Susan Campbell (opinion): Professors don’t try to teach students what to think – The Advocate


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This year’s college seniors are just weeks from graduating, and along the way they have survived pandemic education, critical race theory, and teachers who sought to induct them into the far-left reaches of the Democratic party.I’m kidding about those last two challenges. Yes, college seniors are about to graduate, and they are to be commended for being nimble enough to earn their degree through a horribly confounding time.
But those other two challenges don’t exist. They’re fake, and it doesn’t matter how much conservative politicians and activists talk about them, they are still fake:

1) The Fox News definition of critical race theory is not taught at your child’s college, and I defy the people who rail against it to define precisely what it is they’re protesting. Then I would ask them for real examples that they didn’t download from the internet, but have observed in real life.

2) And radical liberal professors indoctrinating college students? Rest easy. In the rare moments when that happens, research says that the attempts are more likely to come from conservative professors.

We’ve covered critical race theory already, but pretending professors are trying to indoctrinate students into progressive politics is an evergreen accusation that stretches back to the 1980s, when surveys starting showing that the ranks of conservative professors were thinning. Where were they going? And why? Who knows?

These days, professors as a group tend to skew liberal/progressive — though political ideology can vary depending on a student’s area of study. Most professors describe themselves as politically moderate.

That professors’ ideology is middle-of-the-road doesn’t stop people from worrying that liberals are in there, anyway, corrupting (adult) children. There are even websites devoted to “unmasking radical professors” and by that, the website — Professor Watchlist — doesn’t mean radical conservatives. (I have searched and no one at my school has made the list.) Other similar conservative efforts seek to make sure there’s not too much emphasis on liberal speech in college classes.

Writing last November in The Atlantic, education and history professor Adam Laats compared latter-day complaints about liberalism in classrooms to 1920s conservative concerns about classroom discussions about evolution. Those arguments, too, aroused the party base, but after a time, schools basically continued to teach what they’d always taught. That’s because the argument against evolution, as is the argument against critical race theory and “radical” professors, isn’t based on pedagogy, but on political points.

And politics — I’m getting to this, I promise — can change.

The accusation about indoctrination is problematic on several levels. The statement presupposes that college students are ignorant enough to fall for it. These are adults old enough to vote, fight in a war and, if they’re seniors, (legally) drink. They come to us slightly unformed, but in two decades on college campuses, it has not been my experience that any were susceptible to brainwashing. Had I tried, they would have called me on it, loudly and cheerfully.

Another issue with worrying about professorial indoctrination assumes that someone with firmly held political beliefs must proselytize. There is no research that supports this. Discussions grow best when seeded with different political perspectives. Note to the Republican National Committee, which recently voted to leave the Commission on Presidential Debates: Well-thought-out explanations of differing political thought make a debate. What’s there to discuss if we share the same perspective?

Of course, college students can change their politics. According to a 2020 study that looked at 3,486 college seniors, roughly 47 percent said they changed their political leanings during college; 30 percent said they became more liberal, and 17 percent said they became more conservative.

About 10 percent of students said they felt overt pressure from faculty members to reexamine or justify their political beliefs (though what form that pressure took, the study’s authors didn’t say). The data suggested students felt the most pressure from conservative faculty members. So students just may change beliefs on their own, without undue influence from the likes of, well, me.

I teach courses where politics bubble up — communication law class, campaign media class, interpretive and editorial writing class. We study how our beliefs inform the way we view the world, and how examining those beliefs is a good idea. No one is graded on their beliefs. They are, however, graded on their ability to communicate, and to effectively do so, the student must offer more than, “Because I think this way, that’s why.”

Your college student’s teacher is not trying to tell your student what to think, but that teacher is heavily invested in helping teach that student how to think. That teacher — tired, raw, and ready for the semester to end — is teaching your student to examine everything. That means everything from a news story, to a politician’s speech, to that bold statement their friend just made. Take nothing at face value. Seek the source. Demand the truth. Be tenacious.

Is that indoctrination? No. That’s critical thinking. Meanwhile, I’ll just keep asking “Why do you say that?” as I do, every day, in class.

Susan Campbell is the author of “Frog Hollow: Stories from an American Neighborhood,” “Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker” and “Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism and the American Girl.” She is Distinguished Lecturer at the University of New Haven, where she teaches journalism.

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