How a Liberal Recovered

If I could recommend a survey course for parents and students on the potential pitfalls of college, it would be Lee Doren’s eBook Please Enroll Responsibly: Avoiding Indoctrination at College, available for download from Amazon. Although the book only takes an hour to read, it touches on many of the challenges that students can face on a typical college campus.

The book isn’t meant to solve the problems of campus politicization or the dumbing down of the modern curriculum. Written for students and those who “want to guard their children from the potential damage college can inflict on young minds,” Doren explores a wide range of potential campus hazards. These include worthless courses, leftist courses, biased textbooks, and intellectual atrophy at today’s universities. He then offers students some advice on avoiding indoctrination “while still getting good grades.”

Thus, Doren’s book is a sort of survival guide for the politically incorrect conservative or libertarian student. For the liberal student, it’s a reminder that hearing multiple perspectives, learning to defend your own ideas, and learning how to think critically are more valuable lessons than even the most popular political ideologies.

Doren calls himself a “recovering liberal.” He begins the book by describing his own undergraduate experience at the University of Michigan and how his political perspective changed. As an idealistic young college graduate, Doren’s first job was with an environmental organization. He first worked in Michigan, trying to limit the amount of water that could be extracted from the Great Lakes, then in Toledo, Ohio, petitioning against a local oil refinery. As part of his job, he tried to persuade citizens that the refinery should be shut down in order to curb pollution near a local elementary school. He was surprised to discover that some of the citizens didn’t want the refinery to shut down—the refinery provided good jobs for the community and cheaper gasoline than almost anywhere else in the state. The citizens also pointed out that the refinery was there first—the school came later, its officials actually choosing to locate near the refinery. Doren started to question the worldview that he had learned in college.

That uncertainty started him on a road of exploration. It led him to do what college courses should have done—explore a variety of sources on a topic, invite open inquiry, and use logic to explain complicated phenomena. After watching a book discussion on C-SPAN about FDR’s legacy and the economics of the Great Depression, Doren followed up with some research of his own. What he discovered convinced him: there were obvious omissions in his education.

Doren’s personal story reveals the problems in education that he discusses later in the book: one-sided professors and textbooks, useless courses, and a lack of dedication to inquiry. Chapter titles include: “Yes, I’m a Recovering Liberal,” “Learning Nonsense for $40,000 a Year,” and “The Intellectual Bubble.”

As one illustration of bias in a college textbook, Doren critiques Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States—a popular text in college history, women’s studies, and English programs. Zinn, who died in 2010, admitted he wrote his textbook to “create social change.” It is littered with inaccurate statements and opinions disguised as fact. Doren points out that Zinn never cites sources in his work, claiming that doing so would make the book “impossibly cluttered with footnotes.”

Students will probably find chapters four and five—“Choosing Classes Wisely” and “My Advice”—the most helpful and practical. In those chapters, Doren outlines a few techniques to avoid indoctrination. He tells students which humanities, physical science, and social science courses to take and which to avoid. He explains the importance of friendly interactions with professors—especially the ones students want to challenge. The Socratic method, Doren suggests, is more effective than directly contradicting a professor on an issue. And he gives advice on writing essays and taking exams in biased courses.

Students or parents looking to dig a little deeper into the problems that Doren summarizes will find the Appendices of Please Enroll Responsibly invaluable. They include an exhaustive reading list (including Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society, which Jane Shaw reviewed here), blogs and online resources, and a list of talk show hosts, YouTube channels, and Twitter handles to follow.

Despite its merits, Please Enroll Responsibly won’t please everyone. Doren doesn’t offer any new material—he just puts it into a short, entertaining format for those who are taking a first look at the muddled world of higher education. Anyone who follows higher education closely already knows that bias exists on college campuses and that many courses are useless, uninteresting, and watered-down.

Another problem is that after reading Doren’s book, some parents and students may overestimate the problems; it’s one thing to be forewarned, quite another to be braced for indoctrination in every assignment. So, in addition to Doren’s useful advice to students, I would add: seek out sympathetic faculty members at one’s college or university. They have local knowledge that no book can provide.

My only other complaint is that Please Enroll Responsibly is only available as a Kindle eBook. While that makes it incredibly affordable (only $0.99) it also makes it tough to navigate—and completely inaccessible to anyone without a Kindle reader.

All in all, Doren’s book is a helpful guide and a useful starting point for those who are interested in taking a first look behind the academic curtain.