How does higher education change people?

I think it must have been in 1976. It was certainly around about that time. A well-known debating society in the university where I was then a student organised a debate on apartheid, the political system (or aberration) that was at that time still governing South Africa. Various people were there to speak for the motion: I don’t really remember what it was, but it must have been some variant on the theme that apartheid was a Bad Thing (which of course it was). A man from some South African organisation or other based in London was there to speak against, or maybe his point was that the South African political system was badly misunderstood. None of that was really worth a raising of the eyebrows, everyone was there to do and say what the script expected of them, including the loud shouts of righteous indignation (myself very much included) from the floor whenever the Man From South Africa made any point excusing or justifying his country’s politics. But the thing that really got everyone going and that caused both excitement and temper was the fact that there was a second person opposing the motion, and heaven help us, that second person was a student. No, not a rich South African kid spending time away from home: it was a normal Irish student. Defending apartheid!

What was shocking was, in the first place, that really anybody in Ireland could defend the indefensible (and nothing has changed my mind, apartheid was totally and utterly indefensible). But perhaps more than that, what was shocking to others present was that a person could become a student in a modern university and still hold conservative or right wing views. There were certain things you expected of students back then: that they stayed in bed as late as possible; that they did not get a haircut more than twice a year; and that each and every one of their views was politically left wing and socially liberal.

Maybe if I were transported back to 1976 with my current experiences and views I might worry a tad that political and social views in the student body were held in check by a pretty rigorous orthodoxy, and that debates rarely involved a thoughtful balance. Maybe. But in this decade, and for that matter that last two decades, I would not have been much concerned about that, as many students turned much more conservative and conventional – or at least so it has seemed to me. The left-leaning and liberal views are still there, but they face alternative positions in the student body that are much more traditional and respectable.

But does today’s student body, and maybe the university community generally, more accurately reflect the wider views in society, or is the pattern in the colleges still different? An answer of sorts has been given to that question by a survey, undertaken by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and reported in the US journal Chronicle of Higher Education, into the ‘Diverging Influences of the College Degree & Civic Learning on American Beliefs’. In summary this survey of a sample of the US population indicates that those with university degrees are more liberal and tolerant than those who do not have a higher education qualification; but not more knowledgeable when it comes to ‘civic literacy’ (i.e. knowledge about political history, political processes and political ideas). So for example, those with a bachelor’s degree will look much more favourably on same sex marriage, and much less favourably on the role of religion in schools. They will be less likely to believe that American institutions are a force for good, but ironically will be less likely to know what those institutions are.

The survey doesn’t tell us what causes these changes in attitude, or how higher education can accompany (as it could hardly cause) ignorance in relation to civic matters. But it gives us an insight into what goes on in a student’s mind, and therefore how education can influence and change politics and ideas. And perhaps it can prompt us to ask whether this is what we expect education to do, and therefore whether we do or do not want to reform it. It would, to my mind, be extremely interesting to undertake a similar survey in Ireland in order to get a perspective on the impact of higher education here. And it might allow us to see also whether student attitudes have changed over the years, as my gut instinct tells me (maybe wrongly) that they have.

It would also allow us to have an intelligent discussion around what, apart from training, we want and expect higher education to do, and how we would like it to change society for good. And in the end, that is much more important than asking how many universities would be just right for Ireland.

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14 Comments on “How does higher education change people?”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    The data exists but the hard bit is knowing how to interogate it. The European Social Survey (ESS) has a wide range of attitudinal data including indicators of tolerance. The ISSP data would probably do also.
    The tricky bit, as ever with observational data like this, is distinguishing correlation with causation. So yes the ESS data for Ireland reveals that more educated people are more tolerant towards homosexuals on average. But maybe more tolerant peopel are more likely to go to college? Or maybe there is some factor which pushes people to be both educated and tolerant? I haven’t looked at the CHP piece but my guess is (& apologies if I do them a disfavour) that they are showing correlations so one should not slip into assuming some cause & effect.
    In an ideal world one would do an experiment, sending some people to do jobs and others to, I don’t know, Trinity and then seeing who was more tolerant. But since one can’t do that other methods needs to be used, what are called quasi-experimental approaches. Economists & political scientists have been using this approach recently to look at the effect of education on whether people are more likely to vote. One could do the same for attitudes. Actually I have already been doing a little bit of work in this area but it is far too early to say anything.
    I think when one is educated, and in particular if one works in the sector, it is natural to assume that only good things come from education but that needs to be shown not assumed.

