Saturday, April 5, 2008

Exposing the Myth of the "PC University"

The beauty of the right-wing lie is that once it works its way into the national bloodstream there is virtually nothing that can be done to banish it. Even today, in the face of a mountain of contradictory evidence, millions of our fellow citizens believe not only that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden collaborated on the 9/11 attacks, but that at least some of the al Qaeda hijackers held Iraqi passports. Gullible Americans express fears that Barack Obama secretly pledges loyalty to radical Islam and intends to destroy the United States from within. About one in every fifty cars you pass on the interstate carries someone who is convinced that Bill Clinton is a rapist or that his wife is a murderer. Ours is a nation of conspiracy theorists and the far right has exploited that fact with enormous success.

In my business, higher education, the most persistent lie involves the prevalence of ideological—that is, liberal—brainwashing on college campuses. From the basic, but largely irrelevant, truth that a majority of college professors support Democratic candidates for public office, conservative rabble rousers have spun tall tales of rampant political indoctrination by academic radicals who use their classrooms as pulpits and ridicule or even fail students who stand up for God, motherhood, and country. Entire blogs and organizations are dedicated to this proposition or, more importantly, to feeding this idea to the ignorant and ill-informed.

The dozen or so of you who frequent this blog are aware that this is an issue I address periodically. The reason I do so is because the myth of liberal indoctrination has burrowed its way into thousands of narrow minds and has become something of a nuisance on its way to being a threat. Fifteen years ago, few parents or students ever asked me about my political leanings or those of my colleagues. Now it happens all the time. Junior McCarthyites monitor lectures in the social sciences and humanities, reporting any hint of political bias—usually imagined—to websites designed to shame and embarrass. Ignorant and pandering legislators introduce, and occasionally pass, bills designed to foster "ideological diversity" in academia, a form of affirmative action for conservatives.

As I have pointed out on several occasions, most of us who make our careers in this business find the whole discussion bizarre and perplexing. I have not once, in twenty years in higher education, heard anyone discuss a job applicant's political views. Generally, they aren't known or knowable, but even when they are, nobody cares. The truly important divisions in most departments involve theory and methodology, neither of which has an inherently ideological basis. In my own field, I have seen liberal and conservative professors unite against what they see as the unwarranted dominance of quantitative research in the discipline.

I have also, at various times in my career, held administrative posts that compelled me to hear student grievances. Most of these, of course, involved the allegedly unfair application of professors' grading standards. Some, however, concerned allegations of bias in the classroom, with a small number of students claiming that their grades suffered because they didn't tell the professor what he or she wanted to hear.

I am sure this sort of thing does happen. Nevertheless, in my experience, over 90% (actually, just about 100%) of these accusations fall apart when hard evidence is requested. Yes, a few professors get off a snide anti-Bush joke every now and again, and delicate sensibilities can be easily offended. But I have yet to see proof of a single instance where an instructor pushed a political viewpoint so hard that basic course material went unaddressed. Nor have any of my students ever substantiated an allegation of grading skewed by ideology.

Again, I realize that there are a few bad actors out there. Some professors sleep with their students. Some commit acts of sexual harassment. Others no doubt reduce students' grades because they support the Iraq War. The right-wing noise machine revels in locating these rare cases and arguing that the plural of anecdote is data.

Still, the vast majority of academics that I know have too much respect for their students (and too much modesty about their own feeble powers of persuasion) to try to indoctrinate anyone. They dutifully present all sides of every argument. They glow with pride when a frustrated student finally asks, "So which is it? Are you a Democrat or a Republican?"

The good news is that we are finally developing hard empirical evidence that refutes the conservative case against academia. In the latest issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education comes word of a study demonstrating that the people who know us best—our current and recent students—are the least likely to believe the right-wing myth about political indoctrination. Says the Chronicle:

"That's the chief finding of a question from a survey conducted through The Chronicle/Gallup Panel that asked Americans: "How often do you believe that college professors use their classrooms as a platform for their personal politics?

"Only 29 percent of those age 25 to 34, and who are more likely to have spent time on a college campus in recent years, responded that professors "often" use their classrooms to espouse their political views. But that response grew to 41 percent of those between the ages of 45 and 54, and to nearly 60 percent of those over age 65."

Conservative academic critics, of course, willfully ignore the study's most important conclusion and immediately jump to that figure of 29%. "It's only by contrast," says right-wing blogger Erin O'Connor, "that 29 percent can be seen as 'only' 29 percent. There are more than 14 million college students in this country at any given time. 29 percent of that figure is a whopping number…"

Why yes, yes it is. Except that anyone who understands the situation knows that a hefty share, probably the vast majority, of that 29% is made up of ideologically charged students (left and right, but mostly right) who consider even a balanced presentation to be hopelessly one-sided. If a professor dares to mention that the Japanese had some legitimate grievances leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, she is biased. If an instructor even broaches the subject of institutional racism, then he is an anti-American radical.

Indeed, the most telling number in the entire survey is this one: "About 70 percent of Republicans but only 17 percent of Democrats said professors often use their classrooms as political platforms…" Right-wing students are told to expect faculty bias, and so they naturally find it, even where it doesn't necessarily exist.

Unable to refute the raw power of the numbers, professional academic critics simply move the goalposts. "The problem of the PC university," says Anne Neal, who can't even string six words together without trafficking in hoary clich├ęs, "is not so much unrelenting political rants, although they exist, so much as it is that certain topics are not taught, certain disciplinary perspectives are not covered, and certain questions can't be asked." Adds O'Connor, the real issue is not "the political demagogue stumping for lefty causes in class", but rather the "soft bias that is rampant on campus."

In anyone else's world, of course, these statements would be accurately seen as concessions that the conservative critique of the academy is, in fact, terribly overstated. Evidently, hard-core indoctrination efforts are few and far between (take that, David Horowitz!). Neal and O'Connor, however, would have us believe that the relative absence of classroom demagoguery itself simply masks a more insidious and pernicious form of mind control.

Regardless, the fact that millions of American are being hoodwinked into believing the myth of the "PC university" remains troubling. People who have never set foot on a university campus (or who haven't done so since Eisenhower was president) are full participants in our democracy. We must, therefore, somehow find a way to get the truth out to them, the truth that the overwhelming majority of our students already know.

1 comment:

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