Liberal bias in the liberal arts

No one much disputes that academics are disproportionately liberal, although it may be the case that we are swinging back toward moderate. But does this mean that we indoctrinate the young?

According to three new studies surveyed by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times, the answer is no.

The notion that students are induced to move leftward “is a fantasy,” said Jeremy D. Mayer…. 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.”

This squares with Tim Clydesdale’s work on first year students and the college experience (previously discussed here), in which he found that students put their core values in an “identity lockbox” and that very few students find a liberal arts education deeply transformative.

And it squares with the research (previously discussed here) suggesting that undecided people have really already decided, and with my observations about default theories.

And it squares with my own experience. If anything, higher education has made me more conservative over the years, as marination in the value of balanced critical thinking and seasoning with diverse perspectives (including outside the academy) has mellowed the strong flavors of my youthful radical certainties. Of course, balanced critical thinking and respectful attention to diverse perspectives are themselves liberal values, ones that are at the heart of the liberal arts. But there’s no traction in them for making anyone change their mind, because whatever you think already is part of what needs to be respected and understood on the way to a more comprehensive understanding. As conservative professor James Joyner wryly notes,

Even attending a state school in the Deep South, my political science and history professors were predominantly (but not exclusively) liberal. But debating them tended to reinforce my conservative leanings. Years later, teaching political science courses to predominantly conservative students, I oftentimes found myself taking a Devil’s Advocate stance simply to force them to challenge their own preconceptions. (Which, on reflection, made me wonder if my own profs hadn’t done the same thing.)

Yeah, I can work with that guy.

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