An Open Letter and Invitation to Nicholas Kristof

Dear Mr. Kristof,

I recently read your op-ed on the “The Dangers of Echo Chambers on College Campuses.”  Many things trouble me about your piece but for now I wish to address the caricature of higher education that undergirds your entire argument.  Oberlin, no disrespect intended, is not typical.  The notion that college campuses are “liberal bubbles” demonstrates a profound disconnect between public opinion and what a college campus actually looks like today.

The students who populate these campuses are clearly not what your piece suggests as a study on higher education reveals: “The National Center for Education Statistics reports that of the 17.6 million people enrolled in college in the fall of 2011, only 15 percent were attending a four-year college and living on campus. Thirty-seven percent were enrolled part time, and 32 percent worked full time…More than a third were over 25, and a quarter were over 30. By 2019, the percentage of those over 25 is expected to increase by more than 20 percent.”

In other words, the college campus of which you write is an outlier.  It is not typical.  The new traditional student is not eighteen, probably commutes to school, may not attend full-time, and would find the college campus you describe to be quite alien.

These statistics provide a powerful counter, in fact, to the very dangers of insularity that you decry.  Diversity is not simply political or ideological.  It is generational and experiential as well.  When I look out at a classroom that includes a nineteen-year old, a thirty-ish year-old single mother putting herself through college, a returning veteran, and the handful of individuals who are over sixty and participate in a program my college offers that allows them to take classes for free, I don’t trouble myself much with a worry about a liberal bubble.  Instead, I relish their discussions of the assigned material, as each brings to bear a distinctive perspective that educates the others.  There is nothing “shrill” about this exchange.  And if anything, I have observed in over twenty years of teaching at this institution, that their exposure to such a diversity of life experiences encourages a civility and open-mindedness that serves them well both inside and outside the classroom.

If anything, your caricature of higher education only serves to feed its critics on the right.  When you accuse us of operating in liberal echo chambers and behaving shrilly and illiberally you endorse the image that conservatives have used to undermine and underfund institutions of higher learning.

The only cure it would seem, is to understand better what college campuses today are really like and to actually meet the students who populate them.

And so I end this letter with an invitation.  And a sincere one at that.  Come visit me and my students at an urban, public university where many of my students are Pell-eligible, working multiple jobs, raising families, all while being among the most engaged and diligent students I have ever had the pleasure of teaching.  Spend a day or more with them, talking to them, listening to their experiences, and discovering more about what it’s like to be a typical college student today.  I think you will be pleasantly surprised to find that they are not the straw men and women that your piece makes them out to be.  They are living, breathing students who have a lot to teach you.


12 thoughts on “An Open Letter and Invitation to Nicholas Kristof

  1. Rather than quoting an article on Community Colleges published by CHEducation which notes, in passing, a summary of the National Center for Education’s 2011 data, it might be better (just a suggestion) to actually go to the National Center for Education and look at the most recent data they have (2014). There you would find the following:
    * Of the 20M students enrolled in degree-granting, post-secondary institutions ~ 13.5M (67%) are enrolled in 4 year institutions
    * Of the 13.5M enrolled in 4-year institutions, 9.8M (73%) are full-time
    * Of the 9.8M, full-time, students at 4-year institutions, 8.4M (86%) are 29 or younger

    Additionally it is estimated by the College Board, that ~ 40% of all full-time/public and 64% of all full-time/private students live on-campus. Though, of course, this on/off campus split is relatively meaningless… they all participate in campus life.

    In fact, as you can see, the actual data paints a very different picture, indeed, than the one implied in your quote of a quote which tells us, “17.6 million people enrolled in college in the fall of 2011, only 15 percent were attending a four-year college and living on campus.”

    Kristof’s insight into the “echo chamber” which is the average 4-year degree-granting institution remains quite accurate despite the obvious fact that 27% of all 4 year students are part-time and 14% are 30 or older. As he said, “Whatever our politics, inhabiting a bubble makes us more shrill.”…. and the bubble very clearly is the average American College campus which is majority young, majority full-time, majority 4-year, majority campus-life focused, majority taught by majority liberal/left faculty. That is the echo chamber.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Except that you’ve continued his caricature, with all its strawmen and falsehood. Over the last 24 years, I’ve attended, worked at (as staff and faculty), or both at several colleges. One was a small, private liberal arts school. Two were R1 major state universities (R1 are top tier research universities), including one that is a city unto itself. One was a mid-range state university. Currently, I’m at a downtown community college surrounded by low income neighborhoods. Multiple states were involved.

      In those 24 years and multiple institutions, I have yet to see Kristof’s “university” anywhere. But, let’s not rely on anecdotal evidence, regardless of how much there is (and its validity). Let’s turn to the most up-to-date statistics (from the National Center for Education Statistics, updated in May 2020 with 2018 stats):

      Take a look through that data, and the OP’s point is fully supported, e.g. that Kristof is talking from a position of ignorance.


  2. re: “I don’t trouble myself much with a worry about a liberal bubble.”

    Of course not, since you are part of the problem.

    Your comment doesn’t in any way dispute the reality of campuses as liberal echo chambers. Diversity of student status as full or part time, age, living location, and working or not, says *nothing* about the relevant concern regarding diversity of political views among faculty (and less importantly, often among students, even if to a lesser degree than faculty). It only serves to indicate that you are a part of the problem of liberals who are in denial about the issue and attempt to avoid it with irrelevant tangents. (note: I’m libertarian, not conservative, but we suffer from the same bias against non-liberals).


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