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Analysis of Variance
Political Knowledge of College Activist Groups: SDS, YAF, and YD*


1. The Problem

Intensive research has been conducted on the socio-economic background, general intelligence, and personality orientations of student political activists,1 but there is a dearth of information available on the political knowledge of these young people. In a comparison of the intelligence and knowledge of liberals and conservatives, Kerr's summary of studies between 1926 and 1942 concluded that liberal college students were better scholars, were better informed, and were more intelligent than conservative students.2 McClosky, in a 1958 survey, concluded that liberals were more intelligent and informed than conservatives.3 Recent studies have tended to support these findings,4 although it should be noted that most recent research has compared left-wing activist students with nonactivist students. A legitimate question, then, may be raised whether too much emphasis has been placed on the intellectual ability of left-wing activists, while those on the right have been neglected. Three recent studies lead us to raise this question.

In a 1969 study of student political activists, Kerpelman surveyed three activist groups (left, middle, right) and three non- activist groups (left, middle, right) and found that activists were significantly more intelligent than nonactivists, but that there was no difference in intelligence between left or right activists.5 Braungart, in a 1965 study at Pennsylvania State University, compared members of Students for Peace, a liberal-radical oriented group, and members of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), and reported similar grade averages for each group,6 while a study of two student activist groups by Flacks at the University of Chicago concluded that both the anti-draft protesters and the administration supporters were on a par academically.7

If little has been written about conservative activists, it may be because they are not so visible as left-oriented activists. As Lipset points out, the influence of conservative activists is not proportionate to their numbers and their actions are not as "newsworthy" as those of their counterparts.8 Thus, Metzger's observation that generalizations made about liberal-radical activists may also be true of conservative activists should be tested.9 The purpose of this study is to examine Metzger's observation with regard to activists' political knowledge.

2. Research Design and Hypotheses

Previous studies have been concerned with either intelligence or grade averages; none has dealt expressly with political knowledge, nor has the writer been able to find any research on this subject. Although neither intelligence nor grade averages can be equated with knowledge, Kerpelman's, Flacks's, and Braungart's findings caused us to speculate that students who are superior in intelligence and/or grades may also be superior in knowledge, and, further, that regardless of what political group these activists belonged to, they would be equally knowledgeable. To test this hypothesis, active members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), and Young Democrats (YD ) --each group representing an ideological position of radical, conservative, and liberal--were chosen and compared with a control group randomly selected from a beginning political science class10 at the University of Houston in the spring of 1969. The low number of respondents, 15 YAF, 39 SDS, 33 YD, and 33 control group respondents, limited the test results, and any conclusions drawn therefore must remain speculative. Nevertheless, the response rate was no less than 73 percent, and all the major leaders in each organization responded.

3. Data Analysis

Two tests of political knowledge were employed: one measured information about governmental institutions and about the rights and responsibilities of citizens; the second test measured knowledge of newsworthy public actors with a series of short identification questions. An analysis of variance was performed, with the hypothesis of no difference among the means of the groups rejected at the .05 level of significance. Table 1 shows that the four groups differ in knowledge of the American government. Comparisons between groups reveal that the control group differs significantly from the three activist groups, but that the activist groups do not differ significantly among themselves.




Political knowledge test

"Between" df = 3; "Within" df =116;
F = 5.666; a < 0.005

Identify Public Figures

"Between" df = 3; "Within" df =116;
F = 19.502; a < 0.001

The table depicts a similar situation with respect to knowledge of political figures currently in the news; yet there is a slight modification in the results. In pairing off the groups, we find that while SDS and YAF are equal, and YAF and YD do not differ significantly, there is a significant difference between SDS and YD, with SDS members showing more knowledge of political actors than YD. The lack of a significant difference between YAF and SDS, on the one hand, and YAF and YD, on the other hand, may be due to the low number of YAF respondents.

4. Summary and Conclusions

These results, then, parallel those of Kerpelman, Flacks, and Braungart, and lend support to Metzger's observation that generalizations about liberal/radical activists may also be true of conservative student activists.

