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Dr. Clay Routledge discusses his survey on attitudes towards progress and freedom of expression on U.S. college campuses.

Clay Routledge: The Human Progress Podcast Ep. 7 Transcript

By Marian L. Tupy @HumanProgress

By Clay Routledge @clayroutledge

The full interview between Marian Tupy and Clay Routledge is available here. The transcript is below.

Marian Tupy: Hello, and welcome to today’s Human Progress podcast. With me is Dr. Clay Routledge, he is a psychological scientist, he is a writer, he’s a consultant, public speaker, and a professor at North Dakota State University. He studies basic psychological needs and how these needs influence and are influenced by family, social and community bonds, economics, work, and broader cultural worldviews, and much of his research focuses on the need for the meaning in life. We might get to talk about meaning of life a little later, but I think that what I really wanna talk to Clay about today is a new study, a new survey that he has co-authored with a colleague, entitled 2021 American College Student Freedom, Progress and Flourishing Survey. So welcome, Clay.

Clay Routledge: Thanks for having me. It’s great to talk to you again.

Marian Tupy: Thank you so much. So the study is divided into three sections, campus free speech and viewpoint diversity, so that’s number one. Then human progress, obviously I’m very interested in that, human progress, attitudes about the future and national pride, that’s number two. And number three is economics and entrepreneurship, and we will just go very briefly over your findings, but let me begin by asking you, why this survey? Why this study? What compelled you to do it? What were you expecting to achieve and find?

Clay Routledge: Yeah. So that’s a good question. So there’s a number of… I’ll try to keep my answers short, but I think there’s a number of things that inspired it. First, as you know, I’m sure, there’s been a number of groups and institutes and scholars who have been writing about, talking about the challenge of free speech and viewpoint diversity on college campuses, the problem of groupthink, of hostility towards those who maybe challenge the dominant politics on campus and all of that. So there are people that do great stuff like FIRE, Heterodox Academy and others, so we wanted to get into that issue as well, but of course, there’s other people doing it.

In addition to that though, we thought, well, that challenge of the campus climate probably isn’t the only issue going on, and in a lot of ways, I think it’s connected to other issues. And what I mean by that is, if you have an intellectual space or what is supposed to be an intellectual space, but people don’t feel comfortable sharing or considering diverse ideas or people are, even worse, people are punished for doing so, then not only is that a problem for free speech, but it’s a problem for all of those other ideas and issues, which like you, I suspect… I think that you need a competitive marketplace of ideas.

And so we wanted to look at some of those other related issues beyond free speech, but we certainly think they connect to free speech. So that was kind of our starting point, was, okay, people are studying free speech, so let’s throw some questions in about that, which is, like you noted, section one, and see what we find, but then we wanted to do something, a deeper dive into students’ colleges experience, because we thought, well, if free speech is an issue, then what are some of the other challenges? And also there are surveys from like the Pew Research Center that… Not of college students, but of just American adults, that a lot of people are losing faith in higher education, a lot of Americans are losing faith in higher education and keep in mind that American colleges and universities are a big source of… Have historically been a big source of pride for our country.

People all over the world have historically wanted to come to the United States to attend our universities. They’re some of the best universities in the world in terms of not just scholarly work, but spaces to do very, very high level research. And so with that in mind, we wanted to see, well, what are some of the other things going on on campus that might speak to this issue of why Americans are losing faith in higher ed? And of course, there’s a lot of reasons related to costs, the increased cost of attending college, the political issues I mentioned before, but anyway, so we wanted to go into that area too, to take that… Or just to broaden the scope beyond free speech, so that leads to, what I think you’re interested in, largely, is human progress. And I appreciate your counsel on this actually, because if you remember, I reached out to you when I was working on this survey to get some of your thoughts on how to ask these questions because I’ve followed your work on human progress in your organization.

And I wanted to know, John and I wanted to know what does the average college student think about the state of human progress? We see your content all the time, and we hear anecdotal discussions all the time, if people think the world’s getting worse, so we thought, well, college students should be in a good position to know the facts because they’re taking classes and with experts on topics that are very relevant to progress, whether it’s science or history or political science, they should know what’s going on in the state of the world, so that’s… So we’re like, well, we wanna have those questions as well about progress. And then I’m a psychologist, and so to me, part of this is about that if free speech is a problem, students don’t feel… If it’s true that students don’t feel comfortable speaking about certain issues, if it’s true that there’s a climate of fear or anxiety on campus, that people either professors or students might be punished for challenging certain views, and then on top of this, if it’s the case and we didn’t know at the time, of course, but if it’s the case that students aren’t really even aware that the world has been getting better across many metrics, then to me as a psychologist that speaks to a not very healthy psychological space.

And what I mean by that is we know from research in my area that if people think things are bad and only getting worse, and if people feel like they’re not… That they’re restricted or constrained, that they don’t have autonomy to… Don’t have the ability to intellectually explore ideas, then that puts them in kind of what I would call it a psychologically defensive posture. That makes them not open-minded and creative and explorative and hopeful, it makes him pessimistic. It makes them have kind of a negative view. And so I wanted to look at that as well. Like what are students views about not just the state of progress, but what do they think? Is the world going to get better? Are they optimistic? Do they have a sense of agency themselves, that their life is gonna be better in the future? Do they believe that they can make a difference in the world?

And so to me, that’s very much… I’m curious about your thoughts on that too, but to me, that’s very much connected to the issue of progress because in order for progress to keep going, in order for us to keep the project going, people need to have a positive attitude and be hopeful because you’re not, if you’re pessimistic, if you’re negative, if you’re nihilistic or cynical, then you’re not in the right frame of mind to be creating and building and persevering. And so I wanted to ask questions about that as well. And then we also wanted to, on the third and final section, we wanted to get into, again, what we thought were related issues of people’s views about students’ views connected very much to what they’re learning in campus about different economic systems, but also about entrepreneurship, which again, we very much see is connected to the goal of human progress. People need to believe that they can make a difference in the world through entrepreneurial pursuits, and that’s… And they need to think that some of the big challenges that we face have solutions that entrepreneurs can help to help create.

And so that’s kind of in a nutshell our thinking around the whole thing, but so it’s basically jumping off from the free speech stuff other people have done and saying, well, let’s take a deeper dive into what students are experiencing on campus and how that might be related to their psychology.

