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OLSEN: Dangers of academia’s ‘indoctrination mills’

Young Americans emerge from college favoring socialism over free markets

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Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum caused a bit of a stir last month when he labeled college campuses "indoctrination mills" that enforce a strict adherence to "politically correct left doctrine." For conservatives, Mr. Santorum might as well have called the sky blue. But from the way the media and liberal pundits pounced on his remarks, you'd think he had said something profoundly indecent.

For decades, conservatives have documented and criticized how liberal ideology runs rampant throughout higher education. Hence William F. Buckley's famous quip from the 1960s: "I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University." Fifty years later, few conservatives would disagree.

But could the problem be getting worse? The Pew Research Center released a study in December showing that more Americans age 18 to 29 have a favorable view of socialism over capitalism. In fact, this demographic has a net positive view of socialism (49 percent positive to 43 percent negative) and net negative view of capitalism (46 percent positive and 47 percent negative). When Pew released an earlier version of the same study two years ago, this demographic's views on socialism were exactly the opposite (43 percent positive and 49 percent negative).

Clearly, more than one's college education goes into one's opinions on economic systems. But just as clearly, few would deny that a college graduate's opinions are shaped during his or her four years at college - that's why they're called the formative years. So when we engage in a spirited debate about the liberal dominance of college, let's also remember that there are real-world consequences to this imbalance within academia.

For the 18-to-29-year-olds who have a favorable opinion of socialism, what else does that tell us about them? Can one view socialism favorably and still believe in America's democratic free-market system? Would these young adults be able to articulate why the social democratic states of Europe and around the world failed to keep pace with the United States in the latter half of the 20th century?

This is the dilemma that confronts a nation whose youths don't understand or appreciate what underlies our prosperity. The recent Occupy Wall Street protests presented the perfect irony of this generation and its confusion. While decrying the evils of capitalism, the protesters organized their marches via social networks and mobile devices that were the products of capitalism. No government agency or grant created Twitter or the iPhone.

Without a firm background in the benefits of the free market, these same Americans will grow up not only ignorant of much of what makes America great, but supportive of policies that will undermine our greatness. This is not a partisan issue. A generation that is unaware of its nation's founding principles - freedom, limited government and the free market - is a generation that could lose them.

The reverse side of the coin involves those young Americans who, after four years of Mr. Santorum's "indoctrination mills," miraculously still believe in the power of the free market. But can they defend it against the never-ending assaults from the media and liberal politicians? Most probably they can't. In all likelihood, those who can had to go outside their formal education to learn about it.

While there is not shortage of good, foundational texts to educate the student interested in America's economic history, there is a shortage of interested students. This is where parents must play an active role in their children's education. Sending them off to a four-year institution and assuming that upon graduation they will be economically literate flies in the face of reality. If parents abdicate all responsibility to liberal professors, there's a good chance the graduate will come home spouting liberal claptrap and looking forward to his or her next Occupy Wall Street rally.

Despite decades of calling out the problem, conservatives have yet to make a serious dent in the left's dominance of academia. This likely won't change anytime soon. Which means this summer, when students are home for summer break, it's up to parents to arm them not only with the knowledge of what awaits them on campus, but also with the intellectual curiosity to seek answers elsewhere. Otherwise, parents might learn firsthand what Mr. Santorum meant about "indoctrination mills."

Henry Olsen is a vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, which publishes the "Values and Capitalism" book series, intended to provide a free-market education for today's students.

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