Students & Parents | Intellectual Diversity

The Public View of Politics in the Classroom

CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION   |  March 31, 2008 by Robin Wilson

The older Americans are, and the less time they have spent on a college campus, the more likely they are to believe that professors are politically biased.

That’s the chief finding of a question from a survey conducted through The Chronicle/Gallup Panel that asked Americans: “How often do you believe that college professors use their classrooms as a platform for their personal politics?”

Only 29 percent of those age 25 to 34, and who are more likely to have spent time on a college campus in recent years, responded that professors “often” use their classrooms to espouse their political views. But that response grew to 41 percent of those between the ages of 45 and 54, and to nearly 60 percent of those over age 65.

The Chronicle talked about the survey findings with professors who study political bias in the classroom, including several scholars at George Mason University, where it is a popular research topic. The results, they said, may show that accusations that liberal professors are trying to indoctrinate students have gained traction, particularly with Americans who do not have much personal experience in college classrooms.

Indeed, the poll also shows that Americans who have not earned college degrees are much likelier than others to believe that professors use their classrooms as political bully pulpits.

“The more you have less real experience on a campus, the more likely you might be to buy this ambient background belief,” says Jeremy D. Mayer, director of the master’s program in public policy at George Mason. “If you have never been in a college classroom, the fantasies and hyped-up expectations promulgated by David Horowitz and others may seem plausible descriptions of the typical American campus.”

Two-by-Four in the Face

Other academics find the survey results more troubling, indicating that it is not only older Americans who may have bought into critiques of academe. Taken together, 40 percent of the Americans in the survey said professors often use their classrooms as political platforms.

“This is the two-by-four whacked across your face,” says S. Robert Lichter, a professor of communication at George Mason and director of its Center for Media and Public Affairs. “When that many Americans think this happens often, higher ed has a problem.”

Some college leaders agree. “I think those views translate into weak support for funding and into a greater degree of sympathy for claims that higher ed is a spoiled, privileged bastion that needs to be regulated,” says Colin Diver, president of Reed College.

Attempts to force colleges to diversify the professoriate have not caught on, he adds, but beliefs about political bias may be helping to fuel legislators’ attempts to control college costs and to push institutions to spend more of their endowment money.

Deep Political Divide

On the question of political indoctrination in the classroom, Americans are also divided by political party. About 70 percent of Republicans but only 17 percent of Democrats said professors often use their classrooms as political platforms, the Chronicle/Gallup survey shows. That puts politics on the campus in a league with abortion and gay marriage, say professors, among the biggest wedge issues today.

“This reflects a real anxiety, particularly on the right, that universities are a political instrument as opposed to an institution of learning,” says Matthew C. Woessner, an assistant professor of public policy on Pennsylvania State University’s Harrisburg campus.

But that does not mean the survey is a good measure of whether political speech really is rampant in college classrooms. “Public-opinion surveys are not usually a terrific barometer of objective realities on the ground,” says Mr. Woessner.

Indeed, scholars who do research on what students and professors say actually happens in the classroom report that politicization is much less of an issue than Americans believe. Mr. Mayer questioned a random sample of 1,300 professors from all disciplines in 2007 and found that 95 percent reported they were “honest brokers” among competing political views. About three-quarters said they don’t let students know their political beliefs.

The data are part of Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology at American Universities, a book that Mr. Mayer has helped to write, which will be published this fall by the Brookings Institution.

Perceptions of Bias

Neil R. Gross is an assistant professor of sociology at Harvard University who does research on the politics of the professoriate. He says his work shows that the public is much more likely than are students to believe that political bias in the classroom is a serious problem—70 percent versus 44 percent in one recent survey. “The farther away you are from academe,” says Mr. Gross, “the more worried you are about what goes on.”

But Mr. Horowitz, who has pressed higher education to make the faculty more intellectually diverse, says students’ perceptions of classroom politics are not always accurate. “Students are not even aware that they are being spoon-fed an ideology,” he says. When students answer questions about whether professors use the classroom as political platforms, he says, they think “you are asking whether their professors come to class and say: Vote for Barack Obama.” Not many do, he acknowledges. But he says that isn’t the issue. Students, says Mr. Horowitz, do not realize that “entire academic fields, like women’s studies, are political, and that to pass you have to adopt radical political views.”

Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, agrees. “The problem of the PC university is not so much unrelenting political rants, although they exist, so much as it is that certain topics are not taught, certain disciplinary perspectives are not covered, and certain questions can’t be asked,” she says. “That’s the real underbelly of the problem.”


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