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Do Professors' Ideology Influences Their Students' Ideology:

The New York Times cites a recent study as showing that professors' ideology does not influence their students' ideology. If one actually goes to the original source, however, one learns, that the scope of the paper is exceedingly modest. What it shows is that taking an individual class from a random political science professor cannot be shown to influence the a student's ideology by the end of the semester.

Even assuming that the study is right (and I have some questions about its methodology that aren't worth going into), what does it prove? For one thing, as the authors themselves suggest, political science is generally considered a much less ideologically evangelical field than, say, ethnic studies, women's studies, English, sociology, anthropology, peace studies, Middle East studies, and so on.

More important, I've never heard anyone claim that they think that individual liberal professors serve as Svengalis who lure their students into liberalism by the force of their personalities over one semester. Rather, the charge is that if students go to college for four years getting primarily a one-sided ideological perspective, this will have several results: (a) they will be more likely to think that anyone on the other side must be a moron, since none of their smart professors seem to hold those views, and often disparage them, intentionally or unintentionally; (b) the "bias," such as it is, will likely show up in what is assigned and talked about, rather than explicitly in classroom discussion. So students will get a lot of Rousseau and Fanon, little Adam Smith and Friedman. This means that students get exposed to the "best" thinkers on the left, but rarely to market-oriented or conservative thinkers, which both reinforces (a), and also gets reflected in how people who go into relevant professions such as journalism, foundation work, and whatnot go about their business, even if their underlying political views haven't change; and (c)the implicit hostility non-liberal students perceive in the academy discourages them from pursuing academic careers, which makes the left-wing dominance of the academy self-reinforcing.

A personal anecdote that may be relevant. Senior year of college, I took a political economy class from a very left-wing, but very fair-minded, Sociology professor. One of the books he assigned was David Stockman's The Triumph of Politics. Stockman was a libertarian Republican who served as Reagan's first budget director. At the beginning of the book, he provided a concise summary of why he thought limited government was beneficial to the American people. When the class discussed the book, one of my fellow seniors exclaimed, "This was very interesting to me! He seems like a good guy... I didn't know that any conservatives actually cared about people!." Kudos to this professor for enlightening my classmate, but how does someone get to her senior year of college without being exposed to the radical idea that not all conservatives are innately evil?

Anyway, I don't know whether, and to what extent, professors' ideology influences their students. But I don't think that this particular study tells us very much.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Do Professors' Ideology Influences Their Students' Ideology:
  2. Do Liberal Academics Make Students Liberal?:
corneille1640 (mail):
I would add that some of the influence might be negative, in the sense that one-sided professors might turn students (at least some students) off to those professors' viewpoints. Even if I'm right, of course, this doesn't contradict Mr. Bernstein's point about the effect of one-sided readings, etc.

[By the way, I thought I liked Rousseau until I actually read SOCIAL CONTRACT and realized how dangerous his policy prescriptions could be if taken to their logical conclusion.]
11.4.2008 9:26am
Accountant Ed (mail):
Are people actually surprised when they learn that most of the professors in the Peace Studies program are liberals? And why focus on only these programs? You know, Ag, Engineering, Technology, the hard sciences, economics, etc. are all part of "academia". And there are lots of conservatives on the faculty. By focusing on a few specialty programs that naturally attract liberals, you paint a very distorted picture of the modern American campus.
11.4.2008 9:32am
Eli Rabett (www):
As I recall, Stockman later admitted to cooking the books when he worked for Regan, so maybe she had the right idea before she read his first book. The second one told a very different tale, as Herb Stein put it
By 1980 David Stockman had come to believe that the U.S. needed an economic revolution that would drastically reduce the role of the government as taxer, spender, borrower, and regulator. He joined the Reagan team with enthusiasm, having reasonable grounds for thinking that it shared his view. But even before the 1980 election, he knew that the Reagan game plan was not going to work. The proposed tax cuts and defense increases were inconsistent with the balanced budget promised for 1983; to achieve balance the team needed cuts in the nondefense budget going far beyond the elimination of ''fraud, waste, and abuse'' that was part of the campaign rhetoric. But Stockman believed that, once in office, the Reaganauts could find cuts to bring the plan and the budget into balance. After Inauguration Day in 1981, it was downhill all the way. It turned out that hardly anyone but Stockman, now installed as head of the Office of Management and Budget, really wanted a revolution. His supply-side colleagues, including Congressman Jack Kemp, showed no interest in cutting expenditures and no concern about the deficit. The Cabinet secretaries were just as determined as any previous secretaries to expand their own budgets. The President's handlers in the White House wanted only to keep their champ out of any fight in which he might get hurt. The champ himself entered the fray only spasmodically, like Zeus above the shores of Troy. By 1982 the country was facing endless deficits of around $200 billion a year. Stockman saw no hope of adequately reducing the deficits by expenditure cuts alone. So he turned to proposing fiscal packages that included, along with expenditure cuts, some tax increases, which infuriated his former teammates. In the 1984 campaign, furthermore, the President made commitments -- no tax increase and no cut in Social Security -- demonstrating to Stockman that the gap between reality and pretense would never be closed. So he left in 1985, convinced that the country was headed for an economic disaster because of the deficits.

