Political Parity Goes to College
I sat stiffly upright in the chair waiting for the question I knew was coming. I could feel a sweat drop dribbling down my side. Fortunately, my suit jacket covered the physical manifestations of my nervousness. Superintendent Eastman peered at me over his glasses as he slid my homemade math manipulatives back across the desk.
“That’s very clever, Mr. Parent,” he said as he straightened his chair. “I’m sure the second graders will like those.” He paused before continuing. “What do you know about the teacher’s union in Woodland Park?”
“Nothing really,” I answered truthfully. “If hired, I would look into joining the Teacher’s Association.” I hoped he wouldn’t notice that I had corrected him. “I did an internship with a District 11 teacher who crossed the picket lines during their strike and we talked about that issue a lot. I agree with him that teachers should not go on strike.”
I could tell right away that my lie fooled him. He leaned back in his chair again and placed his glasses on the desk. I later learned this was a sure sign he was through with a conversation. And my answer wasn’t totally a lie. In general, I didn’t believe in teacher strikes, but it would depend on the situation as to whether I’d cross the picket line or not. But the principal who wanted to hire me had warned me about the question ahead of time.
Republicans in general are suspicious of the academic world. They cite statistics that people with college degrees are more likely to vote for Democrats and support liberal causes than people without college degrees. They think this is proof of a socialist conspiracy to subvert our republic. Their narrative portrays college professors as practicing academic brain washing on impressionable young minds. Worse still, these secret socialists are immune to accountability because of tenure laws. It may, in fact, be a problem that there are more left-leaning professors than right leaning ones. I’m not convinced that it is, but I am positive that the proposed cure is far worse than the disease.
Exhibit A are proposed laws in Iowa and North Carolina to force faculties at state-run colleges and universities to only hire conservative Republicans until political balance is achieved. Besides being grossly unconstitutional, it is a horrible idea. If it succeeds at all, it will be in the area of reducing faculty competence. The most obvious question is what does voter registration have to do teaching calculus or physics? It’s like affirmative action for conservatives, an idea they have been opposed to for decades. More importantly, it would not solve the problem, since any graduate students who want to become professors would just register as Republicans.
It is not the hypocrisy I object to; it’s the assumptions. There is no organized conspiracy to advance socialist causes in the academic world. Sure, there are people who are convinced that their ideas about society are correct and best. Those professors will try and convince others (often students) of the value of their viewpoints. But students are not mindless programmable robots. Considering how hard it is to get them to read their syllabus let alone their class reading lists, I’m sure some professors wish students were more malleable. Students of all ages regularly challenge their teachers, particularly when what is being taught in the classroom is different from what they learned at home. College students are particularly prone to challenging authority.
Another incorrect assumption by both Republicans and Democrats is that teachers in general, and college professors in particular, are protected by tenure laws. This is a myth. First of all, K-12 teachers in Colorado do not have tenure. In fact, over half of the states have weakened or eliminated tenure laws for K-12. At the university level, more than half of all professors are adjuncts who have no protection at all. Furthermore, most professors are subject to student evaluations. Even tenured faculty who receive poor evaluations will be pressured into changing their ways or get pushed out the door. Personally, I believe that getting feedback from my students is important. But, placing a high value on their observations is counterproductive to maintaining high academic standards. It is part of the consumerization of education. But that’s the subject of another essay.
I understand why conservatives worry about political balance in the academic world. Stories about the world view taught by professors like Ward Churchill are truly cringe worthy. The rioting at UCLA over a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos and the reaction of students at Middlebury College to a proposed speech by Charles Murray create justifiable consternation. But, Ward Churchill was fired in spite of being tenured. Yes, they had to go looking for a reason but the remains that his academic career is over. Tenure laws make termination more difficult but not impossible. And both Yiannopolis and Murray have given speeches at many colleges without incident. Furthermore, there are professors who have condemned protests against speakers who are unpopular. Most of academia values diversity of thinking even when they are unclear about its boundaries. An example of this is a faculty support for a Biology professor in California who wanted to teach Creationism instead of evolution. Then we have some faculty at UCCS that signed a protest letter over Yiannopolis’ speech there. It’s hard getting humans, even college professors, to be consistent in thought and action.
I would humbly offer a different reason for why college educated people tend to be more liberal, especially on social issues. If you pick up any college composition book you are likely to find within it advice to students to value complexity. The book I use asks readers to avoid binary thinking. It is a Colorado and PPCC goal to get students to look at issues from multiple viewpoints. We want them to recognize and go beyond their established paradigms, narratives, and prejudices. No one can learn anything if they think they already know all of the answers. Although politicians on both sides of the aisle present simplistic views of complex problems, in my experience, conservatives tend more towards black and white thinking than liberals. And I mean that both literally and figuratively.
I have attended eight colleges in four different states. And I have taught at PPCC for fourteen years. I have heard that there are departments in some colleges that are fossilized into a particular way of thinking but I have never encountered it. I’m sure they exist but according to newspaper reports there are private colleges that have entrenched conservative departments as opposed to liberal ones in public universities. It seems to me that in a free market of ideas and universities, encouraging diversity of thought is a better approach than mandating it. Conservatives should continue to get themselves elected to state boards and invite conservative speakers to campuses. Let the market decide. There is a reason why people from all over the world want to get their college education in America. The way to combat ideology is not by introducing more ideology. It is by using reason and rhetoric, things that are already available on every college campus.