It has long been a talking point on the right that leftist professors are ‘indoctrinating’ college kids (an elaboration on why many quite reasonably hold this belief is available here). However, a number of recent studies suggest that this narrative is incorrect: students can reliably determine what their professors’ political beliefs are, and when they detect that instructors hold alignments that diverge from their own, they often respond with lower teaching evaluations, etc. That is, rather than passively absorbing a professors’ beliefs, students react against them.
Of course, there are some instructors who try to utilize their classrooms in order to push a particular sociopolitical agenda — a line of thought that goes back to Gramsci and was popularized by Paolo Friere, bell hooks and others. However, as is frequently bemoaned in the ‘critical pedagogy’ literature (e.g. here, here, here, here, here), college students widely resist these efforts by instructors. Consequently, undergraduates’ political alignments and affiliations tend to not move much over the course of their college careers. Conservatives generally continue to be conservatives, liberals tend to remain liberals. That is, even when professors are trying to indoctrinate students, they aren’t very good at it.
This is all very much in keeping with a new book by Hugo Mercier, Not Born Yesterday, which illustrates how most attempts at mass persuasion and indoctrination fail – be they by advertisers, political leaders, religious leaders or college professors. Why? Simply put: contrary to some popular narratives, most people are not gullible, naïve, or stupid. They recognize when others are trying to mislead them or manipulate them for their own purposes – and they often respond negatively to such attempts.
As I’ve explained elsewhere, people concerned about teachers pushing their views on students should probably be focused on ed schools and K-12. This is where the action is these days: targeting students whose intellectual immune systems are not fully developed. By the time students get to college, they are not particularly susceptible to being ‘indoctrinated.’
And frankly, most college professors are not actually trying to ‘brainwash’ students to begin with. They may often inadvertently present an incomplete or biased view on many topics, but that is a very different (and much more tractable) issue. Indeed, Heterodox Academy is comprised overwhelmingly of centrist and left-leaning professors who are committed to improving their own teaching and research, and to helping colleagues do the same.
Apparent Homogeneity Can Be Misleading
At most universities nationwide, students are actually much more politically heterogenous than the faculty or (especially) university admin. In my experience, there are a couple reasons we observe an apparent homogeneity of views on various issues:
First, many students are simply not aware that there are multiple legitimate perspectives to be had on certain topics. They have been presented with very simplistic characterizations of complex phenomena – in the popular culture, on social media, and also unfortunately in many of their other undergraduate courses. Even if they suspect that there may be some problems with a prevailing narrative or framework, there is a big gulf between having these suspicions and being able to articulate concretely what the problems and limitations are.
In any case, they may be especially hesitant to express skepticism of this nature due to the second major factor: an acute awareness that many of their peers have been socialized into approaching controversial topics in Manichean ways – and are often willing to exact painful social sanctions on those who don’t clearly align themselves with their ‘side’ on those issues. Many students (especially conservatives) also fear being docked by their professors for expressing the ‘wrong’ view on a contentious subject.
That is, it is not the case that students are actually homogenous or dogmatic – they generally aren’t that committed to any particular stance on most issues. They just haven’t had the occasion to deeply explore, and contemplate upon, a number of subjects yet – and don’t feel social permission to do so in the classroom in many cases — so they publicly default to the stance that seems least controversial or the most praiseworthy on those topics.
As instructors, however, we can shake students loose from these tendencies by surfacing the complexity, nuance, ambiguity and uncertainty involved in many subjects that may, at first glance, seem pretty straightforward. It’s actually relatively easy to do, and it can be a game-changer in terms of class dynamics.
Yes, But What Does That Actually Mean?
Last semester, I did a class on Global Urbanism.’ Based primarily on the pathbreaking work of sociologist Saskia Sassen, the course explores the ways cities have both been transformed by, and transformed the process of, globalization. One of the lectures I delivered – midway through the course — was on inequality. This is a topic which students, journalists, faculty and administrators generally approach in a very simplistic and moralistic way: inequality is bad. End of story.
In order to get them thinking about just how gnarly the issue of inequality actually is, I introduced the topic with a series of questions:
Is inequality a social problem that must be rectified or simply a social phenomenon that should be understood on its own terms?
If we understand inequality as a problem – in what senses, specifically, is it a problem? Is it primarily a practical problem (that is, is it bad because it generates negative consequences ‘in the world’?) Or is it primarily a moral problem (a violation of our sense of justice, independent of the question of negative externalities)?
How, concretely, is inequality a problem? Is the problem inequality per se (in which case, we should reject meritocracy – i.e. rewarding people differently based on their levels of talent, hard work, ambition, ingenuity, etc.)? Or is it the degree of inequality that is a problem (that is, would some level of inequality be acceptable, perhaps even just on meritocratic grounds – but beyond a certain point, inequality becomes problematic because it leads to social unrest, dissatisfaction, etc.)?
Is it actually inequality we are concerned about, at bottom, or is it some other problem? For instance, is the fundamental concern widespread bias, discrimination, nepotism, various forms of graft, etc. (which undermine the legitimacy of meritocratic claims that may be otherwise seem ‘just’)?
Or, rather than inequality per se, are the problems we are primarily concerned about poverty, suffering and exploitation? That is, if people in a society were able to live in relative comfort and security, but there were high levels of inequality — would that inequality still be a problem? Or are the ‘real’ problems deprivation, precarity and abuse – and to the extent we can mitigate those, any inequality that remains is not particularly problematic?
