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Thursday, January 21, 2010

So Your Freedom-loving Kid Is Going to College, Pt. 1

How do you pick the right school?

Colleges, and especially college professors, take a beating from freedom lovers these days.  And it isn’t without some desert. Organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education have documented all kinds of abuses of students’ rights by institutions and individuals in higher education.  It is also clearly true that college faculty, at least at the major universities, are significantly to the political left of the American public and certainly no friends of the really free markets that The Freeman Online readers are likely to support.  So what to do if you have a college-bound junior or senior in your house as the season of college visits marches on?   Are there ways to try to make sure he or she has the best experience possible?  There are, and in this week’s and next week’s column I’ll offer some suggestions.

One obvious choice is to attend a college with a reputation for being sympathetic to the freedom movement, such as Grove City or Hillsdale.  Another choice is to attend a religious institution whose values parallel those of your son or daughter.  These are a solution for some, but clearly not anywhere near a majority.  What to do if your kid doesn’t want to go either of those routes?

Before even asking freedom-related questions, find schools that are good fits in all other relevant respects.  Students do best when they go to colleges that feel right to them across a whole range of variables that have nothing to do with freedom issues.  It would be a mistake for a young person to decide on a college only, or even predominantly, for its political environment.  Many prominent libertarians are products of schools not so conducive to libertarian ideas.  I went to the University of Michigan as an undergraduate, having already become a libertarian.  I not only survived, I loved every minute of it.

One of the great advantages of attending a left-leaning school is that you get exposed to the best arguments that the opponents of free markets have to offer.  I’m a much better scholar and much more able to interact with my professional colleagues on the left today for having been through that experience.  As John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty, the only way to know how good your own arguments are is to expose them to dissenting views.  (This, I should add, is also the downside of attending a school that has an explicit conservative or libertarian image — you don’t get exposed nearly as much to the best that others have to offer.)

In general, though, if you and your child are concerned about so-called “political correctness” and monolithic thinking by the faculty, there are a few things you should try to find out.  First, how highly does the school value teaching and how much teaching do regular faculty do?  Schools where teaching is rewarded and is done by the regular faculty (as opposed to graduate assistants or even temporary faculty) are much less likely to have the sorts of “classroom indoctrination” horror stories we read about.  If you follow those stories, note how often the problematic faculty member is an adjunct (temporary faculty) or a graduate assistant.  The indoctrination-oriented classroom is just bad teaching, and students know it and will complain about it on evaluations and in other forums. It will backfire on faculty.  Really good teachers, even if they have strong views, know that trying to cram them down the throats of undergraduates makes for a really bad classroom and won’t work in any case.

Critics of left-leaning faculty don’t give young people enough credit. Most of them know indoctrination when they see it, and the last thing most of them want to do is adopt the beliefs of their elders.  They just aren’t that conformist, as the parent of any teenager will tell you.

Even though I wouldn’t change my own undergraduate experience, 20 years of teaching at a small liberal-arts college has made me more of a believer in the value of those kind of schools than I ever was before.  (And I’ve put my money where my mouth is: My own son attends a school that mostly falls into that category.)  Liberal-arts colleges meet the criteria above much more so than larger state or private schools.  It’s also worth noting that a number of U.S. liberal-arts colleges have recently become home to small groups of faculty associated with the Austrian school of economics.  For students who care about freedom, these sorts of schools can often be good environments.

In part II I’ll offer some other strategies and suggest questions to ask as you explore your options.

  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.