U.S. Intellectual History Blog

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben & Colleagues,

    More and more I’m struck by the fearful assumption, mostly on the part of conservatives, historically and today, that students have been, are, and always will be passive consumers—mere lemmings—in relation to classroom content.

    Adler and Hutchins complained in the 1930s and 1940s about how University of Chicago undergrads (who were then just average students—its undergrads lagged in quality behind its graduate students) were materialist, social and vocationally-oriented relativists in relation to the purposes of college. Moving forward chronologically, many students (think smart SDSers) complained in the 1960s about how higher education was lifeless in relation to the larger ideas and problems of life. In the 1980s, Allan Bloom complained about students in being materialist and relativists. More recently, in the 2000s I have found my students to be vocationally oriented, seeking a materialist good life and overly concerned about social needs and desires.

    Based on twentieth-century history and my own experience, then, students in the 18-23 year-old range seem THE LEAST LIKELY to be indoctrinated by ideologies—of ANY TYPE—in higher education due to their preoccupation with the future and social present.

    This leads me to two counter-intuitive conclusions I wish I could test empirically:

    1. I think that conservative observers have their vectors reversed. It seems to me that college professors become liberal ~as a result of~ their interactions with students. It’s the relativism and disengagement of their students that turns professors from enthusiasts of fill-in-the-blank (i.e. grad student ideologues) ~into~ social liberals who feel hopeless in the face of student obstinacy.

    2. Students become open to new ideas, and hence indoctrination, AFTER COLLEGE once they’re mildly relaxed in their first job. Due to maturity and settling down, they actually have the energy, focus, and time to decide on the liberal-conservative divide while they’re most likely to be influenced, paradoxically, by business ideals. Perhaps this explains the prevalence of ideology, particularly of the conservative kind, in American life today?

    Now, tell me what I’ve got wrong here? – TL

  2. Tim:

    I breathe a sigh of relief whenever I can speak from personal experience. Reading your comment was like being in the military: “Permission to speak anecdotally, sir?”

    But following up on your personal experience with my own, I think you raise some good points. I agree that students seem to be preoccupied with material concerns and, to a large extent, aren’t that interested in exploring intellectual issues. But I would not say that this means that they don’t have political ideologies. While I don’t think that college puts these in place, I think that these orientations come to exist *before* college, rather than after. Students don’t seem to care very much about politics, or think very much about politics, but they do seem to have reflexive orientations toward it. (I would add that this is more true at the large public schools at which I have taught. At some of the small public universities that I attended, students were pretty consumed with politics.)

    Given the prevalence of conservatism in our country today and especially in the south where I live, I am a bit surprised that this reflexive orientation often appears to be disproportionately liberal. Students are (in my experience) generally predisposed to live-and-let-live on cultural issues and moderately well-disposed toward the idea that government should take care of the less fortunate. If true, then, this suggests that many of them become more conservative after college. Why? I don’t know. The line that conservatives like is that young people know nothing about life: working, crime, paying taxes, etc. Adulthood is when they get “mugged by reality.” I don’t know.

    With regard to the faculty themselves, I (anecdotally) know a lot of people who are disappointed in the apathy of their students. But I don’t know too many who seem to have turned in a liberal direction as a result. I’m not quite sure how you imagine this process to work. If anything, teachers become despondent at this state of affairs, or concentrate more on their scholarship; I haven’t seen too many turn in a more activist direction for this reason.

    Your argument about business culture reminds me of a sort-of parallel point made by Robert Nozick about college professors. He asked why they are generally so hostile to capitalism, and concluded that it is because generally they believe themselves to be pretty capable, and know themselves to be poorly rewarded financially. So the only way to account for those two facts simultaneously is to conclude that there must be something wrong with the system that relates talents to rewards. Presumably, then, he sees a wounded pride rather than justice at the heart of this criticism.

  3. Louis Menand has some interesting things to say about the liberalism of the professoriate. See his chapter “Why do professors all think alike?” from _The Marketplace of Ideas_. The key points are on pp. 138-141, where he discusses various socio-economic and cultural factors, not the least of which is self-perpetuation of liberal ideology through hiring decisions.

  4. Mike & LD,

    We should feel free to speak anecdotally (I prefer “less formally”) at this site. Despite our empiricism (which is good), we do well when we infuse discussions about contemporary topics with our historically-informed perspective.

    Of course you’re right about students coming to college with ideological commitments. My concern in the comment is what college does and what happens after. Even so, I should’ve modified my counter-intuition to say that, yes, they do come with them, and that they’re not modified until after college when they settle in their jobs. If anything, students hunker down with their ideologies in college because the above-mentioned distractions (e.g. point-gathering in class, sex, beer, sports, extracurriculars).

    My point with counter-intuition #1 was not to dismiss groupthink and socialization in academia. Rather, I was saying that even when they come into the professoriate packing liberal ideological heat, that enthusiasm is mostly killed by student apathy. So professoriate liberal tendencies are often more latent than active—it takes events to set off the otherwise dormant liberal professoriate. In other words, professors spend much less time infecting students with “communism” because they know it’s a waste of time.

    – TL

  5. “In other words, professors spend much less time infecting students with ‘communism’ because they know it’s a waste of time.”

    I don’t know…why don’t we ask Andrew what he does? : )

  6. It seems like different generations of students are different. Talking to my parents, students changed completely between about ’65 and ’67.

    Isn’t the neoconservative view that the professoriate changed the game in the 60’s and radicalized students? I just finished David Brooks’s *Bobos in Paradise*, and his argument is that the radical professoriate got what they wanted with non-conformism, bohemianism, etc., combined with a new meritocratic system where previously excluded ethnicities now got included in elite universities, and the culture completely changed… (Vietnam appears in fine print.)

  7. JJ: I didn’t mean to discount changes in students over time. I agree. But even if we start counting from the late 1960s going forward, in relation to students and professors, I think the vocational-social focus of students holds. And if you grant me that as plausible, I’ll hold to my intuition that the changed nature of the “new class” in higher education is equally irrelevant.

    Another factor, in my experience, is that the skepticism taught in college applies, of course, applies equally to past, present, and future ideologies. In other words, if critics of higher education (conservatives or otherwise) want to point out problems with radical doubt and holding ideas in Cartesian suspension permanently, then I’m on board. But I think that problem is not as prominent as I and others in academia would like it to be. The problem is that the critical faculty is suspended or disengaged by a great many undergraduates. So, again, infecting students with communism is less of a problem than trying to excite students to think more critically (and do it while in college). – TL

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