Does Marxism Rule the Academy?Share
A look at concerns about Marxism, liberalism, and indoctrination in higher education.
One talking point in the culture wars is that post-modern neo-Marxist college professors are indoctrinating the youth. Some take a more moderate view of college professors, simply regarding them as excessively liberal and indoctrinating the youth in liberal dogma. While I am confident that the academy is not ruled by Marxists, there are still interesting questions about the extent of Marxism on campuses, the degree to which liberals dominate the academy and whether professors indoctrinate their students.
It is true that there are professors who are avowed Marxists. I have even met some. In some cases, they do understand Marxism and its implications. These are, not surprisingly, usually political science or philosophy professors. I have also encountered professors who seem to think they are Marxists, but do not seem to understand what that means. For example, I met one professor who claimed to be a pure Marxist, but also rambled about free will and what seemed to be metaphysical dualism. Real Marxists are metaphysical materialists and embrace economic determinism. Fortunately, Marxists are relatively rare even in the social sciences and humanities. As such, the idea that the academy is ruled by Marxists is not true. This is not to deny that there are weird Marxist professors who preach rather than teach, but to point out that that they are very rare. I do, however, have considerable sympathy for students who get caught up in that nightmare.
It is true that professors tend to be politically liberal and it has been claimed they are becoming more liberal. From my own experiences interacting with faculty from across the United States, I do agree that professors tend to be liberal. I do suspect that the claim that they are becoming more liberal might be because the political right in America has headed further to the right. To use an analogy, the distance between two cars will change even if only one moves. In any case, let it be accepted as true that professors tend to be liberal.
That professors tend to be liberal is no more surprising than the military and business tending to have more conservatives. However, there is the reasonable concern that the academy that is supposed to educate people is dominated by the left rather than representing the ideological diversity of the country. Ironically, consistent conservatives would presumably oppose affirmative action or diversity initiatives aimed at recruiting more conservative faculty. However, they could still go out and earn terminal degrees or support other conservatives in doing so and thus help increase the number of conservatives in academics. It would be a positive thing to have more conservative intellectuals in the academy (and in general). After all, ideology without opposition in the academy leads to a multitude of sins, most especially intellectual laziness.
While the liberal domination of the academy is a matter of concern, there is also the question of whether these faculty strive to indoctrinate their students in leftist ideology. There is also the question as to whether if they try, they succeed. In my own case, I am careful to teach the class content without pushing my own ideology. For example, in my ethics class I do not try to convert the students to my own ethical theory—they get the tools of moral reasoning as well as information about a range of moral theories. But, of course, I am but one professor.
As would be expected, there are those who have researched the matter and argue that the academy does not indoctrinate students and that college does not make people more liberal. It could be contended that those making these claims are biased since they are liberal academics or liberals. This is a fair point: liberal professors and liberals defending the academy must be justly regarded as biased. This does not, however, entail that they are wrong or that their arguments are flawed—to think otherwise would be to fall victim to an ad hominem. This is because while bias provides grounds for suspicion, it does not disprove a claim. After all, the same sort of bad reasoning could be applied to the conservatives who claim that the academy indoctrinates students to be liberals—as conservatives, they would tend to be biased against liberals.
This question is an empirical one—researchers can comb through a representative sample of syllabi, PowerPoint slides, course notes, and recordings of lectures to find the relevant evidence for or against the claim of indoctrination. This research would need to meet the usual standards of a proper inductive generalization: the sample would need to be large enough and representative enough to provide strong support for the conclusion. Because of this, singular tales of crazed Marxist professors or professors who teach in a fair and balanced manner would not suffice as adequate evidence. Such appeals would be examples of anecdotal evidence, which is fallacious reasoning. This fallacy involves taking an anecdote as evidence for a general claim. Samples that are too small would result in the fallacy of hasty generalization and biased samples would result in the fallacy of biased generalization.
As would be expected, both conservatives and liberals can be tempted to use anecdotes, excessively small samples and biased samples to “support” their view. I am certainly open to the results of a properly conducted, large-scale study of the academy—perhaps this is something that could be conducted by a bipartisan team of researchers. I am, of course, sure that there are some professors who do try to indoctrinate their students. This would be of concern, but the real worry would be if this occurred often enough to be a significant problem. One can use the analogy to how some make the point that while there are some bad police officers, this should not be taken as condemning the police in general. Likewise, for professors.
Even if it is found that a significant number of professors try to indoctrinate their students, there is also the question of whether they succeed. Having observed many professors across numerous institutions, I would say that we are generally not likely to indoctrinate our students. As the all too true joke goes, we have a difficult time getting them to do the readings, complete the work properly and show up to class. The idea that most professors can mold the youth into liberals with their diabolical temptations seems unlikely. This is not to say that professors have no influence at all nor to deny that there are not professors like Jordan Peterson who can sway the minds of the youth. But such charismatic corrupters are obviously quite rare—and would be more likely to pursue other, more lucrative careers.
It is worth noting that even if professors fail to indoctrinate their students, they are still wasting class time trying to preach rather than teach. This is a fair point—while off-topic discussions can be some of the best learning experiences in college, having a professor spending class time pushing their ideology rather than teaching is a disservice to the students. Of course, professors rambling about fishing stories, stamp collecting, or their favorite movies also wastes students’ time.
That said, it could be argued that professing does have a legitimate role in the classroom—if it has pedagogical value. Even if it does have some value, there is also the worry that by pushing a specific ideology, the professor will mislead the students about the merits or demerits of specific views. This all ties into the classic problem of the proper role of a professor—although the ideal often advanced today is that of a neutral conveyor of information and skills designed to prepare the job fillers for their existence as workers.