There’s been a bit of buzz around a recent study by Kyle Dodson, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced, showing that interaction with professors tends to have a moderating influence on the political views of students (contrary to the claim that professors have a “radicalizing” influence on students). This from Inside Higher Ed:
With regard to political views, academic engagement promoted moderation. “[T]he results indicate — in contrast to the concerns of many conservative commentators — that academic involvement generally moderates attitudes,” Dodson writes. “While conservative students do become more liberal as a result of academic involvement, liberals become more conservative as a result of their academic involvement. Indeed it appears that a critical engagement with a diverse set of ideas — a hallmark of the college experience — challenges students to re-evaluate the strength of their political convictions.”
The data on student activities demonstrate the opposite impact: The more involved that liberal students get, the more liberal they become, while the more involved conservative students get, the more conservative they become.” This finding suggests that students seek out and engage with familiar social environments — a choice that leads to the strengthening of their political beliefs.”
I’m happy that someone decided to study this, as the result certainly accords with my own experience. Teaching introductory political philosophy, I interact with lots of students with strong political views. The very left-wing and the very right-wing students always seem to be heavily involved in some sort of campus politics or clubs (debating, newspaper, etc.) I feel like I’m always saying to them “yes, but there is the other view that says…”
The mechanism at work among students is presumably an instance of the group polarization phenomenon. From this perspective, it’s not too difficult to see why professors might be “depolarizing.” Citing from the Sunstein article:
Of course not all groups polarize; some groups end up in the middle, not toward either extreme… [A]ffective factors appear to be quite important and complementary to persuasive arguments. People are less likely to shift if the direction advocated is being pushed by unfriendly group members; the chance of shift is increased when people perceive fellow members as friendly, likeable, and similar to them. Physical spacing tends to reduce polarization; a sense of common fate and intragroup similarity tend to increase it, as does the introduction of a rival “outgroup.”
From this perspective, the mere fact that students feel a bit alienated or intimidated by faculty would inhibit polarization — or the collective movement toward more extreme views. This may help to explain the logic behind the old hippie professor, whose first move in class is always to say “let’s put our desks in a circle,” and “you can call me Bill…” There is more than a little method in the old anti-establishment model of higher education.