Monday, November 03, 2008

And The Jury Is In: Professors Have Little Effect On Students

Just a day before the election, another piece of scaffolding invented out of whole cloth by conservative liars -- I mean, intellectual activists -- crashes to the ground: the notion that liberal college professors are indoctrinating their students. So sayeth the New York Times. According to an article in today's paper about a book just published by the Brookings Institution:

The notion that students are induced to move leftward “is a fantasy,” said Jeremy D. Mayer, another of the book’s authors. When it comes to shaping a young person’s political views, “it is really hard to change the mind of anyone over 15,” said Mr. Mayer, who did extensive research on faculty and students.

“Parents and family are the most important influence,” followed by the news media and peers, he said. “Professors are among the least influential.”

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.


A second study, co-authored by conservative researcher, Matthew Woessner, confirms these findings. The bad news from my point of view is Mayer's view that changing the mind of anyone over fifteen is difficult. So much for the importance of Western civilization -- or any kind of civilizing influence -- in a college curriculum, something that has been a mainstay of conservative and liberal curricular conflict for several generations now.

Honestly, despite my naturally liberal desire to gloat, I find this all a little difficut to believe, which may mean these researchers are also wrong about me not being a radical ideologue who indoctrinates my students. In truth, the whole conversation is -- and always has been -- hogwash, intended to divert most of us from the great economic rip-off of America engineered by Republican operatives (oops! liberal cant! keeps slipping out!) Just try teaching Barry Goldwater's Conscience of A Conservative to an average group of undergraduates. They love it. They don't love it, however, because he was a conservative, or because he wrote about things that were eternally true, or because Goldwater appeals to the political sensibilities of your average fifteen year-old, but because the ideas are so fearless and it was such a bold attempt to alter the political landscape. Students want to do something that significant too.

And you know what? Students respond approximately the same way to the work of radical left intellectual Angela Davis, who was once fired by Ronald Reagan for being a bad ideological influence in her university classroom. This all leads me to the (unscientific) conclusion that most students are more interested in how to grow up to be significant, unique people who are effective citizens of the world than they are concerned with where to place themselves (or their professors) on an ideological spectrum defined by conservative academics.

7 comments:

historiann said...

Hear, hear. I too find little resemblance between the right-wing nightmarish fantasies of what goes on in college classrooms and the reality of what happens in my classrooms. If only conservatives understood how much time and energy we have to devote to getting our students to master the use of the apostrophe, the correct deployment of their/they're/and there, and to stop calling the books they read in my class "novels," they'd understand how very far even this Marxist feminist is from ideological indoctrination in class. If I could achieve grammar and spelling indoctrination, I'd probably stop there/their/they're at a job well done.

Tim Lacy said...

TR said: "Most students are more interested in how to grow up to be significant, unique people who are effective citizens of the world."

Definitely---with the possible exception of the term "citizen" (perhaps a natural goal for students on TR's campus). College is most certainly part of one's search to be authentic---to be who he or she really is.

And a corollary is this: The biggest problem in the classroom, to me, is really the ego---whether from the student or the professor. Some professors, both liberal and conservativem, don't solve their ego problems before teaching, and many students are really only concerned about how their own significance. It's one's ambition that gets in the way of true learning. - TL

Jeremy Mayer said...

Hey, Tenured Radical--let me texture my quote, extracted as they always are from a 25 minute conversation about a several hundred page book. What I meant to convey is that while an individual professor can give you a new way of thinking about Latin American history, or Victorian poetry, or physics, it is hard to give a student a new world view. Some exceptions from polling MAY be attitudes towards gay rights, which do trend upwards the longer one is in college, but this is VERY hard to disentangle from the influence of peers, media, education itself, and professors transferring whole opinions about gays. Of course, it does happen that a given professor can change the political outlook of a given student, but it is far from typical. Anyway, everyone buy the book...Jeremy Mayer

Jarrod Hayes said...

Everybody with any common sense knew Horowitz was full of it anyway. I have yet to meet a professor who was not very careful about keeping political ideology out of their approach to the classroom.

Bardiac said...

Heck, I despair because I can't influence my students to actually do the reading! And the poor conservatives think I'm actually changing their world view?

Z-Student said...

Jarrod Hayes: come to my school. I was told in biology 181 (a class of 250) to vote for Hope and Change (thinly veiled attempt at saying Obama without saying "Obama").

TR- I agree with what you are saying in part. A scenario: A student takes a class on pornography law, a "liberal" subject. By the end of the class the student cannot get enough pornography law and begins reading everything that ze can. Later in life, the student becomes a sex worker activist and the pornography class was the first bit of information that began hir life long love of sex law.

Hasn't that teacher's course (and by association, indoctrination) sort of "liberalized" that student? or do I have this totally wrong?

Talleyrand said...

@Z-Student.
That you have the idea that being a sex-worker activist is `liberal' per se demonstrates that the whole discourse about the political effect of university is riddled with conceptual confusion. Why can a sex-worker activist not vote Republican? If we disaggregate the ways in which students can change their opinions (or create opinions) on social, political, moral, economic, or scientific issues, then we can see that `liberalizing' a student can come to be a meaningless thing to say. Say a student has heard scraps of chat around the dinner table at home about how foreign aid is a waste of money and then takes a class on the politics of South Asia during which she reads some accounts of how some variants of aid (say microfinance) allow very poor people to start businesses, and in another class she learns that some World Bank programs create cycles of dependence and destroy local economic systems. Now she changes her mind, is aware of the ambiguities of the political reality of aid and has some empathy for what it must be like to be a Bangladeshi peasant. I imagine that you would see this student as being `liberalized'. It might be more reasonable to call this process `learning' but even with this knowledge, the student could think more or less foreign aid is a good or a bad thing and might still vote either way.

If conservatives want to define being educated, tolerant and able to appreciate ambiguity as `liberal' then they are fighting a losing battle.