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Lecturers can’t brainwash students, recent study suggests

Illustration: Chris Harrison

Illustration: Chris Harrison

A new study has criticized the conventional wisdom that lecturers influence the political views of their students. The research from the U.S, to be published in the spring, has claimed that their evidence shows that the development of the student’s politics “tend to run counter to claims of academic indoctrination.” The political views of the lecturers are often unrecognized, and do not “instigate political change in students.”However, the report included ammunition for those that denounce universities as hotbeds of radicalism. The study, conducted by husband and wife April Kelly-Woessner and Matthew Woessner, argued that students’ tend to “move to the left” whilst going through university but to explain this they point to the “liberalizing effect” of higher education, and claim that courses such as women’s studies, sociology and political science especially seem to cause individual students to shift leftwards.

Kelly-Woessner, who is a registered Democrat, designed the research ‘neutrally’ with her Republican husband, Matthew Woessner. They sent questionnaires to political science lecturers across America, asking them to describe and rate their political stances. The Woessner’s also asked the students of the participating academics to describe their own politics at the beginning and end of a school term.

‘The development of a student’s politics tend to run counter to claims of academic indoctrination’

This issue is much bigger in the United States than in the UK. In the UK the debate about academic neutrality isn’t one often taken up but in the US accusations of classroom ‘political brainwashing’ are common in the media and on campuses. Indeed, both the ferocity and prevalence of the debate might surprise British observers. In the States conservative pundits delight in accusing the ‘cultural and academic elite’ of partisanship, with liberal voices taking equal pleasure in claiming that students become more liberal during college simply because they’re becoming more intelligent. So pressing is the issue of academic neutrality been in the States that in 2007 the American Association of University Professors rewrote their Statement of principles to include guidelines for achieving political “fairness and balance.” The study claims to aid this search for academic neutrality as it praises “find minded” education, implicitly stating that a politically neutral academia is essential for the “creation of knowledge.”

Is it desirable, or even possible, for teachers to remain politically neutral? One member of the Sussex faculty, who wished to stress that he was not a permanent member of staff, claims that the answer is a round no to both questions. The staff member said, “considered provocation is more effective than a dry presentation of contending ideas”, and furthermore that “the notion that there could be a neutral perspective as opposed to a distinctively political one is ideological.” When asked whether they had expected a left wing political agenda to be impressed on them at Sussex, a first year student said “to be honest, I though there’d be more of that; I like arguing, playing the devil’s advocate. I suppose lecturers aren’t allowed to seem too opinionated.”

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