Admit It, American Colleges Do Indoctrinate Students

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As usual, Rick Santorum got a lot wrong in his remarks on higher education. But he's right that attempts are made to imbue students with certain values.



Rick Santorum earned a bachelors degree in 1980, a masters degree in 1981, and a law degree in 1986. When he last ran for office, his campaign site declared that he is "committed to ensuring the every Pennsylvanian has access to higher education." And extolling college is a decades old bipartisan trope in American politics. So it's unfair for the former Pennsylvania senator to attack President Obama as a "snob" for saying that he wants all kids to go to college, and even more unfair to assert that he wants to send them there so that they can be indoctrinated.

But can we please admit that many four year colleges do in fact attempt to indoctrinate students? And that a lot of Americans, including President Obama, regard that as a good thing?  

Start with the sort of indoctrination that is least controversial. An ideology of anti-racism prevails at most American colleges. Show me a kid who writes a racial epithet on the dry erase board on his dorm room door, or drapes a big Confederate flag out his window, and I'll show you a kid who is about to have a conversation with the Office of Residential Life. I'd wager that if Rick Santorum himself were made a Dean of Campus Life he'd intervene to address outright racism.

To what sorts of indoctrination might he object?

If I think back on residential life at Pomona College, my alma mater, I suppose Santorum would reject the deliberate effort to normalize homosexuality in the minds of students who'd never been around out gays and lesbians before, the distribution of free condoms and lube by campus health, the implicit embrace of non-procreative sex, the institutional support for affirmative action, the creation of race-based mentor groups, and the co-ed dorms, among other things*.

I think Santorum overstates the degree to which colleges and universities push secularism on students. Religious groups were welcomed on campus at Pomona and New York University, where I went to graduate school. I see that Harvard's Office of Student Life has a "Lenten Bible series for BGLTQ Christians." I think that's great. I wonder what Santorum would make of it. I count at least 21 other student religious groups given official recognition by that university. If Santorum is correct that "62 percent of kids who go into college with a faith commitment leave without it," I suspect that's because when you raise a young person with one set of ideas, reinforce them via a faith community, and then send that young person far away from the community, to a place where they're exposed to a lot of different ideas, they often change their beliefs.

It is nevertheless true that institutions of higher education generally value reason more than faith; they value intellectual achievement more than moral achievement; they're implicated in America's careerism; they advance a whole host of value judgments under the banner of diversity, some of them uncontroversial, others deeply contested; and if the typical American college was more like Hillsdale or Notre Dame or Bob Jones than Harvard in its value judgments, I cannot believe President Obama would be equally enthusiastic about subsidizing them.

Am I wrong?

Image credit: Reuters

*Conservatives are always complaining about liberal college professors, but in my experience the average faculty member is attuned to keeping his or her beliefs and the ideas he or she teaches separate. Insofar as deliberate indoctrination goes on in higher education it almost always comes from staff, administrators and classmates.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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