Home » Perspective » College ‘indoctrination’? Take the survey

By Ken Paulson, published on June 30, 2021

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Gov. Ron DeSantis has just signed into law a bill purporting to fight ideological “indoctrination” on Florida’s public campuses. That raises a couple of key questions.


Why does the government believe its universities are hotbeds of radical thought? And where exactly is the Berkeley of the Sunshine State?


The new legislation provides for a survey of public university professors and students to determine whether adequate “intellectual diversity” exists.


The premise is that left-leaning professors are indoctrinating students with liberal views and repressing the free expression of conservative students. It’s a great talking point for the conservative base.


But let’s be clear. Criticizing professors and “intellectuals” has always been a great talking point for the base. An article in the Chronicle for Higher Education headlined “From ‘Snobs’ to ‘Pointy-Headed College Professors’ to ‘Eggheads’” recalled how Vice President Spiro Agnew attacked “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” Newt Gingrich criticized campus research, saying taxes were “used to subsidize bizarre and destructive visions of reality.”


Almost a decade ago, Rick Santorum called President Obama a “snob” for encouraging enrollment in college. “There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor to try to indoctrinate them,” he said.


Sound familiar? Although DeSantis insists he’s addressing a new concern, it comes from a well-worn playbook.


So is there a crisis on Florida’s campuses?


Unfortunately, the survey won’t offer much illumination.


Under the First Amendment, faculty members and students cannot be compelled by the government to respond to the survey, and professors will ignore it as an assault on academic freedom. Busy students won’t participate in significant numbers.


The likely result is that conservative students and professors will complain about liberal campuses, and the results can then be touted for political reasons.


As a public service, let me offer my own survey. It’s intended to be taken by just one person, preferably the one reading this column:

  1. When you were 21 years old, were you an independent thinker or did you look to someone 30 years your senior to tell you what to think?
  2. If you went to college, do you recall repeated efforts to indoctrinate you into a specific political viewpoint?
  3. In college, you would have taken about 40 courses over a four-year period covering a wide range of subjects. How many of those ever addressed political issues?
  4. Are you more conservative or liberal today than you were when you were 18?

Of course, each of us will have a different answer, but let me share my own perspective. I’ve been a dean or professor for the past nine years in the very red state of Tennessee. The students I teach work very hard, often juggling more than one job, to pay their tuition. Their focus is on getting an education, and they have no patience for professors who stray from the subject matter. Most courses have nothing to do with social policy or politics. There’s no potential for “indoctrination” in algebra, construction management or chemistry.


And, oh, yes, I think most students tend to lean more liberal than the general population. It’s a function of youthful exploration and a tendency to challenge authority, including that of their professors.


The principles are clear and important. Everyone on a college campus should feel free to express themselves, regardless of their viewpoint. No professor should impose his or her opinion on students.


Yes, we do see occasional news reports of professors – particularly at Ivy League institutions – crossing the line and trying to censor a student. The subsequent outrage leaves many with the impression that this is the norm.


It isn’t. Every profession has its unprofessional outliers. But most educators at all levels do what they were hired to do – share knowledge and prepare students for the lives and professions to come.


It’s insulting to college-age students to suggest that they are malleable young people just waiting for a sociology teacher to tell them what to think. They are what we all once were: young, largely confident and free-thinking people eager to get their first jobs and enjoy their independence. They’re no one’s puppets.


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Ken Paulson is the director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, a former editor of  USA Today, a former editor at Florida Today and a former reporter at the Fort Myers (Fla.) News-Press.


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