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Politics in the Classroom By: Matthew Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, June 08, 2006

The essence of all true science is the dispassionate pursuit of truth. To move beyond mere opinion, based on a collection of personal observations or hopeful expectations, researchers strive to study the world systematically, gathering as much evidence as possible before rendering a judgment.  Yet, looking to the debates over the state of free expression within academia, it appears as if the normal rules of evidence do not apply.  Acting as if they were under siege, many academics, trained in the art of scientific inquiry, inexplicably dismiss criticisms of the academy simply because they personally have not observed faculty misconduct.  Yet, as New York Times film critic Pauline Kael so aptly demonstrated when questioning the results of the 1972 presidential election, just because you don’t know anyone who voted for Nixon, doesn’t mean that he didn’t really win.

To illustrate the problem with drawing broad conclusions based upon personal observations, consider the experience of a Mr. Ben Shapiro, graduate of the UCLA Department of Political Science.  In his book Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America's Youth, he describes UCLA as a haven for leftist propaganda.  Relying on an avalanche of personal anecdotes, Mr. Shapiro sketches a portrait of campus life in which students are subject to a relentless political assault, all aimed at transforming impressionable youths into avid leftists.

Accepting at face value the depiction of his own undergraduate years, it is worth noting that, the lead author of this article, a fellow conservative who graduated from UCLA’s Political Science Department some five years before, experienced none of the academic indoctrination that Mr. Shapiro argues is so common.  On this basis, it would be unwise to argue that Matthew Woessner’s UCLA experience is typical.  Perhaps UCLA was a bastion of leftist extremism, and, by chance, he selected the professors who were committed to fairness and impartiality.  Then again, maybe the majority of UCLA’s instructors are fair, and Mr. Shapiro inadvertently selected courses with the most ideological members of the faculty.  The point is that nothing in either of their individual experiences reveals the school’s true nature.  Regardless of whether such observations are made to defend or criticize academia, the experiences of any one person, are, by definition, anecdotal and should be treated with the appropriate skepticism.

Yet, judging from what we know about partisan politics in academia, those concerned about political bias in the classroom have cause for concern.  Studies of faculty ideology consistently show that a vast majority of college professors come from the political left.  Even if we assume that most professors sincerely try to keep their beliefs out of the classroom, it is reasonable to conclude that many would unconsciously exhibit an unsympathetic view of conservative ideas.  Just as journalists, theoretically dedicated to the principles of fairness and professionalism, sometimes fail in their efforts to be evenhanded, so would we expect a professoriate, dominated by the political left, to inadvertently present a portrait of the world that is less than sympathetic to the politics of the right.

If college faculty roughly reflected the politics of the public at large, the all-too-human tendency to favor one’s personal beliefs would be of no consequence.  Because most professors come from the political left, the sum total of the average student’s collegiate experience would, theoretically, reinforce political beliefs that are generally incompatible with conservative ideas.  Accordingly, even a corps of highly professional faculty, consciously dedicated to a bipartisan approach to instruction, may be incapable of presenting political material evenhandedly if they are collectively opposed to either liberal or conservative ideas.

Yet these concerns are largely theoretical, based on studies of aggregate data, and “reasonable” assumptions about human behavior.  To date, we have not observed this phenomenon directly, at least not on a large scale.  Furthermore, even if, as critics allege, the personal views of a predominantly left-leaning faculty do permeate the classroom, it is unclear how this affects students.  While it seems unlikely that a steady diet of left-leaning instruction would make students more conservative, young people are often so politically disengaged, it is conceivable that most undergraduates might pass through their college years ideologically unscathed.  The fact is, we just do not yet have a firm grasp on the long-term impact that a college education has upon students’ political beliefs.

With an appreciation for the competing arguments raised by both sides of this debate, and a clear sense of the limitations of the existing research, we have endeavored to examine this issue dispassionately, with an eye to discovering the true impact of politics in the classroom.  Our first study, scheduled to appear in the July edition of the journal PS: Political Science and Politics, looks less at indoctrination in the classrooms and more at basic questions concerning whether politics in the classroom has any bearing on student interest, their perceptions of the professor’s fairness and objectivity as well as students’ general assessments of the course. 