As the old saw goes, history repeats itself, first as farce (1980) and then as disaster (2008)
11.4.2008 9:36am
John Armstrong (mail) (www):
How does someone get to be a law professor without being exposed to the idea that a single anecdote doesn't really count for much? Clearly someone wasn't influenced by his mathematics or logic professors.
11.4.2008 9:36am
DavidBernstein (mail):
Right, because I didn't just say this was a potentially relevant anecdote, but I built an entire theoretical and empirical superstructure based on it.
11.4.2008 9:47am
Eric Muller (www):
David asks: "Do Professors' Ideology Influences Their Students' Ideology?"

I doesn't know, but I are hoping that our grammar don't!

;-)
11.4.2008 9:49am
Guntram:
Awesome! Thanks for the source. Though, it seems as if the scope of the Woessner paper is less ambitious than the Mayer paper mentioned in the nytimes.
11.4.2008 9:52am
Brian Mac:

And why focus on only these programs? You know, Ag, Engineering, Technology, the hard sciences, economics, etc. are all part of "academia". And there are lots of conservatives on the faculty. By focusing on a few specialty programs that naturally attract liberals, you paint a very distorted picture of the modern American campus.

What possible influence could ideology have on teaching in engineering, physics, chemistry, biology, etc.? Very little at university level, which I'm guessing is why he focussed on the social sciences/humanities.
11.4.2008 9:54am
SMatthewStolte (mail):
Thanks, David, but just assumed that the study couldn't be trusted given that (a) it was published in the NYT, (b) it supports NYT ideology, and (c) the claim that professors won't influence our ideology is so counter-intuitive as to require extraordinary evidence. Even my ideology has been influenced by my ultra-liberal professors.
11.4.2008 9:59am
flyerhawk:
Since when did Adam Smith become Conservative dogma?

Complaining about liberals in ethnic studies is like complaining about conservatives in theological studies.
11.4.2008 9:59am
Grover Gardner (mail):

...how does someone get to her senior year of college without being exposed to the radical idea that not all conservatives are innately evil?


By growing up during the Reagan years, maybe?

Just kidding.

Sort of.
11.4.2008 10:02am
Arkady:
@DB


Anyway, I don't know whether, and to what extent, professors' ideology influences their students. But I don't think that this particular study tells us very much.


Well, you could walk over to Prof. Fritschler's office and see what he thinks:


If there has been a conspiracy among liberal faculty members to influence students, "they've done a pretty bad job," said A. Lee Fritschler, a professor of public policy at George Mason University and an author of the new book "Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities" (Brookings Institution Press).

The notion that students are induced to move leftward "is a fantasy," said Jeremy D. Mayer, another of the book's authors. When it comes to shaping a young person's political views, "it is really hard to change the mind of anyone over 15," said Mr. Mayer, who did extensive research on faculty and students. [Source]
11.4.2008 10:11am
Sarcastro (www):
I worry about all the would-be conservative students majoring in women's studies. Now they'll get all evangelized into women's studies professors and the cycle will continue!
11.4.2008 10:14am
Xanthippas (mail) (www):

So students will get a lot of Rousseau and Fanon, little Adam Smith and Friedman. This means that students get exposed to the "best" thinkers on the left, but rarely to market-oriented or conservative thinkers, which both reinforces (a), and also gets reflected in how people who go into relevant professions such as journalism, foundation work, and whatnot go about their business, even if their underlying political views haven't change; and (c)the implicit hostility non-liberal students perceive in the academy discourages them from pursuing academic careers, which makes the left-wing dominance of the academy self-reinforcing.