Marian Tupy: Yeah, that’s all very interesting and incredibly worthwhile. I mean I haven’t seen a study or a survey that really went after, in such a gradual fashion, after so many things that I’m interested in. My interest in human progress really started when I realized that if human beings think that everything is getting worse, then what’s the point of keeping a liberal democracy and some form of market liberalism. You might as well try the alternatives even though they’ve been tried and failed before, but the more I researched this, the more I realized also that appreciation of human progress is also important to people’s mental equanimity and happiness because… Well, because when people realize just how horrible life used to be and how much better off they are today, then hopefully they are imbued with a sense of gratitude and also a can-do attitude about the future.

As you say, that’s a very important component of human well-being, the fact that we are not just rats or rabbits, we are intelligent human animals who are capable of adaptation and innovation. And that’s obviously part of the third point of your discussion, economics and entrepreneurship, is that when problems arise, we don’t just stare death in the face and expect to be slaughtered or die of hunger. We innovate and adapt. And so that’s also something that will be of great interest to me and hopefully some of our listeners. So just to get the methodological stuff out of the way, it’s 1,000 students, right. Across where in the United States? Across the US? Which campuses?

Clay Routledge: Yeah, across US. So we partnered with a group called College Pulse, who are experts in fielding surveys with college students because they have… They’ve made connections with universities all over the country.

Marian Tupy: Okay.

Clay Routledge: And so I believe our survey, I think I have it here, I believe our survey, we ended up getting representation from 71… These are four-year colleges or universities in the US.

Marian Tupy: That’s great.

Clay Routledge: So yeah, so that’s… So that was our goal was to get a pretty… It’s fairly… Yeah, 71 colleges and universities across the US. And it’s fairly representative, I think. And so, yeah. ’cause we wanted to avoid just doing… So these aren’t students from our university, for instance, we wanted to avoid, “Oh, this is just some regional issue.” We think this does a pretty good job of capturing the sentiment of students across the country.

Marian Tupy: Well, that’s great, that’s great. So let’s dive into it. Let’s start with campus free speech. What did you find about attitudes of students to free speech? Obviously, free speech is the big thing arising from the Enlightenment in 18th century, people should be allowed to speak their minds, to pursue research, free of authority, free of suppression, the Church cannot keep you back, Government cannot keep you back and the university is supposed to be the epitome of free speech. So what’s the situation today?

Clay Routledge: Yeah, so again, like other people have found or other groups have found, we find that there are perhaps not surprisingly, some political differences in how students think about or experience free speech on campus. So for instance, we asked students to… So I’m just, I’m reading directly off the survey here, “Do you feel comfortable sharing your opinions on a controversial or a sensitive topic being discussed in the class?” And when we looked at liberal or liberal leaning students. The majority say yes, 66%. Well, what’s interesting is that still leaves a fair amount of students, even liberal students who don’t feel comfortable, ’cause 34% of liberal students said no. But then when we look at conservative and conservative leaning students, only 42% say they feel comfortable sharing an opinion on a controversial topic.

So that’s just one question. Another question is, “Do your professors create a classroom climate in which people with diverse views would feel comfortable sharing their opinions?” So among liberal students, the answer seems to be overwhelmingly yes, 86% of liberal students say, yes, the professors create that type of climate, but only 56% of conservative students. So nearly half of conservative students don’t feel like their professors are creating a climate… But that’s kind of a theme, we have a number of these questions…

Marian Tupy: So there is a bit of a confirmation bias, in other words, when progressive students, or liberal, you call them liberal, I mean it’s always so difficult in the United States, because liberal in Europe means something very different than what it means here, so left-leaning students. There may be some confirmation bias. They hear a view. And they think, “Well, this sounds good to me. I agree with that. That’s good enough for me, it’s diverse.”

Clay Routledge: Right. Yeah. I think that’s a fair, fair interpretation, because certainly when… Other questions we have on here suggest that that’s true because if to the extent the professors are saying anything political or sharing their political opinions, students are more likely to think that the professors are liberal. And we know from objective data, not from our survey, but from other studies that professors are predominantly on the political left, and so I think it’s fair to… If you kind of triangulate all of these different sources of data, I think it’s a pretty reasonable assumption that liberals are… There is kind of a confirmation bias where they’re more likely to see this as a fair and balanced and open space for discussion than conservative students. And conservative students don’t seem to be totally imagining this, ’cause that would be another hypothesis, conservative students are just imagining all of this.

But I think, again, I think if you look even beyond our survey, look at other sources of data, there seems to be some reason to believe, some good reason to believe that conservative students are right to feel this way. And then if I can bring up one other question in this area that I think also speaks… Maybe speaks to this more. Which was some of the more… Which is one of the more shocking findings, I think, is we asked students, “If the student says something that other students find offensive, should the student be reported to the university?” 76% of liberal, liberal-leaning students said yes, whereas only 31% of conservative and conservative-leaning students. So to me, what that means is conservative students have good reason to be concerned about sharing their opinions to the extent that they might be perceived as offensive, because liberal students are reporting that… Three-fourths of them are saying that people who offend people should be reported to the university.

Now, I would like to say that since the survey has come out, I’ve seen a little bit of pushback on that question because the argument is that, “Well, it’s very subjective. What does that mean, ‘find offensive’? Because that could mean different things to different people.” But that was by design, like we wrote that question that way, by design, because if let’s say we take a specific issue that we think is going to be offensive, well, then we’re assuming all students find that offensive, and so their answers might reflect not just whether or not they think students should be reported for offending others, but whether or not they think that’s actually offensive. So I think it’s better to let students use their own standards of what they deem as offensive because what’s important, which I think people who are pushing back on this question are missing, the important piece of information here is we’re not talking about… We didn’t say if somebody commits a crime, we didn’t say if somebody assaults somebody, we said if students find this offensive should this person be reported?

And so to me, that’s pretty telling that, that 76% of liberal students think that the proper response to being offended is to go report somebody. And it’s even worse if you look at, Should you report your professor? “If a professor says something that students find offensive, should that professor be reported to the university?” 85% of liberal, liberal-leaning students say yes, the professor should be reported, only 41% of conservative students, but still even 41% is pretty high. So in other words, the majority of students, nearly 70% of students think their professor should be reported to the university if they say something offensive.

