The Kids Are All Wrong?

by Howard Fienberg
July 1, 2002

Over a third of American college students would dodge the draft if it were instituted today and most think that Western and American culture are no better than Arab or Islamic culture. That was the media focus from a new survey of college students released on June 20. Congressman Tom Tancredo even read a satire of the survey on the House floor. While the media in general failed to see some possible flaws in the poll's methodology, pundits got so wrapped up bemoaning the state of America's student body that they overlooked the many points in the survey that should have emboldened commentators.


The survey, commissioned by Americans for Victory Over Terrorism and conducted by Luntz Research Companies, was a telephone poll of 634 college students nationwide to gauge their opinions on the war on terror. Two main points from the survey's results made national news: that many students would dodge a military draft and most see American culture as not superior to Islamic culture. 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 quite 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). Also, 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.


While some of the survey's results might make it seem that students are out of step with public opinion, a closer examination shows pundits need not be quite so disheartened. For instance, while only 53.3 percent felt that Israeli military action against "Yasser Arafat and the PLO" was no different from American military action against Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, that result does not differ too much from the general public. Indeed, if the reference to Arafat (who is continually referred to in the media as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians) had been replaced with "Palestinian terrorists" or even Hamas or Islamic Jihad, it is possible that a lot more respondents would agree with the statement.


And its true that only 42.7 percent of students said they believed such a thing as the "Axis of Evil." But the question wording was a little vague: "President Bush used the term 'the Axis of Evil' to describe the nations that mean us harm." If the pollsters had replaced "mean us harm" with more description or had perhaps included the names of the countries fingered as part of the "Axis" Iraq, Iran, North Korea -- the response might have been much different.


While one might expect the students' responses to questions of American and Western cultural superiority would reflect higher education's penchant for post-modern moral relativism, 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."


Finally, the question about the draft was purely hypothetical. While polls regularly pose hypothetical questions, like "If the presidential election were held today, would you vote for Gore, Bush, Nader, or Buchanan" the farther away you are from the actual decision, in both time and space, the less useful the responses become. When the ABC News/Washington Post poll asked this question a few days before the 2000 election, the results seemed quite useful (and accurate): 45 percent for Gore, 48 for Bush, 1 for Nader and 3 for Buchanan. When the same poll had asked voters to choose between Gore and Bush eight months earlier (March 11), when the scenario was still far in the future, respondents might not have made up their minds. The results were 48 percent for Gore and 45 for Bush. But, if a pollster asked the Gore-Bush question about the 2004 election, today, the results might be entertaining but would be absolutely worthless. A hypothetical future scenario is not a useful way to judge actual public opinion. In the case of the draft, with there having been little public debate on the issue and the pollsters providing absolutely no context to the question, students' opinions probably have not yet been formed. Therefore, the answers don't mean much at all.


Much of the survey's guts were available, like question wording and response data, and there is even analysis available which shows how different demographic groups answered different questions (though with little or no supporting material). Still, some nagging concerns remain. How did Luntz 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? 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 interesting finding 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.

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