Change in conservative fears about higher education?

Something I heard the other day that I thought was interesting:

Conservatives in the USA have long been worried that higher education is dominated by leftists. But in the last 10 or so years the specific worries have changed. They used to fear that their kids would go to university and be brainwashed or seduced into adopting liberal ideas. Now, they fear that their kids will go to university and be bullied and ostracised by their peers, or unfairly penalised by the authorities for their conservative views.

Do you think this is correct (that the specific fears have changed, not that they are reasonable). And why the change? Answers from conservatives would be especially interesting, if there are any still here.

I see it as an escalation of the same phenomenon, not a distinct phenomenon. In the past professors would try to convert kids to their politics with their teaching and grading. Now they are still trying to convert but are using their power to silence any dissenting voices so that students are not exposed to other perspectives except as strawman caricatures.

Old-fashioned conservative accusations of liberal bias were based on graduates disparately identifying as liberal (compared to freshmen). What you describe,

Is merely one possible explanation for this disparity. As such I must agree with puddleglum, it’s the same phenomenon.

I would recommend watching or reading “The Prevailing Bias”, a debate between David Susskind and William F. Buckley Jr. on Firing Line (1966). You can access video and a transcript here. Buckley cries “indoctrination” through “inculcation”, Susskind defends “education” and “progress”.


I mean, in general, anyone who holds views that are contrary to the majority will have a tough time.

If a student body is 20% conservative and 80% liberal, it stands to reason that it won’t be fun to be a conservative.

Just like how, at some conservative colleges where the ratio is reversed, it may not be fun to be a liberal either.

Right, no internet on college campuses.
I was a conservative when I was in college (in the Boston area) 1969-1973. Never felt bullied. Never got a lot of conservative speakers in my college either, and we didn’t have YouTube, but I knew how to use the library.
But I was familiar with the other side before I went. I wonder if the feeling of bullying comes from being forced out of the conservative bubble. And often religious bubbles also.

This is bunk. While every profession has its bad actors, the vast majority of professors do not know and do not care what their students’ political opinions are, and certainly do not try to, “convert kids to their politics.” They may well challenge political positions and assumptions that students hold, requiring students to use critical thinking to defend them, but isn’t that the whole point of education?

If a professor does know one of his or her student’s politics, it’s probably because that student spends every class trying to monopolize the conversation with their political views. And then the professor is in the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t position of either trying to get the student to scale back their contribution (and therefore “silencing dissent”) or allowing one student to rob his or her classmates of the opportunity to participate.

The ascent of Trump moved the Overton window back on certain things over the last few years (race, acknowledgement of facts, religious bigotry).

If you’re a conservative who insists on calling people faggots in classroom discussions, I have no problem with you being silenced.

Modern conservatives feel attacked by academics because most modern conservatism can’t withstand critical thinking.

Hence all the derisive “snowflake” and “safe space” mockery, which is, as is par for the course, simple projection.

I think it’s a bit deeper than that for a lot of people. Conservatism, in a broad philosophical sense, is saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and “Prove to me why we need to change if things are working?”

This is pretty much directly counter to the academic pursuit of the truth/new knowledge/improvement, etc… I mean, researching newer/better ways to do things is directly counter to the conservative ideal.

I did deliberately specify modern conservatism, the reactionary, fact-free flavor currently in vogue, to differentiate from the classical variety.

I don’t see that that has to be true. It depends on how tolerant the majority are. Conservatives were definitely in the minority when I was at university, but I didn’t notice anyone having a hard time. I lived with a couple of guys in first year who had differing views and liked to debate politics; they ended up becoming friends.

Would you say there is less concern now that kids will actually be converted?

People just still have this weird idea of what college campuses are like, IMHO. People seem to envision this weird freedom of speech forum where people all just come up and say their beliefs and we learn about everything. But that’s not what happens, in my experience. You’re still primarily there to get lessons on the subjects you are there for.

The place were diversity kicks in is not in any formal setting, but in just meeting people and learning that not everyone’s life is like yours. That can lead you to question your own beliefs. Since the setting is so informal, there’s no censorship beyond that which is inherent in a society.

The reason conservatism has a hard time in this setting is not censorship, but because of what little-C conservatism is. It’s preserving the traditions of a particular group or culture. So when you encounter diversity, you start to question if your way is the only way, which inherently moves you leftward.