This matters because, although many basically use inequality and poverty as synonyms – especially in the media, etc. – they are actually very different things. Sociologists love 2×2 charts. We can do one here to illustrate this point:
|Low Poverty||High Poverty|
|Low Inequality||This is basically the egalitarian ideal – although societies that actually match this description are few and far-between in the contemporary world for a variety of reasons.||This would be a situation where everyone is poor. It’s basically the egalitarian dystopia. Regrettably, these seem to be far more common historically (and especially today) than the egalitarian ideal, for a variety of reasons.|
|High Inequality||This could be a situation where, for instance, there are robust social safety nets and government-provided benefits + strong labor, civil rights and civil liberties protections (that prevent exploitation and abuse) – but still, there is a class of people who have substantially more than the typical citizen.||This would be a society where almost everyone struggles to get by — except for a very small class of elites (who typically abuse and exploit the less fortunate).|
Of these options, both possibilities on the right-hand column seem clearly undesirable. But with respect to the left-hand column, is it obvious that the goal should be the upper-left option rather than the lower-left option? If so, why?
Are certain types of inequality more pressing than others? There are many expressions of inequality in different contexts throughout the world – for instance, along the lines of race/ ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, geographic proximity to critical transport paths or resources, etc. Many view these issues as interrelated – this is the idea behind intersectionality, for instance. However, as a practical matter, it is difficult to actually address all of these issues at once. They are very different challenges.
Consequently, policymakers, activists, etc. will typically have to prioritize one over another in order to concentrate efforts, resources, etc. towards making progress on specific problems in specific contexts. But on what basis would someone decide to, say, pursue addressing gender inequality rather than racial inequality? Or gender inequality in the U.S. employment context rather than campaigning for women’s education in the developing world? To phrase these dilemmas another way: are the challenges women face more important than those faced by other marginalized or disadvantaged groups? Are some women more important than others?
Even if we don’t believe this is the case intellectually, our actions typically demonstrate a clear prioritization of some forms of equality over others. That is, there are inequalities in how individuals prioritize and address inequalities! How can such disparities be justified? Insofar as one understands inequality to be a problem, how does one choose which of these variations to focus on — given that, practically speaking, any such selection generally entails pursuing other forms of equality to a lesser degree (if at all)? But of course, the alternative may be to pursue none of them effectively, which seems like it could be even worse if you believe that inequality is a problem that must be addressed…
All of these questions have merely been oriented towards nailing down whether or not we should understand inequality as a problem, the senses it might be a problem, the concrete ways in which it might be a problem, the contexts in which it might be a problem, etc.
There are many other questions to answer with respect to what we mean by inequality. For instance, how, specifically do we measure inequality? What metrics would we use? How can the relevant data be effectively and reliably collected and evaluated?
Still more fundamental: is inequality an outcome or a process? Many social researchers describe inequality as an outcome: you have a range of inputs, unequal distributions are an output. However, others, like sociologist Andrew Abbot, argue that inequality is perhaps better understood as a process: it is a function of how institutions are structured and reproduced, and the ways people act and interact within them across time. That is, inequality is enacted moment to moment, context to context. This account would seem to suggest very different pathways of addressing the phenomenon.
Now, there is a sense in which literally none of the questions I’ve posed here are empirical. They are pre-empirical: how people answer these questions will strongly inform their study design, their analysis and presentation of data, etc.
One thing that is abundantly clear when you read about inequality in the media, on social media — and even in academic literature — is that people are often talking past one-another when they’re talking about inequality. Different folks are relying on different meanings, often taking a given meaning for granted rather than specifying what they mean. Indeed, many don’t seem to have a clear sense at all on what, specifically, they are talking about when they are talking about inequality – and oscillate between meanings from one sentence to another.
You don’t have to be like those people. As aspiring social researchers, you should spend time reflecting on — and wrestling with – these difficult questions. And you should try to be clear about where you land on these questions in your own applied or scholarly work.
Complicating the Narratives
Minds were clearly blown by this introduction to the topic. Students expressed after class, in discussion sections, in emails, etc. that they hadn’t realized just how complicated inequality is. In subsequent assignments and exams they demonstrated more attention to how this concept, and other concepts, seemed to be defined and utilized. It also opened the door to much richer, more nuanced discussions in the discussion sections… and much more practical and pragmatic discussions as well. Students were pushed to be a little more concrete in what they were saying – and that has also been demonstrated to help reverse tendencies towards polarization.
Critically, I did not take any particular stand on these questions myself. For instance, I never suggested that students’ prevailing prior (inequality is a problem to be mitigated) was wrong; I simply muddied up what that claim means, and encouraged them to work through that theoretical, ethical and epistemological morass themselves. I did not actually present arguments for or against any particular stance on these issues, I just detailed that there were different options to choose from. I emphasized there are not obvious right or wrong answers to the questions I raised: people have been arguing about versions of them for centuries (millennia, even).
That said, practically speaking, people often do have to take an implicit or explicit stance on these dilemmas in order to actually carry out research, conduct interventions, etc. Hence, I encouraged students to think through these issues now, before they get to the point where they are forced to take a leap – so their posture on these matters can be intentional rather than by default.
This same kind of approach could be easily repeated for just about any social research topic or course. It proved very helpful in my class at creating a space where students could explore multiple perspectives on a controversial issue (which many had been reticent to engage with as a matter about which there could be reasonable disagreement).
Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University.
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