Systematic studies of politics in the classroom are difficult to conduct since there is virtually no data available for analysis.  Much like jury deliberations, most collegiate instruction takes place behind closed doors.  Although students occasionally tape-record lectures, the material presented in the classroom is rarely available for academic study or public scrutiny.  While colleges routinely collect course evaluation statistics, these assessments offer no useful information about partisan interactions in the classroom.  Conversely, some surveys examine the distribution of partisanship on college campuses but provide no corollary data on course evaluations and classroom interactions. 

In an effort to move beyond anecdotes and testimonials, we placed a large-scale survey instrument into the field that asked students to evaluate their experiences in the course and assess their professors’ political views.  Altogether, 30 instructors distributed the survey to their undergraduate political science classes, producing a sample of 1385 respondents drawn from 29 colleges and universities in 18 states.  It is important to note that the surveys used in our study do not allow us to ask professors about their own political orientations.  Rather, our study measures students’ perceptions of professors’ politics. 

The results of our survey produced some interesting findings. Among the 30 professors who distributed our survey, twenty-three (77%) were placed by their student evaluators towards the Democratic end of the party identification scale. This distribution is consistent with the results of large national surveys.  For example, according to a 2001 study by The Brookings Institution, 78% of political science professors consider themselves either Democrats or Independents who lean towards the Democrats. Additionally, the majority of students in our study also responded that they felt “confident” in their ability to rate their professors ideological leanings.  

While the evidence for students’ knowledge of professors’ political views is indirect, we also found direct evidence that students are capable of judging the political orientations of others in a classroom setting.  In addition to rating their professors’ political orientation, we also asked students to rate the average political orientation of their classmates. We then compared these estimates to the actual responses given by students taking the same course. We found a strong, statistically significant relationship between a student’s impressions of their classmates’ politics and the actual ideological balance of the class.  Presumably, students are even more capable of judging the professor’s views, since the instructor offers more commentary than does the average student.  

Also of note, the students in our survey seem to describe left-leaning professors more favorably.  Students were more likely to describe their liberal professors as “more caring” and as more able to create a “comfortable learning environment”.  Yet, looking to the overall assessments of the course, students offered no clear preference between faculty depending on their partisanship or their ideology.  Whatever motivates students to see liberal faculty in more favorable terms, students are, nonetheless, positively disposed toward professors from both ideological and partisan perspectives. 

We also found that when students believe that a professor falls on the far right or the far left of the ideological spectrum, they tend to view their presentation of the material as biased.  Whereas students did not show a clear preference between Democrats and Republicans, the results indicate that students unambiguously favor classes where the professor’s partisanship falls closer to the center of the political spectrum. 

The most important findings of the study have to do with political differences between students and professors.  We found that students who believed their political position to be at odds with that of the professor had a more negative experience in the classroom.  Since the majority of college professors are liberal, this would indicate that conservative students are less impressed with their educational experience.

Specifically, we found that students who perceived that there was a difference between their own political views and their professor’s views rated the professor lower on a number of skills.  They were less likely to think that the professor cared about students and their success, less likely to see the instructor as an unbiased, credible source of information, and were more likely to say that the professor does not accept or encourage diverse viewpoints.

We conclude that students who find themselves at political odds with their professor experience a hostile political environment relative to other students.  This perception of hostility towards their own viewpoint translates, not only into lower overall ratings of the course and instructor, but ultimately contributes to a lack of interest in the subject matter.

From a pedagogical standpoint, it is useful to recognize that students’ primary aversion is not to political extremism itself, but rather to instructors who hold viewpoints different from their own.  As students tend to hold a diverse and conflicting set of political beliefs, this research reiterates that it is impossible to satisfy all of the students all of the time.  As with a general election, coming across as a liberal Democrat might ingratiate a professor with one wing of the class while simultaneously alienating another.  Since student opinions, like those in the electorate at large, tend to congregate toward the political center, professors who come across as highly partisan or ideological may be at a distinct disadvantage when cultivating a good relationship with the class as a whole.