  2. Vincent Says:

    For what its worth, I feel that Irish people tend to the Horses for Courses these days. Which for me tends to tilt them in a more real liberal direction. In the mid 80s and up to the mid 90s a number of country-wide social questions were asked. From the Divorce and abortion referendum, the teacher fired via a morals clause, children dying giving birth in a churchyard, Kerry babies, x-case, book Censor, the idiotic situation where half the country that could get BBC able to watch something banned from the view of the other half and the murderous situation where getting a condom during the AIDS epidemic required you to go to some little git with a BSc or MB rather than have vending on each and every upright pole-stop sign- on the Island.
    The thing is though, none of these are winged right or left, anymore than is apartheid. All had to do with Control. Where over that ten or so years for homegrown and outside reasons they were seem for exactly what they were and if you need to see the results read the Ryan and Murphy reports, nor is there is not a Snowballs chance in hell that even with all the 70s lefty-liberal BS either of those reports could have been done, then.
    So, if education does nothing more than instill a full Cartesian level of Doubt, I think on a social level you are doing very well indeed.

    • kevin denny Says:

      I am not sure that it does instill Doubt alas. This is hard to do when teaching big classes & the Leaving Cert trains you into thinking that education consists of bite-sized facts.

  3. Jilly Says:

    On a related topic, the NYT recently highlighted a study which claimed the reason why US college faculty are so famously ‘liberal’ by comparison with the rest of the population is because the profession is ‘job typed’ as liberal and therefore becomes a personal goal of more liberal than conservative individuals: in a similar way to nursing being ‘job typed’ as female and therefore becoming a personal goal of more women than men. I’m in no position to critique their methods – the story is at – but it’s an interesting idea.

    As for today’s students, I think their ideological viewpoints have changed enormously from those of the 70s or 80s, in line with ideological changes in wider society.

    They’re not ‘right wing’ in terms of the politics of previous decades (apartheid, Thatcher, etc). But they are representative of the ideology-dressed-as-non-ideology which has been such a dominant force in our society for the last 10-20 years. So for example they’re very pro-law-and-order, often defending censorship, curtailments of civil liberties in the name of ‘security’ and so forth. Most strikingly to me, they’re absolutely horrified by conflict of any kind, always seeking consensus or middle-ground, even between positions which really have no middle-ground (a standpoint which tends to favour status quo arguments, so they’re not great ones for social change). They’re reluctant to interogate policies/structures/arguments for their first principles and then argue for or against them on the basis of those principles. Instead they tend to take a very managerialist approach to ideological questions, not unlike western politicians over the last decade or so.

    It’s an intriguing outlook to engage with in a classroom, to the say the least, as it completely undermines the principles of seminar debate, which are about first principles!

    • kevin denny Says:

      I don’t engage with students on these topics so I have no idea about this. My general impression is that undergrads are just not that bothered about the greater political issues & causes. The only thing that seems to get them excited is the possible re-introduction of fees, their implacable opposition being distinctly right-wing in my view.

  4. Jilly Says:

    But what I meant was that this lack of interest extends beyond politics to ideas themselves. All disciplines have schools of thought based upon certain principles, and those are often inherently contradictory. And it’s this which I notice really seems to bother undergraduates: they’re forever looking (often to me) to find a way to reconcile fundamentally opposing views of the world. This is what I mean by ‘managerialism’, that desire to paper over profoundly opposing principles with a fix which will somehow keep everyone happy (for now) and allow the divisions to be ignored. Whereas of course what I want them to do in seminars is understand what the divisions are, explore them and analyse their root causes. We’re effectively speaking two different languages…

  5. Aoife Citizen Says:

    I always remember how shocking I found student politics when I first moved to Cambridge. I was an NUI undergraduate and we were very worked up about the North, about socialism, about abortion, about NATO. We had marches and study sessions and meetings. In Cambridge I found the collegiate student body in the middle of a boycott of the college dining hall because the catering staff were refusing to take the butter out of the fridge in good enough time for it to spread easily on the soup rolls.

    The only other issue that ever exercised them was personal safety, they had an unhealthy, even discreditable, obsession, common in England, with poor people lurking in bushes ready to attack them and rob them of their wallets, privilege, whatever.

  6. Aoife, I suspect that Cambridge students were simply ahead of the curve when you met them. When I was there (which I fear was somewhat earlier than you) it was all leftwing radicalism and lecture boycotts.

  7. The survey cited above was conducted by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and was reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education ( The survey was not undertaken by The Chronicle.

    Andrew Mytelka
    News Editor
    The Chronicle of Higher Education
    Washington, D.C.

  8. John Says:

    At best, it helps them learn more about what they’re interested in.

    I once had a colleague who presumed to teach people how to learn. Preposterous! We’re born with that!

  9. John Says:

    Another view is that education is to make individuals useful to society. My own view is that ‘society’ is there to serve the individual.

  10. John Says:

    … the purpose of …

  11. video ızle Says:

    I was an NUI undergraduate and we were very worked up about the North, about socialism, about abortion, about NATO. We had marches and study sessions and meetings. In Cambridge I found the collegiate student body in the middle of a boycott of the college dining hall because the catering staff were refusing to take the butter out of the fridge in good enough time for it to spread easily on the soup rolls

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