Perhaps you saw the recent Pew Research study that was released earlier this week. If you teach at a college or are interested in higher education in the United States, I hope you will take a look.
The results are troubling. According to the data, the percentage of Republicans who see value in a college education fell from 53% in 2012 to just 23% in the most recent survey. Nearly 80% of Republicans believe higher education is headed in the wrong direction because of professors bringing their political and social views into the classroom. Republicans are far more likely than Democrats (73% to 56%) to assert that the problem of students not receiving skills they need to succeed in the workplace is a major reason why higher education is headed in the wrong direction. And three-quarters of Republican respondents felt that rampant political correctness is a significant problem.
As someone who has spent the last three decades on college campus as a student and a professor, I have some thoughts on this. All of my time has been spent at non-elite institutions, all but the four I spent in graduate school at Syracuse in public institutions of higher education. With the exception of one year at the University of Houston, I have never taught at a college with a doctoral program. And all my time in higher education has been spent in departments of history. I will speak of what I know first-hand.
It is true that the history profession as a whole leans leftward. There are a couple of points that need to be made about that. First, it is not that the academy chooses professors on the left; rather, it is people on the left who tend to choose academia. There is something about this constituency for whom years of education, the isolation and hard work of graduate school, the meager pay and the likelihood of never finding tenure-track employment, are not insurmountable obstacles. Many of them want to serve. They want to teach.
But more importantly, let’s say that you are a student in my Native American history course. Politically, I lean to the left. You can see that in many of my blog posts here. How might my course in Native American history be different from an identical course taught by a conservative professor? I have had this conversation before. I will emphasize the “bad stuff,” you might suggest, and cast American history in a negative light. I may leave out any of the positive things in Native American history. OK. What are those good things, I might ask? Could you name some of them? And are the negative things I mention in class, or in the textbook this website is intended to accompany, incorrect as matters of fact or interpretation? Have I not played by the rules? Have I ignored the canons of the historical profession? The truth is that how I teach my course, and how a Conservative might teach a course in Native American history, will not differ much if we both pay equal attention to the standards of argumentation, research, and evidence that serve as the canons of the discipline of history.
The point, you see, is not that a historian might bring his or her political and social views into the classroom. Some do, and they do so excessively. Some Conservative professors do too, like the Iraqi Seventh-Day Adventist at my old school in Montana who regularly told his students that African Americans were moving to Billings because it was easier there to commit crimes, or the self-professed expert on the history of lynching who told his students there was absolutely nothing objectionable about Lee Atwater’s infamous “Willy Horton” ad. And for preaching and indoctrinating? I can tell you that there is no way to lose an audience of 18-22 year olds faster than to be that old dude up there preaching. A better question involves asking how my prejudices and biases and interests and concerns shape what I present to my students. If you are willing to cry out that “Leftist” professors are indoctrinating their students, my reasonable response would be to ask you to prove it. Nor is it unreasonable for us to ask you to make a case as to where you think our interpretation is wrong. I will gladly listen to you. But at a certain point you need to put up or shut up. We all do. A historian without evidence is as useless as a pundit.
And when you tell me where you think I went wrong, I will also ask you questions. That is entirely fair. That is what a Socratic style of teaching is all about. These questions are designed to help you sharpen your thinking, to explore elements of your argument you may have overlooked, to consider your position from another perspective. I am also asking because I want to give you an opportunity to educate me. If I am honest, I must admit that I can learn from all my students, whatever their background, their religion, their politics. And by asking you to explore your own thinking, you learn in ways that you cannot from rote memorization, the type of soul-killing education still taking place in high schools across the country. We will ask you how you know what you claim to know. We will ask you, “What is the evidence that supports that claim?” “Why do you believe what you believe?” Sometimes, and just sometimes, members of our audiences will feel like they have been silenced. This is not censorship. Rather it is simply a matter of them not having much worthwhile to say at all.