In highlighting the dangers of partisan instruction, it would be a mistake to conclude that instructors must come across as bland or apolitical.  An instructor who avoids discussing controversial topics, or fails to occasionally play devils advocate, would simultaneously come across as a centrist, while putting his students to sleep.  If the ultimate objectives of an instructor are both to explain the workings of government and to inspire interest in politics, a professor can confront contentious issues by effectively arguing both sides of a controversy, without personally endorsing either point of view.  If done skillfully, this balanced approach to instruction could inspire a fascination with politics, without necessarily alienating students on either side of the political spectrum. 

Aside from the potential harm that may come to students who become politically alienated from the instructor, these results do indicate that professors who polarize their classroom will inevitably suffer themselves.  At most colleges and universities, teaching evaluations are an integral part of tenure and promotion.  Far from accepting their political disaffection lightly, students may strike back in the only way they can, by penalizing professors who they perceive as espousing views vastly different from their own.  If only out of a heightened sense of self interest, instructors are well advised to consider how their political disposition is being received.

Beyond overall assessments of classroom performance, our findings indicate that the larger the student-instructor partisan divide, the less interest the student reports in the subject matter as a result of taking the course.  For those charged with introducing students to politics and government, this is an especially important finding.  Political scientists have long argued that public disinterest has large and direct consequences for society.  Whereas students often forget the facts and figures presented in their collegiate political science courses, a basic interest in government is something that can inspire life-long learning and civic participation.  Professors should be concerned if overt expressions of their political views cause students to tune out or attempt to discredit course material, as our findings suggest.

We realize that people on both sides of the academic freedom debate may take some comfort in our findings.  Overall, our research indicates that an instructor’s politics matters. Efforts to politicize the classroom have a deleterious effect on a political science instructor’s core responsibility to educate students about the workings of government and generate enthusiasm about the political world. However, our study suggests that students may not be the sponges that some people have suggested.  At least among students with preformed political views, it seems unlikely that professors’ messages would be taken at face value.  This may mean that the “indoctrination” effect may be somewhat overstated.  Still, it is important to note that our study simply does not measure political persuasion.  While we have some evidence that shows students are resistant to information from professors whose political orientations differ from their own, this does not mean that no persuasion occurs – only that students are less open to information when their views differ from those of the professor.  Additionally, these effects are measured in the aggregate, and we cannot say that all students would be resistant to information from a biased source.  Although it seems likely that partisan students would throw up ideological filters and resist information that challenges existing beliefs, many students are apolitical.  The moderate or apolitical students would be most vulnerable to political persuasion.  In short, we simply do not yet know the effects of a college education on students’ political views.

Although some could cite our results to undermine the “indoctrination” argument, we do find that professors’ political views have a significant effect on students’ education experiences.  In attempting to resist information from biased sources, students may disregard or tune out course material.  While our results coincide with previous research showing that people resist information from counter-attitudinal sources, the effect is especially disconcerting in an educational setting.  Students of all political persuasions would presumably learn the most by considering new ideas and perspectives.  The goal for the college professor is to present these new perspectives, without causing students to throw on ideological blinders and dismiss class material as “biased”.

Additionally, if students gain from hearing alternative viewpoints, then we should still be concerned if only one half of the political spectrum is being represented in the classroom.  Conservative students may benefit from hearing liberal perspectives and reflecting on their own beliefs, in light of new arguments.  However, if conservative viewpoints are absent from the classroom, liberal students do not benefit from the same experience.  From a purely educational perspective, it may be the liberal students who are at a disadvantage if conservative viewpoints are absent from the classroom, despite popular arguments to the contrary.

This study is only a first step toward understanding how a professor’s politics shapes a students experience in the classroom.  As academics, interest groups, and legislators continue to debate the significance of politics in the classroom, it is critical that they do not lose sight of the facts underlying this incredibly important debate.  It is all too easy for advocates on both sides of the academic freedom movement to jump to conclusions based upon a handful of experiences, which may or may not bear any resemblance to the larger world.  But just as conservatives ought not view academic horror stories as necessarily representative of the state of education throughout America, so too must academics seriously consider whether such accounts are, indeed, indicative of a larger institutional problem.

Matthew Woessner is Assistant Professor of Public Policy at Penn State University; April Kelly-Woessner is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Elizabethtown College.

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