Brainwashing versus Enlightenment: Exploring the left-wing bias in universities

By in Features/Opinions

Universities all across Canada have a reputation for being leftwing institutions, and the University of Saskatchewan is no different. Why is it that there seems to be a leftwing bias at universities, and what are the implications of this?

According to a study conducted by the Adam Smith Institute, universities in Britain are much more left-wing than the general public, and university environments in Canada are likely similar. However, there are many other occupations where the opposite is true — the majority of farmers are conservative, for example. The difference is that farmers are not shaping the minds of the next generation, and university professors are, at least to a certain extent.

A common argument from the right is that social sciences and humanities students have been brainwashed to develop left-wing ideologies. To combat this, it is valuable for students to learn to think critically, which is a skill that may be impeded if professors plant their own biases in the subject matter.

In a lot of colleges, the professor’s political views don’t necessarily matter, but in the College of Arts and Science especially, there is a danger that the only viewpoint students are being taught is the left-wing one.

Erik Carey, a second-year political studies student, explains that students may feel that they need to keep their opinions quiet in order to thrive in the more predominantly left-wing areas of the university.

“Because of the institutional liberalism, I think lots of people keep their opinions to themselves — especially in political studies classes and classes like that,” Carey said. “Some people might think their grades depend on what they say.”

University is a time for discovery. It is likely that most students entering university have not spent a lot of time reading philosophy or thinking about the big questions, like how we can create a more just world. Students all go through a personal enlightenment when they start to learn about all the ideas that are out there and to develop their own ideologies.

Carey believes that students should be given the chance to form their own opinions rather than be taught biased information.

“A lot of the social justice stuff that the university — the professors and the curriculum — pushes is very biased. It’s one way of looking at the world [that] can range from extreme left to pretty liberal to maybe even progressively conservative,” Carey said. “If that kind of stuff were eliminated, and people were allowed to make up their own minds about the pressing issues of the day, then I think that would go a long way to helping things.”

With biases present in many social sciences classes, new students may not be able to distinguish between facts and opinions, which is why open discussions among students are so important in university classes.

A big part of getting a university degree is learning how to filter through which information is as objective as possible and which information is biased. As long as students feel that they are able to disagree with the viewpoints they are being taught, biases do not have to be a problem.

Kylie Phillips, a third-year political studies student, discusses how important it is for university students to be exposed to different viewpoints in order to develop their own ways of thinking.

“I think university is a really great place for [critical thinking] to be fostered and for you to develop your own opinion on things,” Phillips said. “Coming into university, I came from a fairly right-wing family, and it [is] nice to be able to come here and separate from your family and build those opinions on your own and start to develop your own ways of thinking about all different aspects of life.”

There is no doubt that open discourse with a variety of ideological viewpoints would create an ideal environment for students to develop their own viewpoints, but this kind of environment is not always present at academic institutions.

One ramification of a lack of diverse viewpoints is that people may begin to stereotype those who hold political views that differ from their own. For example, it is common for leftists to claim that conservatives are less intelligent than they are, and the “liberal elite” trope has become more common with the growing presumption that universities are left-wing breeding grounds.

According to a controversial article published in 2014, psychologists at Ghent University, Brock University and the University of Kent found a link between low childhood-intelligence levels and right-wing political views in adults. It is important to note, however, that the studies cited in this article measure only intelligence and not education levels. Furthermore, this appears to be a correlation rather than a causation.

Moreover, it is not just conservatives who are labelled as unintelligent. Carey, a member of the U of S Conservative Club, explains that left-wingers can also be viewed as unintelligent, discussing his experiences with political stereotypes.

“I’ve always felt it was more, ‘Leftwing people think right-wing people are evil, and right-wing people think left-wing people are stupid.’ I don’t get the stupid thing as much as I get the evil thing,” Carey said.

In order to prevent the spread of these beliefs, universities must be environments where different opinions can coexist respectfully. Phillips explains why it is important that both university professors and students do their best to foster the existence of varied opinions in the academic environment.

“I think, for professors, the best way to develop viewpoints is just to make sure that they are [staying] open to everyone’s opinions and not necessarily shutting out discourse, and in fact, encouraging discourse between the professor and student … but also between students,” Phillips said. “I think it’s important that we do keep talking about politics and keep talking about polarizing issues, so that you develop different viewpoints.”

When people shut out discourse and stereotype the other side of the political spectrum, it can end up dehumanizing them. If everyone on the left thinks that everyone on the right is less intelligent than they are, of course they are not going to value right-wing opinions as much as they should, and that could mark the end of open political discourse.

For this reason, ideological diversity is extremely important for an environment like university. Phillips discusses why it may not be the worst thing for professors to discuss their own opinions, as well.

“People can only develop their opinions if they are exposed to multiple opinions and multiple viewpoints,” Phillips said. “That’s why it is kind of nice to have professors who aren’t necessarily entirely objective, so that you can explore things, and even if you don’t agree with what they are saying, you are able to develop your own opinions. This is the time and this is the place for that to develop.”

