Universities Are Doing Leftist Students a Huge Disservice

AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson

There has been much debate over progressive bias in academia. From the time I first got into politics in my early 20s, the issue has been widely discussed on the airwaves and interwebs.

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There have been plenty of news stories and op-eds written about how higher education is dominated by leftists who diminish conservative thought on campus. They have often demonized students and faculty who espouse right-leaning views.

Yet, we rarely hear about the silver lining for conservative students in these environments. I came across a piece written by Dr. Lauren A. Wright for The Atlantic in which she points out how the left-wing bias on college campuses actually benefits conservative students. In the piece, she points out that “Conservative students, rather than being coddled, face significant intellectual and social challenges in college.”

At Princeton University, where I have taught political science for seven years, conservative students make up just 12 percent of undergraduates. Throughout college, they hear alternative perspectives and hone their own arguments, anticipating opposition. In research for a book in progress—Tested: Why Conservative Students Get the Most Out of Liberal Education—I conducted dozens of in-depth interviews with students at Princeton and other competitive schools. Of the 28 conservatives I’ve spoken with so far, more than 90 percent report attending events featuring speakers with whom they disagree, compared with less than half of the 15 liberals I’ve interviewed. Nearly all of the conservatives said that they’ve been challenged by professors or other students in classroom discussions, but just two of the liberals said the same. These reports echo national surveys, which find that conservative students are more open to speakers of any ideological bent than are liberal students, who tend to support only speakers they agree with.

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Wright points out that this exposure to opposing viewpoints better equips conservative students with a more comprehensive understanding of various issues, from abortion to the Israel/Palestinian conflict to environmental policy. She found that right-leaning students were more adept at articulating left-wing viewpoints on a variety of issues, while their left-leaning counterparts struggled in this regard.

While it might be challenging to have to consistently deal with opposing views, right-leaning students are able to hone their intellectual capacity and critical thinking ability. Developing these skills helps them prepare for their post-university lives. However, the same cannot be said for leftist students. “Liberal students, surrounded by like-minded peers and mentors, have less opportunity to grow in this way,” Wright explains.

When asked about the pro-Israel side of the debate, one left-leaning student responded, “It’s too icky.” Another leftist student, when questioned about abortion, could only muster, “I don’t really think that’s an issue.”

Leftist students exhibited a shallow engagement with opposing viewpoints. This, more than anything else, shows that the world of academia is doing a massive disservice to students – especially those who espouse left-of-center viewpoints. The lack of challenges leads to a serious intellectual deficit when it comes to public discourse. This isn’t to say that these individuals are not intelligent, but the lack of intellectual friction has rendered them unable to respond to dissenting views with a significant level of rigor.

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By shielding these students from confronting contrary opinions, colleges and universities have failed to prepare them for the real world, where they encounter diverse perspectives. They are depriving them of the skills they need to navigate complex discussions on the issues.

Even further, academia has largely conditioned left-leaning students to believe that debate is not worth having. Instead, debate should be shut down or otherwise silenced – especially when it involves people with drastically different worldviews. It can be no wonder, then, that so many left-leaning students support online and in-person censorship and believe it is appropriate to shout down speakers with opposing views.

While conditioning younger generations to believe that free speech should be limited to viewpoints acceptable to progressive ideology, they are encouraging another brand of authoritarianism by failing to equip these individuals with the skills necessary to engage in discussion and debate. By keeping these young Americans in an echo chamber that they will voluntarily seek out after college, they are paving the way for even more division. Unfortunately, this outcome is inevitable when educational institutions are fixated on telling students what to think rather than how to think.

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