The New Right-Wing College Lie: Students Become Liberal on Their Own, No One Is Indoctrinating Them on Campus

As college campuses come back to life, teeming anew with students embarking on another academic year, it’s time to reconsider the notion that colleges are prime sites of liberal indoctrination. It’s a refrain from conservative campus “watchdog” entities like Campus Reform and The College Fix, but it’s also something more measured media voices have acknowledged. Scholars, including my colleague Neil Gross, have shown that while college faculty tend to be liberal, evidence suggests “going to college does not make students substantially more liberal."

But there’s another side to this story, one that shows just how much conservative rhetoric has distorted our impressions of teaching and learning at college. The idea that college students are indoctrinated neglects the fact that college students are capable of thinking for themselves, and provided the tools to do so.

We can start with the word “indoctrination,” which already presupposes the intent to convert someone to a certain ideology. As with words like “doctrine,” “docent,” and “doctor” (sorry M.D.s), the Latin root of “indoctrinate” is docere, “to teach.” As humans have long acknowledged, when we teach, we necessarily impart some combination of facts and value judgments, just as any other intellectual exercise—a study, a trial, an essay, a presentation—requires us to shape or frame the knowledge we want to investigate or communicate. Whether it flatters the liberal or the conservative, there’s no such thing as “raw data,” no such thing as a purely unbiased or un-ideological stance. There are only degrees of measure, of fairness, of critical thinking.

So colleges teach critical thinking, the ability to entertain the negation of an idea while also entertaining the idea itself, and thus to hold in suspension all the ways in which something might be true or valuable and all the ways in which it might not be. To “indoctrinate” is to imbue someone with a preferred idea. Critical thinking is the antidote to indoctrination, because critical thinking isn’t about affirming ideas in the first place, as indoctrinators do; it’s about questioning the ideas being affirmed and subjecting them to reason and evidence.

Training in critical thinking happens most rigorously in classrooms, where students learn to use it, and where so many of the sensationalized exploits of campus activistswe obsess over in the media also get a critical hearing (students tend to like applying classroom material to events happening in their immediate world). The fact that liberal people work on campus and liberal things happen on campus doesn’t mean college courses are instruments of liberal indoctrination.

This is where those, primarily on the right, who accuse college faculty and administrators of indoctrination get confused. They see that the introduction of a program of rigorous critical thinking by a liberal professoriate has the potential to challenge the assumptions and beliefs of young people who show up at college for an education, and they call it indoctrination. What’s actually happening is that those—certainly not all—young people who show up to college having already been indoctrinated—in the strict sense of the word—are being given a framework for thinking more carefully and deliberately for themselves, along with the relative freedom to do so in an environment designed to privilege reason, evidence, and skepticism over assumption, innuendo, opinion and unchallenged faith.

In fact, it’s odd that we’re so comfortable with the idea that how our parents or guardians raise us to think—and what they raise us to believe—is necessarily how we ought to think and believe. I don’t mean to say that it’s not—and I certainly treat my students’ experiences and beliefs with painstaking respect—but we should all be able to admit in adulthood that not all we learned as children was morally right, not all was good for us, not all was true, even if some or most of it was.

We should also be able to admit that as we grow and become more cognitively and emotionally mature, the world around us is also changing, as should our responses to it. It’s odd, in other words, that so many of us are content to label the intellectual development that happens at college “indoctrination” while giving a pass to everything that happens before then, and virtually ignoring the intellectual development that happens after. It’s convenient for those who fear the impact of knowledge and critical thinking to place the indoctrination marker at college rather than beforehand (or after), but it’s also arbitrary, or more likely ideologically motivated.

There’s also something twisted—and I think highly insulting—in the assumption that the college student isn’t capable of becoming his or her own person, of making informed value judgments while exploring the world of knowledge with greater access than ever before to, yes, the diversity of ideas. It’s arrogant, particularly for college-educated, conservative media voices, to assume that they’re somehow exceptional in having avoided indoctrination, while current college students are just a bunch of sheep grazing on little knowledge plots circumscribed by liberal faculty. And it’s unfair to students, many of whom work diligently to earn their conclusions, and many of whom find a way to campus political clubs and publications beyond the classroom, sites of student activism and political critique on the left and the right. Thus, while the accusation of liberal indoctrination is meant as an attack on faculty and administration, it’s actually a surreptitious attack on students, a move to coddle them and protect them from scary liberal faculty because students, the argument implies, can’t think for themselves.

About the faculty, though: We’re political beings like everyone else, including your parents, your siblings, your boss, the police officer who pulled you over (or didn’t), the doctor who treats you, and the justices presiding over the Supreme Court. Like the rest of these people, we do our jobs even though we also have political convictions. We’re held to high standards of accountability, and subject to heavy scrutiny in the media, by our students and within our own institutions. We’re neither particularly devious nor particularly doctrinaire, and we exercise less control over students than do institutions like the family or the law or the workplace.

So let’s be clear: By virtue of our aggregate political profile, university faculty are likely to want to subject belief and opinion to reason and evidence; we’re likely to find value in a diversity of ideas and perspectives, including racial, ethnic and religious diversity; we’re likely to understand both gender and race not as neutral categories of biological fact, but as constructed categories subject to differing degrees of power and privilege; we’re likely to see problems with extreme socioeconomic inequality; and we’re likely to question the free market as a sufficient arbiter of justice, morality and good conduct.

These ideas may be at odds with yours; but just as we express them, and even sometimes advocate for them as political beings, we also give our students all the tools and opportunity they need to contest such ideas. According to a UCLA national survey of incoming college first-years for Fall 2014—students who hadn’t yet been subjected to liberal faculty—students have begun to drift leftward on issues of same-sex marriage, affirmative action, access to higher education, and immigration. Conservative critics of higher education should consider probing that finding. Another place to look for answers: the mirror.


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