And again, I’ve seen pushback, I’ve seen people say, “Well, what if the professor says something racist?” And my response to that is, well, first of all, we’re talking… The students are… What kind of college experience the student is having where they would imagine that their professor would say something so horrible that they should be reported. And second of all, again, I think this speaks to the issue of a world view where students, many students clearly feel like the response to being offended isn’t to resolve it themselves, isn’t to deal with it themselves, isn’t to talk to their professors or talk to their fellow students, but to go and report them. And I think that regardless of the subjectivity of the question, I think that that is an important issue.

Marian Tupy: Yes, certainly. Going to authority to shut down an opinion, no matter how heinous, is in my view… Well, it’s counter-Enlightenment. The whole point of the Enlightenment was that we have freedom of speech in order to protect views that we disagree with or find offensive, not to mention that I don’t expect very many racists crawling the hallways of American campuses, obviously the most woke and the most tolerant part of the American society as far as I can tell. But that’s very discouraging. What else came out of the first section?

Clay Routledge: Yeah, I think so. And one more thing I’ll say real quickly about that too, is that there are… Like if you’ve read Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s Coddling of American Mind, there are people that have talked about this issue about over-sensitive students, but I think that… ‘Cause oftentimes, from progressive professors, you’ll see a… You won’t see a lot of sympathy from them on these issues, you know what I mean? They see this as a conservative talking point, but at the same time, you see, and I’m sure you’ve seen this too, you’ve seen commentary where a number of professors supposedly, privately, feel like this is a big problem, and to me, this is… Despite the fact that it’s more liberal than conservative students who are willing to report their professors, this should be… There’s another way to look at this. This issue should be concerning to all professors but… Because there are a lot of professors who will say that “I don’t want to… I don’t teach on this subject anymore, or I avoid this topic now because students are so sensitive.” And so I think it goes beyond just, “Oh, this is a liberal student thing,” I think it speaks to an issue more broadly. Again, like I said, 41% of conservative students said that the professor should be reported…

Marian Tupy: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Not to mention that the larger the group, the more likely it is that there will be a person who finds anything, no matter how anodyne, offensive. I mean, when people ask me about how do I define human progress, I say, well, ultimately, it goes with my humanistic and liberal, classical liberal, European liberal attitude, just about any human trend can be interpreted as going downward. For example, I find the fact that virtually all women, well, not, but most women in… Or an increasing share of women in developing countries are getting educated, I see that as an unqualified good, good, but if I spoke to a Taliban leader, he might see education of women as an unalloyed evil.

So my point is that if the audience is large enough, there will be somebody who will find no matter what offensive, and then of course, you get reported to the authorities. And finally, on that point, and I don’t expect you to… You don’t need to respond because I don’t know the answer either, and that is, when did speech become harmful? In other words, for the longest time… The longest time… For about 200 years since the Enlightenment, the understanding was that harm came from physical action, but words couldn’t hurt. Right? And now words are associated with real harm. Do you know what happened there? Is there any good explanation of that happening?

Clay Routledge: Yeah, so historically, I don’t know how this tracks, but certainly from a psychological point of view, I think there’s good reason to think that some of this is perhaps ironically the unintended consequence of the success of human progress. And what I mean by that is as society has become safer, as we experience fewer physical dangers and people are more affluent and more comfortable and can easily access the things they want to enjoy life, then they have less of that stuff to worry about. And so their psychological machinery that exists to detect threat, to protect… It’s still hanging there, hanging out, it’s still around. And so they might have to look for smaller and smaller things. And so whereas, thankfully, most students probably don’t have to worry about experiencing physical violence or experiencing extreme hunger, now they can worry about having their feelings hurt. So in a way it’s a… In a weird way, it’s a positive that this is the level of threat that students have to be vigilant against…

Marian Tupy: It’s fascinating. Yeah.

Clay Routledge: So that’s one possibility. And if you look at… There are some work on this idea called concept creep, which is over time, we do expand the concept of categories like abuse or racism to mean smaller and smaller instances of them. So what used to be considered… So like when I was growing up in Southwest Missouri, experiencing… Like your dad spanking you because you got in trouble was not considered abuse at all, and you can see attitudes on that changing over time. And so I do think that’s part of it, which again, it’s a weird sort of a success story because it’s like, well, now people aren’t worried about putting food in their bellies, so they can… Instead, they’re concerned about maybe the wrong ideas will get in their head.

Marian Tupy: Yeah. I do find it unfortunate, but it doesn’t depress me too much because I do realize that human nature is unchanging or at least it changes only very minimally and whatever brain structures and software and hardware we come into the world with, it’s going to make us behave in irrational ways. So…

Clay Routledge: In this case, yeah.

Marian Tupy: So with that, we have come to human progress. What did you find on human progress?

Clay Routledge: Yeah, good, let me scroll to that section. Oh but did you know that…

Marian Tupy: May I just say how excited I am about these findings because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a study or a survey on student attitudes to human progress. So thank you for doing it.

Clay Routledge: Yeah, like I said, we were inspired by work that you’re doing and others are doing in this space. We were inspired by this article, the Tyler Cowen and this Progress Studies article.

Marian Tupy: Yes, yes.

Clay Routledge: So there does seem to be kind of maybe small, but there does seem to be a movement within the classical liberal libertarian space about not only documenting and celebrating progress, but really studying it, so we can continue to project and accelerate it. And so that’s one of the things that we’re interested in here at the Challey Institute, which is the institute that conducted the survey that John, my collaborator is the director of. We’re very much interested in that. That’s part of our mission here at our university. So to pursue that mission, it’s like, “Well, we need to get a sense of what students are thinking about it,” because it could be that we did the survey… I’m kind of leading here before I get into the data, but it could be that we did the survey… We had no idea what we’re gonna find, and we could be like high fiving each other right now over Zoom, because we could be like, “Look, students are really, really aware that things have gotten a lot better and they’re extremely optimistic.”

