I think he means it

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Last week, I discussed Senator Rick Santorum's plan to prevent government interference in education by imposing a federal requirement for accreditation of ideological balance in teaching ("A new opportunity for linguists", 2/20/2012). I saw this a major source of new jobs for linguists, though I also worried about the impact on the teaching loads of conservative faculty members, and also on the possibility of the vetting process being outsourced to the large pool of experienced and under-employed accreditors in places like the former Soviet Union and its satellites, where up to a quarter of university staff were on retainer to accreditation agencies such as the Stasi or the KGB. In the end, though, I decided that neither the opportunities and the perils were serious, since the proposal was really just a joke, meant to make liberals think twice about things like Title IX constraints on sex inequalities in collegiate athletics.

But Thursday evening, Senator Santorum gave a long interview to Glenn Beck; and at around 33:50 of the version on YouTube, they discussed at some length the idea of enforcing ideological balance in higher education. And this version didn't sound like a joke.

Beck: I'm going to give you a pass and not uh have you necess- you don't have to respond yes or no on this
but I think the biggest cancer in our country comes from the educational system, especially higher learn- uh learning
our universities and uh *that* should be
routed out
Santorum: Well I've
I've- I've-
you know proposed controversial things on these things in the past
the bottom line is that if you look at
uh I've-
sixty two percent of kids who go into college with a faith commitment leave without it
Beck: Mm hm
Santorum: Uh I understand why Barack Obama wants to send every kid to college
Beck: Oh yeah.
Santorum: Cause they're fac- they're indoctrination mills
Beck: Oh, it's indoctrination, yeah.
Santorum: Absolutely. And
you know
I- I've- I've floated the idea and I-
I'm trying to figure out how we can-
we can make it work
of somehow or another requiring
you know colleges and universities
who receive public dollars
to have
intellectual diversity
in their pr- in their uh in- on their- on their campus …
Beck: It's pretty easy, you're sp- you're getting the money from
you're getting the money from the federal government, you're getting it from the taxpayers
Santorum: Yeah.
Beck: You want it, then you have to do- you have to have a balance
Santorum: So- so I've-
I've- I threw that out as a concept, I don't
Beck: Yeah.
Santorum: I've- several people have come to me with ideas
Beck: I throw a concept out
Shut 'em down.
Santorum: {laughs}
well I'm not- I'm not going to shut down the universities of America
but I- I am …
Beck: That's why I'm not running for president!
Santorum: Yeah, I understand that.
Beck: I would, shut 'em down and restart 'em
uh from- from scratch and uh because this is
this is destroying us, Rick, it's destroying us.
Santorum: Absolutely, there's no question, they- I- I- I-
don't disagree with that, that-
that what's- what the indoctrination that's going on at the university level
is- is a harm to our economy. Harm to our country
Beck: They're hiding behind- hiding behind tenure
and- and they're the ones breeding this Occupy Wall Street nonsense
Santorum: Yeah.
Beck: And notice nobody is protesting the universities. It's crazy.
Santorum: I understand that.
Beck: OK. Back in just a second.

As I said earlier, there's plenty of opportunity here for linguists — entity tagging and sentiment analysis to help classify lecture transcripts; expert testimony about word sense disambiguation, point of view, use vs. mention, and so on. Solzhenitsyn explored an analogous situation fictionally in The First Circle, and Kopelev described the same situation in his non-fiction memoir Ease my Sorrows.

But after thinking about it a bit more, I have a further concern. I've been sitting in on some of the committee meetings involved in my university's planning process for its periodic re-accreditation, and I've been impressed by the scope and complexity of the process. I haven't seen any estimates of the amount of labor required, but it's clear that it involves many people putting in many hours over several of years. Ten person-years seems like a plausible guess for the amount of work involved in one major university's accreditation process.

A similarly serious attempt to define, test, and validate ideological balance would be at least as large a project — except that the terms of reference would be contested and argued at every step. Enforcing equality of opportunity for male and female athletes is simple in comparison, since for the purposes of the law, there are only two sexes, and you can keep score in terms of number of athletes and dollars spent.  Political ideologies are harder to enumerate, and then there's the problem of distinguishing matters of ideology (say, should contraception be legal?) from matters of fact (say, did different species evolve by descent with modification?). Even in the case of clearly ideological questions, it won't be easy to reach consensus on how wide a spectrum of opinions ought to be balanced, and to what degree. Establishing and enforcing a policy will require a large and coercive bureaucracy.