Believe it or not, many liberals are actually interested in a diversity of viewpoints. It may or may not be uncommong for a liberal professor to batter their students with their ideology (though I never witnessed that) but neither is it uncommon for a liberal professor to engage in multiple sides of an issue for the benefit of their students. My evidence is only anecdotal, but the most liberal professor (we're talking self-admitted former hippie) also had us read and discuss several chapters in Milton Friedman's "Free to Choose", not to disparage them, but to honestly engage his ideas. We also read Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States", a book with a decidedly left-leaning interpretation of American history. Although no one had any doubt where he stood, he engaged the ideas of both authors fairly and thoroughly and encouraged us to make up our own minds. Bernstein eve has a similar anecdote, and yet somehow continues on insisting that liberals suppress conservative ideas?

This whole problem of "liberal bias" in academia is over-stated. Clearly, there are quite a few on the right who flog this horse over and over again not because they want the academic environment to be free of liberal bias, but because they want to impose conservative ideology instead. Here's a thought for them: instead of trying to force liberal professors to teach conservative ideology or whining about what is and isn't being taught, try encouraging conservatives to join the ranks of professors. I'm all in favor of more conservative professors, since I happen to think professors on both sides are inclined to be careful about how they instruct their students.

Also, since I happen to think that many people are conservative because they are insulated from anything outside of their own limited experience, it should come as no surprise that college can be a generally more liberalizing experience for many students. I certainly don't think college alone can turn many conservatives into liberals, but it can have the effect of at least making both liberal and conservative students more thoughtful.
11.4.2008 10:24am
Brian Mac:

When it comes to shaping a young person's political views, "it is really hard to change the mind of anyone over 15," said Mr. Mayer, who did extensive research on faculty and students.

Am I the only one who finds the idea of 15 year olds holding political views (beyond 'my dad doesn't like George Bush') a bit weird?
11.4.2008 10:25am
frankcross (mail):
The trouble with these discussions is that people play the dishonest burden shifting game. This study is far from conclusive, but it is a bit of data. Ordinarily, one addresses a question with a perfectly neutral position or perhaps a presumption against there being a true effect on whatever association is studied. So, where is the evidence that professorial ideology actually influences student ideology? This is the sort of study that might show that effect but did not. The study certainly doesn't rule out that effect, but I haven't seen any affirmative evidence, of any rigorous sort, suggesting that the effect exists.
11.4.2008 10:27am
Xanthippas (mail) (www):

Thanks, David, but just assumed that the study couldn't be trusted given that (a) it was published in the NYT, (b) it supports NYT ideology, and (c) the claim that professors won't influence our ideology is so counter-intuitive as to require extraordinary evidence. Even my ideology has been influenced by my ultra-liberal professors.


In an email to friends regarding this article, I predicted that there would be conservatives who'd refuse to believe it. Sadly, I'm proven right. It's hard to make an argument for needing a more conservative viewpoint in colleges, when conservatives themselves demonstrate this type of immunity to facts. Why exactly would I want my children to be exposed to conservative thinking, when the idea alone is apparently oxymoronic?
11.4.2008 10:31am
Brian Mac:

It's hard to make an argument for needing a more conservative viewpoint in colleges, when conservatives themselves demonstrate this type of immunity to facts. Why exactly would I want my children to be exposed to conservative thinking, when the idea alone is apparently oxymoronic?

And the award for satirist of the year goes to...
11.4.2008 10:35am
lecturerrich:
Okay - when I went to college, undergrad, way back in the stone age (late 60's early 70's), I was an engineering major. The math, science and engineering faculties were very conservative. Classes and exams were still held after Kent State, though they were canceled for the Humanity fields. As I took sociology and several other humanity courses I was confronted with extreme left rants, about Che and Castro, the revolutions in South America and an automatic assumption that I was a racist oppressor because I was white, male, middle class and an engineering student. I learned to shut my mouth and not give any information.
Flash forward to the present where after 28 years in the software industry I went back for my Doctorate and now teach Information Systems, (non-tenure track). I still shut my mouth because the people in charge of P&T are flaming liberals who were young faculty in the 70's and now are in charge.