“They see themselves as very agentic, capable of making a difference in the world,” and it could be a great success, and then we’d feel like, okay, well, we need to keep that going, we’re doing a pretty good job of educating and energizing students. Or it could go the other way, which unfortunately is a bit more the direction it went, I think. It is a mix, but… So we can get into some of those details. One thing I will say real quick, not to return to the previous topic, but when I said that this is part of human nature to become perhaps more sensitive to different threats, I think I should also just throw out there, there is another possibility that people have proposed and I think both can exist at the same time, it doesn’t have to be one or the other.

And the other possibility is that there is an ideological strategic component of saying speech harms, because if you control… If you largely dominate a space like academia, so if it’s largely dominated by progressives, and they can figure out a way to say, “Well, there’s certain ideas that we don’t want talked about, not because we’re afraid that students might believe them, but it might harm them,” then that’s kind of a tactic to regulate speech under the guise of protection. And so I think that can happen at the same time. In fact, they might work well together, the idea that these concepts have… There’s a concept creep and now people are more and more sensitive to the potential speech harm, that can work in concert with, well, we can in a way weaponize that and use that as a tactic to say, “Well, you’re not allowed to talk about this because that’s harmful.”

Marian Tupy: Well, it’s the path of least resistance, right? You’re basically saying, “Why on earth should I contend with these ideas which I don’t like. I’m just going to call them evil and that way they’re not worth discussing.”

Clay Routledge: Right, exactly. So anyway, not to return to that issue, but I do think… I wanted to make sure that I think that those two things… And there’s probably other explanations as well, but that’s relevant, I think, to these other topics that we’re gonna talk about, because usually people give the example of something really severe like, “Well, we don’t want students saying something horribly racist. No one should have to tolerate that.” That’s usually what people… The example people will use, but then what you find out, and I’m sure you’ve read this in places too, people start pushing and pushing and pushing and pushing to where things like school capitalism is… Advocating for free markets is harmful, because those are…

Marian Tupy: Even racist…

Clay Routledge: Right, racist…

Marian Tupy: I mean, I’ve seen people who think capitalism is racist and all sorts of other things. Yeah.

Clay Routledge: So I think that’s the problem, which again, defender… People who defend free speech, they know that’s where that stuff goes, so it’s not like, “Oh, well, people just… ” ‘Cause one thing they’ll say, “Well, people just wanna be… The people who are talking about this stuff are just trying to defend racist speech,” and it’s like, no, that’s not the point at all. They’re just trying to defend speech because we know people will then start to say, “Well, that’s harmful, and that’s bad.” And so, yeah, so anyway. Not to read into that.

Marian Tupy: So let’s say that you are, just to be clear, because we live in stupid times and a lot of people misunderstand what people are saying. All that we are saying is that a word like racist or not… Or fascist, in the years gone by, if that can be attached to another concept, then it can serve as a brilliant way of eliminating the need to discuss a certain concept. So if you call anything from real racism such as discrimination in public sphere against people of different colors, but if you use that concept ‘racism’ to attach to an economic system like capitals and more free trade or globalization or whatever, then you are essentially… You are on a higher moral ground, it’s more difficult to dislodge your ideas, even if they are wrong, because there is this totemic barrier around it, which surrounds that particular word. Okay.

Clay Routledge: Right. Yeah, and people wanna be like, “Oh, you’re being paranoid, or you’re exaggerating,” but there are absolutely cases of this. It’s like you said, people have argued that capitalism is racist, people have proposed that. There are training documents, certain universities where they have examples of lists of… You’ve heard of this term ‘microaggression’, right?

Marian Tupy: Yes, of course.

Clay Routledge: Where saying something like, “America is the land of opportunity,” is considered a microaggression. So again, things like that… Somebody could disagree, you could say America is a land of opportunity and somebody could make a case against that if they wanted to, and everyone should be free to have that discussion. But like you were suggesting, what often happens is people say, “Well, that’s not something you should say at all, because what you’re saying… ” Because they’ve attached it to racism or white supremacy, or all those ideas, and so that seems to be… Those things seem to be kind of working together intentionally, unintentionally, that seems to be what’s happening, so… Yeah, and I think that that’s not unrelated to these other topics, because if you want to talk about human progress, if you wanna talk openly about different types of economic systems that might contribute to or harm human progress then that first section we talked about, free speech matters because the free speech and viewpoint diversity is… That’s how you create the space to talk about all these other ideas. So we can get into the progress stuff if you want to.

Marian Tupy: I would say let’s briefly talk about the attitudes to human progress, attitudes about the future and also attitude to the United States. And then we’ll move on to section three.

Clay Routledge: Okay, okay. Yeah, so we asked students in terms of progress… Let me find the question. So this is… In this case, we did give specific examples because progress could mean lots of things to lots of people, right? So we used ideas that people like you have done such a good job of documenting, “So based on what you have learned in college so far, do you think the world has generally been getting better or worse over the last 50 years, considering issues such as extreme poverty, life expectancy, hunger and literacy?”

Again, so we wanted to provide concrete examples. And what we found is, unlike in the first section where we found these differences by political groups, as we already discussed, we found very few differences between conservatives and liberals, such that only about half of liberals and only about half of conservatives think that the world has been getting better. And so nearly half of students do not think the world… They either think it’s been getting worse or they think it hasn’t changed at all, and so that was… Again, if we wouldn’t have given them specific examples, you can imagine, well, maybe some students think that the decline of religion means the world is getting worse, or maybe students think, well, there’s more pollution or whatever the case, but we gave them specific issues that are demonstrably getting better. And half of them don’t seem to be aware of that.

And also I should say that the way the question is worded, it’s worded specifically to connect to their college experience, because we said based on what you have learned in college so far. So we did that on purpose. Of course, we don’t know that… We don’t know for sure where students are getting these ideas, but we did try to anchor it to their college experience as opposed to their own guess, or their own intuitions or whatever.

Marian Tupy: And on the specifics, which is absolute poverty, literacy, and the third was…

Clay Routledge: Hunger, and we did… So yeah, we did extreme poverty, life expectancy, hunger, and literacy.

Marian Tupy: Right. And on all these things where I can show and countless other people around the world can show that things have been improving, only 50% of conservatives and 50% of liberals believe that the world is getting better.

Clay Routledge: Correct.

Marian Tupy: Fascinating. Thank you. Okay.

Clay Routledge: Yeah, correct. So again, if you wanna look for a positive, to me, that means that… Well, that’s something that we could… Assuming we could convince colleges to do something, that seems like a very actionable item, right? We can say, “We need to do a better job educating students about the state of progress.”