I get the impression that Senator Santorum is genuinely puzzled about how to craft a fair and workable plan for accreditation of ideological balance and of moral and spiritual instruction in higher education. In Glenn Beck's case, it seems that his aim is not to create balance, but rather to use the power of the federal government to replace the current educational system with one that reliably disseminates his own ideas about individual freedom. As someone who would have to sit on the committees dealing with either plan, I strongly prefer what I expect would be Ron Paul's opinion of the whole business — or Thomas Jefferson's.

Update — It seems that Senator Santorum's statistics about the effects of college on faith are somewhat problematic.  According to Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker, "How Corrosive Is College to Religious Faith and Practice?", SSRC:

As we might expect, recent data from the Add Health study reveals that nearly 70 percent of all young adults who attended church at least once a month during high school subsequently curtailed their church attendance. Contrary to our own and others’ expectations, however, young adults who never enrolled in college are presently the least religious young Americans. The assumption that the religious involvement of young people diminishes when they attend college is of course true: 64 percent of those currently enrolled in a traditional four-year institution have curbed their attendance habits. Yet, 76 percent of those who never enrolled in college report a decline in religious service attendance.

In other words, attending college is associated with a 19% (= 100*(1-76/64)) improvement in religious participation. According to another survey:

[A] quarter of students (25%) say they have become more spiritual since entering college, as opposed to only seven percent (7%) who say they have become less spiritual.


  1. John said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 12:57 am

    This kind of thing seems to be becoming more common:

    colleges and universities who receive public dollars

    What's up with that?

    [(myl) That kind of thing has been around for a while. Are you certain that it's really getting significantly more common relative to the alternatives?]

  2. Keith M Ellis said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 2:31 am

    I went to St. John's College, the so-called "Great Books" school, where the instructors never lecture (okay, once a week at a formal Friday night lecture for which attendance is voluntary) and for the most part don't even provide their own interpretations of the text in the seminar-style class environments.

    The books themselves certainly have strong points of view, and while conservatives oddly tend to think that these books, being pretty much all written by dead, white males and which form the intellectual backbone of western civilization, reflect their values (though, of course, many of them quite distinctly don't, such as those by Marx or Nietzche or whomever), it's not really the case that the program is any form of a conservative indoctrination. (Though I suspect in the last twenty years, more parents have sent their kids there thinking this is the case.)

    Indeed, there are faculty members who are bonafide neocons, including one Annapolis tutor who was Wolfowitz's Cornell roommate when they both met Strauss. Though, because the SJC tutors don't lecture and generally don't reveal their own views on the texts, most SJC students are entirely clueless that neocons walk among them.

    For all that, the college community, including the student body, has always tilted left (not nearly so much so as many other liberal arts colleges, to be sure). And, with regard to faith, and including the fact that we all learn classic Greek–Homeric, Attic, and Koine–and translate some books of the NT and read much of the bible and the theologians and Maimonides, I'd be inclined to wager money that more students leave the school with less of their faith rather than more.

    Which is to say, it's a nice test case for what Beck and Santorum believe. And I think it would demonstrate that they're wrong. And that what they actually want, as evidenced by these culturally conservative religious schools that have been popping up in the last twenty-five years, is exactly the opposite of what they claim. They want conservative cultural, specifically religious, indoctrination from higher education.

    That said, I think that they probably believe, to some degree, their rhetoric that higher education is a hotbed of leftist indoctrination. Because, of course, sometimes and in some cases, it has been and is. But, frankly, the lack of actual leftist indoctrination isn't going to satisfy these critics. They want rightist indoctrination.

  3. Andrew said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 5:10 am

    > *that* should be routed out

    Surely that should be "rooted out"? (I.e. pulled up by the roots)

    [(myl) The OED has rout v. "To find and get rid of (a pernicious or dangerous person or thing); to eradicate, destroy; to remove forcibly. Usu. with out", but also notes that this is probably a variant of root. And e.g. George W. Bush: "Our mighty military, along with other coalition forces, routed out the Taliban and liberated people from the clutches of one of the most barbaric regimes in the history of mankind".]

  4. BlueLoom said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 6:44 am

    My son went into college a liberal (he voted for Carter in 1980) and came out a conservative. He had been brought up with a strong moral code but no specific religion. Two years into grad school, he had himself baptized into a major Christian religion. He went to (ahem) Penn. Glenn Beck, are you listening??

  5. jf said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 7:42 am

    Projecting from my own history, I always felt it was exactly the opposite: thinking students come to have the opposite ideologies of their professors, not the same. There are broad classes of exceptions to this, of course, but teenagers are a noticeably contrary bunch, and if they can muster a reaction to any authority, they will. And the stock response, to make professors pretend to be "one of the good guys," eg Donald Sutherland in Animal House (to throw out a dated but archetypal reference) doesn't work except with the most charismatic of professors.