While professors certainly have a duty to expose students to all sides of an argument, it is ultimately up to the students to flesh out their own opinions, to challenge their professors’ and classmates’ opinions, to promote open discussion and to engage in productive political discourse. We need all kinds of different opinions and viewpoints to do these things.

Phillips believes that the university environment should foster diverse viewpoints in order to allow for productive discourse where everyone, even professors, can share their opinions.

“I think, for some people, it does come off as being a little bit problematic, when they feel that maybe their views aren’t being represented,” Phillips said. “I think, as long as theories are being taught and foundational educational levels are being taught, it’s also important that professors have an opportunity to express their opinions and to start that discourse, whether you agree with it or not.”

At the U of S, there are thriving student groups all along the political spectrum, and many colleges tend to be more right-wing than left. Perhaps our geological location has something to do with this — there are more conservatives in Saskatchewan than there are in a lot of other Canadian provinces. The U of S has strong student participation on both sides of the spectrum, which is a great environment for healthy political debate.

Whatever the reason, universities are commonly perceived as left-wing institutions. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as students are taught how to think critically about information, and as long as there is open political discourse among both professors and students. Without these, the possibility of rampant left-wing biases becomes unavoidable.

Lyndsay Afseth / Staff Writer

Graphics: Lesia Karalash / Graphics Editor

  • Justin P

    “While professors certainly have a duty to expose students to all sides of an argument, it is ultimately up to the students to flesh out their own opinions, to challenge their professors’ and classmates’ opinions, to promote open discussion and to engage in productive political discourse. We need all kinds of different opinions and viewpoints to do these things.”

    Sorry, Lyndsay, but here you totally misunderstand the role of university professors–that is, to educate students, and to produce knowledge. Our job is not, I assure you, to “expose students to all sides of an argument,” particularly when we know that one side is simply, categorically, demonstrably wrong. Consider, for example, the issue of slavery–do you want your professor to divide the class in terms of “pro” and “con” and let the students “flesh out their own opinions” on the matter? This would be a total dereliction of duty. Hopefully you can see why this is the case.

    Re. the left-wing bias of universities, you might do well to educate yourself about the history of universities as cultural institutions. Spoiler alert: they’ve historically been extremely conservative and have mostly served the interests of the ruling elite. And guess what? They still are, and they still do.

    • Bill Perehudoff

      A bit of a generalized straw man you constructed for yourself there,
      like a rigged exam. Since you used slavery, perhaps a better analogy
      would be to look, as regards the American Civil War, for example, that
      although slavery was the main factor, issues such as state’s rights (and
      how that is still a thorny concept), industrialization vs. agrarian
      economic bases and which would be the future of the country, whether
      slavery was, perhaps, a bait and switch to make a war that was losing
      steam from the North’s position (after all, Lincoln’s Emancipatin
      Proclamation was much more limited – and focused to the South, not the
      North – than the mythology about it admits), and how in a larger
      international context many foreign powers were only excluded from
      supporting the South when Lincoln cannily made slavery the issue of the
      war. All of these offer different interpretations, without a simplistic
      reading. So, its not saying that “slavery was good” but acknowledging
      that history is complex and that, for example, reading Mein Kampf can be
      as useful as reading Primo Levi, if students are intellectually well
      armed by their teachers.

      An even better analogy that would indicate an understanding of what the author is talking about, instead of virtue signalling and attempting to shame her, is to ask which authors would be included, and more relevant to the article, excluded, from a course on
      feminism? Would Paglia be considered ungood, while Dworkin would be
      doubleplusgood? How would Acker fit within your moral framework, or
      someone like Kipnis (perhaps even better, how would the work of someone
      like Mattress Girl be presented, as all the evidence seems to suggest
      she was less than honest, but it was still quite a fascinating work. Oh, how would Valerie Solanas fit within your moral framework? Frankly, she disgusts me, but no history of feminism is complete without her, attempted murder and insanity and repeated calls for extermination of the male sex, aside.)
      Or would we see you (since you “know that one side is simply, categorically, demonstrably wrong” ) mimic Jian Qing and the Gang of Four, as they were also quite sure of their moral imperitive? Forgive my gentle mockery, but your condescending tone is exactly what drives students like this one to immediately dispute anything you offer, and to take some time to realize that they’re dismissing their pedantic instructors, not so much the ideas.

    • Justin P

      Hi Bill,

      Thanks for the (very long) explanation of the American Civil War. Speaking of pedantic, amirite?! I wonder why you’d assume that “students like this one…immediately dispute anything [I] offer.” My student evaluations are pretty strong!

      Anyways, I think Camille Paglia is intellectually pretty shallow, so I probably won’t be featuring her on any course, unless I happen to teach a class on “Bad Taste” (Which I’ve thought about, incidentally–DH Lawrence and Henry Miller come to mind).

      In seriousness, I think as professors we have a responsibility to teach our students how to think in complex, flexible ways–but that doesn’t mean that all ideas are equal, nor will I be pretending they are. That’s the most intellectually dishonest kind of relativism, and you won’t get any of that in my class.

