Monday, March 21, 2011

Some Personal Experience With Political Bias In College

There's been some minor noise recently about two new studies that show colleges and universities have a pronounced leftward drift in their tenure tracks. I'm not sure why these studies keep coming out; (1) they pretty much always report the same findings and (2) those findings are always ignored by those same colleges and universities.

This isn't going to be a rant about how all colleges are overrun by Leftist thought (some are, but not all), or how students who are conservative face an uphill battle on college campuses (they sometimes do, but not always).

Instead I'm going to relate my own personal experience with political thought in college. Largely, politics was ignored at Moorhead State University (now Minnesota State University-Moorhead). It didn't creep into English 101 or Chemsitry 190 or C++ Progamming 250. But it (predictably) remained front and center in one class. It was an internalnational relations class, as I recall. I won't name the professor, though you can probably figure it out with a few minutes of internet detective work. This professor fits the stereotype of a liberal professor. He's very supportive of all the right causes. His real passion is the United Nations, however. He's a true believer in the transformative power of the U.N. and an unwavering supporter of the belief that it should be the funnel through which all state power should flow.

I took this class intentionally and of my own free will. You may wonder why. Well, the reasons are two-fold. Firstly, the class sounded like an interesting way to fulfill one of my electives, a nice break from working in a computer lab. Secondly, I already knew the professor and liked him very much. This is because, in a very important way, he didn't fit the stereotype: he was a man of great conviction who respected the convictions of others.

He knew when he saw my name on his roll that semester that he was getting a student who was far more skeptical of the U.N. and the peace movement than he was. He understood that I wasn't part of the choir. For my part, I didn't fully understand that there was a choir, but I would soon find out. The professor, however, even though we often disagreed, understood why I took the positions I did and respected it. For a short time (we've been out of contact for may years) we had the rarest of relationships; we could talk about politics from different sides of the aisle and agree to do it again sometime when the conversation was over.

But back to the choir. Early on in the class it became apparent that most of my fellow classmates believed there was a right way to think and a wrong way. Unions were great (they get the minimum wage increased, one student informed me). Republicans love war. Democrats like to help people. The military is evil. That sort of thing. It meant that I often found myself taking on the role of devil's advocate in order for any sort or real discussion to take place. Don't get me wrong: I'm not claiming that in a class of about 25 students it was 24-against-me. It was more like ten-against-me with fourteen abstensions. And really it was more like six-against-me with fourteen abstensions and four who used the cover of the six to limply pile on.

One example: the professor was talking about voting and posed a simple question: should voting be mandatory for anyone of legal voting age? I was surprised that the class was pretty solidly in favor of this idea. The reasoning went (yes, I'm simplifying) something like this: voting is good; everybody should participate in a Democracy; voting is how we participate in a Democracy; it doesn't hurt anyone to force them to vote. I raised my hand and played devil's advocate. I explained that forcing someone to vote actually does involve harm; it hurts the person you force to vote since they no longer get a choice in the matter. It hurts the process because there's no requirement that the person inform themselves about the issues; voting becomes a corrupt exercise full of people who don't know what they're voting for. To be sure, this happens now. I just didn't see a need to encourage more of it. I was called naive and a tool and all sorts of other knee-jerk names when I said this, as was pretty normal in this class.

At this point one of the four cover-seekers, as meekly as I have ever heard someone interrupt another--really, it was almost heartbreaking--informed me that in that case I shouldn't complain when an elected official does something I didn't like. In other words, voting was a freedom-to-complain card and if I didn't have one I should just shut up. I politely informed her that I had voted in every election for which I was eligible, federal, state and local. I asked her if she could say the same. She didn't respond, so I assumed that meant no.

It was really kind of fascinating to see this dynamic at work. The same general group of students would wave the flag for the Left. A few others would wait to make sure they had strength of numbers and then would join in to pile on. I wish I had been taking a psychology course at that time so I would have had a forum in which to study it with a professional.

Another time we were talking about media coverage of some event. This would have been 1997 or maybe 1998, so it could have been a lot of things. Something to do with Clinton probably. I made mention of the fact that media biases made it hard to know what was really going on anyway. It resulted in the second (and so far last) time anyone ever hissed at me (the first was in basic training, by a female drill sargeant).

This hisser let me know that I was full of excrement and that the only bias in the media was from Rush Limbaugh. Please take a moment to note more closely what I said and the response to it. You'll see that I made no mention of a liberal media bent, a left-wing conspiracy to make conservatives look bad, or a stirring defense of Rush Limbaugh as a paragon of journalistic virtue. What I did say was that media is biased. That seemed to me then (and still does today) to be an obviously true statement. Fox News is biased. So is Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. So is ABC and the Washington Post and the New York Times and TV Guide. But all the lefties in the class heard was the word 'bias' from someone they had identified as an "other" and filled in the rest of the sentence.

In a sense it was a microcosm of what happens on the internet every day. There was no anonymity, so only those with confidence (or perhaps egos) were able to unselfconsiously let fly with the vitriol. Others were quick to jump in only after they judged little risk to themselves. It makes you wonder what percentage of commenters on this forum would really have the gall to say face to face what they type in the comment box. I'm guessing the percentage is quite low.

I spoke at length about this phenomenon with the professor, His advice was simple: stick to your guns and don't let the fact that you are in the minority get you down. Unspoken but understood was an admonishment to stay respectful even when you weren't being respected. If those people thought that the professor was silently cheering them on, I'm sorry to report that he was a bit disappointed and embarrassed in them. Well, not sorry exactly. But the professor was right, and I followed his advice. I learned a lot from the experience, even if it wasn't in the syllabus.

(Crossposted at Say Anything)

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