By Kevin Wolfman, M.A.
How “liberal” is college, really?
In his 2009 book One Party Classroom: How Radical Professors At America’s Top Colleges Indoctrinate Students and Undermine our Democracy, political critic David Horowitz excoriates the American higher education system, claiming that “indoctrination” of college students into radical left-wing ideology is widespread, purposeful, and insidious. “Curricula are designed not to educate students in critical thinking,” Horowitz writes, “but to instill doctrines that are ‘politically correct’ … a growing number of activist instructors routinely present their students with only one side of controversial issues in an effort to convert them to a sectarian perspective.”
Horowitz’s viewpoint is far from uncommon on America’s political right. Indeed, it is all but an article of faith in conservative circles that colleges and universities are actively liberalizing their students to promote the left-wing agendas of activist professors and administrations. Professional studies, however, show that this is incorrect—a forgivable misunderstanding at best, and a purposeful distortion of reality at worst.
Horowitz and his allies are indeed correct in the most basic sense—overall, college education does exert a liberalizing effect. The average college student leaves campus further left on the political spectrum than when he or she arrived. But the actual extent of this movement toward liberalism, and the real forces behind it, are profoundly misunderstood by conservatives and liberals alike. The truth is a bit more complicated, and a lot more interesting.
Before exploring why students’ political attitudes tend to become more liberal, one must first clarify the actual degree of change. Many conservatives believe, like Horowitz, that untold numbers of students are being steered strongly leftward. The data shows that they are quite wrong. Combing through decades of research on the subject of student values, researchers Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini determined in 2005’s How College Affects Students, Volume 2 that the percentage of college students identifying themselves as “liberal” or “far-left” increases by only about 4 percent from freshman to senior year. What’s more, the group of self-identifying conservatives actually increases as well—by well over four percent. While the group of liberals still grows more in absolute terms (since it is larger to begin with), the fact is that both liberals and conservatives see their ranks swell as a byproduct of the college experience. And additional research on political behavior has shown, on both sides the majority of this increase likely results from students who start their college career as moderates and end up “picking a team” at some point between orientation and graduation.
Few conservative students ever become liberals during college, and vice versa. Higher education’s political influence may be less one of liberalization and more one ofpolarization, as centrist students gradually drift to one side of the spectrum or the other. Conservatives agitated over the idea of pervasive university radicalism are frothing at the mouth over nothing. Hard, statistical evidence pointing to a widespread “indoctrination” of college students into liberal thought simply does not exist.
As for the supposed dominance of liberal professors in academia, particularly in the social sciences and humanities: When it comes to the impact on students’ politics, the imbalance is misleading. While it is true that the vast majority of professors in these areas are indeed liberal, this well-documented ideological dominance actually has relatively little effect on student attitudes. Studies show that the influence of faculty in shaping students’ political views is modest at best.
Research has identified two alternative factors that do, in fact, exert an overall liberal effect on the political views of students.
The first factor is cognitive development. During college, the average student becomes more appreciative of nuance and complexity, more tolerant of ambiguity, less accepting of ideological dogmatism, and, to quote social scientist Alex Edelstein, “attach[es] more value to intellectual processes.” In other words, students get smarter. Simplistic arguments and black-white views of the world—the kinds that unfortunately seem to flourish in the Palinated version of modern American conservatism—tend not to appeal to those lucky enough to benefit from years of post-secondary intellectual training.
The second factor is socialization—but not at the hands of activist faculty. The real socializing influence on college campuses, rather, is the peer group. College brings students from all backgrounds together and makes them sleep, work, and socialize alongside each other. This heterogeneous environment encourages students to re-evaluate the preconceptions and value systems they brought with them to campus as they are confronted on a daily basis with perspectives and knowledge bases different from their own, often for the very first time.
Far from being exposed to a single, “sectarian” worldview, college students gain exposure to a myriad of worldviews, and come to realize that their own perspective is not the sole legitimate one. An experimental study led by Stanford’s Anthony Lising Antonio discovered that college students whose peer groups are racially diverse are more likely to answer questions about their political beliefs by using greater detail, nuance, and intellectual complexity. Their exposure to the viewpoints of diverse peer group members actually compels them to think more deeply about political and social issues, shunning black-and-white “evaluative” reasoning in favor of a more complete “recognition of the trade-offs among [various] perspectives and solutions.”
Many conservatives might disparagingly characterize this socialization process as a drift toward moral relativism. It is actually a drift toward reality—not necessarily an embrace of liberalism, but a rejection of the half-baked brand of thought championed by the Becks and Bachmanns currently holding sway over the discourse of America’s political right.
The perception of higher education as a leftist breeding ground is baseless. College does not turn conservatives—or moderates and liberals, for that matter—into liberal lemmings. The wild-eyed, straggly-bearded professor who rages about the evils of capitalism and the virtues of command economics and communal living, transforming student bodies into raving leftist hordes in the process, is by and large a myth—perhaps one that is perpetuated to de-legitimize any scholarly inquiry that contradicts long-standing conservative political and religious assumptions. Make no mistake, radical professors do exist. But the minimal amount of influence they have on their students belies the high degree of attention they receive from activists on the other side of the proverbial aisle.
What benign increase in the ranks of liberal students during college that does occur—roughly 4 percent—is not due to “indoctrination” at the hands of tenured socialists and radicals. It is, rather, a result of intellectual maturation combined with a stimulating collegiate social life that shapes and strengthens the values of equality and acceptance. If the lecture halls of America’s universities are “one-party classrooms,” as Horowitz says, maybe it’s because conservatism has forgotten that school is in session.
Kevin is a teacher and holds a Masters degree in political science from the University of California at Davis. He is currently writing a book about the relationship between higher education and political beliefs. Follow him on Twitter at @kevinwolfman.
Antonio, Anthony Lising; Chang, Mitchell J.; Hakuta, Kenji; Kenny, David A.; Levin, Shana; and Milem, Jeffrey F. 2004. “Effects of Racial Diversity on Complex Thinking in College Students.” Psychological Science 15(8): 507-510.
Dey, Eric L. 1996. “Undergraduate Political Attitudes: An Examination of Peer, Faculty, and Social Influences.” Research in Higher Education 37(5): 535-554.
Dey, Eric L. 1997. “Undergraduate Political Attitudes: Peer Influence in Changing Social Contexts.” The Journal of Higher Education 68(4): 398-413.
Edelstein, Alex. 1962. “Since Bennington: Evidence of Change in Student Political Behavior.” Public Opinion Quarterly 26(4): 564-577.
George, David L., and Medler, Jerry F. “College Faculty as an Inconsequential Agent of Political Socialization.” Available online.
Horowitz, David, and Laksin, Jacob. One-Party Classroom: How Radical Professors at America’s Top Colleges Indoctrinate Students and Undermine our Democracy. New York: Crown Forum, 2009.
Newcomb, Theodore M. Personality and Social Change: Attitude Formation in a Student Community. New York: Dryden, 1943.
Pascarella, E.T., and Terenzini, P.T. How College Affects Students, Volume 2: A Third Decade of Research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.