Liberal Education or Left-Wing Indoctrination?

What is college for?  Should students stretch their minds by considering all sorts of competing, even conflicting ideas?  Or should young adults learn to intone the hackneyed, ideologically purified phrases of a single viewpoint?

Many conservative pundits these days insist that too many colleges have become left-wing reeducation camps.  But does that match our experience?

In a recent review of Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty for the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas, Bruce Thornton heartily agrees that too many institutions of higher education have slid into the heavy mire of politically correct intellectual conformity.

unlearning_libertyA self-proclaimed “liberal,” Lukianoff’s Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has led a campaign to open college campuses to true intellectual controversy.

As Thornton notes, Lukianoff’s book chronicles example after example of over-eager campus authorities cracking down on students’ free speech rights.  For instance, one Yale student was punished in 2009 for wearing a t-shirt that quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The offending shirt proclaimed—in the run-up to a big football game—that “all Harvard men are sissies.”

These and a host of other speech clampdowns are led by an army of humorless, vindictive student enforcers, whom Thornton calls “sensitivity commissars.”  The problem, as Thornton relates, is that “in orientation programs, only one point of view, the progressive-leftist one, is allowed a hearing, and students who resist it are subjected to sanctions and shaming exercises worthy of religious cults.”

The pattern of repression, Thornton insists, is not applied equally.  “Christians,” Thornton writes, “are particularly singled out for censorship, as are Republican organizations and other conservative groups, especially pro-Israel ones, whose publications are often vandalized, campus events attacked, and speakers shouted down.”

These notions of an oppressive left-wing campus Red-Guardism seem widely shared among conservative writers.  But do they match our experience?

I teach at a large public university in the northeast.  Perhaps I’m not sensitive enough to it, but our sprawling campus seems to welcome a real variety of speech, student and otherwise.  We have student groups for a variety of religious viewpoints, some of them resolutely conservative.  Self-identified “conservative” students with whom I talk report that they do not feel particularly shut out or victimized.  The campus is peppered with outside speakers who promote a kaleidoscope of ideas, from Biblical literalism to aggressive atheism.

Colleagues report similar experiences.  One science-education academic from a large public university in the Southeast tells me his education colleagues repeatedly indoctrinate their pre-service teachers with a message of Christian religiosity.

These are admittedly sketchy and anecdotal reports, but some more careful research seems to back it up.  David Long’s ethnography revealed a host of creationist students and faculty at public, pluralistic colleges.  Amy Binder’s and Kate Wood’s study of two leading schools revealed plenty of opportunity for conservative students at such schools, even if some students reported feeling victimized or shut out of campus life.

Perhaps the answer lies in broadening the lens.  Elite schools such as Yale might have rigid thought-police regimes.  However, we must remember two important facts: not many college students go to Yale, and even Yale produced William F. Buckley.

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