Do Radical Professors Produce Radical Students?

What Women Really Think
July 14 2009 3:03 PM

Do Radical Professors Produce Radical Students?

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A simple but telling little study from the University of Brussels challenges the idea that college kids are gobs of clay passively waiting to be molded by their professors. In general, students of social science are more likely to graduate college as self-defined leftists, while law and economics graduates tilt the other way. To find out why, sociologists gave various cohorts of university students surveys when they entered their schools and when they graduated. They found that while socialization-that is, time with their presumably Marxist professors and fellow students-may have had some effect, the effect of selection was much stronger. Left-leaning students were selecting into disciplines like sociology, right-leaning into economics. Both moved only very slightly to the left during their time as students.

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The acknowledgement that 18-year-olds already have robust opinion-making capacities provides an obvious challenge to decades of conservative hysteria over radicals running our universities . But any finding of this nature also challenges liberal notions of the transformative power of education. Data on, say, the provision of comprehensive sex education to high schoolers and its resultant effect on behavior are pretty uninspiring, as are data on abstinence-only programs. Culture wars seem to thrive on blank slatism.

Photograph by Getty Images.

Kerry Howley's work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and the New York Times Magazine. She is currently finishing a book about consensual violence, ecstatic experience, and the body.

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