Sociologist Neil Gross counters Santorum’s charge about liberal colleges with research

Sociologist Neil Gross, whose work on this subject I have cited before, disagrees with Rick Santorum’s claim and argues that “college doesn’t make you liberal“:

But contrary to conservative rhetoric, studies show that going to college does not make students substantially more liberal. The political scientist Mack Mariani and the higher education researcher Gordon Hewitt analyzed changes in student political attitudes between their freshman and senior years at 38 colleges and universities from 1999 to 2003. They found that on average, students shifted somewhat to the left — but that these changes were in line with shifts experienced by most Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 during the same period of time. In addition, they found that students were no more likely to move left at schools with more liberal faculties.

Similarly, the political scientists M. Kent Jennings and Laura Stoker analyzed data from a survey that tracked the political attitudes of about 1,000 high school students through their college years and into middle age. Their research found that the tendency of college graduates to be more liberal reflects to a large extent the fact that more liberal students are more likely to go to college in the first place.

Studies also show that attending college does not make you less religious. The sociologists Jeremy Uecker, Mark Regnerus and Margaret Vaaler examined data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and found that Americans who pursued bachelor’s degrees were more likely to retain their faith than those who did not, perhaps because life at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder can be rough in ways that chip away at religious belief and participation. They report that students “who did not attend college and two-year college students are much more likely — 61 and 54 percent more, respectively — than four-year college students to relinquish their religious affiliations.”…

The main reason for this development is that attacking liberal professors as elitists serves a vital purpose. It helps position the conservative movement as a populist enterprise by identifying a predatory elite to which conservatism stands opposed — an otherwise difficult task for a movement strongly backed by holders of economic power.

Is this enough research to satisfy critics or do the studies not really matter in the face of political concerns?

While these studies might show that students are not all being pushed into liberalism, I imagine conservatives might bring up other arguments. For example, professors have a certain level of prestige in society and so if a majority are proponents of liberal opinions, then society could be swayed in certain directions. Policy decisions might be made. Public opinion could be influenced (though this might require suggesting that Americans are easily swayed). Or another issue: colleges and universities receive federal funding and so liberal professors can access taxpayer money to promote their causes.

Academics tend to brush aside these arguments by suggesting they can still be objective researchers (and I tend to agree) regardless of their own political or personal opinions. But there is still a perception issue here that academics could work harder to dispel. At times, I think it wouldn’t take much: show some respect for religion, stop suggesting that people with traditional or conservative ideas are all ill-intentioned, hint that popular culture and the suburbs aren’t a complete wasteland, and don’t be condescending.

Americans, upward mobility, elitism

Anne Applebaum at Slate thinks about a common tactic in this election season: decrying “elites” or “elitism.” Why exactly are some political figures derided for taking advantage of America’s meritocracy?

Despite pushing aside the old WASP establishment—not a single WASP remains on the Supreme Court—these modern meritocrats are clearly not admired, or at least not for their upward mobility, by many Americans. On the contrary—and as Bell might have predicted—they are resented as “elitist.” Which is at some level strange. To study hard, to do well, to improve yourself—isn’t that the American dream? The backlash against graduates of “elite” universities seems particularly odd given that the most elite American universities have made the greatest effort to broaden their student bodies.

These ideas about elites and elitism do seem tied to particular colleges and settings, like Ivy League schools. Could a political candidate attack make an effective charge of elitism versus someone who had done really well with an advanced degree from a state school?

Another problem could be anti-intellectualism. Leaders who were able to work their way through top schools may be regarded differently than leaders who worked their way up through the business or political ladder. The intellectual is not as prized in America (think of the attention “public intellectuals” receive in American life compared to other groups of people) and may not be seen as the same kind of “self-made person.” Perhaps this could be tied into Bourdieu’s ideas about the differences among those with lots of capital: there is a split between those with educational capital and those with economic capital.