Bill Maxwell

Molding character at school? It's a myth

In the film The Emperor's Club, an epiphany on the role of the teacher occurs when Mr. Hundert, a classics history professor at an elite prep school, travels to Washington to speak with Sen. Hyram Bell about the senator's son, Sedgewick, who is a student in Hundert's class. Hundert worries that Sedgewick is not learning the great lessons of the Greek and Roman philosophers.

"Aristotle tells us that all men by nature desire knowledge," Hundert says to the senator. "I don't believe Sedgewick does. He isn't learning the material. … Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Cicero, Caesar, Augustus. Men who've steered mankind toward reason. Men who at crucial moments of their lives make choices, decisions that show us what it is to live bravely and to live well. To know them is to understand the importance of character and high ideals. … It's my job, Senator, to mold your son's character."

The stone-cold senator says: "Your job? I'm sorry, young man, but your job is to teach my son his times tables, to teach him why the world is round, and who killed who, when and where. That's your job. You, sir, will not mold my son. I will mold him. You will merely teach him."

With that, Bell ends the tete-a-tete. Hundert slinks away, his liberal principles mocked.

This exchange between professor and senator goes to the heart of the conservative argument that American professors, especially at our universities, try to indoctrinate students with their liberal beliefs.

Notably, David Horowitz, an activist and writer, and Michael Barone, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, are leading the conservative charge. Barone recently wrote a piece for the Washington Times attacking what he calls the "liberal thugocracy," suggesting that liberals take their "marching orders" from "college and university campuses."

A few new studies, however, argue that Horowitz, Barone and their Republican cohorts protest too much and probably are dead wrong. Professors have little, if any, impact on their students' political views, according to the studies. Professors certainly do not mold their students' character.

The book Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities, by three George Mason University professors, states that although most professors acknowledge they are liberal, 95 percent of them say they present competing views, of all kinds, impartially. The findings are based in part on a study the authors did in 2007 of 1,270 professors at 169 research universities.

Jeremy D. Mayer, one of the book's authors, said that with regard to shaping a young person's political views, "it is really hard to change the mind of anyone over 15. … Parents and family are the most important influence," followed by the news media and peers. "Professors are among the least influential," he said.

Two other studies, one published in the current PS: Political Science and Politics, and another that has been accepted for publication in the same journal, arrived at virtually the same conclusion. The first study, co-authored by political scientists Matthew Woessner and his wife, April Kelly-Woessner, using 7,000 students at 38 schools, was emphatic. "There is no evidence," they write, "that an instructor's views instigate political change among students."

In the same issue of PS, two other researchers write: "Student political orientation does not change for a majority of students while in college, and for those that do change there is evidence that other factors have an effect on that change, such as gender and socioeconomic status."

All of the researchers say they believe that in the zealous attempt to demonize the so-called liberal professorial establishment, conservative critics have overlooked the more serious problem in academe: Since 9/11, political instruction itself has been disappearing from the nation's university campuses. Many highly regarded scholars see no point in engaging in self-defeating confrontation over politics.

Lee Fritschler, a George Mason professor and co-author of Closed Minds?, laments this trend toward silence: "It wasn't too long ago that schools and universities required civic education and American history. Almost all of those requirements have evaporated."

Many researchers argue that conservatives, such as Horowitz and Barone, have created a new straw man as a way to force universities to hire more conservative professors, a move that is intended to stop the so-called liberalization of American campuses.

The larger reality, which conservative critics apparently ignore, is that raw political discourse should be welcome on the nation's campuses, where the thinking and skills of future scholars and leaders are being honed.

In an ideal world, students would learn a few things about "character," the essential trait Hundert argues for in The Emperor's Club.

Molding character at school? It's a myth 11/07/08 [Last modified: Friday, November 14, 2008 8:46pm]

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