I know plenty of conservatives hate universities, but why do they believe their own kids are so weak and guillible?

I’m generally not ok with the “Lookit the craze balls things Rick Santorum said this week” frenzy that seems to be going on with journalists right now, but this past week he’s playing on one of the favorite whines of the ‘conservatives-as-victims’ narratives in the US: that colleges indoctrinate their kiddos away from their lurving family and community beliefs. He wants diversity in favor of conservatives. I love this. The party that has spent years screaming against diversity is now screaming for it:

On the president’s efforts to boost college attendance, Santorum said, “I understand why Barack Obama wants to send every kid to college, because of their indoctrination mills, absolutely … The indoctrination that is going on at the university level is a harm to our country.”

He claimed that “62 percent of kids who go into college with a faith commitment leave without it,” but declined to cite a source for the figure. And he floated the idea of requiring that universities that receive public funds have “intellectual diversity” on campus.

Here’s the problem. University professors are Democrats and radicals, not unlike lots of employees in pubic institutions. That must mean: They’re Here to Brainwash Our Kids!

There are three main problems with this supposition. One is ugly and unfortunate, and the other two are actually quite wonderful.

Let’s start with the first ugly truth.

a) Nobody in most publicly funded research universities actually cares enough about undergrads to bother with trying to indoctrinate them. Yeah, I know, we’re all part of a secret pact that upholds the Liberal Cause (whatever the heck that is; it seems to be that you encourage constantly proliferating, probably specious rights claims that keep the party in self-destructive disarray, but ok. I’m doing my part for that.)

But you see, faculty pay as absolutely, positively nothing to do with how well we’ve supported the pact in the class room.

And our pay has absolutely nothing do with with how we get undergraduates to learn anything, doctrinaire or otherwise.

Our pay is 100 percent determined by research output. Anybody who says differently is lying to you. If I got a paper in Science and 1s on my evils, I would get a much bigger raise that year than if I published nothing and got 5s on my evals.

You want to know whose agenda drives a given department? Find the loudest, most self-promotional researcher, and the people who are better at the retail politics of departmental service. THOSE two types determine departmental policy and culture. Unless good teaching overlaps with one of those other skills (and even then, people downplay their teaching because there is such a stigma attached), the best teachers in the department are marginalized and treated like they have the “wrong priorities.”

The answer to this problem isn’t to turn colleges into High School v. 2 with some dumb prohibition about how faculty should teach 5 classes a day and never research. That’s the opposite silly extreme.

Instead, we should expect a balance between teaching and research. Research is good for teaching; teaching *can* be good for research if your department takes care of you and gets you teaching at least classes in your core area.

b) College students are far, far smarter and more independent that you think they are. Yes, they are young. Trust me, from my vantage point, they get younger every single year. But they’ve had 18 years, usually, in their families and their communities and churches. Now, I do think college classes and college experiences can be transformative. People do change when they leave their families and communities to encounter new peer groups.

There are always vulnerable people who can fall into the thrall of–to use Santorum’s language—false prophets. That can happen to vulnerable people in any context.

But the students in my classes, even the young ones, are way, way too sharp to be indoctrinated into anything. I couldn’t indoctrinate them if I wanted to. Period. If I tried, they’d say whatever they thought I wanted to hear on the exams, loathe me and my guts, and go on thinking whatever they do.

Yes, I’ve read God and Man at Yale. It’s fine book, but it’s a young book, written before Buckley was able to see when real loneliness and isolation set in: post-college adulthood.

It’s possible on every campus to join any political group you want, any fun sport you want, any activity you want, any church group you want. Most engaged students experiment. And lot of my students work long hours to be able to afford being here.

So the only chance I have of making an impression is to be more interesting than the other things competing for their attention. That’s not a position of power. Sure I hand out grades and letters of recommendation, but see above: they can just regurgitate whatever they think you want to hear to get past grades and whatnot.

Real leadership is way harder.

c) Just because somebody questions their faith, leaves a church, gets mad at their family, breaks from their family for a time, and moves away from their community does mean they are gone forever.

It’s my job as an old lady and a teacher, I have discovered, to be somebody that young people can rebel against in their own quest to forge identity and meaning. Oh, you old first wave feminists. You didn’t do it right. Oh, you second wave feminists, you didn’t do it right. Oh, your generation has ruined the world and mine must fix it.

What actually happens is more complex than that. But that’s what it boils down to. Remember the whole prodigal son thing?

The point is: just because people question their faith and family, or even leave it for a bit, does not mean they never ever return.