You’ve heard about it. College professors, who are disproportionately liberal, skew the views of their impressionable young students by assigning leftist books and poking fun at conservatives in the classroom. Rick Santorum famously called colleges “indoctrination mills” and anecdotes about liberal bias abound. But is there systematic evidence of this? I find it difficult to get worked up about the “liberal bias in academia” mantra because of it's prevalence. However, recent events at my institution, the College of Charleston, merit some attention.
At issue is the book “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel. While the book explores various “coming of age” issues, the central themes are sexual orientation, gender identity, and Bechdel’s complex relationship with her closeted gay father. Also, the book is written in the style of a graphic novel, which, you know, nakedness!
Anyway, because “Fun Home" was supposedly purchased with “tax payer money” (it wasn't) and was “required" reading (it wasn't), the South Carolina legislature voted to strip $52,000 out of the College’s budget (the overall cost of the reading program). Rep. Gary Smith, one of the originators of the proposal, was quoted thusly:
I understand diversity and academic freedom. This is purely promotion of a lifestyle with no academic debate.
I felt it important to address the bigger issue: Can college professors sway the views of their impressionable students? Indeed, this is the underlying issue. It is implicit in Rep. Gary Smith's claim that the book “promotes” a lifestyle. Its also a social scientific question that can easily be tested.
So… is there any evidence that college processors turn their students into liberals?
The answer: No.
In an innovative paper, political scientists Matthew Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner sent surveys to 200 political science professors and their students, asking questions about party identification, ideology and the appropriateness of discussing personal politics in class. Notably, Woessner and Kelly-Woessner conducted the survey twice: once at the beginning of the semester and once at the end. Armed with this data, they were able to assess if students became more liberal or conservative over the semester and whether changes in the students' ideology correlate with the professor’s views.
Here’s what they found:
- Despite instructors’ best efforts, most students are able to accurately guess their professor’s party identification (though most though their instructors were more moderate on average).
- According to the result of the survey, 28% of students reported a change in their partisanship during the semester. Notably, much of this shift is toward the Democratic side of the aisle.
- But most importantly, this movement in students' views does not correlate with either (1) the students' assessment of the professor’s beliefs or (2) the instructor’s actual political beliefs.
As Woessner and Kelly-Woessner explain:
While student views do shift over the course of a semester, they tend to move somewhat randomly, usually regressing toward the mean. Thus...the changes are hardly what one might expect if faculty members were systematically indoctrinating their students.
What’s often lost in the debate about bias in college classrooms is the larger question about where our political attitudes come from in the first place. According to published studies, children experience the greatest growth in their political learning during adolescence (not college) and by about 9th grade children have an ability to think in ideological terms (Erikson and Tedin 2011, pg. 128). In terms of party identification, the biggest influence on preadult socialization is not their school or even friends (which have almost no effect), but that of the family. According to one estimate, 76% of children have the same partisan attachment as their parents (Erikson and Tedin 2011, pg. 132).
Simply put, in addition to the lack of systematic evidence that professors “indoctrinate” their students, the assumption that college students are “impressionable” is not supported either. In fact, overly political college professors are likely to generate one kind of outcome more than any other: negative evaluations! Seriously. In yet another study, Kelly-Woessner and Woessner show the political bias in the classroom yields negative student evaluations and a general dislike of the subject matter.
But how are we to make sense of the fact that students’ political attitudes do move in a modestly Democratic direction during college? Well, it’s important to be clear what we’re talking about. Studies have shown that education is strongly correlated with greater tolerance, which in turn has a liberalizing effect on social issues (Erikson and Tedin 2011, pg. 139-142). It’s also true that college students are exposed to a large volume of media and interact with a more diverse segment of the population and are therefore at the forefront of changing social norms. But on economic issues, there is no aggregate change over the course of a college career. In fact, the better educated are typically more conservative on economic issues (Erikson and Tedin 2011, pg. 139-42).
In sum, college certainly affects the views of college students, and one of those is a liberalizing effect on social issues (but not on economic issues). But the evidence does not support the view that it’s “indoctrination” or the “promotion of a particular lifestyle” by individual faculty. Rather, the move to the left on social issues stems broader educative effects, an exposure to more diverse groups of individuals, and greater media consumption by young adults. In all seriousness, the “solution” would be to simply avoid college altogether (not avoid specific textbooks or professors)
Finally, I’ve had this conversation before. One response is: “So two college professors did a study of college professors and found no evidence of liberal bias? I’m skeptical of this study’s objectivity.” Well, for starters, the paper was peer reviewed in a leading political science journal, which should stamp out faulty research methods. But second and perhaps more importantly, Matthew Woessner is a conservative himself! I’d also direct skeptics to Mike Munger’s excellent book “Scaling the Ivory Tower” which was published by the conservative Institute for Humane Studies. In this book, Munger (a noted conservative) explains that while bias in academia certainly exists to an extent, it’s much smaller than conservatives realize.
Robert Erikson and Kent L. Tedin “American Public Opinion” (2011, eighth edition).