Closed Minds

Glenn Ricketts

Various media outlets have been abuzz recently, following the publication in September of a new book, Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities, authored jointly by A. Lee Fritschler, Jeremy D. Mayer and Bruce Smith, all of George Mason University. We are preparing our own review, which will appear in this space in the near future. It’s possible to note some preliminary impressions, though, in light of the widespread commentary that’s already out there, including this brief audio interview of the authors at the Chronicle of Higher Education online edition.

In the description of its authors, Closed Minds debunks the belief long cherished by conservative critics of the academy that students are subject to political indoctrination by their professors.  Quite the contrary: rather than being “saturated by politics,” most academics have largely abandoned politics, and tend to avoid political controversy altogether. If students are politically liberal, the authors assert, it must be due to other factors, such as their parents, the news media and their peers, since the data amassed in Closed Minds confirm that it certainly doesn’t come from their professors.

This thesis attracted the attention of New York Times reporter Patricia Cohen, who cited Closed Minds in company with two other recent studies which likewise concur that “professors have virtually no impact on the political views and ideology of their students.” Indeed, Cohen writes, “if there has been a conspiracy among liberal faculty members to influence students,” they’ve actually done quite a lousy job of it, based on the conclusions of Fritschler, et al. While it may be true, Cohen notes that “that American academia is decidedly more liberal than the rest of the population, or that there is a detectable shift to the left among students during their college years,” Closed Minds and the other studies demonstrate that this is due to “general trends among that age group,” and not to the “proselytizing professors” as alleged by hyperventilating critics.

As noted, we will be reviewing the book and examining this subject in greater detail in the near future, so do stay tuned. For now, however, I’m struck by Cohen’s reference to the notion that some academic critics are stuck on the notion that a “conspiracy” exists among conniving professors to use their classrooms for political indoctrination. For the record, I have no doubt that some do, whether or not they’re actually conspirators or succeed in politically converting their students. Our own recent survey The Scandal of Social Work Education comes readily to mind, as do the numerous examples of classroom experiences or course syllabi posted at Beyond that, however, even if we concede for the moment that most professors do not consciously proselytize, one has to wonder what the influence of such an ideologically homogeneous academic environment will be on most students. If, as Cohen, acknowledges, most students are more politically liberal during their college years, it’s hard to see that this outlook will be troubled by any major intellectual challenges from professors who hold the same views that they do. Unless I’ve missed something, I haven’t heard of any student complaints about faculty strongly critical of affirmative action policies, excessive enthusiasm for capitalism or vehement defenders of Second Amendment rights. If it is true that most professors do not attempt to indoctrinate their students, one reason may be that there’s no need to: everybody’s already on the same page.

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