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The Myth of the Liberal “Echo Chamber” on Campus

Progressive columnist Nicholas Kristof's new hobbyhorse only contributes to the enduring strain of anti-intellectualism in American politics.


In a series of essays this year, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has argued that liberals in academia—people like me—are intolerant of, and politically biased against, conservatives on campus. “Universities are the bedrock of progressive values, but the one kind of diversity that universities disregard is ideological and religious,” he wrote in “A Confession of Liberal Intolerance,” in May. “We’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.” Later that month, in “The Liberal Blind Spot,” he took on critics of his earlier piece, writing, “Frankly, the torrent of scorn for conservative closed-mindedness confirmed my view that we on the left can be pretty closed-minded ourselves.” And this month, apropos of campus reactions to Donald Trump’s victory, Kristof warned his massive progressive audience about “The Dangers of Echo Chambers on Campus”:

We liberals are adept at pointing out the hypocrisies of Trump, but we should also address our own hypocrisy in terrain we govern, such as most universities: Too often, we embrace diversity of all kinds except for ideological…. We want to be inclusive of people who don’t look like us—so long as they think like us.

There are plenty of legitimate critiques of campus politics, and there’s certainly room for more ideological diversity on campus. But Kristof’s recurring argument has glaring, and potentially damaging, flaws. He has an untenably narrow view of campus life and politics, and worse, he reinforces the hyperbolic view of colleges and universities that the right uses to undermine the credibility of people speaking from academic and pedagogical expertise. By pretending to look inward at the flaws of progressivism, but in practice externalizing blame for the left’s failures by scapegoating academia, Kristof’s confessionals contribute to the enduring strain of anti-intellectualism in American politics.

Like so many on the right—and some on the left, like New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait—Kristof generalizes about liberal intolerance on campus and cites extreme examples, such as Oberlin students’ protest of a local bakery accused (wrongly, it seems) of racial profiling. But as CUNY professor and campus activism historian Angus Johnston points out, “Kristof is focusing on a tiny number of unrepresentative colleges. The typical American college student today—the typical American student activist today—doesn’t attend a tiny, insular liberal arts college. The median American college student attends a public college, never lived in a dorm, isn’t studying liberal arts.” Of the 20.5 million students projected to enroll in college this past fall, 7.2 million were in two-year colleges. Private colleges—to say nothing of elite ones like Oberlin—enroll about 3.4 million students in total.

Even at elite liberal arts colleges, there’s a lot more dialogue between liberals and conservatives than critics suggest. “After Donald Trump’s election, some universities echoed with primal howls,” Kristof wrote, in a pitch-perfect impersonation of National Review. “Faculty members canceled classes for weeping, terrified students who asked: How could this possibly be happening?” Kristof’s point was that liberals on campus had sheltered themselves from the real world, but this was not the case at Colby College, where I teach. I know a lot of our students and faculty were upset, but I didn’t witness students weeping in despair about the impending Trump presidency, or looking to censor views they don’t share. Yes, some professors canceled classes. But most didn’t. I taught my classes as usual and left my office door open for students looking to talk politics—of any persuasion. Like my colleagues, I wasn’t concerned only for students fearful of Trump, but also those who supported him and might now feel embattled. Indeed, in the weeks following the election, what little I had to say about it in class came with an explicit affirmation of my respect for all of our students, and my openness to political discussion of any kind. When students asked for my thoughts, I was honest, but I also made clear that, like them, I’m a political being with my own positions and values, and I don’t expect everyone to agree with me.

Beyond the classroom, a campus-wide conversation was also taking place. A week after the election, faculty members and students from the College Republicans and College Democrats held a panel to consider the implications of the Trump presidency. Then progressive students began organizing a walkout and march in solidarity with those marginalized by Trump. Students had discussed their plans with the administration, faculty, and other students, and a bipartisan debate ensued about whether a walkout was the best way to protest, and what the protest would mean to different college groups and constituencies. When the march finally took place, students with pro-Trump apparel mingled with the protesters—and did so maturely, without incident, which can’t always be said for political protests in the “real world.”

This is just one professor’s observations from one elite liberal campus, but there’s also plenty of evidence to disprove Kristof’s broader claims about a liberal “echo chamber” on campus. He repeatedly laments that only “about 10 percent of professors in the social sciences or the humanities are Republicans,” but a largely liberal faculty doesn’t guarantee a systematic liberal one-sidedness or indoctrination in the classroom. As my colleague Neil Gross, a leading sociologist of intellectual life who researches campus political bias, notes of humanities and social science faculty:

The vast majority of professors focus on teaching students the subject matter of their fields as well as basic skills such as analytical reading, writing and critical thinking. If current events do come up in classroom discussions, the usual pattern is for professors to promote what they see as open conversation.

Gross’s research findings appear to hold on the student end as well. A Harvard Institute of Politics study finds that 21 percent of Republican students nationwide report feeling uncomfortable sharing their political opinions on campus, compared with 8 percent of Democrats. As Gross observes, “if suppression of conservative voices were rampant we’d see a far larger share of collegiate Republicans concerned about their freedom of speech.”

Since there’s little evidence that a left-leaning faculty means only left-leaning ideas are acceptable on campus, what about the effects of left-leaning students? According to the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute survey of incoming first-years, students are entering college with increasingly liberal views (as opposed to colleges “indoctrinating” students with liberal propaganda). One might assume that so many liberal faculty and liberal students would turn our nation’s youth into the worst caricature of the Oberlin protester. In fact, according to Pew Research Center data, those with a college degree are less likely than those without a college degree to support censoring offensive speech, and they’re more likely to support the idea that “people should be able to say offensive things publicly.” In other words, contra Kristof, college students are more likely to be tolerant of offensive speech or opposing viewpoints than those who haven’t had the benefit of a college education.

There is no “ivory tower,” no meaningful separation between the campus and the “real world.” The percentage of college students who also work full-time jobs was almost 20 percent as of 2011, double what it was in 2005. Among community college students, 29 percent have household incomes under $20,000 per year, and more than 60 percent work more than 20 hours per week. Even at elite institutions that enroll more affluent students, the geographical, racial, and ethnic diversity of students and faculty is not separate from, but a contributing factor to, the ideological diversity Kristof wants to see. I’m a progressive English professor, but my family lives in rural Pennsylvania and I’m among the few of my kin who didn’t vote for Trump. I live in Maine, on the border of very liberal and very conservative congressional districts. The day after the election, a white man pulled up to my partner, a Vietnamese refugee, and yelled “go home!” in her face. My politics offered no protection. In both my job and my personal life, I couldn’t escape into an “echo chamber” even if I wanted to. Thus, when people like Kristof depict students and faculty with cartoonish simplicity, they ignore the fact that we all contain multitudes.

Kristof’s portrayal of campus liberals is just another form of elitist stereotyping, the mirror image of assumptions that every Trump supporter is a narrow-minded racist. By burlesquing progressives in academia, Kristof is making a faux-populist gesture of the very sort that drives the Trump-era right in its contempt for teaching and learning. Trump and his supporters have no regard for knowledge or debate, and thrive on petty caricaturing of political opponents. The right has turned the learning process that is student activism, with all of its inevitable triumphs and miscues, into national news fodder that’s meant to mock and discredit academia, not to bolster freedom of speech or ideological diversity. In this era of virulent anti-intellectualism, we don’t need more caricatures of academic life, especially from the left. We need more public intellectuals, especially progressive ones like Kristof, to stand up for the value of higher education—because without it, our political echo chambers would become that much worse.