Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why Are Professors So Liberal? And What Are They Doing to Our Students?

There is an interesting new book out by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus: Higher Education? : How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It. The focus is on college education leading up to a bachelor’s degree. There is much of interest here—probably enough for several discussions.

The authors provide, almost as an aside, a discussion of the noted liberal bent of university professors and the possible effect that might have on their students. This is an interesting topic worthy of more consideration.

The authors make the following statement.
“A study of professors’ party registrations at the Berkeley and Stanford campuses found that Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a ratio of nine to one. Among philosophers there was a fourteen-to-one tilt; for sociologists it was almost double that. Only economists, with a three-to-one Democratic edge, came within shouting distance of a bipartisan balance. (Nor do we think the results would have been discernibly different at the University of Kansas.)”
They then quote a study which indicates that college graduates have significantly more liberal (moderate, by my reckoning) views on the issues of abortion and homosexuality. This result leads them to make the following statement.
“The knotty question remains whether influences they encountered at college were what led graduates to their more liberal views on abortion and homosexuality. We must confess we don’t know. They may have been swayed by professors, or by a campus ambiance that places a premium on being open-minded and up to date. Or it’s possible that young people who choose college are already in the liberal camp or are readier to embrace that posture.”
The authors paint an image of sly professors planting their views in the fertile but malleable minds of our young students. They then proceed to say “We don’t know if it is true.” That is an unfortunate journalistic construct that is not worthy, or typical, of the authors. It is particularly out of synch with their frequent complaint that undergraduates rarely see a professor, with most of their teaching coming from contingent staff.

Their second explanation, based on “campus ambiance” would seem to imply that liberals are “open-minded and up to date.” The conclusion that follows is that conservatives are closed-minded and out of date. I am not sure that is what they intended, but it is a good set-up for some liberal chuckling.

I think their third possible explanation is closest to the truth. People who emerge from high school with minds that are an empty slate do not go on to college. Students show up at college with a set of opinions. Any one who has studied brain function will tell you that the immediate response to hearing one say something counter to your opinion will be to try to defend your position—not to throw it into the trash can. Changing opinions is hard, and it is not likely to occur from a random comment by a lofty professor.

My thought on the liberalism ascribed to college graduates can be stated simply. The more one knows about complex topics and about the world in general, the more unlikely it is for one to believe in absolute truths or absolute certainties. This leaves liberals relatively hesitant to be aggressive in imposing their agendas on the personal lives of others. Such a perspective leads to decisions favoring choice on abortion and personal freedom with respect to homosexuals. The less one knows about complex issues and the world in general, the more likely it is that one will be absolutely certain about one’s views. This “certainty” can provide justification for almost any act that propagates their viewpoint. Such a perspective leads to a willingness to restrict the freedoms of others and to impose a set of values upon others.

In other words, the most highly educated high school graduates go on to college. People who graduate from college are more highly educated (on average) than people who do not go to college. Therefore college graduates are more disposed to be liberals. Note that this is not said as an absolute truth or with absolute certainty. The comments refer to cultural matters. Liberals and conservatives battle it out on many fronts—driven by an array of concerns.

Is there any justification for the claim made above? Well—some—but not much. There is a study by Benjamin Highton, Revisiting the Relationship between Educational Attainment and Political Sophistication, which supports the notion that entering college freshmen are not fragile reeds to be blown in any direction by the college experience. Unfortunately, it treats political awareness but not political evolution during the college years. My favorite set of data was one that was quite popular after the 2004 presidential election. This article includes a table ranking the states by the level of educational attainment—defined as the number of people with postgraduate or professional degrees per capita. Of the top twenty-five ranked states, seven voted for Bush. Of the bottom twenty-six ranked states twenty-four voted for Bush. This data alone does not provide a conclusive relationship between education and liberalism, but it is suggestive—and it sure is fun to quote.

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