Marian Tupy: It’s also encouraging, in a sense that a large proportion of conservatives and liberals believe that the world is getting better than the population as a whole, so I can’t remember exactly the stats that I have seen, but the population, in general, is even worse informed about these trends. And so, if you ask an average American, the proportion would be lower, so that’s, in a sense, it’s encouraging.

Clay Routledge: Yeah, no, that’s interesting. Yeah, I wasn’t aware of that, so that’s good to have that comparison. So, then, like I noted when we first started talking, to me as a psychologist, how you think about the state of progress matters for your overall world view, not just about the present, but the future, right? You look to the past and to the present as having some kind of direction for how things are gonna go. So, then we asked students, “Based on what you learned in college so far, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the world?” And this is an even more depressing finding because again we didn’t find the differences between political groups, so this isn’t a left versus right thing. In general, only about a quarter of students, 27% of liberals and 23% of conservatives are more optimistic about the future of the world.

Marian Tupy: Wow.

Clay Routledge: Yeah, so they’re either more likely to be pessimistic or to be neutral. So, yeah, that lack of optimism, to say only a quarter of students are optimistic… And to me, again, if you look at… If you look at all the outside… So, if you bring in all the data on how few people in the world even get to live in the United States, how few people in the world get to attend college in the United States, when people talk about the concept of privilege, it’s a big privilege to be a university student in the United States, it’s a privilege that the majority of the world doesn’t get to enjoy. So, these students, in my opinion, their baseline bias should be optimistic, their baseline bias should be like… In other words, it shouldn’t be the case that, well, they’re just down on their luck and so it’s hard for them to feel optimism about anything. These are the people that I think, objectively, are some of the most privileged people on the planet. To me, they’re the ones that should be more optimistic.

Marian Tupy: Now, I’ve seen studies suggesting that people always underestimate the good fortune or happiness of other people as opposed to their own, is that what you find? In other words, it’s possible…

Clay Routledge: Yeah, yeah.

Marian Tupy: That students have a very pessimistic attitude about the future of the world, but they all expect their own personal futures to be very good.

Clay Routledge: Yeah, okay, that’s a good… So, we can… So, let me scroll down to that question. Do… We do have a question about that. Let me find it. Okay. So, “Based on what you have learned in college so far, are you optimistic or pessimistic about your own future?” And so, it’s true that students are more optimistic about their own future, but we’re only at around 50%. And again, it doesn’t really matter to conservative/liberal, so if 50% of liberal say they’re optimistic about their future, 54% of conservatives say they’re optimistic about their future. So, yeah, it’s more than the other number, but in a lot of ways it should be higher, I think, it should be the vast majority of students, because…

So, connecting it back to what you said earlier about progress and people’s psychology about progress, if you think the world is getting better, if you have an accurate knowledge of that, then to me that would inspire a sense of gratitude as you noted, and even a sense of duty or debt, maybe. Like, people came before me and they struggled and they’ve built a society that now I get to enjoy safety, clean water, electricity, the ability to go out and do… The ability to have same-day delivery from Amazon or whatever it is that makes you happy. And that should inspire a sense of, not only gratitude, but the downstream psychology of gratitude is optimism, so like, “I’m very, very thankful. That makes me appreciate what I have and it makes me more feel better about my ability to live a good life and other people’s abilities to live a good life.

So, one other question I’ll share with you related to that is… I’m very interested in agency, and you did a good job talking about humans as a unique organism that has the ability to think critically, to navigate information in ways that other organisms can’t, to think, and this relates to all sorts of high-level consciousness or ability to self-reflect and to think about the future and the past abstractly and symbolically. And so agency is a big theme of how progress works, like, you and I can identify a problem and then we can say, “Well, let’s work on it. Let’s figure something out,” and we can use your brains, right?

Marian Tupy: Like a vaccine, like a vaccine for COVID, for example.

Clay Routledge: Correct, right, yeah, so this is important, right? So, in order to do that, though, you need to feel like you can do something.

Marian Tupy: Right.

Clay Routledge: Right, because if you’re just like, “I can’t, what am I gonna do?” Then you’re not gonna do anything. So we asked, “Based on what you have learned in college so far, are you optimistic or pessimistic about your ability to make a difference in the world?” So, this is not just, “I’m optimistic about my future,” ’cause you could, I guess, be optimistic about your future and feel like, “My parents are just gonna give me lots of money and I’m gonna… ” I could just be optimistic because I feel like I’m at a good space. But what we were interested in is, “Are you optimistic about your agency? Your ability to do something, based on what you have learned in college?” And again, we found no difference between conservatives and liberals, but only 43% of liberals and only 42% of conservatives said they are optimistic about their ability to make a difference in the world. So the majority of students are not optimistic about their own ability to have a positive impact on the world.

Marian Tupy: That’s very interesting. It reminds me of similar studies have been done comparing European attitudes and American attitudes to sort of can-do-ism and personal agency and I was aware that in Europe, people feel a lack of ability to impact the system much more so than in the United States. And it’s very interesting that it’s so widespread at the college level and there are no political differences. So that’s a very interesting piece of information.

Clay Routledge: Yeah. Yeah, I think so. In a weird way, the lack of political differences is helpful. And what I mean by that is, if you look at the first section of free speech and you see these differences, if those differences had persisted throughout the survey, then one alternative explanation I think, is that, and when I mean persistent, I mean if you had liberal students being very optimistic, feeling like progress is great and conservative students not, then one alternative explanation is, “Well, this is just not a great environment for conservative students,” for whatever reason.

Maybe they feel restrained and defensive and that’s not a space for them, but for liberal students, it’s a great space and they’re allowed to really flourish. Right? But that’s not what we found. The differences between the first and the second section to me, again and I’m speculating here, the differences speak to, “Well it’s true that there seems to be some free speech and viewpoint diversity problems on campus where conservatives feel less comfortable,” but then there seems to be a bigger challenge that isn’t just about that, because we have very small or no differences at all between conservative and liberal students on these issues related to progress.

Marian Tupy: It speaks to some form of a negativity bias.

Clay Routledge: Yeah.

