There was a big hullabaloo about a month ago when a Pew survey came out revealing that almost 60 percent of Republicans (and Republican-leaning Independents) believed that higher education has a negative effect on the way things are going in this country. Immediately, it should be noted that this does not mean Republicans think college is dumb and learning is bad, but that didn’t stop many outlets from interpreting it that way.
If you’ve been following politics at all, though, you’re probably more aware of where some of this dismal view on higher education comes from. Think of safe spaces, discrimination against conservatives, snowflakes protesting every minor infraction, you know the drill. The issue, as I’ve seen many conservatives explain, isn’t that knowledge is bad. It’s the environment of the institution: campuses practically infested with liberals, where conservatives students are just too afraid to voice their opinions because they’ll get shouted down, and where freedom of speech is in its death throes.
This always puzzled me. I go to a liberal school in a liberal city in a liberal state, and that simply hasn’t been an issue there. But anecdotal evidence doesn’t quite cut it in academia, and so it won’t in this blog. I was curious where these claims came from and how true they were. I definitely notice more liberals on campus (being one myself), but I was curious how that translated into everything else. Are conservatives discriminated against? Are all these liberal professors indoctrinating students to follow their beliefs? Is free speech in danger? Are safe spaces failing to prepare people for the real world?
The golden rule of media is that if an article asks a yes/no question, the answer is no, and the same holds true here. But let’s talk about the details.
Discrimination against conservatives is the big one. With liberals everywhere, conservatives feel they can’t voice their opinions. And that much is true; there is some concern amongst right-leaning students that their views won't be well received. And while it is a little odd that some who complain about safe spaces and how they’re for the weak immediately turn and say they can’t express their views because their peers in college are just big meanies, this is a fair complaint.
But let’s differentiate between criticism and discrimination. We’re not always going to enjoy majority support for our opinions. So long as professors aren’t preventing certain students from talking, or as long as colleges don’t screen their prospective students by their political affiliation, discrimination is a heavy word to use. Some students can be rude, and we can go into how that shouldn’t be cool in an environment promoting equal exchange of ideas, but it’s not discrimination.
Why, then, are there so many liberal professors? It’s complicated. To start, it really depends where you look. If you look at social sciences and humanities, you’ll find many, but that becomes much less evident in many applied fields. So your perspective can vary wildly depending on what you study. It also depends on how you define liberal and conservative, as these are not monolithic, unwavering categories. Get five liberal professors in a room and you’ll have five different opinions on most issues.
It could also be the nature of the job itself. The split could be less because conservatives aren’t being hired and more because liberals are just more interested in being professors.
Surveys conducted by the Xavier University in Ohio have provided a different explanation of the prevalence of liberal academics in colleges. The survey outlined the Self-Selection Hypothesis, which proposed that conservatives were less likely to pursue careers in academia due to a combination of personal preference and belief that they would face more challenges in achieving academic success due in a progressive-dominated field. The study found that conservatives aspired to get into higher-paying jobs, whilst liberals were more likely to be affiliated with community service occupations and were less influenced by monetary gratification.
To be fair, some conservative professors have admitted to being less vocal about their beliefs, and that the established liberal professoriate, especially in some fields, has led them to feel uncomfortable. But academia is hardly shutting them out; some studies say both conservative students and professors are flourishing, and further go on to say that the tilt is not the result of discrimination.
So what about the indoctrination? If there are more liberal professors, regardless of reason, there must be at least some risk of students being led to turn liberal.
Again, not really. Studies have found that students are more liberal due at least in part to the fact that more liberal people will attempt to go to college in the first place. There were also some recorded shifts where students turned more to the left, but that was less because they went to college and more because that’s what usually happens for people in that age range anyway. Data also showed going to school doesn’t make you less religious, and that, if anything, it can make your belief even stronger. The same data found that people who don’t go to college are more likely to lose their faith. All of this from campuses with majority liberal professors. If the professors are trying to indoctrinate anyone, they’re failing universally.
Finally, there’s data explaining that it’s not professors who make students further entrenched in their beliefs, it’s activism — and that this affects students of all beliefs.
