Be skeptical of Elon Musk’s claims about educational ‘indoctrination’


Elon Musk, unlike most users of the social media platform he owns, is incited to tweet controversial opinions. The more he pisses people off, the more people engage on Twitter. It’s hate clicks as a business strategy – a strategy he’s by no means the first to deploy.

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It is also clear that much of his defense of the disputed claims is rooted in his real beliefs. So when he tweets something like the offer below, shared on Wednesday, it seems fair to assume that reflects what he’s thinking.

Since taking over Twitter last year, Musk has made it clear that his political leanings lean to the right, as shown above. He shares a story of the right-wing publication Free Beacon framing a student protest at Stanford University in negative terms. To this, Musk adds his thoughts: It reflects the “level of Soviet indoctrination” that students get in elite educational institutions.

That, too, is a common thread in Republican politics right now, the idea that young people are taught to be liberal in school, a function of hyperactive leftist indoctrination at the hands of educators and administrators. But, as it turns out, there’s not really much evidence that this is happening — and there are plenty of other explanations for the politics college-age Americans are adopting.

Musk’s tweet centers on the reaction to a backlash to a controversy that emerged when the Federalist Society at Stanford Law School invited conservative judge Kyle Duncan to speak.

This is generally recognized by left and right as having been an invitation rooted at least to some degree in a desire to provoke controversy, and it succeeded. Duncan’s presentation devolved into a confrontation between himself and his largely unsympathetic audience, with each side blaming the other. (The point here is not to judge this; assessments of guilt are available elsewhere.) The school apologized to Duncan and the students opposed the apology.

It is important to contextualize the protest, as it is the center of Musk’s complaint. It is by no means new for college students to protest a lecturer on campus. A cursory review of the New York Times archives shows similar clashes in 1964 (at Notre Dame University, against segregationist George Wallace), 1970 (at Monmouth University, against a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and 1971 (at Cornell University, against New York Mayor John Lindsay). There are unquestionably other examples from the same period and later, but three seemed enough to make the point: This is a long-standing model.

In fact, there is an important and relevant reason why such protests emerged at this time. Thanks to the baby boom, the number of young people increased and the number of them who went to university did the same.

In 1950, there were about 2.3 million people enrolled in university, or 11% of the population between the ages of 16 and 24. In 1970, there were 8.6 million students, or 26% of the population of this age group, which itself had increased by 61%. . There were many more students and, therefore, many more opportunities for confrontation.

What happened at Stanford was not an “indoctrination” function, Soviet level or otherwise. Since 1970, the percentage of young people attending college has only increased with the total number of students. The ability to organize protests has also increased, thanks to tools like Twitter. So it’s easy to fill a room with students who strongly disagree with Duncan’s politics. It’s not complicated.

Musk’s tweet chose the wrong vehicle to make a larger point: that institutions push young people to the left.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (right) has raised this idea that colleges are also indoctrinating students, a claim that fits with his efforts to lure conservative voters by attacking the political left. It is interesting for right-wing figures like DeSantis and Musk to suggest that it is a function of what teachers impose on students; this suggests that young Americans skew the left not out of preference but because they have been brainwashed against the right’s best arguments. But there isn’t much evidence for the idea.

It is true that people with a college education are more likely to be liberal than Americans without a degree. But it’s correlation, not causation.

Last year, researchers from the University of Texas and Trinity College Dublin published a new experiment assessing possible causation; that is, if college education shifts students to the left. They looked at 1,500 college-age students in Romania, where college attendance largely depends on passing the country’s baccalaureate exam. They assessed party affiliation among those who barely passed or failed the exam, finding that those who barely passed were more likely to be members of more liberal political parties.

“We found that going to college encourages people to support more liberal policies, at least in the cultural dimension,” study co-author Stephen Jessee – himself a Stanford graduate – explained during an interview. a phone call with the Washington Post last month, “but not necessarily along the economic dimension.

