The platform adopted by the Republican Party last month included the following statement, in the section entitled “Improving Our Nation’s Classrooms”:
Ideological bias is deeply entrenched within the current university system. Whatever the solution in private institutions may be, in state institutions the trustees have a responsibility to the public to ensure that their enormous investment is not abused for political indoctrination. We call on state officials to ensure that our public colleges and universities be places of learning and the exchange of ideas, not zones of intellectual intolerance favoring the left.
I confess that I have a certain fondness for the theory that university classrooms are little more than vehicles for the delivery of liberal propaganda—stuff like God is dead, the earth is heating, gays should have rights, and the poor should have food.
What I like about the theory is that it ascribes to me, a college professor, a certain power in the world. Through sheer force of intellect and dazzling eloquence, I am somehow capable of recruiting live bodies for … well … I’m not entirely sure what, but at a minimum, some form of left-wing no good.
Unfortunately for those among us who might relish the power to move today’s youth ever closer to the destruction of the American way of life, such visions are rooted in an egregious misconception about university students—that they are devoid of critical capacities, helpless to distinguish between statements of fact and Maoist slogans.
To assume that students are at risk of political indoctrination is to treat them as we would children in primary school: empty vessels into which we professors simply add knowledge and stir. (Actually, we’d treat even schoolchildren better than that.)
The real insight of this conspiracy theory, then, is not what it reveals about universities and their students, but rather what it reveals about the lack of confidence conspiracy theorists have in today’s college students.
Let me put it this way: If you are a university student and you accept this docile, deer-in-the-headlights picture of yourself, please stay out of my classroom. You have the rest of your life to be told what to think—by your employer, your family, your television. If you want to get an early start on it, go right ahead, and save yourself the tuition and me the hassle.
The price of admission to my classroom, and to those of my colleagues, is a critical and inquisitive mind. We may try to persuade you of a thing or two, but the last thing we want is for you to accept what we say simply because we said it. Our assumption about you is that you are capable of holding certain views not because we hold them, but because those views stand up to your own internal scrutiny.
Are academics more liberal than the general population? Probably. And do some of them mistake their classrooms for bully pulpits? Undoubtedly. But at the end of the day, neither of those facts really matters. In a world where university students actually think for themselves—the one I inhabit—a university education is not going to result in spotted owls overrunning us, guns being vanquished from the hinterland, or contributions to the Sierra Club outstripping Exxon’s corporate earnings.
In actuality, the big winners in a vast liberal conspiracy would be the students most troubled, angered, and, above all, challenged by their professors’ biases—in other words, precisely the students whom Republicans seem so concerned about. In having to reflect on the conservative ideas they bring to the classroom, those students would be guaranteed that, whether they leave the classroom as conservatives, liberals, or something in between, they would leave as individuals with a far better grasp of why they are what they are.
None of this is to suggest that it’s appropriate for professors to treat the classroom as a platform for political conversion. It is merely to point out that a liberal conspiracy, if one existed, would succeed only if students were as helpless as the Republican Party seems to believe they are. If that were true, however, our problems would be far greater than any of us—liberal or conservative—could possibly fear.
Peter M. Lindsay is an associate professor of political science and philosophy at Georgia State University.