They tend to use the same rants they did before, anyone who is considered for tenure track positions has sociological bent publications. I.e. they reflect the Masters of the department. Am I surprised about this - NO!
Why would I expect them to be fair and open to other ideas, they were not then.
Should we have tried to get into Academia then, probably but we didn't and now IMHO we are paying for it.
11.4.2008 10:37am
David Warner:
DB,

So far, your would-be interlocutors have done a remarkable job of dodging your main points. Wonder why that happens so often...

Xant,

The problem is not a liberal bias, that's in some sense a contradiction in terms, as you point out. The problem (in my experience, your Friedman prof is very much an exception) is the popularity and prevalence of a continental philosophy that looks for a Right that doesn't much exist in contemporary America and thus misses the one that does, crucially the intellectual one, including the libertarians mislabeled as Right, and thus doubly misunderstood by by current academic fashion.
11.4.2008 10:43am
anonimator:
Intellectual conservatives who are not racist, who care about people, and who are pragmatic about their aims represent a tiny portion of the conservative movement. Republicans are a weak coalition of intellectual libertarians willing to hold their noses, tribalists/racists, selfish rich people who simply don't care whether the pie will get bigger with progressive taxation or other redistributive programs, people (rich or not) who have a near-religious faith that pure market forces will raise the tide and lift all boats and are unmoved by any evidence to the contrary, and conservatives who presumptively agree that less redistribution and regulation makes the country better off but whose views are pragmatic and open to revision in circumstances where it is evident that belief is false. Though I'm not precisely in their camp, I feel a great affinity with the latter group. In fact, I sincerely wish to see left/right shrink in the face of a new alignment - evidence-driven pragmatists vs. ideologues.

All this is a long way of saying that a student can get to be senior in college and not have much experience with that last group of conservatives because the other groups control the party, control College Republican groups, and dominate the media.
11.4.2008 10:45am
David Warner:
Xant,

"It's hard to make an argument for needing a more conservative viewpoint in colleges, when conservatives themselves demonstrate this type of immunity to facts."

SMatthewStolte is also a human being, I presume. Perhaps we should just stick to computer-generated viewpoints to stay on the safe side.
11.4.2008 10:46am
MnZ:
I believe the study. I don't believe the conclusions that they draw. Here is a line that the slipped in:


The students in this study did exhibit a small, but statistically significant, shift toward the Democratic Party over the course of the semester. However, this minute shift does not appear to correlate either with the student's assessment of the instructor or with the professor's actual beliefs, thus undermining the notion that the change was brought about (intentionally or unintentionally) by the professors in the study.


Undermined...yeah sure. Perhaps, their small sample size of non-Democrat Professors (only 5) had something to do with their failure to pick up a relation.
11.4.2008 10:50am
Asher (mail):
So students will get a lot of Rousseau and Fanon, little Adam Smith and Friedman. This means that students get exposed to the "best" thinkers on the left

Rousseau: one of the "best" thinkers on the left.

I do think you're missing out on the fact, though, that economics classes have become very conservative these days. My little sister came home from her first semester at Johns Hopkins and without provocation would start shouting laissez faire! at the dinner table. And lecturing us about moral hazard and the evils of minimum wages and tariffs and price controls.
11.4.2008 10:52am
Katl L (mail):
Sorry for my english , im a foreigner:

