Professors Aren't Changing Their Students' Politics

Professors are not effective at indoctrinating their students with their own politics -- or so says a study in the journal PS as reported in the NYTimes:

A study of nearly 7,000 students at 38 institutions published in the current PS: Political Science and Politics, the journal of the American Political Science Association, as well as a second study that has been accepted by the journal to run in April 2009, both reach similar conclusions.

"There is no evidence that an instructor's views instigate political change among students," Matthew Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner, a husband-and-wife team of political scientists who have frequently conducted research on politics in higher education, write in that second study.

Their work is often cited by people on both sides of the debate, not least because Mr. Woessner describes himself as politically conservative.

No one disputes that American academia is decidedly more liberal than the rest of the population, or that there is a detectable shift to the left among students during their college years. Still, both studies in the peer-reviewed PS, for example, found that changes in political ideology could not be attributed to proselytizing professors but rather to general trends among that age group. As Mack D. Mariani at Xavier University and Gordon J. Hewitt at Hamilton College write in the current issue, "Student political orientation does not change for a majority of students while in college, and for those that do change there is evidence that other factors have an effect on that change, such as gender and socioeconomic status."

I don't have access to the journal article, but in my opinion those who argue that professors are indoctrinating their students have a limited knowledge of student psychology.

In the first place, have you ever hung out with an adolescent? An authority figure asserting something as true almost makes them less likely to believe it. Second, indoctrination assumes that the students are actually listening -- which any professor would tell you usually isn't the case. Professors dream of the ability to mold their students views, but few would presume to actually have that power.

Students are by far more likely to get their opinions from peers than they are from teachers. The trend Left in American students is not from some professorial conspiracy. I assert that it is partly because of the Churchillian quip -- "If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain." -- and partly because the public generally is trending Left.

That being said, I have two issues with the relative political uniformity of the Professoriat.

First, it is quite rude to be overtly political as an instructor -- particularly in classes on non-political subjects. It is presumptuous and makes students with contrarian views much less likely to participate. I remember a professor here in medical school that showed a juxtaposition of President Bush's face with that of a chimpanzee in a lecture about infectious diseases. The merits of this comparison notwithstanding, such behavior is simply crass. Sadly, Bush-bashing has become the seasoning of intellectual debate on college campuses, and -- whether right or wrong -- it is a distraction in non-political courses. Professors are at their best when they carefully distinguish between their personal opinion and demonstrable fact. I think that most do, but certainly not all.

Second, the article makes a valid point towards the end: the issue with the relative political uniformity of the Professoriat is not one of indoctrination; it is that we are failing to live up to the academia's highest aspirations. Academia is supposed to be about exposing students to a wide variety of views. If only a narrow spectrum of views is present on college campuses, are we really trying to be open-minded? How do we expect to students to be open-minded if we are not?

This is a difficult issue, though, and I am not certain how one would go about remedying it. There is certainly a margin where I don't think certain beliefs should be taught at universities -- demonstrable falsities, incitement to violence, etc. But identifying where that margin lies is a difficult thing and probably varies from person to person. I don't think that proactive hiring policies would be wise. It would politicize what is already a controversial issue and distract from the merits of the applicants. (It would be a strange and ironic thing indeed if conservatives started appealing for affirmative action on their behalf.)

However, part of a solution is that professors should recognize that some of their students will disagree and should treat political matters tactfully. This would create a more permissive space that those with alternative views will move to fill.


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Indoctrination is a structural problem--the types of classes we choose to offer impose beliefs much more effectively than a ranting professor going on about personal beliefs.

Professors cannot directly indoctrinate but they can certainly teach things that lead to one view or another. My politics became substantially more left wing when I was in college. There were a variety of specific things that changed my views on issues. Many of those occurred in class. For example, the fact that markets cannot solve for externalities when transactions costs are non-zero made me much more in favor of government intervention to deal with environmental problems.

During my late teens and early twenties I encountered a number of people who thought it was really important that I read Julian Simon's Ultimate Resource . At one point, Julian Simon points out that most Texas oil rigs were placed on sites in between existing oil rigs. Based on this, he then argues that the number of potential profitable oil rigs in Texas is not best judged by using geology to estimate the amount of oil in the ground - but instead on comparing the number of profitable oil rigs Texas with the number of points on a line. He argues that just as there is always another point between any two points on a line, a new oil rig can always be placed between any two existing oil rigs. This, he argued, is the reason oil productivity will always increase.

Julian Simon taught me to be skeptical of free markets, unlimited growth, and related notions, largely by making a serious of arguments in favour of free markets and unlimited growth, whose quality ranged from dodgy to delusional. Sometimes I think of him as the Velikovsky of economics. Similarly - the writings of Ayn Rand and her compatriots taught me to skeptical of both Objectivism (the Ayn Rand kind, not the useful kind) and the more extreme varieties of Libertarianism.

I didn't become more liberal in my twenties because of college or professors. It was because I was introduced to a great deal of (economically) right-wing kookery.

If you're looking for political indoctrination, I recommend looking at primary and secondary school teachers. The teacher I had who was most intent on leftist indoctrination taught social studies in high school. (The clincher was her attitude toward Hubert Humphrey, "He was always backed by the bosses." A mere liberal Democrat would have said, "Humphrey has changed.")