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Ideology in the Classroom

November 11, 2008

Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in America Universities, published in September to little fanfare, has caught on amid its intended audience: those who believe indoctrination of students is a figment of the conservative imagination and not really a factor on our campuses. The New York Times, calling indoctrination “an article of faith” among conservative critics of the universities, gave the book a boost in a November 2nd article. The authors of the book, George Mason professors Bruce Smith, A. Lee Fritscher and Jeremy Mayer, acknowledge that the professoriate leans the to left–with Democratic party registration reaching 9 to 1 over Republicans at some universities– but argue that this imbalance has no appreciable effects, since most academics tend to avoid political controversy altogether. On the basis of questionnaires, the authors report that 95 percent of professors claim to be trying to be “honest brokers among all competing views” and 81 percent believe ideology plays no role at all in faculty hiring. Asking professors to state whether they are classroom propagandists or fair-minded teachers does not seem to be a rigorous methodology. Just as earnestly, the authors asked professors if students elsewhere on their campus got unfair grades because of their political views. Only one percent said it happens frequently or often. The authors say self-censorship of political and religious views, out of fear of negative reactions, was just as common among very liberal professors as among very conservative ones. And–in another counter-intuitive leap–”discrimination against non-Christians appears to be more widespread than discrimination against conservatives.” The authors spend a good deal of space deploring Ward Churchill on the left and David Horowitz on the right, while depicting faculties as moderates nestled in the middle, So not to worry. Although the universities have become more moderate since the 1990s, the book says, “The media have much preferred the narrative of the lefties in academe taking over.” But this is hardly the preferred narrative of the mainstream media, which have a long record of denying or ignoring patterns of coercion on campus, often giving the issue their full attention, as the Times did with Closed Minds?, only when some study dismisses the issue.

By sticking closely to bland survey questions, the authors are able to sidestep the evidence of regular campus wrongdoing: the freshman orientation and freshman writing programs setting forth the basic campus narrative that oppression by race, gender and class is the core reality of American life; the 800 or so campus speech codes, most of them unconstitutional and used to rein in campus dissent; the rise of “whiteness” studies that depict white people as hopeless victimizers and racists; the ethnic and women’s studies programs that sometimes require students to agree with the teachers’ views as the price of being admitted into courses; the discovery of “diversity loyalty oaths” that professors at a few colleges are required to sign, promising to work diversity themes into classes, even math and science; and the persistent attempts to defund or ban evangelical campus groups because of their theological opposition to homosexuality. Many professors think that the traditional curriculum is such a force for the status quo that they are entitled to use their classrooms to promote a more “progressive” America. Even Stanley Fish, no ally of the right, argues in Save the World on Your Own Time that teachers abdicate their true purpose when they routinely bring their political views into class in attempts to sway their students. Academe has its true horror stories. The University of Delaware residential life program, which required students to accept the theses that all whites are racists, presented its intrusive indoctrination program as a “treatment” for the faulty notions of students. Schools of education stress the proper “dispositions” of students, which often turn out to be the acceptance of the agenda of the cultural left, including gay marriage, radical environmentalism and redistribution of wealth. At Washington State, an entrenched educrat frankly admitted that Justice Antonin Scalia would probably flunk the school’s “dispositions” test.But the frank imposition of political tests is rarer than the pressure professors and administrators often apply to let students know which opinions are considered illegitimate on campus. Peter Wood, executive director of the National Association of Scholars, writes:

“Although there are plenty of professors who are eager to persuade students of the merits of their own political outlook and are willing to transgress the traditional boundary between instruction and advocacy, the real issue is not so much the pontificating professor as it is the campus as a self-enclosed social world in which some narratives have high status. The student eager to show that he or she “gets it” and isn’t some sort of clueless dolt who adopts the postures that need to be adopted.”  Closed Minds? doesn’t deal with any of this. At one point the authors write: “We are not comfortable with the idea that the major universities should be engines for major social change: they are neither organized for nor suited to such a role.” Good point, but their study fails to come to grips with professors who disagree.

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