  6. David Eddyshaw said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 8:21 am

    "sixty two percent of kids who go into college with a faith commitment leave without it"

    (assuming it's true..)
    Controls please!

    How about kids who don't go to college?

    [(myl) Your question is very much to the point: the study cited in my update found that "64 percent of those currently enrolled in a traditional four-year institution have curbed their attendance habits. Yet, 76 percent of those who never enrolled in college report a decline in religious service attendance."]

    Come to that: What percentage of kids who go to college without a faith commitment emerge *with* one? And how does that compare with kids who don't go to college?

  7. Yang said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 9:12 am

    Easy. Government should not accredit universities(and regulate thereof ) , should not subsidize universities and should stop handing out student loans

  8. The Ridger said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 10:04 am

    The problem Beck and Santorum have can only be solved by Keith Ellis's conclusion. This is because, of ALL young people "with faith commitments" whether they go to college or not, the number is decreasing, mainly because people like Beck and Santorum are making into integral parts of the "faith" elements the kids just don't buy. And since there's zero flexibility for the Beck/Santorum crowd, the kids have to leave.

  9. Scott Kiesling said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 10:22 am

    Data, in studies run by conservative political scientist Matthew Woessner, shows (as usual) that things are not so simple. http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/academe/2012/JF/Feat/woes.htm
    Here's a quote from the final paragraph: "it is obvious from our results in The Still Divided Academy that many Republicans do work and thrive in higher education. To the extent that academia’s ideological imbalance is harmful either to higher education or to society as a whole, it is not at all clear how to improve the situation. Certainly, some of the imbalance is a matter of personal choice. Absent any external pressures, it is highly improbable that conservatives would ever be represented in higher education in numbers anywhere approaching their standing in society as a whole. Still, the mere perception that higher education is hostile to conservative values probably contributes to the Left’s dominance within higher education. Since it would be perfectly absurd (although beautifully ironic) to reengineer the politics of academia through quotas or special admission policies, there is no easy solution on the horizon. Nevertheless, one potentially important way of improving the Right’s representation in academia is to stop overstating the challenges conservatives face on campus." (emphasis added)

  10. Spell Me Jeff said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 10:48 am

    Getting back to Mark's original point — namely, the linguistic challenge of separating liberal from conservative teaching:

    On Tuesday I will lead a discussion of sexual deviance in [i]Dracula[/i]. There are a number of scenes that suggest behaviors and attitudes that flat-out go against the norms of Victorian society. The monsters bring it with them, and several of the characters seem to be punished for the slightest taint of it. It seems fairly clear that Bram Stoker wants to engage the conservative attitudes of his readers in order to enhance the creepiness of his bad guys.

    If I teach it that way, I suppose Santorum and I are on the same page.

    On the other hand, I take a few seconds out to be sure all my students know that I am using the word "deviance" to describe Victorian norms (the same ones that got Oscar Wilde thrown into the clink), not necessarily my own, and that I don't want the discussion to be construed as my own condemnation or even labeling of such behavior.

    Have I now placed myself in the liberal camp, or positioned the discussion neutrally? Certainly I don't want to offend any of my students who find themselves at odds with Victorian laws and mores. I suppose to some that's not at all neutral, though from my perspective (which is what?) neutrality is exactly what I'm striving to create.

    Further. I will, plain and simple, discuss sexual deviance in a very frank way. Is this a liberal thing to do? Would it be more neutral to ignore the imagery, not discuss sexuality at all, and thus distort the novel?

    Would a trained linguist be able to sort through all this and plot the entire discussion on a single graph? I find it very hard to imagine. Moreover, I think the very attempt would insult the linguist.

  11. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 10:49 am

    It would be interesting to know what kind of ideology Santorum would prefer for linguistics itself, especially as regards the study of English. As discussed on here before, there seems to be a tension within US conservatism between a fondness for non-standard dialects – especially rural, Southern ones – and a prescriptively policed 'proper English', including suspicion of foreign influence ("Latino not Latina!") and approval of archaic forms ("You lie!").

    So should linguistics departments be infused with prescriptivism to provide the necessary 'balance' against dangerous liberal relativism? Or are they one of the few where down-home conservative values already reign – in which case I assume Santorum wants a bit more snooty liberal elitism blended in?

    Deciding such a question in the first place will of course mean even more work for MYL and his fellow apparatchiks…

  12. Levi Montgomery said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 1:02 pm

    I'll "throw out a concept": Teach people to think. Teach them early, teach them hard, and teach them often, to think and to think clearly. The putative bias in a lecture, or in a book, or in any other source is simply the statement of one single opinion among many such opinions, and to a thinking person who expects to find such biases, it is easily corrected for.

