About Those “Liberal” Professors

One of my graduate students pointed me to an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, highlighting a study into the persistent accusation that “liberal” professors are guilty of politically indoctrinating their students.

Dodson’s analysis of the data shows that students who get engaged academically are likely to increase their time talking about political issues and becoming engaged in civic life.

With regard to political views, academic engagement promoted moderation. “[T]he results indicate — in contrast to the concerns of many conservative commentators — that academic involvement generally moderates attitudes,” Dodson writes. “While conservative students do become more liberal as a result of academic involvement, liberals become more conservative as a result of their academic involvement. Indeed it appears that a critical engagement with a diverse set of ideas — a hallmark of the college experience — challenges students to re-evaluate the strength of their political convictions.”

The data on student activities demonstrate the opposite impact: The more involved that liberal students get, the more liberal they become, while the more involved conservative students get, the more conservative they become.”This finding suggests that students seek out and engage with familiar social environments — a choice that leads to the strengthening of their political beliefs.”

This research is consistent with a study I saw a few years ago: when people who were moderately inclined to believe X were placed in a discussion group with others who all believed X, they emerged from the experience much more invested in X. People who participated in more diverse discussions–who were placed in groups representing a range of positions on X–developed more nuanced (and less dogmatic) opinions about X.

It all comes back to what academics call motivated reasoning… the willingness of people invested in a particular worldview to choose the news and select the information environments that reinforce their pre-existing beliefs.

A good teacher provides students with a wide range of relevant information, at least some  of which will inevitably challenge their worldviews. As I tell my students, it’s my job to confuse you. I’ll know I’ve succeeded if, after taking my class, students use two phrases more frequently: “it depends,” and “it’s more complicated than that.”

Because, really–it is more complicated than that.


  1. Isn’t “political indoctrinization” another term for “civics”? Learning little in required government classes in high school (granted it was in the past century); I am still learning and sorting out politics, political issues – from those that are NOT political but used as such – figuring out what is “liberal” what is “conservative” why and who makes these decisions. I was a victim of “political indoctrinization” by my staunch Republican family and neighbors; only my first voting experience (at 21 years old) resulted in voting a straight Republic ticket following my parent’s advise. I began paying more attention to news in all forms and questioning many of my earlier foregone beliefs leading to my decisions and began asking questions. I was and am still surprised by many of the answers I find; this “questioning mind wants to know.” I have developed the same questioning attitude about religion and it’s place in all our lives…and where it does NOT belong in our lives. The current SCOTUS has taken over our decision-making process, how do we overcome their decisions which are the law of the land to protect ourselves today and in the future?

  2. Democracy works in that it finds, more often than not, the middle of the road, the balance between the extremes and the moderate positions on all sides of any issues, and results in the hiring and firing of those representing best those moderate positions.

    It relys on public political discourse to inform the public of all of the possibilities.

    Democracy is broken today. It’s been replaced by extremism.

    The natural question is how and why did that happen? Whose interests are served by bringing that change about?

    Or more importantly, how can democracy be made to be more robust in resisting the interests and forces of extremism?

    Sheila points out that in her experience education is one way. Demonstrating the process of due diligence. Showing the power of listening. Of paying thoughtful attention. Always asking why.

    As a science nut I would add to that searching always for evidence. Opinions are generally worthless. Reality speaks in evidence.

    If even an educator speaks in absolutes the question should be, what is the evidence.

    Works well in science and criminal law. I think in politics too.

  3. “Indoctrination” by “liberal professors” is part projection (they wish they could do the indoctrinating) and part newspeak. We have a country were the political landscape consists of Reactionaries, whom we now call “Conservatives” and everyone else, whom we now call “Liberals”. Accusing professors of being “liberal” is just the descendent of red-baiting. It has been working in this country for a long time.

    More importantly, as Professor Kennedy has pointed out, teaching, if done right, is rather subversive and frightening. It tries to get students to think, to question and to ask for evidence. It asks students to see shades of grey when some would prefer simple, easy, black and white answers.

    Maybe if we had more of that “indoctrination” by our “liberal professors” we could return to more civil, reasoned discourse and have a functioning government that actually works for the citizenry. One can wish.

  4. In order to remain conquered, we must remain divided. By any means: age, race, religion, North-South, East-West, income, and shortly to come we will be divided by eye color! Education exposes the myths of difference and it is the professors who educate. Therefore attract all professors!

  5. I have just begun reading “I Am Malala”; in case you have forgotten who she is, she is the 14 year old Pakistani student who was shot in the head for speaking publicly supporting education rights for girls in her country. The Taliban actually sought her out on the school bus on her way home to shoot her in the head; two of her friends were also wounded by the gunfire. I have only read the Prologue; the inspiration of this child was viewed as a threat to the Taliban. I Googled “Taliban” and read the Wikipedia definition; briefly it is an Islamic fundalmentalist POLITICAL movement. I then Googled “Sharia law”, again using the Wikipedia definition it means a moral code and religious law of a prophetic religion. These translations point me to the current GOP; their pseudo Christian blatherings to pass laws controling women primarily and their accusations that President Obama is Muslim and wants to turn America into an Islamic country with Sharia law controling all aspects of female’s lives on all issues. This is the “pot callng the kettle black” which to me brings in another aspect of the current GOP…it’s covert racism. Left up to the GOP, Sheila Kennedy and millions of women of her caliber would never have become the educated teachers/leaders who keep us informed. Yes; her views are primarily those of the Democratic party but, without being a student in her classes, I am sure she directs her teaching in all directions and urges students to think for themselves, reach beyond required class reading and find their own roads to follow. A 14 year old girl from Swat, Pakistan should be an inspiration to all of us, requiring our attention be focused on removing elected officials from office who would silence the voice of Sheila and other women teachers and women leaders in this country and begin the work to return women’s rights…all women’s rights. The 14 year old Pakistani girl’s name is Malala.

    The militarization of police departments across this country is frightening; even without military weapons there are numerous cases in the news about police abuses of power and killing unarmed people on our streets…choke holds in NYC and drunk driving which resulted in the death of one man and permanent disability to two others here. One Facebook post showed a fat white cop macing a 7 year old black girl; her mother and sister were facing away from him, she was cowering with her arms over her head and face. The “liberal” professors throughout this country should be speaking against these atrocities in cities and towns and teaching their students to study and understand civics as Sheila has written about before. America is evidencing unAmerican behavior that must be stopped. On a personal level; I do not know enough about my civic rights in the legal system here to force the Prosecutor’s Office to file Battery charges against Mark Jones for his attack on me at 11:00 in the morning on my own driveway on April 21st. Anyone who saw the repeated newscasts of interviews with me saw I was injured; this is only a Batter A level misdemeanor which I have so far been denied. If making this demand marks me as a liberal, I will proudly stand in line with other liberals who are thwarted in demanding our rights to health care, education, fair pay, our sex lives and, justice under the law and protection on our streets and in our homes and in our places of employment. Speaking and seeking the truth and protection is not being a liberal; it is facing the current truth regarding our leaders who are forcing their religious beliefs on all of us in the form of laws and are supported by SCOTUS. Hey guys; I am all for your rights, too, you are also victims under the current situation. Stand with us, please.

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