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.