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Hicks: Liberalism on campus is mostly irrelevant

August 30, 2014

That academia is a creature of the left is hardly in question. Voting patterns and political contributions of professors are widely studied, and astonishingly leftist.

Diversity efforts seek to build a cadre of people who look different but think exactly alike.

Still, I wonder how much it really matters.

I have some bona fides on the subject. My earliest memories are of college campuses and field stations where my father studied, taught and pursued his research. Though I spent an early career as a soldier, outside academia, I am now halfway through my second decade as a professor, and have been tenured at three schools.

I am too liberal to survive a typical GOP primary and hold too few of the Democrat orthodoxies to be welcomed there. Still, it is telling that those beliefs get me labeled a right-wing zealot among many of my colleagues.

In my experience, few professors use their political feelings to inspire their coursework. A typical student will take 40 courses in an undergraduate degree, and most professors don’t think this sufficient to teach the fundamentals, much less dabble in politics.

We profs are evaluated on how well we research and teach, and on how well our students fare in standardized tests. For these reasons alone, partisan politics are more sporadic in classrooms than most people suppose. One of the best profs I have had was a devoted Marxist who never let it interfere with his math.

Students do much on campus outside the classroom that is colored by far-left ideologies. This is especially apparent in campus reading activities and speakers. But I wonder if it really matters.

A college education is intended to teach someone how to think, not what to think. No amount of college reading is sufficient to fully form a mind and it is as easy to critically read a Marxist tome as a Randian one.

Moreover, I am not sure an overtly leftist reading list wouldn’t backfire. After all, there are lots of alluring distractions on campus, and memories of a painful reading assignment can do little to inspire a second, more mature read.

Finally, I just don’t think college students are unformed lumps of clay. The simple fact is that college grads of all ages vote more conservatively than their peers. They are more likely to marry, less likely to divorce and more likely to attend church than their less-educated peers.

Colleges would benefit morally and financially by better balancing ideas within their faculty and programs, but they are hardly making leftists of American youth.•

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Hicks is the George and Frances Ball distinguished professor of economics and director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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