THE BIG TALK
An occasional interview series with Americans who are challenging the status quo.
Economist John Bitzan and psychologist Clay Routledge routinely endure the long, harsh winters of North Dakota, so the element they want to boost in college classrooms is perhaps unexpected: optimism.
The most recent research conducted by the North Dakota State University professors, however, suggests they have a long way to go.
“Everyone is looking for an expert to solve things, but we want to find bottom-up solutions,” Mr. Bitzan said.
“That motivational piece is critical,” said Mr. Routledge, who adds “existential psychology” to Mr. Bitzan’s free-market economics. “People need to feel they are significant players in a drama, that ‘I’m in the game; I’m doing this.’”
That might sound more self-help than scholarly, but the duo and colleagues at the university’s Sheila and Robert Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth are working to back it up. And the key, they insist, is more and better-understood capitalism, not less.
The title they gave to their latest research, a deep dive into the attitudes of American college students, makes that clear. They call the findings of some 1,000 students culled from a poll of 400,000 called the Freedom, Progress and Flourishing Survey.
The findings don’t make the Ivory Tower sound all that optimistic, however.
“Less than half of students believe that their college education has played an important role in preparing them to solve the problems they believe are most important for our nation at this time,” the two write.
In other words, not too optimistic.
Certainly, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of national pride. In what has probably got the most attention, the study found the majority of students who identify as liberal — 57% — are not proud to be Americans. If 73% of conservative-leaning students hadn’t said they were proud, the overall figure would not have cracked 50%.
Students aren’t very sanguine about their prospects and what college might be doing to improve them, either.
More than half don’t “believe they are able to make a difference in the world,” while only 52% are “optimistic about their future.”
Oddly enough, students who identify as conservative are more pessimistic about their time in college and optimistic about their lives after. For liberal students, the reverse is true.
In the survey, when asked “how often do your professors promote their own political views in the classroom?” 17% of students who identify as liberal said “very frequently/frequently,” compared to 31% of conservative students.
Similarly, when asked if their professors “create a classroom climate where people with unpopular views would feel comfortable sharing their opinions,” 54% of conservative students said “no,” but 72% of liberal students answered “yes.”
The answers of those students who identified as “independent” or “apolitical” tended to track closely to the liberals. For example, when asked if professors inculcate a classroom in which Do your professors create a classroom climate where “people with unpopular views would feel comfortable sharing their opinions?” 86% of liberals and 78% of independents said “yes,” compared to just 56% of conservatives.
Neither Mr. Bitzan nor Mr. Routledge aimed to paint a dour picture of academia, which — both readily acknowledge — pays their bills.
“It might look like we want to bash academia but we just want to improve it,” said Mr. Bitzan, 55.
For whatever reason, ingrained or taught, this pessimism is widespread.
“There are no significant differences among students with varying political ideologies regarding their optimism about the future of the U.S.,” the study found. “Most students have a pessimistic or neutral view of the future of the U.S.”
It’s clear, then, Mr. Routledge and Mr. Bitzan face an uphill task when it comes to instilling the entrepreneurial spirit they think — and not many would dispute it — leads to a better future.
Which makes little sense, they said, when the future has been getting better for generations.
“It seems too many aren’t aware of the progress we’ve made and what has created it,” Mr. Bitzan said.
Not coincidentally, this pessimism comes hand-in-hand with a sour attitude toward capitalism that college appears to be teaching.
For example, for those minds that were changed, “the change was more likely to be an increased negative view of capitalism.”
The reason for that isn’t hard to spot: “A majority of students across political groups agree that at least a few of their professors have expressed their views on capitalism and socialism,” the study said. “These students indicate that most of the time these views are unfavorable toward capitalism.”
The opposite should be happening, the professors argue.
“We’re really, really fortunate to be here,” Mr. Routledge, 44, said, noting that a tiny percentage of the world’s population has a chance to attend four-year universities of U.S. standards.
A pessimistic view of a world that has reduced extreme poverty and hunger, while boosting literacy and life expectancy, seems out of place.
Yet due to a lack of what the North Dakota scholars call “meaning,” that is what is happening.
“We’re concerned but not really surprised,” Mr. Routledge said.
His own research delves into the psychological elements of economics, where “little attention [is] given to the way the need for meaning connects to people’s broader economic views and aspirations.”
It is, to take a less scholarly definition, a way of convincing people they, in fact, have skin in the game.
“Direction, purpose, goal-oriented — the sense that it matters is what is really significant,” Mr. Routledge said.
Absent that higher sense, bad things happen.
“When societies shade toward the pessimistic and cynical they become increasingly defensive and hedonistic,” Mr. Routledge said. “We have to give students that additional perspective, the aspiration that comes from free markets and what they can do.”
But it has to be more than just a pep talk for that to happen. Mr. Bitzan fervently believes that the Institute he leads on the northern prairie is “offering something unique,” but that isn’t an easy answer.
“We can’t make someone have a better family life or more friends,” he said, somewhat ruefully.
• James Varney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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