they will be more likely to think that anyone on the other side must be a moron, since none of their smart professors
Do you realy think that a 20 years old student believes you or any other professor is smart?
Im a clasic liberal , i never , almost never, herad about liberal authors in law school.
I read for the first time Friedmann in an interview published in a left wing newspaper, the received money from the Sovier Union. The owner was a stalinist. The headline of the interview was a defense of state intervention in times of crisis.
One year after imy class was critized by the priest teaching us literature because we didint see the Hayek interview that a noted lert wing journalist broadcasted in the government station. I was 15 yo and didnt know of no liberal but the own Smith.
But i read ,when Hayek died, that he was a freemarket defensor so i look out for his Constitution of Liberty . Free to Chose was at my home library so at 19 years old i read Friedmann and Hayek,then Buchannan , Tullock . I boughtntheir Calculus in the University warehouse. Someone out there was also a liberal.
Then Becker, Coase, North.
And nobody guied me. By that time there was a so called neoliberal goverment,. They were neokeynesian like the Foreign Policy editor and the owner of a oat maker founded a freedom bookstore ythat allowed me to horad books of liberal before the internet allowwed me to foind Librty Found.
And i almost never or never had any liberal professor but for my parents .My father a democristian and amy mother a usa loving freemarketer.
Now im almost the only clasicc liberal professor among 4000
11.4.2008 10:52am
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

Intellectual conservatives who are not racist, who care about people, and who are pragmatic about their aims represent a tiny portion of the conservative movement.
So you must be tenured to hold a position this laughable. I'm sure you teach it to your students.
11.4.2008 10:53am
Sarcastro (www):
It's sad everyone that holds this one point of view makes such broad generalizations.

And they're always stupid and closed minded! That's why I never listen to them.
11.4.2008 11:00am
CJColucci:
My college days were a long time ago, when things were much more radical than they are now, or have been in years, and I don't remember anyone giving a rat's ass what some professor believed. If they knew what the professor believed, and happened to believe it themselves, they might try to gain some advantage -- though anyone clever enough to game things that way probably didn't need an edge.
What I do remember is students being exposed to types of thought they had had almost no exposure to before -- not their professors' thoughts, generally, but assigned readings, mostly of what we would now call canonical authors. That seemed to matter somewhat.
11.4.2008 11:11am
MarkField (mail):

The problem (in my experience, your Friedman prof is very much an exception) is the popularity and prevalence of a continental philosophy that looks for a Right that doesn't much exist in contemporary America and thus misses the one that does, crucially the intellectual one, including the libertarians mislabeled as Right, and thus doubly misunderstood by by current academic fashion.


I don't think libertarians are mislabeled. They've generally supported the Republican party for over 40 years now. Even now, with the evidence of the Bush Administration slapping them in the face, it sure looks like the majority of them will continue to give that support. That's pretty reliably on the Right.

Europeans do have a hard time with the American political spectrum (as we do vice versa). I think that's because on economic issues, the Democratic party would be center-Right on the European spectrum. That leaves the Republicans (in ideology, not necessarily in practice) seen as an extremist party.


Rousseau: one of the "best" thinkers on the left.


I've always thought of Rousseau as being on the Right.
11.4.2008 11:24am
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
From many years of contact with people in academia, my general (unscientific) observations are:
1. Most students come to college with a progressive bias acquired before they begin college, from a combination of their peers, teachers, parents, and the news media.
2. The leading cause of that bias seems to be a sense of guilt at being more intelligent and advantaged thereby, most of which came from peers.
3. During college, most students tend to sort themselves into peer groups, partly based on major or classes taken, and many of these groups become a process of mutual reinforcement that includes but is not controlled by faculty. Some of those groups trend either more or less progressive.
4. One of the most serious groups that unduly influences students is most law schools, where faculty seem to exercise more influence than happens in college classes, by the way they teach the subject.
5. Many of the progressives in academia experience shock when they get into nonacademic situations where their progressive ideals come into conflict with cruel reality and the pathologies of human nature. That causes many of them to swing to the opposite extreme, at least for a while.

Or, as the old joke goes:
A conservative is someone who got mugged.
A liberal is someone who got arrested.
A libertarian is someone who got arrested for shooting the mugger.
11.4.2008 11:51am
Jeremy (mail):
So this means that expressing conservative viewpoints on campus becomes the 'rebellion' and 'speaking truth to power'. Too bad those two acts have very little appeal to conservatives.
11.4.2008 12:03pm
SG:
I don't think libertarians are mislabeled. They've generally supported the Republican party for over 40 years now. Even now, with the evidence of the Bush Administration slapping them in the face, it sure looks like the majority of them will continue to give that support. That's pretty reliably on the Right.

Because we could be supporting a candidate who favors social justice and the FISA reform bill? That would be much a much more sensible for those who favor liberty.

