiles, and those characteristics end up getting exacerbated further over the course of their education. However, these changes amount to accentuating what is already there rather than transforming people into something they weren’t.
To the extent that student views do change over the course of their education, peers seem to exert a greater influence on students than professors (e.g. here, here). Indeed, fear of offending or being ostracized by peers seems to drive a good deal of self-censorship on campus as well.
In general, however, students’ ideological and religious commitments remain pretty consistent throughout their academic careers. To the extent that shifts occur, they are typically modest. Outright conversions (for instance, from a staunch conservative to a progressive leftist, or from a devout Catholic to a militant atheist) are rare.
Why do so many believe that the opposite is true? Because being in college provides many young people with the freedom and support to express themselves in ways they previously could not. Although attending college may not be transformative, it often is revelatory.
Take the case of political ideology. Parents may assume their children identify as conservative or moderate because that is how they themselves identify. However, if the student were to take a survey at the beginning of college (as they do in many of these studies), it is likely that their self-identification would vary from their parents’, and in ways that their parents might not have predicted, even from the beginning of college.
That is, often it is not students’ ideology that changes, but by gaining more confidence and more independence (from living apart from home, making decisions on their own), young people become more willing to express differences.
Whereas before they would’ve looked at their dinner plate while their uncle went on a pro-Trump rant during Thanksgiving, now they start a heated argument by obnoxiously trotting out a bunch of statistics or trying out some framework they heard from peers or in class. It isn’t that they agreed with Uncle Jeff before; it’s that they didn’t have the moxy to create a whole incident about their disagreement before (nor did they have “facts” readily available to throw in his face). This feels like a transformation, and it is. But not from a conservative into a liberal, but from a liberal who was unwilling or unable to express their views into a liberal who is more willing, even eager, to mix it up.
Or consider the daughter who goes off to college and comes home declaring she is a lesbian. Likely, she had been struggling with these feelings for years (as they often tell parents when they “come out”). She may have even discreetly experimented with friends in her home community before moving away. Chances are, if these parents invasively went through their children’s phones, emails, or journals from before college (a hypothesis, not an actual suggestion), they would find that this was not a sudden transformation.
What did change when their daughter went off to college is that she went from a context where she had to hide these behaviors or suppress these impulses into an environment where being “out” was not only acceptable but celebrated in many respects, where finding homosexual partners is much easier (and less risky), and where — as a result of living outside their familial home — she could experiment more freely with how she behaves and presents herself. And eventually, she decided that she didn’t want to have to crawl back into the closet every time she visits home, so she confesses to her parents that she is and has long been attracted to other girls.
It’s similar for students who seemed religious in high school but came back from college secular. They may well have been struggling with their faith for some time. They may have been going to church primarily because that is what was expected of them or attending youth groups because that is simply where their friends were. However, in college there was no longer any pressure or expectation to attend religious services. They made friends who were not religious themselves. They were in a context where irreligiosity was not only acceptable but often lauded. In this scenario, the school didn’t make them irreligious; it allowed them to become irreligious in a way that their previous social context did not, and they chose to take advantage of that opportunity.
Indeed, one thing missing from most of these accounts of indoctrination is the students’ own decisions: the classes they take (for instance, classes on feminism or race issues), the groups they participate in (student Democrats, LGBTQ groups) — these are generally of students’ own volition. They take these classes or become involved in these groups because they are pursuing their own interests, which often predated setting foot on campus, but which they did not previously have the social permission or practical means to explore.
Now, this is a tough pill for many parents to swallow. It means their child didn’t go to college and come home a stranger — instead, their child was a stranger to them even before they left home, and they perhaps didn’t understand their child as much as they thought they did. If the university didn’t convert their conservative, religious, and/or heterosexual child, it means they themselves raised a child who was liberal, irreligious, and/or queer even before they left home — and they failed to recognize what had long been in front of their faces.
Consequently, rather than chalking it up to their child gaining independence and confidence as a result of living on their own — and subsequently pursuing their long-standing interests or expressing what they have long felt themselves to be — instead, the universities are falsely blamed for transforming their child into somebody completely alien.
Despite this misattribution of blame, however, the perception that children regularly seem to think, talk, and carry themselves differently after going off to college is not an error or a right-wing conspiracy theory. It’s a broad and demonstrable tendency in the social world.
Universities skew overwhelmingly left. Some professors do try to push their politics in the classroom. Young adults often seem to change a lot once they move out of the house and go to college. Many have seen this in their own child or with others they are familiar with. It is not crazy to assume a causal relationship exists between the former facts and the latter — especially because the alternative is highly discomforting to contemplate (that their child may have long been this way, but just not confident or free enough to express or explore these convictions while living with their parents).
That is, it is not the case that right-aligned people are being duped by right-wing media about liberals indoctrinating their students. This narrative gets the dynamic almost exactly backward. The reason claims of indoctrination resonate so widely is because they correspond to, and seem to explain, a set of facts and apparent correlations that people have long observed.
But even if people on the right aren’t crazy or stupid for thinking professors are brainwashing their kids, this doesn’t mean they’re correct either. In reality, students’ ideological leanings tend not to change much over the course of their undergraduate careers. Moreover, professors are probably a much smaller influence on undergrads than their classmates. (Indeed, undergrads rarely take many classes with a single professor, class sizes are often large, and undergrads generally do not work very closely with professors. But they do spend a lot of time with peers and are consequently very keen to be liked and respected by them.)
In general, however, people are resistant to being indoctrinated. Although they’re marginally more likely to change their moral and political views than older adults, the worldviews of college students are typically robust to the kinds of manipulation professors are generally accused of attempting. Practitioners committed to critical pedagogy complain about this all the time: If you truly want to shape minds, they argue, you have to start in K–12 schools — the earlier, the better. By the time young people get to college, they are likely to turn their critical faculties on the critical pedagogs themselves instead of tossing out everything they formerly believed in and committing themselves to social justice (see here, here, here, here, here for more on this point). Parents should give their kids some credit, trusting that they aren’t gullible, stupid, or easily swayed.
On the flip side, folks outside academia should really stop giving college professors so much credit for how young people turn out, as though we’re masters at getting others to think, do, and say what we want. We very much are not. Any faculty meeting, departmental party, or academic conference makes distressingly clear how bad we often are at navigating the social world. Take us out of our element and it’s even worse. People with genuine talent at affecting other people’s perspectives typically end up as lawyers, communications professionals, politicians, consultants, “thought leaders,” or social media influencers instead of college professors. As the old adage goes, “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” Or as professors often exclaim in exasperation, “Indoctrinate students? I can’t even get them to read the syllabus!”
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