The people who teach politics and government to college undergraduates are credited by some with truly astonishing powers of persuasion. These capabilities are supposedly deployed in the service of a Big Brother-ish conspiracy to turn higher education into an indoctrination factory stamping out platoons of radical lefties.
I think we political scientists are often seen as prime movers behind this conspiracy because of what we do. We’re talking to young adults. Behind closed doors. About politics. What else could we be doing in there besides getting kids to turn off their phones and swear undying fealty to Karl Marx or Bernie Sanders? It’s not just us, though. The whole paranoia-tinged concern is not infrequently extended to all college instructors, even to college administrators. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos seems pretty convinced everyone on university campuses from adjunct faculty to deans are focused on politically indoctrinating impressionable young minds, telling students, “what to do, what to say and, more ominously, what to think.”
I’m genuinely curious about the details of this mighty psychological alchemy we are believed to so easily deploy. Seriously. Maybe I just missed the midnight meeting beneath the full moon when all the brainwashing cordials were being distributed. Perhaps I wasn’t at the gathering of the sacred scholastic coven where they did the mind control workshop. I freely admit this is possible. I try to avoid faculty meetings when I can. Well, whatever, I clearly missed the memo. I’ve been teaching for 25 years, and I am largely clueless as to how you locate the political thermostat on an undergraduate and effortlessly spin it around to whatever setting that keeps you ideologically warm and comfy. Even if I could find the instructional webinar on that skill set (a YouTube search yielded zilch on that front), I’m still not clear on why undergrads would consent to me fiddling around with the governor on their political passions.
And, believe me, they have political passions. Oh boy, do they have political passions. These days, college students show up politically pre-stoked and as an educator you tangle with those politics at your own risk. To get a flavor of this sort of thing, watch this video of Professor Nicholas Christakis interacting with students over the fraught issue of racial sensitivity and Halloween costumes on the Yale campus. In this exchange, the professor is getting pressured to raise his consciousness to a different political plane by students, not the other way around. There’s a lot of this going on these days.
For those of you who watched that video and are in high dudgeon about social justice advocates piling on well meaning academics, just know the right has its equivalent. Most of us in higher education now harbor realistic worries about the blood-and-soil batty brigade showing up on the quad and doing a little light goose step cardio. The tiki torch crowd inevitably attracts a counter-demonstration and where things spin off from there, well who knows. That sort of thing, though, is (thankfully) still a pretty rare event. Much more common is resentment against the perceived anti-Republican and anti-conservative bent of the pointy heads who supposedly run higher education as a sort of political re-education camp. Some state senators in my home state, for example, seem to be pretty convinced that my institution is openly hostile to right-leaning political viewpoints and suspect at least some departments on campus of shading the line between education and lefty indoctrination pretty fine.
These sentiments are shared by some undergrads. Ironically, though, right-leaning students now seem increasingly willing to express this resentment by using the same sort of poor-me whinging conservatives often associate with liberals. Both sides seem less interested in engaging with different viewpoints than in resenting the fact that anyone considers them legitimate. Though far from universal–and I can’t emphasize enough that lots of undergrads are more grown up that many grown ups in this debate–there seems an increasing willingness to deal with differing political views on campus by just throwing a tantrum. I’ve had to deal with several instances of students writing passive-aggressive polemics along these lines in class papers. Ditto with various of expressions of I-resent-people-questioning-my-viewpoint, and various flavors of something someone said somewhere made me feel bad and someone else should do something about it.
How do we, as educators, deal with the inchoate stew of political grievances bubbling away on various ideological burners that our students are increasingly all too happy to fuel? Some of us still secretly favor proceeding on the premise that college isn’t a place to cocoon you from the world’s sharp elbows but an institution that should equip you with the skill set to constructively deal with the disagreeable stuff that is part and parcel of our social, economic, and political worlds. These days, though, the faculty faction supporting the just-grow-the-hell-up approach is mostly underground. Give the wrong set of students the suck-it-up-buttercup treatment, or even a light let’s-think-that-through pushback, and you’re not just the social media villain du jour, you might be laying your reputation or even your career on the line (just ask Erika Cristakis).
The bottom line is that most faculty are not leading the political charge on college campuses. The vast majority of us, believe it or not, have zippo interest in assaulting the ideological heights with a pack of brainwashed undergrads at our back. Indeed, in the current political wars roiling campus, we’re more likely to be found lily livered, yellow spines aglow, hunkered down below the parapet and hoping to avoid becoming collateral damage.
As to our motivation to mold pliable young minds into whatever ideological positions we desire, let alone our ability to actually pull that off, it’s mostly not there. That’s a boogeyman that might haunt dreams in certain political quarters, and serve as a useful tactical cudgel in the ideological wars. But, seriously, any systematic attempts to convince students to adopt a political belief system wholesale is not part of the curriculum. If some rogue faculty are surreptitiously giving this a go, they are more likely to earn the contempt and resentment of their students rather than their undying fealty to a particular political cause. Undergrads are lots of things, but they’re not stupid.
The bottom line is that the persuasive powers of academics, as anyone who has ever attended a faculty meeting knows, are pretty limited. Getting undergrads to do the weekly reading assignments is hard enough. The whole notion that we can — or would even want to — engage in deliberate ideological indoctrination is not just misguided. It’s kinda nuts.