That’s not to say that there aren’t people with liberal, progressive, etc beliefs who were never exposed to alternatives, and for whom diversity changes their views. But liberalism and the like are just more amenable to the idea of different beliefs, which makes them more robust in this setting.

(Don’t read this as me saying all views are equally valid, either. Any talk about how leftists all believe X and won’t accept that Y is actually possible is really relevant. These aren’t absolutes I’m talking about here. And it is a naive version of diversity that acts like there is no underlying truth, and all views are valid. The idea isn’t that everyone is right. It’s that you should challenge your thinking.)

None of this came from any formal setting, so the idea that we’re just being taught strawmen version of conservative positions doesn’t hold, any more than we’re only taught liberal or leftist strawmen. The exposure just doesn’t happen in some formal setting where the narrative can be controlled in that fashion.

[bolding mine]

My irony meter just exploded, given that most of that paragraph consists of strawman caricatures. College teachers struggle just to get kids to do the reading and homework. The idea that they somehow have the power (and time) to brainwash children into liberal orthodoxy is just plain silly.

I think BigT has captured the reality of it:

Remember, college is the point at which kids traditionally become independent, moving away not just from their parents but the whole community bubble that has created and reinforced their worldview. Suddenly they’re on their own and mixed in with a lot of other people with a lot of other worldviews, and the usual “The way I grew up is normal, and everyone else is weird or wrong” outlook that comes of growing up in more insular surroundings (as conservatives are more wont to do) gets heavily tested.

Some kids do simply continue to assert that their POV is right and everyone else’s is wrong and it generally doesn’t go well. This isn’t “persecution”; it’s simply a fundamental rule of social intercourse, amplified by an environment of diversity (where there are a LOT of differing POVs) and a greater focus on critical thinking*. But most will start to consider how their POV compares to everyone else’s, where it might be right or wrong, how it fits into the bigger picture, and so forth. And, as stated above, that’s an inherent leftward shift.

That doesn’t mean they all suddenly become Sanders voters but it does often mean that when they go back home to their bubbles of people who are still insisting that there is only One Right Way, they end up looking like Abbie Hoffman by comparison. And then the parents complain to all their friends about liberal brainwashing.

*Although going from some of what my wife says about her students, getting them to demonstrate any thinking is sometimes a bonus.

@BigT is right. The number one most important thing I learned in college was that I should question and critically examine every belief I held. Nobody told me to be more liberal*. Nobody forced me to be open minded. If I wanted to, the same bubble I grew up in was waiting for me with open arms.

What mattered far more was being exposed to a huge array of beliefs and philosophies. The more I learned, the more holes I could poke in other beliefs. But there was some small part of me that refused to reexamine certainl ideas I truly held dear (like religion, for example).

In fact, I managed to keep myself from changing much at all until shortly after graduation. I still remember the moment when everything changed. I was talking to someone whose opinion about Judaism I really respected when someone else asked them some nitpick question about their belief - nothing major, the sort of thing I’d rationalized away a thousand times before.

But their answer gave me pause. They were far more honest than I’d ever been with myself, up till that point: “I don’t think about those things too hard, because they challenge my belief, but my belief is very important to me.”

I just couldn’t handle that anymore. I couldn’t handle lying to myself, brushing over the mental hurdle of aligning a belief in God with an understanding of science, evolution, and history. I couldn’t simply brush aside philosophical questions like the problem of evil that had bothered me until then with a simple “well, it’s beyond my comprehension, I’m not going to worry about it”. It took a while to fully absorb this lesson (and I’m still learning it today), but I realized that I couldn’t respect a belief that hadn’t been questioned and challenged but stood up to scrutiny.

Conservatives may think of it as liberal brainwashing, but they couldn’t be further from the truth. Higher education gave me the tools to critically examine my beliefs and removed my fear of doing so, but it didn’t force any beliefs on me. Instead, it allowed me to let ideas compete freely.

The “problem” is, conservative ideas simply didn’t stand up to scrutiny. In the free marketplace of ideas, they lost, hard.

In entry level Econ, you learn that the free market leads to optimal outcomes for both producers and consumers, but you also learn that this is only true under a limited set of circumstances. Perfect information. Total competition. No barriers to entry.