    • Bill Perehudoff

      Your citation of a “safe” topic like slavery suggested some education was needed, that some facts needed to be injected into your comments, “amirite”?
      Student evaluations are great: anyone who’s spent time at ratemyprofessor or seen how many places use a “one size fits all model” that rarely makes sense, or sees how often instructors simply don’t employ them at all (without any censure or probation) might be less trusting of them as self affirming tools.
      Jordan Peterson has many excellent teaching reviews too (which is usually ignored when he’s being maligned by fellow academics). Its been suggested that his most unforgivable sin is having been praised outside academia. The same has been said of Paglia, yet her knowledge of art history is more in depth than many who teach it at Canadian institutions.
      You needn’t pretend anything regarding the equality of ideas, but your dismissal of Paglia as “shallow” is incongruous to the depth of her ideas (after all, she’s proven to be quite an accurate futurist, and unlike many in her field doesn’t dismiss anything pre1968…).
      Your earlier comment whether universities are left or right wing: Slavoj Zizek made a good point in one of his first books that many who teach in the humanities in Western academia may profess progressive ideals, but in practice are intensely conservative as to their own roles, especially as it pertains to pedantic and personal definitions of what merits study, and what shouldn’t be included in a course. Bloom spoke about it, too, but Zizek is more politically “leftish”, so he’s less immediately dismissed too. Your students might find their flexibility impeded by yours, “well meaning” or not. I’m old enough to remember when art historians wouldn’t teach female painters, as there “weren’t any good ones”, they asserted. We now know that’s completely false, but good to keep in mind when communicating value judgements as facts…as now the opposite – a course of art history that is solely female – is just as bad.
      An interesting read – since this paper is in Saskatchewan – might be Clio’s Bastards by McManus, who teaches there. Not all his ideas are worthwhile, but there’s a genuine difference of opinion presented that is often lacking in academic spaces. It offers some dangerous ideas that are more critical than “critical theory.”

  • Shalom

    “Peoplekind”

  • Pierre Du Plessis

    Someone’s speaking good sense in this newspaper again. There should be debate about these things, as all viewpoints have their pros and cons.

    • Justin P

      Do *all* viewpoints have their pros and cons, Pierre? What about the following viewpoint: “African Americans are less capable of rational thought than caucasians”?

      Guess what: not all viewpoints are equal–there is such thing as objective truth. Some positions are categorically false. For example, the one above.

    • Pierre Du Plessis

      It is true that some viewpoints are not based on objective truth, like the one you mentioned, however the point the author of the article is trying to make is that open debate should be encouraged rather than stifled as it is now.
      People should welcome debate rather than dismiss it for fear of it offending their delicate sensibilities.

    • Justin P

      Ok–but you’ve moved the goalposts. The point of avoiding debate on all issues, from my perspective as a professor, isn’t to avoid offending students’, or my, sensibilities–it’s to avoid wasting time and energy entertaining ideas that are frankly stupid. Our job as professors isn’t to provide a platform for debate–we’re not the producers of “Crossfire.” Our job is to educate–anything that doesn’t serve that mandate doesn’t belong in the classroom.

    • Pierre Du Plessis

      I agree with you when it comes to discussing scientific matters, such as the validity of evolution, gravity, etc. To debate such things would be ‘stupid’ as you say, however when it comes to topics that are still heavily debated between right-wing conservatives, and left-wing liberals, such as abortion, aspects of feminism and other such things, I have noticed a great tendency for professors to dismiss viewpoints that are not their own. Topics that are controversial should be debated.

    • Justin P

      Trust me when I say that “aspects of feminism and other such things” absolutely are being discussed openly in our classrooms, with lots of disagreement. This idea that we’re all brainwashing our students is an utter fiction. Frankly, most of us would be happy if they learned to line up subject, verb, and object in their sentences.

    • Pierre Du Plessis

      With respect, what you describe is simply not what I have seen.

    • Justin P

      In your capacity as a university professor? Or as a person who reads the news?

    • Pierre Du Plessis

      As a student who’s experienced bias in subtle and obvious ways in class.

    • Justin P

      Maybe what you call bias is actually the professor’s informed position on a matter about which he / she has thought hard, and deeply, over the course of many years of training. Learning is hard work–it forces students (and professors!) to challenge their underpinning assumptions about themselves and the world. Often that process provokes anger in them. That’s ok. It’s easy to call an idea you don’t agree with “bias”–harder to entertain the possibility that you don’t know as much as the person with the PhD in the room.

    • Pierre Du Plessis

      I’ll just refer you to Bill Perehudoff’s arguments below.

    • Justin P

      Which don’t really have any implications for anything I’ve said. Bill was rather talking past me…

  • Green & White Forever!

    Great article Sheaf! Both sides of the political spectrum really need to respect each other more so that we can have productive discussions about substantive content instead of petty arguments about political games and personal character.

    On a side note: It’s pretty funny that a leftist Arts & Sci professor who believes his credentials give him the omniscient wherewithal to determine what opinions are permissible on campus and in the classroom showed up in the comments of an article that mentioned ‘the “liberal elite” trope’.