Faced with steadily mounting evidence that the elite colleges really are politically one-sided and that students are feeling pressure to conform to their professors’ political views (see, for example, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s latest opinion survey of students at www.goacta.org), Lionel Lewis contends in the January-February issue that it doesn’t matter, because college has no impact. He tells us (without a single citation) that “[r]esearch spanning six decades has shown that the effect of college on the attitudes, values, religiosity, and political views of students, on elite campuses and elsewhere, is almost nil.”
Aside from the fact that this unsubstantiated claim defies common understanding as well as common sense, it is a lame defense of the absence of intellectual diversity on campus. Whether or not they are converted to their professors’ politics, students are entitled to a classroom open to a range of views and to campus speaking events that present differing positions on matters of controversy. Exposure to both sides of an issue is the essence of a sound education.
Even if Lewis were correct about the effect of college on attitudes and values, that would not diminish one bit the responsibility of colleges and universities to provide classroom and campus environments that are intellectually honest, open, and fair minded.
ANNE D. NEAL
American Council of Trustees and Alumni
LIONEL LEWIS RESPONDS:
Anne Neal insists that “elite colleges are politically one-sided,” and that there is an “absence of intellectual diversity” on American campuses. These assertions are inconsistent with my findings, and I know of no objective research that would indicate either is true, nor of any “steadily mounting evidence.” She suggests that we look at her Web site for the results of a survey for evidence supporting her views. What one finds there is a document titled “Survey Reveals Pervasive Political Pressure in the Classroom,” and subtitled “Students: 49 Percent Report Professors Preach Rather Than Teach.”
First, no item in the survey mentions “political pressure in the classroom.” Second, the items ask about campuses, but inferences are drawn about professors or courses. If students are reporting on their campuses, conclusions cannot logically be drawn about their courses or professors; they are reporting their perceptions, not their experiences. In brief, the conclusions in the report distort the survey results, which tell us nothing about the percentage of students who have had professors who are injecting politics into the classroom.
That my conclusions about the effects of college “def[y]” what Neal believes is a “common understanding” does not make them any less true. To be sure, some learning occurs in college. During college, some students change; some do not. Some measured change may be due to maturation or to other factors extraneous to the curriculum. Most of those who do change do not change much. The immediate effects are small; the lasting effects are smaller. These summary statements are supported by two studies (one in the late 1930s and the other in the early 1960s) under the direction of social psychologist Theodore Newcomb on the effects of the Bennington College community on the attitudes of students, by political scientist Philip Jacob’s 1957 survey of the impact of college teaching (Changing Values in College), the 1969 synthesis of research in the field (The Impact of College on Students) by Theodore Newcomb and sociologist Kenneth Feldman, and economist Howard Bowen’s 1977 volume (Investment in Learning). The statistical analysis and many tables in a 1991 study by educational psychologist Ernest Pascarella and higher education researcher Ernest Terenzini (How College Affects Students) further support my conclusions.