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The myth of ‘woke’ indoctrination of students

For the first time in decades, education policy has become a major issue in a Republican presidential campaign. Last month, former President Donald Trump, a frequent critic of “radical left indoctrination,” declared that he would cut funding to schools espousing “critical race theory,” “transgender insanity” or “any other inappropriate racial, sexual or political content.” Trump was trying to outbid Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has vowed to curb “woke indoctrination” and the use of tax dollars to teach kids “to hate our country or to hate each other.” South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, another potential Republican presidential contender, calls “defeating anti-American indoctrination” in schools “the biggest cultural challenge of our lifetime” and has pledged to restore “honest, patriotic education.”

Claiming, as then-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos once put it, that college and university faculty tell students “what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think,” Republicans have launched a scorched earth war against “woke education.”

In the last two years, 15 states have adopted educational gag orders restricting “discussions of race, racism, gender, and American history” in public schools, with seven states applying such orders to public higher education.

Campaigns to eliminate diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, undermine tenure, ban or sanitize books, and appoint MAGA extremists to public university boards are well underway.

Yet almost all the conservative claims about left-wing indoctrination are wrong.

All education involves imparting information “from someone’s point of view.” It is not indoctrination, for example, for a biology professor to teach evolution while rejecting creationism. Nor is it indoctrination to cite Jim Crow laws, segregation of schools and public transportation, grandfather clauses for voting, and the complicity of public officials in violent acts of intimidation against Blacks as evidence of systemic racism in the post-Civil War South. 

Education only becomes indoctrination when, in the words of a 2007 American Association of University Professors subcommittee report, “an instructor insists that students accept as truth propositions that are in fact professionally contestable,” and presents “such propositions dogmatically, without allowing students to challenge their validity or advance alternative understandings.” Thus, it is not indoctrination for a professor to assert her belief, based on research and disciplinary expertise, that systemic racism is (or is not) a defining feature of American life, gender is (or is not) fluid, capitalism is (or is not) the best system for allocating goods and services. It is indoctrination only if the professor refuses to countenance discussion or debate about these claims.

The “patriotic education” mandates pushed by anti-woke partisans, by contrast, are — practically by definition — indoctrination.

As a practical matter, opportunities for indoctrination arise far less often than conservative critiques of higher education suggest. According to one recent study of the University of North Carolina (UNC) system, “politics directly comes up” in only about 8 percent of the classes in which students enroll.

According to the same study, when controversial issues are raised, most faculty “try to discuss both sides of political issues and encourage opinions from across the political spectrum.” Concerns that faculty were not inclusive were “rare.” Even among conservative students, they never exceeded 16 percent.

Other studies yield similar results. At the University of Wisconsin system, “students reported substantially more frequent encouragement than discouragement of exploring a variety of viewpoints.” While a little over one third indicated they ever felt pressure “by an instructor to agree with a specific view,” only one third in that cohort said they felt such pressure often. Similarly, a 2020 survey of over 100 colleges found that only ten percent of students “sensed any pressure to align with their professor’s politics.”

It’s worth noting, moreover, that, while most college and university faculty are politically liberal, their views do not seem to have much influence on their students’ politics. At UNC, most students held “exactly the same ideological leanings as they did when they arrived at college,” although somewhat more students shifted left than right. A sample of over 7,000 students nationally showed students generally becoming “more tolerant of both liberal and conservative views.

Students do not come to college as empty vessels; they come with political views that are “highly resistant to change.” It is a rare student who does not know the political proclivities of an activist professor before taking their course. And students tend to be more influenced by their peers than by their professors.

The myth of “woke indoctrination” may serve the political interests of conservative activists and politicians, but at great cost to education in the United States. Groundless or exaggerated claims of indoctrination scare parents and underpin the recent wave of legislative intrusions on everything from curriculum to tenure. Almost 60 percent of Republicans now view higher education as negative for the country. A major reason is their belief that professors bring “their political and social views into the classroom.”

Claims of indoctrination also tend to obscure a more prevalent — and disturbing — problem on college campuses: almost 60 percent of college students report a reluctance to discuss controversial topics, even though over 60 percent also report that their university “‘frequently’ or ‘very frequently’ encourages students to consider a wider variety of viewpoints.” The primary reason they give is “fear of negative reactions or retribution from fellow students.”

Until now, education advocates have been playing defense. It’s time to sound a much louder alarm about the war on “woke education” and the myth of indoctrination that supports it.

Americans of all political persuasions should focus instead on ensuring that students learn the essentials of each discipline and how to distinguish facts from interpretations, evaluate evidence, and engage in constructive dialogue across ideological boundaries.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Isaac Kramnick) of “Cornell: A History, 1940-2015.”

David Wippman is the President of Hamilton College.

Tags 2024 Republican primary American history anti-WOKE Betsy DeVos Critical race theory diversity and inclusion Donald Trump Education in the United States Education policy educational curriculum free speech free speech on campus Higher education in the United States indoctrination Kristi Noem patriotic education Politics of the United States public school curriculum public school funding public school teachers public schools Race race and society racism in America Racism in the United States Republican Party Republican Party presidential primaries Ron DeSantis Stop WOKE Act Students withholding school funding woke woke culture

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