Marian Tupy: And then the key here is to identify why is it that, what is it, 44% of people don’t believe that they can impact the world in a positive way, but 65% do. What’s the difference between them? It’ll be interesting to give some sort of psychological tests to representative samples from both sides and see if, for example, people who are more can-do-ish, whether they have a different set of Big Five personality characteristics than others. Am I getting warm? Am I getting in the right direction about…

Clay Routledge: Yeah, no, I do think that that would be important to look at. And that’s another thing that’s kind of cool about this survey is it gives us, like I said, this is a starting place…

Marian Tupy: Yes. Yes.

Clay Routledge: To do more specialized research and more theory-driven research, get a sense of what’s going on because it’s easy… You know, you see a lot of commentary of criticizing college students. And I should be clear our goal with this survey isn’t to criticize college students. In a lot of ways, I think, it’s to criticize us. When I say “us”, I mean the people that are older, because young people didn’t build the culture, young people didn’t… They didn’t craft the educational systems or the other institutions that might be making people more cynical. Like the helicopter parenting issue that people like Jonathan Haidt have talked about, they didn’t do those things.

Several years ago I wrote an article for the New York Times on other research showing that young people are perhaps less trusting and less oriented towards freedom, less supportive of the importance of democracy and things like that. And I closed that essay by saying, “This isn’t just to pick on young people because they didn’t create the culture.” And so, I think that’s important too, and again, this also isn’t to take responsibility away, or agency away from them, but the point being, this isn’t just a young person problem. We have to interrogate what it is going on in our society. Is it something that, like I said before, it’s just affluence, and so that’s a challenge? And if that’s the case, then I think that that’s something we should take on. Because if it’s the case that by virtue of being in a rich, highly individualistic, free society, it creates certain vulnerabilities that might make certain people more pessimistic, or nihilistic, or… Then we should be aware of that because… Otherwise, we run the risk of losing what we’ve gained.

Marian Tupy: Yeah. The thing that you said about the newer generations, yeah, it’s very important that we don’t fall into the pattern of seeing… Throughout human history, every generation felt that the people who are coming after them were somehow more damaged and less worthy, and so that’s part of human nature, and we shouldn’t fall into that trap and be too critical of the youth. What are the chances that you could put the same questions to a representative sample of non-college Americans just to see what are these attitude and then to compare whether we are seeing… It could give us interesting insights. Does education actually make you more pessimistic or more optimistic? Is that a study that you could conduct?

Clay Routledge: Yeah, definitely. And I do think that’s an important… That is an important study, I think, to… That would help us start to get more at… ‘Cause right now what you’re revealing is right now we’re looking exclusively at a sample of college students, which we did on purpose, of course, ’cause we wanted to know what’s going on on college campuses, but that does… The challenge to that is we don’t even have a sample of other young people their age who aren’t students, college students, and we also don’t have a sample of other age groups. And so, yeah, I think those are important pieces to it, because there are other surveys, like I talked about that New York Times article I wrote, there are other surveys that do not speak exactly to these issues, but certainly suggest that younger people are facing some vulnerabilities more so than older people, like loneliness, like social disconnection and loneliness, perhaps.

And so, maybe there are some unique challenges that are, not unique, but are felt more across different age groups. And so, yeah, connecting it to that I think is important. But like I said, I started with the bias that to be a college student in America is like a great opportunity that the majority of people don’t have, and certainly the vast majority of people on the planet. And so, to me, I started from this line, they should be the cheery bunch, but it could be… Like we’ve been talking about, it could be the opposite, it could be, well, no, the most privilege might be the most sensitive to harm and the most vulnerable in some regard. And it’s certainly true if you look at research on like my area, meaning in life, people in poor… And I know you and I have talked about this before, people in poor countries report greater meaning in life than people in richer countries. And so, there is the… Again, I think this speaks to this issue that we need to confront, like for those of us who want to defend the kind of liberal tradition, classical-liberal tradition and a free society, we have to recognize that there might be certain vulnerabilities that are created out of this, from success. Right?

Marian Tupy: But conversely, you also find that people in richer countries are happier than people in poorer countries, so there is that weird mismatch, where people in rich countries feel that they lack meaning but are happy, and on the other hand, people in poor countries, they have a lot of meaning, but feel unhappy. But we can take that up in a follow-up conversation. I thought in the time that we have left, I want to be respectful of your time, let’s talk about section three and economics and entrepreneurship. This is absolutely fascinating to me, the attitude to socialism, to capitalism. So, can you give us the highlights, and maybe we can end on this section?

Clay Routledge: Yeah. So, we started with by asking them questions specifically about entrepreneurship. Again, part of our institute’s mission is to champion entrepreneurship and innovation, and so we are curious, one, do people even… Do college students… How many of them wanna start a business? And not very… This isn’t probably as surprising, but, “Do you currently have plans to start a business?” Only 17% of students said yes. So, the majority of students aren’t planning to be entrepreneurs. But then what we are really interested in is, to what extent do they feel like their college education has prepared them for entrepreneurship? And, which again it could be another area to target, is like, well, is this something that we can do something about?

So, we asked, “Have the classes or other activities you participated in during college inspired you to consider starting a business?” And only a quarter of students said yes. Conservatives who are more likely than liberals to say yes, but still it was a minority. And then, we asked them, “Do you think the classes or other activities you participated in in college have helped you develop the skills you would need to successfully start a business?” And only 39% of students say yes. So, that’s just… Before getting into the specific economic world views, the majority of students don’t seem to feel inspired to start a business or feel equipped to start a business, and that isn’t to say that college student… There’s lots of things college prepares you for, it’s not necessarily… It’s just for entrepreneurship, right? But to the extent that that’s something that people are interested in with concerns about decreased business dynamism maybe, that highlights that there might be areas to work on to make students feel more capable of being entrepreneurs. But then as you noted, we asked questions, all that…

Marian Tupy: By the way, just to emphasize, because a lot of viewers may think, “Oh, well, you know, innovation and entrepreneurship, I don’t really care about it.” But that is actually the essence of human progress, quite literally, progress is about innovation. And it’s actually very important whether people feel that they are going to go into the business as opposed to, for example, seeking a job or a career in the public sector or the civil service. The more entrepreneurs you have, the more likely it is that you are going to come up with somebody like Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos or countless other people who have made our lives better. So innovation is very important, it’s the essence of progress…

Clay Routledge: Yeah.

