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October 31, 2012

 ClassroomBy Stephen Smoot 

It’s not us, it’s you.

This paraphrases the basic theme of the latest in a
series of studies by Clemson University’s Darren Linvill and Joseph Mazer.  In short, left wing bias does not come from
academic leftists, but from students too unskilled to take on faculty in
debate.

According to an article scheduled to be published in
Communication Education next January,
Linvill and Mazer argue that if students came to college with better
argumentation skills, they would be less likely to see professors as biased.  Also it claims that students who enjoy
arguments will defend their beliefs in class more often and be less likely to
hide their ideals.

This mimics the results of a study published in College Teaching in 2011 by, again,
Darren Linvill.  It also attacked the
ability of college students to perceive or understand left wing bias in their
college classrooms.

In other words, when West Virginia University
engineering student Michael Boggs says “college campuses are liberal and I
doubt they are ever going to change,” the study will not say that he bases his
perception on reasonable experience.   It will claim that the 24 year old Iraq War veteran
has not yet learned to argue effectively.

Some of the methods behind the study remain open to
question.  Linvill and Mazer surveyed 45
freshmen, 65 sophomores, 84 juniors, but questioned only 32 seniors and no
graduate students.  It omitted the most
articulate students who could best discuss left wing bias. 

Linvill’s studies examine the individual tree to
generalize about the whole forest. 
Classroom interactions are important. 
Bias, however, expresses itself in a number of ways.  Why does one college’s “Festival of Ideas”
series of speakers promise a diversity of viewpoints, but only offer liberals
from a variety of fields?  Why do, as
University of Dayton professor Larry Schweikart describes, so many textbooks
attack the notion that America is exceptional, or even special?  Why do course offerings seem to so heavily favor
the liberal and left agendas, while conservatives get attacked or ignored?

What about the plain fact that absolute monarchs
rarely held the power enjoyed by a tenured professor within his or her
classroom?  Professors must take great
pains to reassure students that open debate is encouraged because of the very
nature of their powerful role.

Studies from liberal academics that say there is
little or no liberal bias are useless.  Conservative
activists should understand that liberal professors will use studies like this to
fight accusations of bias.

Amazingly, the same liberals who blast “blame the
victim” studies in research on poverty or discrimination seem to embrace the
idea when conservatives face discrimination. 

Bias can take many forms.  Sometimes it is intentional.  Course offerings, personnel hiring, etc. can
be guided by an agenda.  In other cases,
it comes from groupthink.  Enough
individuals of like minds come together and see their worldview as the only
rational one.  Bernard Goldberg described
this process in Bias.  Although the book is about the media, the same
factors affect the academic world. 
Goldberg quotes a Peter Jennings statement from 2001 that sounds eerily
similar to Linvill’s conclusions.  “I
think bias is very largely in the eye of the beholder.”

In other words, many of America’s college campuses
and their professionals have no idea that they are biased.  Even more than the media, many operate in
their own worldview, almost completely shut off from true engagement with the
world.

The schoolyard bully cannot defend him or herself by
saying that the other kids should learn to fistfight better.  Just in the last week a college instructor’s
liberal bias discrimination suit went to trial. The plaintiff in the case
produced emails from other professionals who warned her to hide her beliefs.
Would Linvill argue that graduate students and untenured professors who hide
their values are also unskilled in argument? Or has an atmosphere of
intolerance set in at many of our institutions of higher learning? 

Colleges and universities need to understand that
true diversity comes from bringing together and respecting a wide variety of
backgrounds and ideals.  Only then can
even handed debates on important issues begin. 

Stephen Smoot is the Director of Academic Programs at the National Journalism Center.

 

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