A new school year has started for college students across America. Students of all ages have moved back to campus, bought their textbooks, and are starting new classes. However, with any new school year, there comes an additional set of more problematic issues. One of these issues–an issue that seems to be cropping up ever more frequently as our society becomes more polarized–is the question of political bias and academic indoctrination on campus.
For conservative students and families, this is a particularly tricky subject. Almost every week, we hear stories the news or are told by pundits about how college has a liberal bias and how these institutions can harass or penalize students for holding dissenting points of view. For example, Emily Scheie over at WorldMag recently suggested that common reading books–texts that some colleges encourage their incoming students to read before their first year begins–may be a tool of indoctrination by exposing every student to similar liberal or progressive ideologies before classes even start. This kind of fear-mongering, however, can keep both parents and students on a hyper-aware lookout for any sort of political bias on campus. This can rob students of valuable experiences while they are in college by not allowing them to fully invest themselves in the learning process.
Why is it that conservatives so frequently decry any liberal activity on campus as merely another expression of “indoctrination” in academia? Unfortunately, many parents and students don’t really understand academic culture, or how biases and indoctrination fit within academic culture at large. While many academics may have a liberal bias, that bias isn’t always pushed on students in ways that actually constitute indoctrination.
In order to combat true indoctrination on campus, we must first understand what indoctrination actually is, and not merely settle for what we believe it to be. Then, we must understand not only how campus culture works, but how the different elements of campus culture interact. Those interacting factors are what can tell us whether or not some event or activity on a campus merely expresses a bias or constitutes true academic indoctrination.
What is “indoctrination,” anyway?
Going by the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition, to indoctrinate is to “[t]each (a person or group) to accept a set of beliefs uncritically.” It follows, then, that “indoctrination” is the process or program by which a person or group is taught to accept such as set of beliefs uncritically.
This definition contains several key components. One, it suggests that indoctrination is motivated by the desire to both spread particular beliefs to others and motivate their acceptance in those others. Two, it identifies the end goal of indoctrination as the target group’s uncritical acceptance of the desired set of beliefs. Three, it suggests that indoctrination is an intentional effort, likely with some level of planning or forethought involved in the spreading of the desired beliefs.
These observations are crucial, as they focus our thinking about indoctrination in discrete and particular ways. Too frequently, we confuse or conflate the teaching of any political idea in a classroom with an attempt to “indoctrinate” the students in that class. This is the position expressed by Emily Scheie earlier: the organized readings before school clearly exposed students to more progressive ideas before classes had even started, and she identified that as a possible form of indoctrination. We know from the definition above, however, that indoctrination requires more than mere exposure to an idea. It also requires intentional planning and concerted efforts to change the students’ minds and reform their thinking; merely asking students to read a book for group discussion later on hardly seems to constitute such an effort.
To be frank, I find Ms. Scheie’s suggestion to be completely unreasonable. First, it insults the intelligence and integrity of students who may be in a political or ideological minority, as it assumes that any exposure to “unacceptable” material automatically poses a threat to their apparently fragile minds. Second, this assertion would presume that we must “protect” students by robbing them of valuable experience gained by exploring other points of view. Matthew Woessner, Associate Professor of Political Science at Penn State, expresses this idea beautifully in this short video. While liberal students are deprived valuable learning opportunities in college campuses due to the dominance of liberal-leaning ideas, conservatives have the opportunity to experience true intellectual diversity and have their ideas challenged by competing perspectives.
How do college environments work?
Institutions, in an ideal world, are supposed to use their resources to educate students and expand the realm of human knowledge. However, the frequency of our discussions on academic abuse and indoctrination demonstrates that this isn’t always the case. In order to understand how these events occur break down, we have to understand how the institution and culture in academic environments works.
Colleges and universities are unique entities. In some ways, academic environments function much in the same way that other bureaucratic institutions work. Offices perform functions, officials respond to their superiors, and workers go about their business in order to keep the organization running. However, academic institutions differ from other kinds of businesses or bureaucracies in that their stated objectives are to educate students and expand the realm of human knowledge. Therefore, in order to understand the forces that can work on a student at college, we cannot merely look at the governing structures of the school. Instead, we have to consider the full range of sources of power that may impact the life and thoughts of a student.
