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The myth of “woke” indoctrination at American universities

The myth of “woke” indoctrination at American universities
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According to some prominent billionaires, political pundits, and media figures, American universities have undergone a radical transformation. Institutions of higher learning in the United States, they say, are no longer focused on free academic inquiry. Rather, they are devoted to indoctrinating students on “woke” topics like critical race theory, systemic racism, and transgender rights.

“If I was gonna try to destroy the country, that’s how I would do it. I’d radicalize the kids. I’d give them the stupidest ideas and run them in their head. Boys can be girls, girls can be boys,” Joe Rogan said earlier this month on his podcast, which attracts millions of listeners. “I think we’re sending our kids to cult camps. I think [students] get indoctrinated.”

“The amount of indoctrination that’s happening in schools and universities is, I think, far beyond what parents realize,” billionaire Elon Musk told Bill Maher last year. (Maher endorsed Musk’s theory enthusiastically.) On X, Musk added that the “woke mind virus has infested [academic] institutions” to “a shocking degree.” 

Venture capitalist David Sacks claims that “the far left” has taken over universities. According to Sacks, the “quid pro quo of our civilization is if you want the economic and social advancement that a college degree grants you, you have to go to one of these schools and submit to voluntary reeducation for four years.” 

Billionaire investor Peter Thiel says that “[o]ver the last three to four years” colleges and universities have become “more woke” and “even less meritocratic.” He is offering students $100,000 to skip college because “I don’t think schools like Stanford or Harvard will go away or really reform.” 

Charlie Kirk, a right-wing operative with 2.9 million followers on X, wrote a book called “The College Scam,” which claims that colleges are “brainwashing away the future of America’s youth.” In a March 2023 appearance on Fox News, Kirk claimed that “colleges need to fail” because they have been “going so far in the woke direction.”

In the New York Times, columnist David Brooks asserts that “ideological activism is replacing intellectual inquiry as the primary mission of universities.” 

These claims are never backed by data. They are based on anecdotes or a general impression. But, despite a lack of factual evidence, the idea that universities have gone “woke” and are indoctrinating students with far-left ideologies has gained widespread acceptance.

The best available data, however, does not support these theories. Open Syllabus, a non-profit group, collects syllabi from colleges and universities. The group has collected over 5.5 million syllabi at more than 4,000 American institutions of higher learning. The data is not comprehensive because Open Syllabus relies mostly on publicly available data. But it is the most robust database of what is actually taught on campus in the U.S. 

Data collected by Open Syllabus reveals that, in 2023, “woke” terms like “critical race theory,” “structural racism,” or “transgender” appear in just 0.08% of college and university syllabi. These are all legitimate areas of inquiry but are derided by critics as evidence of academia’s decline. In any event, the data shows they are not significant components of college and university curricula. 

Even generic terms that encompass these terms appear in relatively few syllabi. The term “race” — allegedly an obsession of the modern university — appears in only 2.8% of the syllabi collected by Open Syllabus in 2023. Moreover, the prevalence of “race” in syllabi has remained relatively consistent over the last 15 years. Similarly, “gender” appeared in 4.7% of syllabi in 2023 — a rate that has held fairly steady since 2008. 

Joe Karaganis, the founder of Open Syllabus, told Popular Information that because the “woke” terms appear in syllabi so infrequently, it “belies any claims that the curriculum has been radicalized at scale.” 

Even limiting the search to a prototypical “elite” institution, Harvard University, shows that race only appears in 3.2% of class syllabi and gender in 0.5% of class syllabi. In most years, terms like “critical race theory,” “structural racism,” and “transgender” don’t appear at all.

At the University of California at Berkeley, which has long been considered one of the most “woke” educational institutions in the country, “critical race theory” appears in 0.38% of syllabi, and “transgender” appears in 1.1% of syllabi. Less than 10% of course syllabi mention “race” or “gender.” 

The reality is that, depending on their major, college students in America can go through their entire college careers without encountering a single course that focuses on race or gender — much less “woke” topics like critical race theory and transgender rights. 

Looking exclusively at sociology courses, the major of choice for 1 in 125 college students, you’ll naturally find more frequent discussion of topics like race and gender. But well under 1% of sociology courses include the terms “critical race theory,” “structural racism,” and “transgender.” 

There are examples of topics that are included in college syllabi more frequently now than 15 years ago. At research universities, “climate change” was mentioned in 0.6% of syllabi in 2008 and 1.3% today. Is this what we mean by going “woke”?

It can appear that colleges are indoctrinating students with left-wing dogma “because left-leaning students are more likely to enroll in the first place.” A peer-reviewed study published in January 2023 found that, accounting for this self-selection, attending college today does not have a “liberalizing tendency.” 

Nevertheless, the state of higher education is a legitimate topic of discussion and debate. But this discussion should be grounded in facts, not vibes. 





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