Colleges Aren’t Brainwashing You
It seems like a ubiquitous concern amongst many Americans, particularly those with a conservative bent, that universities serve more than just academic education. Perhaps universities engage in a clandestine mission to mold young, impressionable minds into hordes of latte-sipping, blue-haired progressives.
According to Pew Research (2019):
Roughly eight-in-ten Republicans (79%) say professors bringing their political and social views into the classroom is a major reason why the higher education system is headed in the wrong direction (only 17% of Democrats say the same).
Additionally, when respondents to Gallup (2017) were asked, “What are some of the reasons why you do not have a lot of confidence in colleges and universities?” A third of respondents answered that colleges are “Too liberal/political.” Even more extreme than this, many conservatives have spread the idea that universities are brainwashing students with a progressive agenda.
For this article, I will use brainwashing as a catch-all for any instance where students turn more progressive directly from their college experience and exposure to faculty. In other words, if a person had not attended higher education, they would have remained more conservative. Luckily for us, this question is an empirical one!
Many conservatives point out the large percentage of left-leaning faculty at universities. This is entirely true! Langbert (2018) analyzes the top 66 liberal arts colleges with public voter registration information and finds that among professors who are registered to vote, there are twelve Democrats to a single Republican. Gross and Simmons (2007) surveyed a representative sample of college professors and found that roughly 20 percent identified themselves as leaning or being conservative, compared to over 60 percent identifying as leaning or being liberal.
Something conservatives often miss is that colleges, especially liberal arts colleges, have been left-leaning since the 1960s. Gross and Simmons (2007) and Hamilton and Hargens (1993) indicate that the share of university professors has largely been left-leaning since the 1960s. This trend has continued until today. According to the Higher Education Research Institution (2019), the percent of postsecondary education faculty has had only modest gains in the number of self-identified liberals since the ’90s.
If the question was, “Are there lots of latte-sipping, blue-haired progressives in college faculty?” The answer would be a resounding yes- however, this is not the question. The empirical question is, “Are the latte-sipping, blue-haired progressives turning their students into latte-sipping, blue-haired progressives?”
The answer is no.
Picture this: a young first-year student strolls onto a college campus, brimming with anticipation for the coming four years. Like countless others, this student is subject to various influences throughout this transformative period, including the alleged progressive indoctrination. Fast-forward four years, and that same student strides confidently across the graduation stage. Has their political compass swung left? Mariani and Hewett (2008) put this to the test, examining students’ political opinions in their first and fourth years. If colleges were camps of indoctrination, we would expect these fresh graduates to be significantly more left-leaning than their non-collegiate peers. But the evidence refutes this: college students, it turns out, drifted left no more than the general populace outside the ivory towers.
Let’s take another angle. Large-scale surveys provide a snapshot of these intricate dynamics between families. For example, imagine two siblings; one embarks on a college journey, and the other doesn’t. If the university experience were indeed a liberalizing machine, we expect the college-educated sibling to lean decidedly more left. However, Campbell and Horowitz (2015) throw a wrench into this theory. Once familial factors are accounted for, the university has no discernible liberalizing effect.
What about across the pond? Let’s peer into a longitudinal study from the United Kingdom. Simon (2022) traces sibling pairs from 1994 to 2020 and finds a fascinating conclusion that flies in the face of the progressive-indoctrination theory. The study conclusion states:
Firstly, and perhaps most interestingly, this study provides evidence to suggest that studying at university only has a modest direct causal effect on British graduates’ attitudes and, importantly, that this effect is only liberalizing in the case of gender-role attitudes— [Higher Education] attendees actually develop slightly more conservative economic and environmental adult attitudes, relative to non-attendees.
So, when all the empirical dust settles, the vision of universities as progressive indoctrination camps lose its footing.
Another question, similar in nature, is also often asked. Does higher education chip away at your faith, pushing you towards atheism or agnosticism? Contrary to popular belief, the empirical evidence doesn't necessarily back this idea. If college was truly a force pushing students towards godlessness, one would assume that a degree holder's religious practices would be lower than that of the less educated. However, a sweep of findings from Pew Research in 2017 throws a curveball at this presumption. Pew Research (2017) states:
- “Americans with college degrees report attending religious services as often as Americans with less education.”