If you have libertarian leanings, the Republicans make for a sorry choice. The only thing worse is the Democrats. (Well, I guess the Greens would be even worse than them.) At least Republicans make the occasional rhetorical nod to smaller government.

Libertarians make for a cheap date...
11.4.2008 12:09pm
Suzy (mail):
If the argument is that it matters what texts are assigned and what questions are raised or how they are framed, then yes, I'd agree that ideology will influence the learning in a classroom. However, it's a difficult matter to decide how to achieve the "right" balance and which texts are "best". Faculty normally get a lot of freedom to do this, and I don't think it's worth taking that away for quite non-specific ends. Heck, comments above aren't even sure about whether Rousseau should be a liberal or a conservative. Or what if the prof assigns Marx but then rips it apart with criticism? What if the prof claims to be balanced but is constantly quietly insinuating that liberatianism is the one true path?

If the argument is that conservatives feel that others are "hostile" to them, or even that they might be "disparaged", then boo hoo. Grow up and learn to defend your views with reasons, and these things will no longer be a problem. The U.S. is full of conservative Christians who believe themselves surrounded by hostility to Christmas, so forgive me if I don't get too concerned about all this supposed hostile disparagement. The only thing really hostile to Christmas is the fact that "Black Friday" is more interesting to a lot of people than attending Church, and I say this as a Christian who wants to see people get back to basics.

I find it highly unlikely that liberally-biased profs are somehow sinking the careers of conservative-biased students, which is the only sort of hostility that would be serious here. And even if I'm wrong, they have a lifetime ahead of working in businesses where the balance will surely tilt the other way. You don't like reading Fanon? Well, I didn't much enjoy reading Hegel, Kant, or that lousy Physics textbook, but such is life. Luckily I was able to visit libraries.
11.4.2008 12:47pm
lpc (mail):
I find it highly unlikely that liberally-biased profs are somehow sinking the careers of conservative-biased students, which is the only sort of hostility that would be serious here.
You've never spoken to any conservative graduate students, have you?
11.4.2008 1:19pm
David Warner:
Markfield,

"Europeans do have a hard time with the American political spectrum (as we do vice versa). I think that's because on economic issues, the Democratic party would be center-Right on the European spectrum. That leaves the Republicans (in ideology, not necessarily in practice) seen as an extremist party."

That hits the nail on the head. The problem is:

(a) the political spectrum is not one-dimensional (there's a strong case to be made that a limited-government approach is more "progressive" in the long run: i.e. the American political spectrum is not just the European one shifted to the "right".)

(b) too many American academics adopt the continental view, often uncritically
11.4.2008 1:23pm
David Warner:
A comment from the FIRE house.
11.4.2008 1:37pm
pauldom:

...how does someone get to her senior year of college without being exposed to the radical idea that not all conservatives are innately evil?

How does someone conclude that an ignorant student is ignorant because she has never been "exposed" to an idea? I can tell you, I expose my students to plenty of things while they are freshmen--I even test them to be sure they know those things--and when those same students turn up in my upper-division and even graduate classes, I often have to re-teach them. It's heartbreaking.

Also heartbreaking is the difficult process of prepping a class. I start out with enthusiasm for all the many things the class ideally *should* cover, then have to face the realities of what students can be expected to learn in a single semester. (See above.)
11.4.2008 1:47pm
Randy R. (mail):
Intellectual conservatives who are not racist, who care about people, and who are pragmatic about their aims represent a tiny portion of the conservative movement.

Clayton: "So you must be tenured to hold a position this laughable. I'm sure you teach it to your students."

Unless, of course, it involves gay men. Particularly the ones who engage in icky sex.
11.4.2008 2:48pm
alonzo portfolio (mail):
I think I have a better anecdote than Professor Bernstein. In 1998 I was walking down Bancroft Way in Berkeley behind two undergraduate women, one white one black. I didn't catch the initial statement by the former, but the latter responded, "no, the point is there's no such thing as better or worse, there's only different."
11.4.2008 2:57pm
SG:
Randy R:

It must be nice to be able to dismiss those who disagree with you who as evil. You must save so much time that others have to spend thinking. What do you do with all the time you saved? Have you written a book, or learned to play an instrument?
11.4.2008 3:29pm