Marian Tupy: And it’s very discouraging to see that so few students are actually thinking about being entrepreneurs.

Clay Routledge: That’s true, definitely true. And the good news though is we also asked students about their views of entrepreneurs, and it does seem like the majority of students seem to understand that entrepreneurs are important. So we asked them, “So entrepreneurs have an important role to play in solving national and global problems?” The majority said yes, 67%. And again, this was similar across political groups. So the majority of liberals… In fact, liberal students actually were more likely to agree, but they weren’t significantly different. So most students seem to think that entrepreneurs help, and we asked, “Entrepreneurs can have a positive impact on the quality of our lives,” the vast majority said yes. “In order to develop innovative and creative solutions to current and future societal problems, we need more entrepreneurs,” again, the majority 60% of students agree with that.

So on a positive side, it does seem like even though students themselves aren’t necessarily inspired to be entrepreneurs or don’t feel like they’re learning to be, they have positive attitudes about entrepreneurs, which is something to work with. So like the point you made that entrepreneurs are really, really important, I think this is a good starting point that colleges can say, “Well, it seems like students agree that entrepreneurs are really important, they just personally don’t feel like they’re the ones who are gonna do it.” But that’s something to work with. It’d be harder if they had negative views on entrepreneurs, to convince them, so it seems to me that that’s a space to work with and to say, well, maybe we can do more in our institutions to inspire students to themselves think that they’re capable of doing that. So I think that’s… Again, I’m trying to find the positive… The silver linings here.

Marian Tupy: Yeah, no, I mean, that’s very important, and I can’t wait to discuss with you the last segment, which is capitalism and socialism. The reason why I’m deliberately pre-empting what you’re about to say is the following, whether entrepreneurs succeed in creating innovations that improve society is of course very much dependent on the economic system within which those entrepreneurs function. So assuming that there is a normal bell-curve distribution of entrepreneurship amongst all populations, you would expect that people in Russia, during the Soviet Union times, or people in Czechoslovakia under communism, or Poland, or Hungary, or East Germany, had the same potential for entrepreneurship and improvement of humanity as people in West Germany, United States, France, United Kingdom, etcetera. But that’s not what happened.

The communist society stagnated precisely because all those individuals who could have become entrepreneurs and innovators were not allowed to see their ideas succeed in the marketplace. In other words, an entrepreneur needs to exist within a free market system, so that good ideas rise to the top and bad ideas sink to the bottom. Whereas under socialism, there is no way of determining what ideas are good, what ideas are bad, whether this innovation is actually worthwhile or not. So with that background, let me ask you about your findings on socialism and capitalism.

Clay Routledge: That’s an excellent point, I agree 100% with that. So, there, you see polls from Gallup and other organizations that suggest students or young people, I should say, are more favorable towards socialism than capitalism. But John and I were working on this, and John’s an economist, so this is… I’ve already noted, I’m a psychologist. John, my co-author is an economist, so he’s definitely better, more knowledgeable of this area, but he made the point that… Well, it’s easy for students to say they’re for socialism, whatever, but what do they mean by that? And we couldn’t really find any evidence out there, getting at how are students defining… How are just young people in general, we’re focused on students, of course, how are they defining these terms.

And so we asked them. So we essentially gave them an option, we said “Capitalism is best defined as either an economic system in which property’s privately owned, exchange is voluntary, production and pricing of goods are determined by market forces,” so we gave them a free market capitalism definition. Or “an economic system in which cooperations utilize grants, special tax breaks, political connections, and special rules that favor them over competitors to earn profits,” so or a crony capitalism. Because our suspicion was, well, when people are bringing to mind their attitudes about these things, they might be thinking about different versions of them. And what we found in that is that the majority of… So this is, I guess, some good news. 55% of students, it’s a slight majority, but the majority of students use a free market definition.

But there is differences politically. So, liberal… And liberal-leaning students are more likely to use a crony capitalism definition, and conservative and conservative-leaning students are more likely to use a free market definition. So, among the liberal students, 45% use a free market definition and 55%… So, there’s still sizable portions in each group, use a crony capitalism definition. Among conservative, 70% use free market and 30% use crony capitalism. So, there is some variability here, but that might matter a lot for what they think about capitalism, right?

So, then we asked them, “Based on your definition of capitalism, do you have a positive, negative, or neutral view?” And only 24% of students overall said they have a positive view of capitalism, 44% said negative, and the remaining 32% said neutral. Of course, that varied by political ideology, whereas only 9% of liberal students have a positive view of capitalism, whereas 52%, which is still just over half of… Only just over a half of conservatives have a positive view of capitalism, but then… So, you might be thinking, I’m guessing you’re thinking, “Okay, well, how does that connect to the definitions of capitalism,” right? ‘Cause we’re looking at political versus liberal, but what about their definitions?

So, we look to analyze the data that way, too. So, for those who define capitalism as of a free market version, 42% have a positive view. So, even when you look at what I would consider the best definition, the free market definition, it’s still a minority of students to have a positive view, but, again, that varies by politics. So, among conservatives who have a free market view definition of capitalism, 73% of them have a positive view, whereas among liberals who use a free market definition, only 19% have a positive view. So, it changes things, obviously, how they… Their definitions, but even still I think that there’s some concern because even using what you might say is the best definition of capitalism, which is not crony, not the corrupt crony version, but the free market, less than 20% of the liberal students view it positively, whereas 73% of conservative students.

So, then what about the people who define it as crony capitalism, who use the crony capitalism definition? Not surprisingly, nearly no one has a positive view of capitalism if they use that definition, it’s like 1% are liberals and only 4% are conservative. So, again, if we’re looking for a silver linings here, I think it’s fair to say that, to the extent that people are bringing to mind a crony capitalism definition when they think of capitalism, no one likes it. Right?

Marian Tupy: Yeah. So, this is the main challenge as far as I can see, and it is this. When people, regardless of whether they’re conservatives or liberals, but it’s mostly liberals, but conservatives as well, when they ask for government to do more, to put more regulations, more laws, more licensing, et cetera, in order to “tame” the excesses of the market, they are, of course, creating a biosphere for cronyism to take place. Every time you put a person in charge of giving a license or a permit or whatever, you are increasing the chances that that decision will be made not on market criteria, but on personal connections and things like that.

