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Campus winds should also blow to the right (Scripps Howard News Service) April 14, 2002

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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This spring our family joins thousands of parents and students in search of a college. Sending your teenage child away for four years is a frightening prospect, and I worry about many of the same things other dads do: money, safety, grades, friends.

But having spent 30 years on college campuses, I have developed another concern that may not be on every parent’s radar screen. I am frustrated that, in order to study at most of America’s top-ranked universities, our children must spend four key years surrounded by people and ideas that are largely at odds with my core beliefs and values.

It is ironic that one place you will not find a truly broad education, at least culturally and politically, is in America’s top colleges and universities. But almost all the philosophical winds on America’s highly regarded campuses blow in only one direction: due left, toward a liberal world view.

I experienced it as a student 30 years ago, and I see it as a parent today. I’ve heard the old saw that kids naturally become more liberal in college but may swing back to more conservative values when they start making money and paying taxes. But I wonder why a broad, liberal arts education should slant in any one direction, and why we put up with it.

Of course the primary reason the winds on campus blow to the left is that faculty, which creates most of the wind, is aimed in that direction. Studies show that faculty who consider themselves “liberal” outnumber “conservative” professors by more than 2 to 1. And in the humanities and social sciences, where the philosophical winds have the most impact, an astonishing 70 percent of faculty are liberal, compared with 15-18 percent who are conservative. Some professors are quite circumspect about keeping their political views to themselves, but many, who believe there are no respectable views left of center, leave no doubt where they stand.

As both an educator and a father, I am troubled by the one-way political and cultural street our students travel on campuses. Aside from recruiting a broader range of faculty, what can be done?

– For one think, university presidents and other administrators can provide real leadership on the matter. Things had become highly politicized at my alma mater, for example, until a new president began emphasizing one of the university’s slogans: “Let the winds of freedom blow.” As he stressed, the winds of freedom blow in many directions, and this attitude helped create more “space” for a wider range of views. Sometimes that is all that is needed.

– Faculty should watch for the line between teaching and propagandizing. Academic freedom is one of a faculty’s highest values, but it should extend to students as well. Our kids should be free to learn subjects from many points of view, not just one. One controversial matters, teachers should be careful to assign readings from differing perspectives and provide support for them in class.

– Parents should get over their obsession with sending their children to the Ivy League and top 10 universities where the culture tilts so much in one direction. Graduating from a college with a good academic reputation, but with your values adrift, is a mixed blessing at best. There are some outstanding universities where the education is not so politicized or aimed in a particular direction. When consumers begin to vote with their feet and bypass an elite university because of its philosophical slant, believe me, college boards and presidents will begin to notice.

– Finally, students themselves must play a role in finding a more balanced education. Look at reading lists before you select courses, and ask around about the professor’s reputation for bias. Take up internships and find other ways to get out of the “ivory tower” so that there are other influences on your thinking. When you have the freedom to choose a research topic, select one that will stretch your thinking in new directions. Make sure it is the set of your sail, and not the professorial gale, that determines your course.

A liberal arts education need not be only liberal. The winds of democracy blow right as well as left, and sometimes up the middle. So should the philosophical winds on our college campuses.

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