But, he acknowledged, the effect was subtle.

“It doesn’t range from supporting a fairly liberal party to a fairly conservative party,” he said, “but it ranges from being somewhat more likely to support a moderate party to being more likely to support a somewhat conservative party. unliberal”.

Additionally, while the study has the advantage of directly measuring the partisan affiliations of those who are more or less likely to attend college, it did not necessarily disentangle other factors. One of the theories behind the liberalizing effects of college, for example, is that it introduces urban or city-like environments for people from more rural backgrounds, thereby increasing cultural empathy. The parameters of the research conducted by Jessee and his peers did not allow meaningful determination of such nuances.

Much of the research available on this issue attempts to separate other factors to assess the role of education itself, with competing or incomplete results. The challenge is obvious: how do you identify the program as driving policy when so many other possible factors are present?

A particularly flimsy attempt to prove the Musk-DeSantis point was offered in response to Musk’s tweet from Fox News host Will Cain, who Free a segment of the network that used a Manhattan Institute study to suggest that indoctrination efforts were commonplace in schools. If the name of this organization sounds familiar to you, it may be as the home of right-wing activist Christopher Rufo, the force behind the right’s emphasis on “critical race theory” and adviser by DeSantis.

The Manhattan Institute claimed that 93% of college-aged students surveyed had heard an element of “critical social justice” from an adult at school. It’s a bespoke term used by the institute to further expand its already exaggerated definition of “critical race theory” and refers to a range of claims such as “America is a patriarchal society.” .

The assessment mechanism was a survey in which respondents were presented with sentences along these lines and asked if they had learned about the idea in class or otherwise heard it from an adult at school. The flaws here should be obvious.

For one thing, how many people you know could identify the source of a claim they had heard, let alone distinguish between hearing it in class and hearing it elsewhere?

On the other hand, the study (presumably intentionally) fails to distinguish between hearing a specific piece of rhetoric and hearing about similar-sounding rhetoric. Maybe a student heard it a few years ago – maybe even in school! — that male-dominated systems were patriarchal. They could definitely say that, yes, they learned that “America is a patriarchal society” in school.

Perhaps the most important caveat here is that the Manhattan Institute is a patently biased source. There is no obvious reason to doubt that the specific responses to his survey were not what is suggested, but there are many reasons to consider his analysis these results as subjective and unreliable. He claims to have found, for example, that respondents were more likely to report learning about gender-related concepts in school when they lived in more democratic places.

“Local (l)partisanship significantly affects… classroom exposure to radical gender-related concepts,” they write—as if causality was established and they had disentangled the possibility that, for example, these responses students reflect the cultural values ​​present in their communities and not something a teacher told them to think.

Young Americans are generally more liberal than older Americans. They are also more likely to have college degrees. They are also more likely to live in cities – partly because they went to college – and to be non-religious and to be Asian, black and Hispanic. Where is the causality? Even among older Americans, after all, even among those of the age who might have participated in that protest against George Wallace at Notre Dame, college graduates are more likely to be liberals. Is it because they too were indoctrinated 60 years ago? Because they were taught “critical social justice” by activist teachers in 1974?

The Manhattan Institute has taken much to the idea that insidious forces are trying to push America to the left, much like DeSantis. Musk, as he often does, offers a controversial take in line with this undercurrent, probably partly in the hope that people will be outraged. But the liberal politics of young Americans exist outside of college education.

In results from the 2018 and 2021 General Social Survey, young Americans with a high school diploma or less were about 9 points more likely to identify as Democrats or Democratic-leaning Independents than Republicans or Democratic-leaning Independents. republican tendency. Among older Americans with a high school education or less, partisanship was divided. This is even without introducing factors like income or race.

Perhaps this, too, is a function of effective, high-quality indoctrination in often-criticized American high schools. It seems fair, however, to suggest that the burden of proof rests with those who would make this argument. And may the burden remain entirely unfulfilled.


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