Are those Concerned About Leftist ‘Indoctrination’ Brainwashed by the Right? (Spoiler: No)
Contrary to some popular talking points, people are actually not gullible, stupid or naïve. They can tell when people are trying to manipulate them, and they generally respond negatively to such efforts. Consequently, when professors try to push their politics on students, these efforts generally end in failure.
However, this argument creates a dilemma of sorts: on the one hand, I am arguing that students aren’t dupes that are susceptible to propaganda from professors, but then on the other hand – although I did not argue this myself – some could use this essay to suggest that right-leaning people are being duped by Fox News et al. into believing something that isn’t true. In this telling, students aren’t being brainwashed by propaganda, but right-wingers are.
I am a fan of symmetrical analysis in general, and this is a case where that would seem especially important, because the claim being made is about people on the whole. They are either readily susceptible to brainwashing or not. It can’t be that one group, which we sympathize with, is robust to brainwashing, while another (apparently less favored) group must be indoctrinated. So let me be clear: I don’t think students are being brainwashed by leftist professors, nor do I think the people concerned about ‘indoctrination’ are being brainwashed by right-wing media.
So let me take a moment and talk about some reasons people reasonably believe the ‘indoctrination’ thesis:
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, say, women, men, aggression and oppression. Moreover, precisely because faculty and administrators lean left, they often lose sight of the fact that their students actually are ideologically heterogenous. Assuming they are in a room full of liberals, a professor might make an offhanded joke or comment about Trump or the Republicans, viewing it as a harmless way to lighten the room, unaware that there might be a Trump supporter in their class – and consequently, 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 while his peers laugh along. Almost any professor would be horrified to find out that they had done this.
Indeed, most professors are actually committed to doing things right. When it is brought to their attention that their presentation of a given subject is skewed, that a student was alienated by their joke, etc. – they are typically open to making changes, and trying to do better.
However, even many professors who are interested in featuring more ideological diversity in their syllabi (for instance) — often they 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, in order 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.
Hence, even people who recognize the problem often struggle to implement a solution – it would take a significant investment of time or energy to even start to be in a position to select non-left readings for many subjects. Ditto with many other underrepresented perspectives with which professors are less familiar. This is in part what Heterodox Academy is for: providing people with resources, tools and frameworks to help them promote these values in the classroom, in their disciplines, etc.
Nonetheless, it is also the case, as I pointed out, that there are professors who, quite explicitly, aspire to use the classroom to advance their political agenda. The problem (for them, at least) is that they overwhelmingly fail. Again, student political leanings are generally consistent throughout their undergraduate careers.
Consequently, the intuition that many people have about faculty brainwashing students is rooted in very real phenomena: the ideological homogeneity of the professoriate, and the fact that some professors are actively trying to push their politics on their students. The mistakes that many make are 1) overestimating the share of professors who are activist in orientation, and 2) underestimating students’ abilities to see through and resist these efforts when they occur.
Students Do Often Seem to Change
Another driver of ‘liberal indoctrination’ perceptions is the reality that many do know a student 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 issues here:
- Is it that students actually changed, or did they merely appear to change, because longstanding feelings that were formerly suppressed or concealed have now been made overt and explicit?
- Assuming students’ actually changed over their undergraduate career – who drove that change most? Is it faculty? Administrators? Peers?
Let’s start with the second: to the extent that student views do change over time, 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. But again, student leanings don’t typically change much regardless… which is a nice transition into the first issue flagged above:
What is more likely than someone spending one semester at UC Berkeley and suddenly transforming into a different person is that they had probably held certain views or inclinations for some time but had been previously unwilling or unable to express them.
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 college (as they do in many of these studies) – it is likely that students 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.
Instead, what changes is that in virtue of gaining more confidence and more independence (from living apart from home, making decisions on their own), young people become more willing to express differences than they had been. Whereas before they would’ve looked at their peas while their uncle went on a pro-Trump rant during Thanksgiving, now it turns into a heated argument – where they obnoxiously trot out a bunch of statistics, or try 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 ‘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 instead from a liberal who was more hesitant to express their views, to 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 prior to moving. Chances are, if these parents invasively went through their children’s phones, their emails or their journals from before college (a hypothesis, not an actual suggestion) – they would find that this is not a sudden transformation. What did change when their daughter went off to college is that they went from a context where they 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 (less risky), and where – as a result of living outside of their familial home – they could experiment more freely. And eventually, they decide they don’t want to have to crawl back into the closet every time they visit home – so they just tell their parents how they feel.
Similarly for the student who seemed religious before, 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 irreligiousity was not only acceptable, but often lauded.
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 all generally of their own volition. If they end up taking these classes or being involved in these groups it is 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 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 children were strangers to them even before they left home, and they perhaps never understood 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. These possibilities are not easy for many to reckon with. So rather than chalking it up to their children gaining independence and confidence as a result of living on their own – and subsequently pursuing their longstanding interests, or expressing what they have long felt themselves to be – instead, the universities are blamed for transforming their children into something completely alien.
Universities skew overwhelmingly left. Some professors do try to push their politics in the classroom. Many young adults seem to change a lot once they move out of the house and go to college – many people have seen this in their own children, 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 children may long have been this way, just not confident or free enough to express or explore these convictions).
That is, it is not the case that right-aligned people are being duped by right-wing media about liberals ‘indoctrinating’ their students. This has the dynamic almost exactly backwards. The reason narratives about ‘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.
People on the right aren’t crazy or stupid for thinking professors are brainwashing their kids. But that doesn’t mean they are correct. In fact, 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 spend a lot of time with peers and are consequently very keen to be liked and respected by them).
Yes, there are a contingent of professors who are actually trying to indoctrinate students. However, they are pretty small in number, and they are generally ineffective. Why? Because people are generally resistant to being indoctrinated. College-aged kids are pretty robust in this respect. Parents should give their kids some credit, trusting that they aren’t gullible or stupid.
Indeed, right now, many are giving college professors far too much credit, as though they are masters of social manipulation. Most definitely, they are not — as any faculty meeting, departmental party or academic conference makes distressingly clear.