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Thursday, January 28, 2010

So Your Freedom-loving Kid is Going to College, Pt. 2

Taking the anxiety out of picking a congenial school.

In Part I last week I offered a few suggestions on finding a congenial school for a freedom-loving college-bound child.  The focus there was on “fit” and the importance of teaching.  This week, I elaborate on both and offer some other suggestions.

It is simply impossible, short of attending Hillsdale or Grove City College or some religious colleges, to avoid the fact that the vast majority of college faculty members will have a worldview different from yours and your child’s.  The classroom will inevitably reflect their views, just as my classes are colored by my views. The concern about potential “indoctrination,” however, should arise only if agreement with the teacher’s views determines the evaluation of the student’s work.  In my experience such behavior is more the exception than the rule.  The majority of left-leaning faculty, especially where teaching is valued, are not after students who agree with them but rather students who show a capacity for critical thinking, can express their views cogently in writing and in speech, and support them with evidence.

To gauge this, explore how focused the school is on helping their students acquire skills in writing, speaking, critical thinking, and research.  Are these goals featured prominently in the college’s promotional materials?  Are there clear places in the curriculum where those skills are taught?  And notice that “taught” is not the same thing as “assigned.”  Teachers who assign papers and speeches might assume students already have adequate skills.  Actually teaching them how to become better writers, speakers, and researchers is much harder (and more necessary) work.  Also ask if the institution commits resources to helping faculty engage in such instruction.

Where faculty members are publicly committed to teaching communication skills, their evaluation is far more likely to be on the process by which students create their work and the skills they demonstrate in doing so, rather than on the particular content.

Fairness Is Possible

Another useful strategy is to have your child ask other students if they feel they are graded on the basis of their ideological views.  It’s perfectly possible for a faculty member to have strong views yet grade student papers purely on how effectively they argue for their own views.  This tends to happen when the teaching of writing and speaking is a priority, but it’s always worth seeing what the students themselves say.

It is worth investigating whether other students and/or faculty members share your child’s political interests.  The presence of libertarian or conservative student groups can provide not only fellow students to share ideas and concerns with, but also a potential source of extra-curricular learning.  Such groups often invite guest speakers or organize book discussions.  Various freedom-oriented organizations are funding student groups on an increasing number of campuses, including smaller ones.

Finding libertarian-leaning faculty can be important as well, even if the student has no interest in the faculty member’s specialty.  Often those teachers serve as formal or informal advisers for student groups and can be important advocates for students if they find themselves being treated unfairly for what appear to be ideological reasons.  How well that faculty member has been treated by the institution can also be a guide to the college’s openness to diverse opinions.

Beware the Victim Mentality

Finally, a word of caution: It is important not to fall into the victim mentality.  I have seen too many cases where conservative students complain about “ideological discrimination” when the real problem is that they are not offering arguments and evidence that are sophisticated enough for the college classroom.  Even if you think, as I do, that left-leaning faculty sometimes let left-leaning students get away with lazy arguments, be above reproach.  The more that freedom lovers whine about being victims, the less seriously will our ideas be taken.

So to students I say: Find the college that is best for you academically and socially, and make sure it has a commitment to teaching generally and  to instructing students in communication skills and critical thinking specifically.  If it does, see if there are other freedom-minded students and faculty on campus and get a sense of the institutional tolerance for diverse ideas.  Then read my earlier column “The Low Road and the High Ground” and follow its suggestions on knowing both sides of major issues inside and out, arguing your views clearly and with evidence, and doing it all with a smile.

Conservative and libertarian students can have a very good experience in most colleges in the United States if they take their work seriously and respect those with whom they disagree.

  • 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.