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

By   —   February 2, 2018   —   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

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