Confronting the Myth of Leftist College Students

I plead guilty. When I was a college student, I debated whether our campus Marxist-Leninist was really leftist enough. I remember feeling honestly surprised back then that so many people clung to their outmoded religious beliefs when the world had so obviously proved them wrong. In short, (cue the dramatic music): I Was a College Leftist. And I admit to a continuing illogical tendency: I tend to think that young people are somehow “naturally” more leftist than older adults. Are they? A scholar recently defended his claims that most college students in reality are conservatives. And not just any sort of conservatives, but a dunderheaded, abrasive, unreflective, Rush-Limbaugh sort.

I don’t think I’m alone. I’m not the only one who assumes college students are somehow naturally inclined to go through a leftist phase. We all know the jokes:

Q: What is a “fiscal conservative?”

A: A college leftist who just got a mortgage.

Q: What is a “social conservative?”

A: A college leftist who just had a daughter.

Before we look at the back-and-forth about students and conservatism, let’s remember our continuing debate about college faculty. As we’ve seen in these pages, Neil Gross has argued that the professoriate really does lean left. And conservatives in Colorado, at least, have mandated that their flagship state university open its halls to at least one staunch conservative.

But what about students? Some conservative writers have worried that conservative students are systematically denied free speech on today’s campuses. Some surveys suggest that faculty look askance at conservative religious students. And pundits often simply assume that conservatism is not allowed to rear its rightist head on most campuses these days.

In the pages of The American Conservative, scholar Donald Lazere defended his claims that most college students these days are actually knee-jerk conservatives. Lazere was responding to a harsh critique of his book by political scientist Jonathan Marks. In his book, Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias, Lazere argued that students needed to be exposed to thoughtful liberalism.lazere

In his original review, Marks pointed to some survey data that seem to undermine Lazere’s central claims. “I don’t know Lazere’s students,” Marks wrote,

but I do know that the Higher Education Research Institute annually conducts a survey of incoming freshmen. That survey shows that more students enter college as self-identified liberals (26.8 percent in 2012) than enter as self-identified conservatives (21.1 percent). Many (47.5 percent) call themselves middle-of-the-road. Seventy-five percent agree that same-sex marriage should be legal. Some 64.6 percent agree that the wealthy should pay more taxes. So much for conservative commonplaces.

Maybe at Marks’s fancy-pants Ursinus College, Lazere responded.

But I taught mainly at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, in a rural stretch of Central California; it was originally an ag college, and most of the English courses I taught were lower-division General Education and Breadth requirements for students in majors like Agricultural Management. Many such students resented having to waste their time and money on any general education at all. Does Marks really think that more college students resemble those at Ursinus than those at Cal Poly?

Lazere points out a key problem with many of our studies of college culture. Too often, social scientists look at fairly elite schools and make unsupportable generalizations. Or, more precisely, too often scholars examine elite schools and hasty readers make unsupportable generalizations.

For example, Elaine Howland Ecklund’s study of scientists and religion is often used to “prove” that scientists are ignorant about religion. As Ecklund made clear, however, she only spoke with scholars at elite universities. What about scholars at the kinds of schools most Americans actually attend? Similarly, Amy Binder’s look at student conservatives looked at only two schools, a western public flagship university and an elite eastern Ivy League school. What about the average student at the more representative non-flagship, non-Ivy League college?

Even back in the supposedly radical 1960s, leftist students at elite colleges attracted most of the attention. It was the takeover of the dean’s office at Columbia and shotgun-wielding curriculum changes at Cornell. It was bombings at Wisconsin and Free Speech Movements at Berkeley. What were the “Sixties” like at less elite schools?

After all, there are colleges and then there are colleges. At the colleges I’m currently studying, I certainly find a dominant conservatism during the late 1960s and early 1970s, along with a struggling dissident liberalism.

This leads us to some important questions. Are students more or less conservative at certain types of schools? Specifically, are students more conservative at less-elite schools?

I don’t see any answers in the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute surveys. Those hard-working folks offer lots of information. They break down student responses from all types of schools: public, private, Catholic, HBCU, University, college, and more. But I don’t see any division by selectivity. I don’t see a breakdown of student responses from more elite schools and less elite schools.

To me, Lazere’s central point makes some intuitive sense. Students at less-elite colleges might tend to be more oriented toward cultural conservatism. They might be more inclined to see college as a professional training course first, and a chance to let their freak flags fly second.

Without better data, though, it seems we’ll be left with anecdotes. Are students more conservative the farther we get from the Ivy League?