heterodox: the blog
Is One Group of Students More Susceptible to Their Professors’ Ideology?
This is a guest post by Josh Sabey (@BrothersSabey).
In 1988 Frank Smith made an interesting observation. He realized that what children learned was not the result of formal instruction. A teacher, even a very good teacher, seemed to have limited influence on what was or was not picked-up by students: Two students could be in all the same classes and one might develop correct grammar while another might not.
So what caused one student to learn more or less than the other if they both had the same teachers? According to Smith, the students didn’t really learn through instruction or even conscious emulation. Instead, they acquired the characteristics of people they considered themselves to be like. It was this sense of “joining the club” that seemed to account for the students’ learning. So what really made the difference between whether Jayden or Olivia learned grammar was if the people they wanted to be like had learned grammar. It was the perceived identity of the child not the prowess of the teacher that made the biggest impact.
And this observation goes beyond grammar and beyond elementary school. Today, a professor’s success at influencing her students remains subject to the perceived identity of her students. One example, an important example to the direction of this article, is that even though 80% of professors are liberal, they tend to have a small influence on the political leanings of their students.
However, if what Smith observed is true, there would be one group of students that is dramatically influenced by their professors’ liberalism: the students who see themselves becoming professors.
This is one of the subtle dangers of political dominance in the academy. Because the academy often promotes from within itself, it will likely only become increasingly liberal. Without honestly addressing the issue, conservatism will continue to be filtered out.
Of course another common explanation is that conservatives are simply “closed-minded or money grubbing.” But, according to the authors of Passing on the Right, a book about conservative professors in progressive universities, that notion is not supported by the evidence. So how do people get these ideas? One possibility is that these ideas exist because people view knowledge acquisition like filling up a sand bucket. From this perspective knowledge exists like sand, and a teacher simply distributes it to the students. Voilá, mission accomplished. If students become liberal, it’s because the facts lean liberal.
But according to Smith’s theory of knowledge, a teacher doesn’t possess the knowledge but helps students access the knowledge through participation within a community. How learning happens is not by filling sand buckets, but by connecting students to authentic communities. In the end it is the students who can honestly see themselves as part of a community who will gain access to the knowledge within. Thus, knowledge is not like sand. Though it may feel robust, it is created by tiny silk threads connecting people. And currently almost all these silk threads are held by liberals.
In this sense, professors are not liberal because they have more knowledge, but because they have gained access to knowledge by being liberal.
Learning is a process of identity and the identity of learning never ends. It is even possible that the field of knowledge represented by the academy could have been conservative in nature. How do we know that it could have been different? Because it has been different.
According to Irving Babbitt, a professor at Harvard in the 1920s, the spirit of his time was “the positive and critical spirit, the spirit that refuses to take things on authority.” Sounds a lot like our contemporary sentiment, doesn’t it? However, there is one great difference. Irving Babbitt was a staunch conservative, as were many of the leading intellectuals of his day: T. S Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, Wallace Stevens, Alan Tate, etc.
To believe that smart people then just didn’t know as much as smart people now is an example of chronological snobbery—an assumption that because we have progressed in some things we have progressed in all things. While it may be true that if those scholars lived today they would be liberal, it is because liberalism is woven into the social fabric of knowledge currently on display at universities. It is not because it couldn’t be otherwise. It is the very fact that they would indeed be liberal (and that today’s professors could likely have been conservative if they lived then) that makes the whole point.
It is simply wrong to believe that professors tend to be liberal because professors are smarter than everyone else. No, that’s not it at all. It comes down to the same identity issues we’re all dealing with. That’s why all my English professors owned personal Mac laptops even though the only program they ever used was Word. Why, with a professor’s salary, would you pay an extra thousand dollars for a Mac when Word is native to windows?
The reason is simple: because owning a Mac says you’re serious. It says you’re cutting edge. It signals success. And besides, every other professor has one. For a professor, their computer contains their life work, encages their articles, brings to life their next book. They want it to look as important as it feels.
They’re not liberal because they’re smarter. No, it’s because they’re like everyone else.
 Eliot describes himself as a “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglican in religion” in his introduction to Preface to For Lancelot Andrews (1928)
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