Validez empírica de sesgo ideológico en enseñanza universitaria USA
Julio 9, 2024

Do universities brainwash students? An attempt at empiricism

Universities in North America and elsewhere increasingly find themselves caught in the crosshairs of culture war conflict. The enduring trope that universities are sites of ‘liberal indoctrination’ appears to have gained wider traction in recent years: polls in the United States document growing levels of distrust in higher education, especially on the right where citizens express concern over ideology in curricula, with similar tensions observed in Canada, the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

Often these concerns are filtered through the bank of caricatures supplied by culture war narratives. On the right, campus social justice initiatives are sometimes depicted as irrational and out of touch with common sense, with students being ‘brainwashed’ into ‘woke madness’ by professors espousing ‘cultural Marxism’ and the like.

For others these concerns are often framed as a baseless moral panic peddled by bad-faith reactionaries that can be safely dismissed. But while culture war narratives can fan the flames of division, entrenching ‘us vs them’ binaries that can distort understanding, behind the rhetoric lie important questions that can – and should – be empirically tested.

In this spirit, my research with Professor Andrew Miles aims to cut through the fray by applying empirical analysis to questions concerning the moral and ideological consequences of higher education.

Does higher education change students?

Although the liberal leanings of the highly educated are regarded as among the most well- established findings in social science research, why this is the case is still unclear. Does higher education meaningfully change students towards more liberal worldviews? Or do differences across levels of education mostly represent inclinations that predate enrolment? Put differently, are students more liberal because of higher education, or are they more liberal to begin with?

We first began grappling with these questions in an article published in the American Sociological Review. Using panel data following a US sample of adolescents into young adulthood, our evidence suggested that selection into university doesn’t explain moral differences across the ‘diploma divide’ alone.

Moral differences grew more sharply following enrolment: students, especially those majoring in the humanities, arts and social sciences, adopted more cosmopolitan sensibilities and progressive views on social change. These changes increasingly distinguished them from their non-college peers and brought them closer to the profile common on the political left in the West.

This raised further questions: if students exhibit meaningful change, what aspects of the collegiate experience are responsible for that change? Are students internalising moral messaging they receive through classes, as critics tend to emphasise? Or does influence primarily flow from more informal sources like student peer groups?

What shapes moral change?

We followed up on these questions in our most recent article, “The university bundle: Unpacking the sources of undergraduate moral socialization”, published in the Journal of Moral Education. We tracked change in the moral attitudes of students from a Canadian university between 2019 and 2022, and examined if it was related to different aspects of the collegiate experience.

The patterns we observed were consistent with our earlier work – that is, students showed a shift in their moral views towards a cosmopolitanism typical of the left. However, our more fine-grained approach provided insight on different vectors of influence that complicate the stories often circulated in popular media.

First, the curricular content students were exposed to appeared to matter. Moral change was most pronounced among those enrolled in gender and sexuality, and-or race and ethnicity studies – an effect at least partially explained by the social justice messaging in the classroom.

Students who reported hearing claims such as ‘society is rife with systemic racism’, or that ‘the main divide in society is between the oppressor and the oppressed’ moved closer to moral concerns typical of the left, assigning greater importance to harm-reduction for individuals over and above the sanctity of group traditions.

However, classroom experiences were not unidirectional in their influence: the direction of moral change aligned with the political valence of ideas instructors endorsed. In fact, when students were exposed to more centre- or right-leaning messaging – such as instructors endorsing the virtues of capitalism, the importance of immigrant assimilation, of preserving traditions and so forth – they expressed more conservative moral concerns.

Exposure to these ideas was less common in practice, to be sure. However, our findings suggest that in principle the direction of student moral change is not set in stone.

Informal sources of influence

Influential as classroom instruction might be, it is also the case that instructors do not hold a monopoly over moral socialisation. Our study found that informal sources of influence could be equally as important as curricular content in shaping beliefs. Being immersed in peer networks of like-minded, left-leaning students, for instance, was particularly influential for affecting change.

Some evidence even indicated that those who experienced change were most distinguished by online engagement, suggesting that the beliefs students adopt may derive from beyond the campus.

Taken together, while moral socialisation during college often aligned students closer to a profile typical of the left, this appears to reflect the culmination of varied sources of influence.

I want to be careful not to overstate our findings. These studies have several methodological limitations, and it is possible that additional work addressing these shortcomings will yield different results. But in my view perhaps the main contribution of this work is that it directly tests strong claims that too often rest on anecdotes.

Moving away from simplistic narratives

As tends to be the case, simplistic narratives begin to unravel under closer scrutiny. While we did find that universities – and social justice-oriented instruction in particular – shift students towards more left-leaning moral sensibilities as critics have claimed, our latest study also shows that narratives of ‘indoctrination’ fail to capture the full story.

Rather than a monolithic project of top-down socialisation, moral change at universities flows from different sources and, in theory at least, can flow in a variety of directions. It is worth mentioning, too, that evidence of change during university does not discount the importance of selection processes in explaining the cultural tensions across educational divides – those who go to college are often already different from those who do not.

To understand (and mediate) cultural conflict, we need to avoid simplistic narratives that encourage crude caricatures in the public imagination. As scholars, we have an important role to play – one that involves remaining receptive to critiques by actively engaging diverse perspectives and using politically charged disagreements as invitations for closer empirical inquiry.

I am sure that our work is not the final word on the university’s role in shaping students’ moral worldviews, nor should it be. Because universities are one of the crowning jewels of modern society and represent a significant experience in the lives of millions of people, it is well worth taking the time to truly understand their place in the wider moral ecology.

Milos Brocic is an assistant professor in the department of sociology at McGill University, Canada, and Andrew Miles is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, Canada. Their article, “The university bundle: Unpacking the sources of undergraduate moral socialization”, is published in the Journal of Moral Education this weekend.

This article is a commentary. Commentary articles are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of University World News.


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