…the more engaged students are with faculty members and academics, the more their views moderate toward the center. But the more students become engaged in student activities, the more the liberals become more committed as liberals and conservatives become more committed as conservatives.
Then there’s free speech. We’ve established that some conservative students feel uncomfortable voicing their opinions (21 percent of conservatives vs 8 percent of liberals), and that many campuses have mostly liberal professors. Is free speech in danger, or are colleges encouraging students to shut out contrary or “offensive” opinions?
The concept of limiting speech has gained a little more traction with younger generations, but the majority of people in the US across the board still agree with the right to criticize government, say offensive things about religion or beliefs, say offensive things about minority groups, and say sexually explicit things. The only concept that doesn’t enjoy a comfortable majority is calling for violent protests, but that’s still holding at 44 percent. All of these are much, much higher than the global median. When it comes to free speech, Americans love it, regardless of political affiliation. There are growing concerns about certain kinds of speech, but those mostly have to deal with saying offensive things about race or anything sexually explicit, and with those issues being as contentious as they are, that should be no surprise.
But the discussion is about education specifically and what that does to the concept of free speech. The answer, again, is not quite how it’s been portrayed.
In fact, according to Pew Research Center data, those with a college degree are less likely than those without a college degree to support censoring offensive speech, and they’re more likely to support the idea that “people should be able to say offensive things publicly.” In other words, contra Kristof, college students are more likely to be tolerant of offensive speech or opposing viewpoints than those who haven’t had the benefit of a college education.
This doesn’t mean colleges aren’t without their issues, like attempting to cancel speaking engagements from guests rather than simply not attending — after all, if majority liberal campuses can’t indoctrinate students, a conservative speaker likely won’t — but colleges themselves as institutions aid in free speech rather than hindering it.
Then, finally, the favorite: safe spaces.
First, we’ll dismiss the notion that safe spaces are popular even on college campuses. One poll found that a comfortable majority either didn’t agree with, or were completely indifferent about, the concept of safe spaces. Only 36 percent found them necessary.
Second, there’s a motivated misrepresentation about what they actually are. They’ve been accused of being places where students can hide away from opinions they don’t like, creating places where speech is limited and viewpoints are never challenged. And while it’s true that some students or organizations may take the original concept too far, there’s been no ubiquitous transformation into bastions for censorship.
Most are still simply places where like-minded people can get together to have a discussion without fear of dissent, and while that may still not sound appealing, remember that not everything has to be a venue for debate at all times. Consider any support group, maybe a private social media account, or a serious talk with friends. Sometimes it’s nice to have a place where you’re not worried someone will jump to argue with you over every word, because as nice as it is to broaden your horizons through discussion, debating everything all the time is exhausting. Campuses as a whole are not safe spaces, nor do they restrict speech. As I just covered, degree holders are more likely to support offensive speech, and the claim of discrimination isn’t accurate. So a few places where students aren’t obligated to listen to people argue with them are fine — students can still be, and are, challenged everywhere else.
Further, this means there’s no need to worry about students being ill prepared for the “real world.” Contrary to what many apparently think, when one enters a college campus, they do not enter a void that takes them to an alternate universe. It’s still the “real world,” and for many students, college is just one part of it — and hardly an ivory tower part at that.
The percentage of college students who also work full-time jobs was almost 20 percent as of 2011, double what it was in 2005. Among community college students, 29 percent have household incomes under $20,000 per year, and more than 60 percent work more than 20 hours per week.
It’s worth noting that this piece primarily aims to combat specific criticism, not to claim that colleges are in any way perfect or that some criticism isn’t without merit. But it has been frustrating to see claims that colleges are nothing but liberal indoctrination factories where conservatives are forced out, free speech is evil, trigger warnings are everywhere, and students are trained to be thin-skinned, censorship-loving adults who don’t understand the real world — and it has been equally frustrating to watch those claims gain traction. Like many other things, I feel that opportunity for criticism of legitimate issues is lost when straw men are created and subsequently attacked instead.