Analyzing Wabash 1996-2003
October 18, 2005
Studying data from student surveys with Professor of
Political Science David Hadley, Harvard-bound Justin Grimmer ’05 discovered a picture of the Wabash experience that in many ways mirrors his own.Lef
Left-leaning history and political science professors proselytize their students and turn out one liberal disciple after another.
And all this talk of a liberal arts education is well and good, but when push comes to shove, most students attend Wabash to boost their earning power.
Or so goes the conventional wisdom.
But a study funded by the Center for Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash and coauthored by Professor of Political Science David Hadley and John Maurice Butler Prize-winner Justin Grimmer ’05 knocks the teeth out of those old saws.
Analyzing surveys given to entering freshman between 1996 and 1999 and surveys given to those same students as seniors, Grimmer and Hadley’s study—"The Wabash Experience"—found that Wabash students, in terms
of political and social attitudes, moved in no consistent direction. In fact, more students in the social sciences
at Wabash saw themselves as moving in a slightly more conservative direction, while more students in the natural sciences and mathematics classified themselves as becoming slightly more liberal. But these ideological shifts were relatively minor. And Wabash students tended to moderate their views during their four years here.
"I think that’s what happens in liberal education," Hadley says. "They’re being exposed to a range of ideas and opinions, and their minds are being opened to other perspectives. They’re seeing nuance
that they hadn’t seen before."
"We sometimes hear conservatives accuse liberals and
liberal accuse conservatives
of indoctrinating students," Grimmer says. "But Wabash men are able to stand above
the fray and analyze beliefs more effectively than some people give us credit for."
In an interesting variation, Grimmer sees his own experience mirrored in the study,
particularly when it comes to respectful dialogue between students and professors. Though more liberal in his views, he recalls numerous conversations with conservative
theologian and Professor Steve Webb ’83.
"We disagreed vehemently about rational choice theory," Grimmer says. "But we had collegial discussions; he didn’t present his views in a dogmatic way, and I felt respected. The stereotypes people place upon each other almost always break down in conversations like these."
Another surprising result of the study also mirrors Grimmer’s Wabash education.
"When I came to Wabash, I’d never met a professor;
I didn’t know what a liberal arts college was," he says.
"I thought I just wanted to make money, and I thought becoming a lawyer was a good way to do that. So I took an internship with a lawyer doing health insurance law—essentially suing people who didn’t pay their medical bills—and I realized I didn’t have a flair for that. I began reexamining why I wanted to be a lawyer at the same time I was taking some really neat political science
courses with Professor Hadley, and that’s how I made
The "switch" Grimmer refers to has less to do with vocational choice than "the examined life." The survey showed that during their four years, students attached increasing importance to developing a meaningful
philosophy of life. Simultaneously, the importance
they attached to being financially well-off declined.
"The picture the data creates is of freshmen being turned on to make a lot of money and who think
philosophy is silly and frivolous," Grimmer says.
"Then many, like me, flip their position on those two.
"I think Wabash turns out intellectual professionals
and thoughtful businessmen who often take an unusual approach to their vocation," Grimmer says. "This may speak to the success so many Wabash professionals
"The data also tells us that Wabash students increase
in their social and intellectual self-confidence, and I think that social self-confidence could contribute to their willingness and capacity to engage their communities, to make a genuine contribution," Hadley adds. The extent
to which a Wabash education encourages "civic engagement" is the question that first prompted Hadley’s interest in the survey data.
"We at Wabash talk about preparing good citizens who provide leadership and resources for their communities," Hadley says. "I wanted to look at the data and see if there was any orientation toward that civic engagement during their four years here."
That piece of the study won’t be completed until late summer, but Hadley has seen some positive indicators.
He also hopes to extend the study to alumni, possibly including some questions on the alumni survey planned for this fall.
"That would make the civic engagement piece of the study much richer," Hadley says. "In looking at freshman and senior surveys, all we can find are orientations towards civic engagement; if we could match those up with alumni answers five or ten years out, we might be able to identify just how different experiences at Wabash encourage civic engagement, and use that knowledge
to increase and enhance those experiences."
Hadley also believes the data could be studied further to help identify and address some of the reasons students transfer or leave Wabash before graduation.
"So often, students and alumni get caught up in the hoopla and hurrah about Wabash, but if we don’t take
a step back and look objectively, we’ll fail to improve," Grimmer says. "These observations aren’t to be critical, but to make Wabash an even better place than it is now."
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