Newly-confirmed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos won plaudits from conservatives last week for blasting American higher education as an indoctrination mill where moderate and conservative students are brainwashed by an overwhelmingly left-wing university establishment:
The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.
There are elements of truth to this characterization—the First Amendment is in jeopardy on many campuses, and regular readers of this blog know that we have plenty of criticisms of the politics of higher education. But DeVos’ charge missed the mark—not only by overreaching on the “indoctrination” angle, but by failing to address the real harm produced by the ideological imbalance in higher education.
The evidence for DeVos’ dystopian picture of campus life for ideological nonconformists is thin. Students on the political Right are in the minority, but often have strong support networks, including successful student papers and Republican clubs. A 2012 study from UCSD sociologists found that conservative students are satisfied with their college experience. From Inside Higher Education:
Students said that attending the colleges they did was a positive experience and helped shape their — conservative — political identities. The students said they wouldn’t want to change institutions. “There was this sense that being in an environment they perceived to be overwhelmingly liberal did challenge them, but in ways that were positive and beneficial for them,” Wood said in a 2012 interview. “It made them clarify values and ideas about different issues or about what being a conservative means.”
Moreover, if indoctrination is taking place, it is not particularly successful. As Neil Gross wrote for the New York Times in 2012:
Studies show that going to college does not make students substantially more liberal. The political scientist Mack Mariani and the higher education researcher Gordon Hewitt analyzed changes in student political attitudes between their freshman and senior years at 38 colleges and universities from 1999 to 2003. They found that on average, students shifted somewhat to the left — but that these changes were in line with shifts experienced by most Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 during the same period of time. In addition, they found that students were no more likely to move left at schools with more liberal faculties.
None of this means that the Ivory Tower’s increasingly pronounced leftward tilt isn’t a serious problem. It is—and not just for conservatives. First, as our friends at Heterodox Academy argue, it leads to poorer quality scholarship. If a group of scholars (especially in the social sciences and humanities) all agree with one another politically, they are more likely to fall prey to confirmation bias, and fail to scrutinize findings that challenge their worldview.
Second, it tends to discredit academics and experts for broad swathes of the population. If the perception is that scholars are largely in the tank for the Democratic Party, then their findings are more likely to be written off by conservatives in the political system, even if those findings are valid.
And third, it means that students are less likely to access a well-rounded education. If history departments offer gay and lesbian history but not military history, if sociology departments study racism but not religion, if English professors give short shrift to the classics in favor of the latest fad in postmodernism, students will be less able to understand the world around them by the time they graduate.
DeVos is right to worry about the political orientation of the academic class and the way it affects our broader public discourse. But the critique she made was not particularly accurate or productive.