It was noted above that no literature could be found that compares the political knowledge of radical, liberal, or conservative activists; and the writer relied upon previous studies comparing intelligence and grade averages of these groups to generate the present hypothesis. An important question is whether political knowledge is equatable or even related to intelligence or grades. Additional research in this area is warranted.


*This study is part of a larger investigation the author conducted for the Master's thesis in Political Science, which was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Thanks are extended to Dr. Richard W. Murray of the University of Houston for helpful advice and criticism. Any errors are mine.

1. See, for example, Journal of Social Issues, 23 (July 1967); Bob B. Winborn and David G. Jensen, "Personality Characteristics of Campus Social- Political Action Leaders," Journal of Counseling Psychology, 14 (November 1967), 509-513; Richard G. Braungart, "SDS and YAF: Backgrounds of Student Political Activists," University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1966. (Mimeographed); David L. Westby and Richard C. Braungart, "Class and Politics in the Family Backgrounds of Student Political Activists," American Sociological Review, 31 (October 1966), 690-692; William A. Watts, Steve Lynch, and David Whittaker, "Alienation and Activism in Today's College- Age Youth: Socialization Patterns and Current Family Relationships," Journal of Counseling Psychology, 16 (January 1969), 1-7; Kenneth Keniston, Young Radicals (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1968); Lawrence Schiff, "The Conservative Movement on American College Campuses" (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Harvard University, 1964); Armand L. Mauss, "The Reluctant Right: Right-Wing Anti-Communism Among Libertarian University Students," Sociology of Education, 40 (Winter 1967), 39-54.

2. W. A. Kerr, "Correlates of Politico Economic Liberalism-Conservatism, Journal of Social Psychology, 20 (August1944), 72.

3 .Herbert McClosky, "Conservatism and Personality," American Political Science Review, 52 (March 1958), 35.

4 .Robert H. Somers, "The Mainsprings of the Rebellion: A Survey of Berkeley Students in November 1964," in The Berkeley Student Revolt, ed. by Seymour Martin Lipset and Sheldon S. Wolin (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1965), 544; Paul Heist, "Intellect and Commitment: The Faces of Discontent," Berkeley: Center for the Study of Higher Education, 1965, 21-22. (Mimeographed.); James W. Trent and Judith L. Craise, "Commitment and Conformity in the American College," Journal of Social Issues, 23 (July 1967), 38-39; Richard Flacks, "The Liberated Generation: An Exploration of the Roots of Student Protest," Journal of Social Issues, 23 (July 1967), 65; Kathleen Mock, "The Potential Activist and His Perception of the University," Berkeley: Center for Research and Development in Higher Education, 1968, 5. (Mimeographed.); William J. Crotty, "Democratic Consensual Norms and the College Student," Sociology of Education, 40 (Summer 1967), 212.

5. L. C. Kerpelman, "Student Political Activism and Ideology: Comparative Characteristics of Activists and Non-activists," Journal of Counseling Psychology, 16 (January 1969), 8-13.

6. Seymour Martin Lipset and Philip C. Altback, "Student Politics and Higher Education in the United States," in Student Politics, ed. by S. M. Lipset (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1967), 223-224, reported these findings of Richard C. Braungart, "Social Stratification and Political Attitudes: A Study of P.S.U. Student Reaction towards United States Policy in Vietnam," University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1966, 14. (Mimeographed.)

7. Flacks, "The Liberated Generation," 55-56.

8. Lipset and Altback, "Student Politics," 207.

9. Ibid., 222, quoting Barry Metxger, "The Young Radicals: Student Protest in the Nineteen-Sixties" (Senior thesis, Princeton University, 1966), 81-82.

10. .Six hours of political science are required by statute of every student receiving a baccalaureate degree from a state-supported institution in Texas, and the chosen class, less than two weeks into the spring term, was representative (at the .05 level of significance) of the University in four categories for which the University was able to supply figures.