- “Across multiple Christian traditions, highly educated people are more likely than others to say they attend church weekly”
- “Americans with college degrees are no less likely than others to report attending religious services on a weekly basis.”
Now, this doesn't equate to saying that those with higher education are more religious. Pew also reports that:
- “Highly educated Americans also are less inclined than others to say they believe in God with absolute certainty and to pray on a daily basis… [Graduates are also] more likely than others to describe themselves as atheists or agnostics”
- “those at the lowest end of the educational spectrum… stand out for especially high levels of religious observance by some measures, such as the self-described importance of religion in their lives”
Are these changes directly attributable to the college experience? To see if college was a causal component for changing religious attitudes, Uecker, Regnerus, and Vaaler (2007) examined data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Their findings state:
Americans who pursued bachelor’s degrees were more likely to retain their faith than those who did not, perhaps because life at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder can be rough in ways that chip away at religious belief and participation. They report that students “who did not attend college and two-year college students are much more likely — 61 and 54 percent more, respectively — than four-year college students to relinquish their religious affiliations.”
Though colleges may be seen as faith-weakening institutions, the evidence does not appear to support this.
“But I knew this chick who went to a liberal arts university, and now she’s a tatted-lesbian atheist who voted for Bernie Sanders!” - Your uncle (probably)
Stories and snippets like this can certainly be found in abundance to prove an overarching narrative. The entire book Ben Shapiro wrote about this is a compiled collection of stories and snippets like this. (Baum and Perna, 2005) While there is no doubt that many people may be influenced to change their political leanings before we point fingers at professors, let’s turn our gaze toward a more influential group, other students. Just because your English teacher has a BLM flag does not mean you will like BLM too. On the other hand, if your friends post Instagram photos of black squares, you may too. While an analysis of causes for why students change their political beliefs is beyond the scope of the article, other students seem like a more reasonable culprit. Studies like Mendelberg et al., (2016) and Strother et al., (2020) find peers and socialization to be significant factors for changing political attitudes. (Dey, 2016)
Regardless of political stripe, the university experience is widely valued. An overwhelming majority—over 90 percent—of staunch Republicans and Conservatives echoed their satisfaction with their university journey. This sentiment held strong among their Democratic and Liberal counterparts too. A shared appreciation for higher education that transcends political lines, if you will. (YouGov, 2017),
This harmony contradicts the widespread fear that universities serve as progressive indoctrination centers. The empirical evidence presents a more nuanced narrative. While it cannot be disputed that universities typically host a left-leaning faculty within an undeniably progressive atmosphere, their influence on molding students’ political and religious perspectives are not as influential as often assumed. Instead, these shifts appear to mirror broader societal trends, familial impacts, and the undeniable power of peer socialization.
More importantly, these findings underscore the importance of a balanced perspective in discussions about higher education’s role in ideology shaping. While such discourse is undeniably crucial, it is equally paramount to anchor these conversations in empirical evidence and steer clear of sweeping generalizations from anecdotal accounts or personal biases. It is essential to recognize the multifaceted influences in ideological formation. In an increasingly polarized society, we should be extra cautious of claims that paint entire institutions and political groups as bad actors.
That being said, it is reasonable to be suspicious of potential abuse of systems in which there is political gain for collusion. In order to prevent real brainwashing from any source, it is essential to promote critical thinking skills, open discourse, and media literacy. This not only creates a more well-rounded and educated college graduate, but it also inoculates against efforts to manipulate or coerce ideological beliefs.
By ensuring that our education system adheres to principles like these, we can continue to foster a culture of critical thinking and openness that safeguards against ideological manipulation. The goal should be to shape individuals who are informed, open-minded, and capable of independent thought - individuals who are able to make their own contributions to the society in which they live and who can engage in constructive, informed dialogue with those with whom they may disagree.