July 3, 2002

The kids are all wrong?

By: Howard Fienberg

A new survey of college students left journalists and pundits foaming at the mouth. The finding that most don’t see American culture as superior to Islamic culture left one newspaper asking, “Values? What values?” Upon hearing that many of the students would dodge a military draft, pundit Sean Hannity called the results “insane.”

The source of this outrage was a telephone poll of 634 college students nationwide to gauge their opinions on the war on terror, commissioned by “Americans for Victory Over Terrorism.” According to the survey, only 34.3 percent of students would be willing to serve anywhere if they were drafted into the military, while 20.7 percent would serve only in the U.S. and 37 percent would find some way to evade the draft no matter what. Meanwhile, 70-79 percent disagreed that the American values were superior to those of other nations. Whither the war on terror? Not so fast. While these two findings made headlines, there were more than a few bright spots in the students’ opinions.

For instance, respondents were generally positive about the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Of the half who were asked if the war was “moral or immoral,” 62.9 percent agreed that it was moral (and only 21.4 percent disagreed). Of the other half, asked if the war was “just or unjust,” 72.2 percent called it just (and only 15.3 percent disagreed). And, while the results don’t show a student body wildly supportive of missile defense, 58.4 percent support in some fashion “the development of a missile defense system.”

In addition, student respondents seem to overwhelmingly support American action against Iraq “because Saddam Hussein is still attempting to build weapons of mass destruction.” Again two groups of respondents answered two different questions. Of the first half, queried if the U.S. had “the right to invade Iraq,” 66.8 percent responded yes. Meanwhile, of the other half that was asked if the U.S. had “the right to overthrow Saddam Hussein,” an even greater 78.4 percent said the U.S. did indeed have the right.

The students’ responses to questions of American and Western cultural superiority seem to be the typical fruit of higher education’s penchant for post-modern moral relativism. However, this is not exactly the case. Respondents overwhelmingly agreed (83.2 percent) that there “is good and there is evil” and there “is right and there is wrong.” While not ready to declare American/Western culture and values to be superior, 62.6 percent of respondents agreed that “Despite its flaws, the United States is the best country in the world.”

Most importantly, the ‘students as draft-dodgers’ finding is just ridiculous. Posing hypothetical future scenarios is not a particularly accurate way to judge public opinion. There has been little public debate on the draft and the pollsters provided absolutely no context to the question. Students’ opinions have probably not yet been formed. Therefore, the answers don’t mean much at all.

Unfortunately, after all this hoopla, the survey might not be all that accurate a measure of college student opinion. Much of the survey’s guts were available, like question wording and response data. Still, some nagging concerns remain. How did the pollster come up with the sample, which was well-divided between males and females and across different college levels? How did he manage to randomly sample across colleges and which colleges were actually surveyed?

These questions are unlikely to be answered, since most pollsters guard their practices like pit bulls. But it would be useful to know. After all, the demographics reveal that about 35.7 percent of the students were Catholic, and 11 percent were either fundamentalist or born-again Protestants. That might help explain the most perplexing part of the poll. When asked “which do you think is a bigger threat to the United States,” 36.1 percent of respondents chose Islam and 41.4 percent chose … Godless communism?