To exhaustively analyze the depth and breadth of the college environment, we would need to write a novel. However, there are two major social spectra that can inform our discussion of indoctrination. Both relate to the nature of any power or influence that may affect the average college student.
1. The “Source” Spectrum: Faculty and Administration, or Fellow Students? Students in college interact with a wide range of individuals. Some of these individuals are nameless faces, someone they may sit next to in a course or see passing by on the sidewalk. Others, however, are more meaningful, and it is through these more meaningful relationships that a student may be compelled to consider other beliefs or opinions.
Professors and administration officials, generally speaking, hold the greatest authority with students. This, ideally, is the way that the college is supposed to work, because the professor is supposed to be the primary source of authority on the subject matter at hand. (Patrick Allitt, Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, delves into this concept in his book I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student.) Because of this power dynamic, professors and administrators are ultimately responsible for the messaging and themes–both good and bad–that students are taught in the classroom.
Fellow students and friends may exert peer pressure on students who disagree with them, but that form of influence rarely holds the same social power. However, there is the additional dynamic of students put into positions of authority. Most universities have student government groups that are responsible for managing student clubs, planning major campus events, and setting some policies for student conduct. While students who lead these groups do not have the same power as administrators, they can have some increased influence with their peers because their actions are usually school-sanctioned.
When considering questions of indoctrination or political bias on campus, we have to consider the source. Does an event or issue in question arise from a school administrator, professor, or other official? Conversely, does it arise from a peer or a friend? How much influence can that source wield? It is important to consider these sources carefully, as their level of influence can make the difference between mere peer pressure and true indoctrination.
2. The “Authority” Spectrum: Official or Unofficial Activity? Just as students in college interact with many individuals, they also are a part of the larger bureaucratic structure of their college or university. The various offices, departments, rules, regulations, and policies at the school all play a role in shaping and influencing the student’s experience. Because of this, the practices, policies, and programs set by a school are significant sources of authority when considering whether or not a college or university is engaging in indoctrination.
Professors and administrators, however, may also wield discretionary authority apart from official school policy. This most commonly arises in cases where students observe professors regularly mocking or deriding certain points of view or penalizing someone’s grades for expressing political views in written assignments. Repeated activities of this kind can indicate that a professor or school official is inappropriately imposing his or her political views on students. However, a professor or administrator is NOT indoctrinating students merely because he or she is teaching material with some sort of political message. Again, real indoctrination requires more of an overt, organized effort.
Frequently, material taught in college courses can carry political implications, and this sort of teaching does not constitute indoctrination. This is most clearly demonstrated in the case of the Harvard economics students who walked out of their class for arguing that the subject material was biased towards conservative points of view. One student understood the purpose of the Economics 10 course perfectly:
Jeremy Patashnik ’12, an economics concentrator who authored a lengthy piece in defense of the course for the Harvard Political Review, rejected the notion that Ec 10 carries a conservative bias.
“I self-identify as a liberal on these issues, and I don’t see the conservative bias. I think this walkout misses the point of what Ec 10 is supposed to be,” Patashnik said. “This class is not attempting to give normative answers about how to address social issues. It’s meant to introduce students to economics as a social science.”
When a pattern of activity, an event, or a policy arises on campus, it is important to consider the source of authority that the item in question comes from. Was it authorized by the administration, or merely enacted by a group of students? How widespread is it on campus? Is the person who enacted it backing it up with some sort of coercive element? These facts are key to understanding whether or not real indoctrination is taking place on campus.
The purpose of this article (and its upcoming sequel) is to help conservative and libertarian students think more critically about campus politics before automatically concluding that indoctrination is taking place. Even though we already know that college campuses can be liberally biased, conservatives and libertarians are becoming too quickly convinced that any expression of liberal politics by a professor or a student group automatically constitutes a form of indoctrination. We cannot become “the movement that cried indoctrination,” or else the concept will lose meaning and our arguments will not be taken seriously.
More importantly, however, we must remember that jumping to assumptions of indoctrination will rob us of the most valuable parts of our educational experiences: we will miss out on the personal growth and expansion that comes with being challenged by other points of view. If indoctrination is truly taking place, we should call it out, but we cannot do so at the expense of our own minds and our own growth.
Stay tuned for Part II, in which I will expand on the two spectra of influence above and offer real solutions for how to identify and address bias and indoctrination on college campuses.