In my last article, I discussed the concept of bias and indoctrination on college campuses. While some people may perceive any sort of political content on campus as a potential form of indoctrination, there are aspects of the way that colleges work that are important to consider. The interaction of these factors can make the difference between actual indoctrination–when someone actively tries to both impress their beliefs on students and discourage them from maintaining different opinions–and merely a biased point of view.
In the first article in this series, I discussed two separate spectra that impact how political messages are received by students on college campuses: the level of authority the speaker carries, and the place that source inhabits in the campus community. In this article, I’m going to break down down how those two spectra intersect, and discuss how those interactions can produce various forms of either bias or indoctrination on campus.
Type One: Official Administration Action
In college and university settings, there is no greater authority than members of the administration. As I had discussed in Part I, administrators and faculty members carry more authority than students or other members of the academic community because their authority is generally well-recognized by the student body. This factor is multiplied even further when they express their political views while acting in their official capacity rather than just in common conversation or a non-official setting. The most clear-cut examples of indoctrination are situations where official actions or policies are used to both enforce certain “correct” ideas while simultaneously penalizing or discouraging competing ideas.
These kinds of programs are generally widespread, and impact large numbers of students as a result. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, FIRE, documented one such case when it investigated a program at the University of Delaware in 2009. In this case, the university’s Office of Residence Life had developed a systematic curriculum which mandated the teaching of certain racial, economic, and social justice theories through student orientation events and hall programs conducted with the help of Resident Advisers. Administrators in Residence Life also kept records of RA interviews with residents, identifying “positive” interviews that conformed to the curricular objectives and “negative” ones that did not.
These kinds of cases may be the most clear-cut, but they are also some of the least common. No campus administrator wants to open their school up to the kind of scrutiny that results from an investigation of academic misconduct or indoctrination, as such investigations compromise the school’s public image and damage its reputation as a place open to free inquiry. Rather than immediately blaming the administration and its policies, one must look at other intersections of power on the college campus to see how indoctrination and bias may be cropping up in other ways.
Type Two: Unofficial Faculty/Administration Action
Due to the range of academic disciplines and campus services that the modern college or university offers its students, it is very rare to find a modern school that does not delegate authority to those subsidiary divisions. Because of this, it is not uncommon to find offices or programs that have great leeway in crafting their own goals and objectives. This leeway, if an overzealous professor or director goes too far, can become a source of serious political bias that can border on indoctrination.
However, we must ask ourselves an important question: how far is too far? The answer is not always easy, nor is it clear-cut.
One of the most straightforward examples of this kind of indoctrination arises when a professor teaches politically-biased material in a classroom setting, and then penalizes the grades of those who disagree. A TCC colleague of mine wrote about this exact type of situation when she shared her story of a public policy professor docking (and subsequently re-raising) a grade on a paper by twenty percentage points when she cited materials from the Heritage Foundation.
However, not all political positions taken by faculty or administrators automatically constitutes indoctrination. Take, as a competing example, Professor Jack Russel Weinstein from the University of North Dakota. Professor Weinstein, the Director of UND’s Institute for Philosophy in Public Life, published an article online proposing that people have a right to actively run away from those who lawfully open-carry a firearm. This philosophic perspective clearly biases toward the anti-gun side of the political spectrum, but is it indoctrination? He is the director of an institute, but do we have evidence that he is requiring other faculty members to teach this philosophy to students? Is there proof that he is chastising students who disagree with him, or penalizing their grades?
Without evidence suggesting that he is imposing his views inappropriately, we cannot say that Weinstein is indoctrinating students. He may be expressing a philosophical view that carries a bias, but there is no evidence suggesting that he is trying to force acceptance of that idea by others. For that reason, as I said in Part I, the mere expression of a political idea or an idea with political consequences cannot automatically be considered indoctrination. This is especially true in a discipline like philosophy, where subjects can have political consequences.
Another relatively straightforward example is that of an academic office that uses its broad mission as a justification for promoting activities that borderline on indoctrination. Even if the mission of the office, such as providing resources for female students or LGBT students, may seem neutral, it is not uncommon for those offices to promote political positions that office staff members may deem to be aligned with their mission. (The documentary Indoctrinate U has more information about this phenomenon.) When those political positions become exclusive and shut out competing points of view, the situation changes from one of passive bias into one of real indoctrination.
Type Three: Official Student Action
The majority of American universities offer ways for students to become actively involved in campus affairs. Most frequently, this is through student government groups and officially-sanctioned student organizations. The reason that these kinds of student actions may carry a risk of indoctrination is the social pressure that comes with their authority: because they are recognized and approved by the administration as having authority over certain campus affairs, their influence carries more weight. Much like the unofficial faculty and staff actions discussed above, the difference between simple bias and indoctrination hinges on both the scale of the student groups’ influence and the extent to which it suppresses opposing views.
Some schools enable student government groups to embrace or enforce political opinions through their activities. One example took place in February, when the UCLA Undergraduate Students Association Council attempted to pass a resolution calling for divestment from Israeli business that “profit from the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.” Another more complicated situation arises when students are given authority to aid in official administrative decisions, as was the case when a student advisory committee paved the way for the removal of the Emory University Chick-fil-a location in March of last year. These kinds of resolutions and actions can create serious political divisions in the campus community, and can create significant issues for students who disagree with the governing group’s actions.
The major difference between this type of political bias and the kind that stems from faculty and administrators is that student engagement has a significant chance of making positive change. When students who hold minority (read: conservative or libertarian) political views run in campus elections, write in campus publications, or engage with official student-run structures in other ways, they have the ability to challenge political norms and help encourage intellectual diversity.
Type Four: Unofficial Student Actions
Unfortunately, many students take their political views to extremes that disregard rules and official structures. Take, for example, the case of one student who drove his or her car through a pro-life flag display at Dartmouth. In another situation, a conservative blogger was verbally harassed by students when he attempted to film an open meeting hosted by the International Socialist Organization. Other examples abound, both on TheCollegeConservative and other sites, and a simple internet search will yield dozens of results.
However, it is important to remember that independent student actions like this almost never constitute academic indoctrination. At most, this kind of behavior is a strong form of coercion or bias: it can carry lots of social influence and peer pressure, especially when the source is a friend, but it wields almost no power to back it up.
Ultimately, the aggressiveness of some students’ actions is a symptom of bias and indoctrination on campuses rather than a cause itself. As Penn State professor Matthew Woessner demonstrates, the education system frequently fails to challenge liberal students’ ideas due to the fact that those ideas are usually in the majority on campus. Without that challenge, students don’t learn the skills necessary to respond appropriately to competing points of view. The reason that many students take extreme measures to attack different opinions is that they simply don’t know how to respond more appropriately, and are more likely to either lash out or insult those who adopt opposing points of view.
Either through a failure to teach respect for diversity of thought or, conversely, being taught that certain kinds of thoughts and ideas actually deserve disrespect rather than respect, these students reveal just how much the college and university system is in need of reform.
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As the academic year progresses, these categories will hopefully give students and their families a constructive framework through which to examine issues of bias or indoctrination on campus. Properly identifying and understanding the kinds of activities that can take place is key to understanding how to respond to those situations as they arise. Ultimately, that knowledge is what will empower conservatives and libertarians to positively change the political and ideological climate on campuses throughout the country.