Teaching students to think for themselves in the face of conflicting information is what underpins what we do in college.
As another school year gets under way, I can’t help but feel a bit of anxiety about the changing climate on my campus. With racial and political tensions exploding on university campuses across the nation, including the recent lockdown at Evergreen State College and the violence in Charlottesville after a white nationalist rally, it is clear that the ivory tower is increasingly becoming a battleground for social, racial and political differences.
According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, attitudes about higher education institutions are shifting with a majority of Republicans and right-leaning independents reporting that “colleges and universities are having a negative effect on the way things are going in the country.” As a college professor, I was especially concerned to hear this negative view about our institutions of higher learning and decided to share the article on my Facebook page, which spawned a lively conversation on both sides of the political spectrum.
Liberal friends argued for understanding about the goals of college and universities to teach critical thinking and provide continuing education for those in the trades. Conservative friends shared concerns about the large percentage of liberal professors and correlated their political views with biased teaching practices. While the professoriate of American universities has been increasingly leaning left over the last 25 years, research shows that “conservative students and faculty members are not only surviving but thriving in academe — free of indoctrination if not the periodic frustrations.”
As much as I would like to be able to assure my friend that all students will leave college without their values challenged and/or possibly transformed, I cannot. Our beliefs about how society should work are informed by our day-to-day interactions, including those in classrooms. Ideologies are built and transformed through exposure to the ideas of others. Statements that confirm what we believe solidify our ideologies, whereas ideas that differ have the potential to change our beliefs. The thing about ideologies is that they tend to become normalized when they reflect what a majority of people believe. Once normalized, ideologies opposing the norm often become marginalized. When ideologies are in conflict, finding a space where people from both sides can express themselves and be heard is challenging. Colleges have traditionally been a space where this sort of dialogue is fostered.
Though professors have the means to preach from the pulpit, I haven’t seen much evidence to suggest this is common. Of course, there are a few professors who are dogmatic about their politics, and it informs their teaching, but I have found that most of my colleagues are mindful about their position of power. Teaching students to think for themselves in the face of conflicting information is what underpins what we do in college.
Clearly, as a university professor I am biased. I believe colleges and universities play an important role in our society. And while I don’t think a college education is for everyone, I am concerned about the growing anti-intellectualism that has gained momentum and threatens our spaces of higher learning. I am concerned that the growing distrust of higher education may create greater socioeconomic disparities as people who have finally gained access to the social mobility offered by a college degree are discouraged from following this path.
Since the GI Bill in 1944, college education has become more accessible and affordable to millions of Americans, arguably changing the face of higher education. Consequently, colleges and universities have become increasingly diverse places, where individuals with different life experiences and points of view grapple with difficult questions about the world we live in and how we inhabit it. It would be unfortunate to see the gains in access that were fought for over the last 70 years wasted due to fears that the political views of instructors interfere with their ability to teach to focused learning objectives. It is my hope that rather than demonizing colleges and universities, we might see campuses as vital spaces for critical conversations that promote empathy and engaged citizenry. It is my hope that we can meet the challenges in front of us with open minds, taking advantage of this moment in time to have difficult conversations about our differences and learn from each other.