    Teaching children to expect, recognize, and correct for biases in the information filtered through the people around them will be easier, safer, and far more effective than trying to ensure its balance in college classrooms.

    I'd also like to throw in one of my pet peeves regarding this expectation of balance. Although I have lost the quote, and no longer even remember who said it, it wasn't more than a couple of generations ago that *insert famous guy I can't remember* said something like "If you can only afford to subscribe to one newspaper, subscribe to the opposition's." In other words, there was no sign of this current (and largely artificial) expectation of a "fair and balanced" view from any one paper. This paper was right-wing, that paper was left-wing, and that one over there, they're so far out we never even look at them.

    Now what? Biases have not disappeared. The simple fact of bias is never going to go away. But regardless of the difficulty encountered in defining and describing exactly how to find it, it is nonetheless fairly easy to spot, for a person who expects to find it.

    So let's just teach our children to think.

  13. John said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 1:06 pm


    I'm not sure that it's becoming more common. Hence the "seems" in my sentence.

    Also not sure (1) that Google n-grams proves much; (2) that using a specific head for the pronoun ("companies") is the right way to go either. Just seems to me that i hear this use of "who" with inanimate heads a lot more often than I used to.

  14. Sili said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 1:52 pm

    I'm afraid linguists won't find much acceptance under a Conservative regime. You're all the spawn of that Marxist Chomsky, after all.

  15. MH said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 7:50 pm

    I find Santorum's pronunciation of controversial as /kɑːn.trə.ˈvɚ.si.əl/ to be downright un-American.

  16. Dakota said,

    February 25, 2012 @ 10:01 pm

    Since the U.S. Supreme Court now thinks corporations are people, might as well refer to them as "who". Right?

  17. Gryphon Corpus said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 11:05 am

    Keith Ellis – of course Johnnies lose their faith. We're taught to think, clearly and critically, which is antithetical to most faith. Those who cling to their faith too strongly generally don't make it through the program.
    Gryphon (A97)

  18. Andrew (yet another one) said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 12:52 am

    As I read the earlier story I thought, hey, how weird is it that this guy can be taken seriously over there. Then I read with great relief how he was actually joking, and I thought, oh, I obviously had an irony by-pass. Now …

  19. Keith M Ellis said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 4:37 am

    I just saw on TPM that while studies show that people become less religious through college, when compared to people who don't attend college, the decrease in religiosity is less, not more.

    Of course, I have all sort of questions about confounding variables. For example, if you selected people who are otherwise socioeconomically similar, and similar with regard to background and intelligence and some other factors, then compared the ones who attended college with those who don't, I have a feeling the results would reverse. But I don't know. The whole thing is more a cultural conservative shibboleth than it is a supposed true statement about reality.

  20. BZ said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

    I hear this left wing indoctrination stuff all the time, but in my experience (At the University of Pennsylvania who (which?) graciously hosts this blog), I was told by my Geology professor that man-made global warming was more or less a myth (he had other ideas I don't agree with like that science and religion don't contradict because they travel in different realms and of course, I suppose the whole course contradicted intelligent design which I don't think was called that at the time). I was told by my Biblical Archaeology professor to ignore the biases of the textbooks (the lectures, unlike the books, were very balanced). I was told by my Economics professor (in 2000) that we may be on the cusp of another great depression (heresy according to Republicans at the time). I attended several religious studies classes that were much more theologically than critically centered, etc. Where is the indoctrination?

    I did not become less religious after attending college. I am more religious now than I was then (though that came after graduation). I still believe in the not so liberal stuff I got from my professors, some of which (like the global warming thing) I think I would believe the opposite otherwise. I consider myself an independent politically, but reliably vote Democrat at least at the presidential level. Maybe the indoctrination was subliminal.

  21. Ted said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 3:31 pm

    Well, an analysis that uses frequency of church attendance as a proxy for religious faith must address the following:

    1. Children under 18 are generally subject to their parents' custody, i.e. legal control.
    2. Children generally begin college at or about the time they turn 18.

    3. Children who live in their parents' household are generally subject to their parents' social and emotional influence, if not control.
    4. Many children move out of their parents' household to attend college.

    5. Parents are necessarily older than their children.

    If voluntary church attendance is positively correlated with age – which I haven't researched but find intuitively likely – we would expect to find a decrease in frequency of church attendance corresponding to the time that children turn 18 and/or move away from home. Any analysis of the influence of college that doesn't control for these factors is meaningless.

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