I don’t think that word means what you think it means

inconceivable

From the Princess Bride–one of the great movies of all time

In the world of higher education, twitter has been abuzz the last few days. The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) released its 51st annual “American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2016” survey. The survey of over 130,000 college freshman provides “data on incoming college students’ background characteristics, high school experiences, attitudes, behaviors, and expectations for college.” For those of us tasked with understanding how to help students persist toward a degree, the report provides both a valuable snapshot in time and an important way to measure consistency over time.

The report is chock full of great data, but the big story engaging news agencies is the apparent political “polarization” of incoming first year students. Only about 42 percent of students self-identify as middle of the road. According to the report, a higher percentage of female students self-identify as far left and more male students self-identify as far right. Visualize much hand ringing and angst as people envision a giant schism between the genders.

Except maybe not.

At the risk of oversimplification, we probably need to take a deep breath and not hit the panic button just yet. As much as I value the information in the HERI survey, we are reading self-reported survey data gathered from 17-18 year old incoming college students who have grown up in a world where the very terms “liberal” and “conservative” are largely undefined, confused, and have become divisive and synonymous with certain hot button social issues.

Heck, I’m not even sure our two major political parties could adequately define those two terms anymore. Are all Republicans conservative? Are all Democrats liberals? And where in the world does President Trump fall on the political spectrum?

More importantly for the survey data, what exactly does conservative or liberal political views mean to an 19 year old recent high school graduate? If not raising taxes on the wealthy is a conservative issue, the HERI report notes that 73.1 % of female students and 67.7 % of male students think we should raise taxes on that cohort. If dealing with climate change is a liberal issue, 82.4 % of female students and 77.6 % of male students want federal policy to address climate change.

Of course, while both cohorts want the rich to pay more in taxes (damn liberal kids), only 36.7% (female) and 39.5 % (male) want us to raise taxes to reduce the deficit (stingy conservative brats).

Unless you’re wealthy. of course. Then we’ll raise your taxes. But only if it reduces the deficit. (Dang wishy washy teenagers.)

Therein, I think, lies the problem with self-reported data from incoming college students. Understand that I’m not doubting the sincerity or intellectual ability of 17 and 18 year olds. I am, though, casting some doubt about their understanding of complex political terms.

Words like liberal and conservative are far more difficult to define than we might pretend. In my first year composition classes, I used to begin our semester by asking students to identify their place on the political spectrum. As a public regional university in west Texas, a not surprising number of my students self-identified as Republican or conservative. In their short essay, they had to tell me why that was their political affiliation. Part two of the assignment required that students take the “World’s Smallest Political Quiz.”

What we found was that defining political ideology is a little more complicated than picking left versus right. Most of my students, in fact, are for smaller government until they want the government to pay for a bigger chunk of their tuition bill. Many of my conservative students were shocked that their liberal, deer hunting classmates want to protect the 2nd Amendment. My liberal students were surprised the conservative students wanted the government to leave homosexuals alone. And just about everyone is ready for legal marijuana. (That might not be very surprising. Stoners!)

The point, I tell my students, isn’t to turn you into a bunch of liberal, pinko communists or far right fascists. Language and words matter. Calling yourself something stakes a claim and creates identity–something that is a little more important than bubbling in a circle on a survey or blindly following your Uncle Frank’s Facebook rants. It takes more than a 140 characters to understand and adopt a political view.

As I read the reactions to the HERI report, I can’t help but think that knowing the political “polarization” of incoming freshman is about as useful as knowing how elementary school students feel about growing political unrest in southeast Asia. It’s conceivable that we need to be sure they actually know what the terms mean before we ask them to place themselves in one camp or the other.

The problem, of course, isn’t that HERI asked the question. Snapshots in time are important and useful but emphasizing how polarized we seem to be only reinforces people’s polarized ideas.

And let’s face it: the last thing we need is to focus on more ways we can’t communicate or agree on things in this world.

 

 

 

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

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Inside Higher Ed

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FiveThirtyEight

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Balloon Juice

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Scott Adams' Blog

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The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

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