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When College Classrooms Become Ideologically Segregated, Everyone Suffers

College classrooms, one of the few spaces capable of encouraging civil disagreement, are becoming partisan islands.

by Jon A. Shields /
Image: Why America needs more conservative liberal arts majorsCristina Spano / for NBC News

Americans seem increasingly to be sorting themselves into communities of the like-minded. This new political segregation is evident in nearly all institutions of American life — from the neighborhoods we call home to the mass media we consume. It is also reshaping classrooms in America’s universities — one of the few institutions capable of encouraging civil and reasonable disagreement in our polarized nation.

Whatever your ideological leaning, this is intensely troubling. America needs ideological diversity in its classrooms, particularly in those that touch on political and social issues.

A decade ago Stephen R. Porter and Paul D. Umbach, experts in education policy, assessed factors that predict undergraduate major choice by surveying undergraduates at an unnamed elite liberal arts college. They found, after controlling for many variables, that politics were a powerful predictor of major, rivaled only by personality. Conservative students, say Porter and Umbach, are far less likely to major in the humanities and social sciences than their liberal peers.

So what explains this difference? Some suggest that conservatives are more likely than liberals to choose engineering than, say, history because they are more concerned with making money.

It’s a plausible theory with only one major problem: It isn’t true. When undergraduates are queried by the nationwide College Senior Survey, conservatives tend to place only slightly more emphasis on making money. Apparently, the desire for wealth is bipartisan.

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Even when we account for such differences, students’ politics remain a strong predictor of which major they choose.

Others have argued that conservatives and liberals vary in their intellectual strengths and interests — with liberals skewing more artsy and creative. Porter and Umbach’s study, however, also refutes this account.

So, even when we account for such differences, students’ politics remain a strong predictor of which major they choose. In addition, students active in conservative campus groups avoid classes and majors that focus on political and social issues despite evident interest, according to a 2014 study by University of Southern California sociologist Amy Binder and independent researcher Kate Wood.

Binder and Wood’s findings are consistent with my own impressions as an associate professor of government at a selective liberal arts college in California. When I talk to conservative campus groups, for example, I am invariably struck by just how few of their members major in humanistic areas of study.

Why are conservatives with a strong interest in the social world avoiding classes where they can focus on it? Largely because disciplines like sociology, history, political science, literature and philosophy have all been deeply shaped by progressive intellectual currents.

These currents have influenced both the questions these disciplines pose and the theories that explain them. There are also fewer conservative professors in the social sciences and humanities to mentor right-wing students, or even bring some balance to the curriculum. On many campuses there are none. So, it’s not surprising that liberal students are more excited by fields that are both shaped and taught by progressive thinkers.

The exception that proves the rule is economics — the only social science major that attracts conservative students in significant numbers. It does so partly because it enjoys a long history of openness to thinkers on both sides of the political divide. That’s also why economics continues to draw a sizable contingent of conservative graduate students and professors.

Outside of economics, however, classrooms in the social sciences are among the least politically diverse spaces on campus. To borrow Frank Bruni’s phrase, they are “homogenous islands.”

Why are conservatives with a strong interest in the social world avoiding classes where they can focus on it?

In this era of fierce partisanship, conservative students are pushed away from the social sciences and humanities by both the left and the right. Republican students, according to a 2014 University of Colorado survey, were far more likely than their Democratic peers to say they feel intimidated when expressing their political views in class.

Relatedly, a 2017 national campus expression survey of around 500 colleges students found that conservative students “are far more reluctant to speak up” about politics in class than their liberal peers.

At the same time, movement conservatives exacerbate such fears by highlighting and exaggerating the intolerance of higher education. A PEW survey this year found that 58 percent of Republicans now think that universities have a negative effect on the nation, up from 45 percent just a year ago. If conservative distrust continues to increase, classroom segregation may get even worse.

These findings undermine some of the more partisan claims about universities. Many conservative critics, for example, insist that far-left radicals are indoctrinating students. But how can conservatives be turned into liberals by left-wing professors if they aren’t taking their classes? The reality is that leftist professors are largely preaching to self-selected choirs.

Some on the left, meanwhile, say that there are so few conservative professors in the social sciences and humanities because the right-wing mind is inherently allergic to science and rational inquiry. If that’s true, why are conservative students more likely than their liberal peers to gravitate toward the most scientific majors?

All this points to a deeper and bipartisan problem: After all, no other U.S. institution better prepares students for their lives as citizens by promoting civil debates across the ideological spectrum.

That’s always a crucial educational goal. But it has become critical in this terribly polarized nation that we’re living in today. Consider, at least a third of parents would be upset if their son or daughter married someone of a different political party, according to one 2015 study.

If universities truly aim to be radical, countercultural institutions, they should ameliorate — not reinforce — this sort of polarization by helping students learn how to be good citizens.

This is an achievable aim. Conservatives students could, for example, be reassured by their university’s social scientists and humanists that they are needed in their classrooms and will be treated with respect. Professors could also broaden their syllabi to include a wider range of thinkers and subjects.

Universities could even improve the diversity of their faculty at the margins — perhaps hiring conservative professors as visitors, as the University of Colorado has recently done. This might prompt conservative activists and politicians to de-escalate their war against the university — a development that would confer greater public legitimacy at a time when it is desperately needed.

One thing is certain: Universities need to experiment with new, bold initiatives if they want to be part of the solution, and not part of the cause, of our American echo chamber.

Jon A. Shields is an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and the co-author, with Joshua M. Dunn, of "Passing On The Right: Conservative Professors In The Progressive University."

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