So, clearly it is in… I mean, the global evidence is self-evident, it is where the markets are most regulated and most heavily dependent on regulations and licenses that corruption is at its highest, because then it’s not the impersonal market forces but very personal politicians and bureaucrats who are actually regulating the market. So, the great paradox is that by asking for more government intervention, you are actually creating the crony capitalism that people then complain about and nobody likes. And it’s very difficult to explain to people, is that if you want what you call the best definition of capitalism, meaning one where the market forces operate, you actually have to get government out of it because that way you’re also getting human beings out of regulation capitalism, you’re getting…

You’re getting away from corruption. And this is something that is extremely difficult to convince people over. A question that could be asked maybe in a follow-up survey would be, if a constitutional amendment passed tomorrow in the United States that government cannot interfere in the economy in any way, would we get more lobbyists on K Street or fewer lobbyists on K Street? To see if people make this mental connection between the government regulation of the economy and cronyism. But forgive me, I hijacked the interview.

Clay Routledge: No, no, yeah, no, that would be… You’re giving us good ideas for follow-up. There’s so many…

Marian Tupy: For free.

Clay Routledge: Yeah.

Marian Tupy: For free.

Clay Routledge: For free, right? They’re like… I already told you I already took some ideas from you on the progress.

Marian Tupy: Good, good, good.

Clay Routledge: Progress and stuff. But, yeah, and then, so let me bring up this other question, too, that I think connects back to, speaking of progress, connects these different areas. So, we also asked them if capitalism can help solve major challenges such as climate change and poverty, and we didn’t get a lot of agreement, only 28% of students strongly agreed or agreed or somewhat agree, were in the agreement categories. Conservatives were more likely to than liberals, but it was still not even a majority of conservatives. And I think that’s another challenge that goes along with what you’re saying, because I think… So, not only might people be bringing a crony capitalism definition to mind, which has this ironic effect as you said of giving them a negative attitude, which could make them actually want to oppose more and get more government involved, so it’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy, not only that, but if people don’t see capitalism as something that can help, be helpful… Another way to think about it is…

And we didn’t ask this, but if people are thinking, “Well, capitalism is fine, but it’s mainly about the self, it’s mainly about people getting rich or… ” if people won’t see it as something that contributes to human progress, then that’s a challenge, I think that’s a challenge as well. So, they might have a… Be using a bad definition or at least a definition that they see as… Maybe they just see that as more associated with reality for like what you… For the reasons you’re saying, maybe they just say, “Well, this is what’s happening in our society, like the government is picking winners and losers.” And I do think you’re right that even though this happens more… It’s typically more people on the left who want a bigger government with the rise of… You do see this on the right, too, and with the rise of populism, I don’t know what you… If you’ve been observing this, or what your thoughts are on this, you probably know more than I do…

Marian Tupy: But certainly, I think certainly there’s something to it. Conservatives for the longest time were talking about “the American worker can take on any competition in the world, we are so productive, so hard working, so smart,” that we can do it. But that was the story of the 1980s and the 1990s, by the time of the most recent spell of populism, basically, it’s all about protecting the American worker from international competition and the various foreign trade practices, and that obviously can only be done by government. So, you have basically the rise of protectionism on both left and right. Now, which companies you are going to protect, which workers you’re going to protect, well, politicians decide that, and politicians can be influenced, and they can be bribed, and so forth, so that’s very discouraging obviously.

Clay Routledge: Correct, yeah, I think so.

Marian Tupy: But drawing this link is just almost impossible. People have been trying to do it for decades, and we don’t seem to be succeeding. It’s as though the median voter cannot connect those two dots, corruption and government involvement in the economy, it just doesn’t fit.

Clay Routledge: Right. And the good news is when we break it down… So, just a second ago I was saying that the people, the students aren’t very positive about capitalism’s ability to help solve these problems. Now, if we break it down by how they define it, the situation does get a little bit better, it doesn’t get great by any means, but for students who use a free market definition of capitalism, more of them think that capitalism can help solve these problems, so that’s 42% as opposed to the 28% overall I mentioned before, agree that they can do that. But for those who use a crony capitalism definition, only 10% think that capitalism can help solve these problems. So, people do seem to at least partially be making these connections that the crony capitalism isn’t good, and it’s not gonna be really… They don’t see it as particularly helpful for society, but then even in the best… Even if you use the free market definition, there still seems to be a lot of pessimism or uncertainty about the role of markets in events of human progress.

Well, once again, the study in question is the 2021 American College Student Freedom, Progress, and Flourishing Survey, which is published by the Challey Center at the North Dakota State University, and the authors of this particular survey are John Bitzan, Dr. John Bitzan, and also Clay Routledge, whom I was very privileged to talk to today. Clay, I want to thank you so much for taking the time. These findings are absolutely fascinating, we will be linking to the study, obviously, with the video and whatever else. Please keep us in mind in your future efforts so that we can be aware of your work, but also so we can promote it. And I wish you all the best with your endeavors. Thank you very much.

Thank you, Marian, I appreciate you to have me on. And yeah, I would encourage anyone, if they’re interested in what we’re talking about, to definitely go look at the survey you linked, because believe it or not, ’cause it seems like we covered a lot, we only got into a small part, there’s a lot of other questions in the survey and a lot of other interesting findings, so I’d encourage people to check it out. And our plan is to do this annually. This was our first one. So, hopefully year after year we’ll be able to build on this, maybe ask some different or some more questions, some of the questions you suggested, perhaps. And with the goal of… Ultimately our goal is because we wanna make academia better, we wanna improve upon it, so hopefully this is just a step in that direction.

Marian Tupy: Let me echo everything you said. One of the things we didn’t get into, for questions of time… Because of shortness of time was national pride and the attitude of students to the United States and so forth. So, please go and check out the study, it is much richer than what we could have tackled in this interview. But thank you very much.

Clay Routledge: Thank you, Marian.

Marian Tupy: See you soon.

Clay Routledge: Yeah.

Marian Tupy: All the best.

Marian L. Tupy is a senior fellow in the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity and editor of HumanProgress.org.

Dr. Clay Routledge is a psychological scientist, writer, consultant, public speaker, and a professor at North Dakota State University.

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