Conservatism relies on an emotional component to their arguments - there is no good argument against LGBTQ rights, so Conservatives rely on their disgust for such “abominations”. There is zero evidence for religious belief, but questioning these beliefs can be very painful emotionally. Actual economic study after study shows that “trickle down economics” does not work, but Conservatism relies on popular support for Reagan to rally behind “Reagonomics”.

Conservative parents can ensure these “emotional tarrifs” keep getting applied when their kid is at home. Not out of malicious intent, but because they love their children, and the idea of them being brainwashed by the Coastal Elites into being a snowflake libtard disturbs them emotionally. So when their kid goes off to college and hopefully learns how to think critically and rationally, when Conservative ideals fail to compete freely, they freak out.

Look at Ben Shapiro. He claims to be a deep thinker. And yet, he has argued something to the effect of, “go to college so you can show people your degree, but don’t actually listen in class because they’re brainwashing you”. How utterly ridiculous! What a small fucking man! If liberal ideas are so ridiculous and easily debunked, why not listen? Afraid that your strong conservative mind will be poisoned by the Libtards’ honeyed words?

And it gets worse. Shapiro’s mantra is, “facts don’t care about your feelings”. Well, how does Shapiro feel about… oh I don’t know, gay marriage? Well, he hates it. Why? Well, he has a religious argument which we can safely ignore (facts don’t care about your feelings either, Ben) but also a so-called secular argument: that a man and a woman is a traditional marriage that produces children!

Ok, but why is that better? Why is tradition better? For thousands of years, people shat outside, in a hole in the ground or into the river they drink from. Is indoor plumbing also going against tradition? No? So where is a RATIONAL argument against gay marriage? Well… there isn’t one. That’s the secret Ben Shapiro doesn’t want you to know. Facts don’t care about YOUR feelings, but his entire philosophy is based around his own feelings.

Conservatives in a nutshell.

*Actually one person did - I had exactly one “leftist” professor in school, teaching an Economics of Poverty class. At the time I rolled my eyes at almost everything she said without really allowing myself to examine what she was saying; in hindsight, I was a bloody idiot. But it didn’t matter - I did my homework, wrote a term paper from a very fiscally conservative perspective, and aced the class. I certainly didn’t become more liberal because of it.

Meanwhile, I also had very conservative teachers. I had a rhetoric/debate professor who had been a speechwriter for Romney. As it happened I took his class during the Obama-Romney debates, and it was fascinating to deep dive into that topic with him. He did not share his beliefs with us though and I didn’t learn he was a Romney speechwriter until later, although he did tell us he worked for either Romney or Obama and we all correctly guessed Romney.

My long rambling post summed up in one sentence. Great job @Gyrate

You’re the only person I have ever heard suggest this weird idea. You go to university to learn about a subject and/or get a qualification; the fact that it tends to open people’s minds, is, as you say, because of being exposed to new people and new ideas. But even so, you don’t find a cross section of society there. My university, at least, was very middle class and probably only about 10% of the students were Conservatives. In many ways the students had an awful lot in common.

So yes, I always assumed it was exposure to new ideas that led to students becoming more liberal. But I was interested by the suggestion that conservatives’ fears have changed recently, and whether that’s based on any actual changes in colleges.

Of course not all views are equally valid. But I can’t say I have found left-wingers any more willing to challenge their thinking than right-wingers.

I stopped believing in god before I went to Uni, after reading Dawkins and similar (not the books on atheism, but the Selfish Gene and other books about science). But my family were never religious anyway, I’d just picked it up from school and society. I remember lots of interesting discussions, but the culture wars hadn’t spread from America back than, and social media didn’t yet exist. I don’t remember there being much of a force for conformity, but then my views fitted in with the majority, so maybe I just didn’t notice.

Like I said in the rest of the post, there was no “force for conformity” for me either (eta: and I went to college in the US at a time I’m sure you’d consider post-“culture war”). I certainly wasn’t cut off from religion - there was a Chabad rabbi in town who invited everyone to his home every Friday, which I took him up on a number of times. There was a less traditional congregation too, and they were heavy intertwined with the Jewish frat, AEPi.

I could have easily stayed in a Jewish bubble at school - honestly what turned me off was how much AEPi was drinking at the rush parties I went to Freshman year, when I was certain I’d pledge them as a continuation of the kinds of Jewish youth groups I was in in high school.

How long ago was it? And did you hold any beliefs that would get you pitted or called names if you mentioned them here?

10 years ago, and yes, definitely.

So at least 10 years ago, nothing had changed.