Jan 25, 2006

Political Brainwashing, Or Healthy Debate?


Image courtesy of Duke Magazine

(Toledo, OH) The debate over academic freedom heated up again with the revelation that the founder of UCLA Profs.com offered students up to $100 in return for "information about abusive, one-sided or off-topic classroom behavior" by professors.

Similar sentiments led to the introduction of legislation in Ohio last year for an "academic bill of rights for higher education" that would impose state-mandated limits on what professors could say in their classrooms.

The California group argues that professors who provide alternative viewpoints bring about "debased education," and are "are actively proselytizing their extreme views in the classroom."

There are several assumptions at work here, and the first is the most damning of this type of academic McCarthyism; namely, that students are too stupid to sort out political discussion for themselves, and that these crafty leftists will somehow lead otherwise innocent students astray.

Let's see - it seems to me that the political winds have been blowing from the right for several electoral cycles now. If this "conspiracy" was so powerful, one might think that the national elections would provide evidence of the effectiveness of this "indoctrination." In a similar vein the conservative academics of the 1960s seemed to have little effect on the burgeoning counterculture that blossomed in spite of staid, traditional instructors.

Furthermore, it has been my experience that universities contain people of all political persuasions. I have been instructed by Marxists, Democrats, Republicans, and at least one neo-con so hardcore right wing that John Birch himself would look like a pinko.

And you know what? I have learned something from each of them.

One of the benefits of taking classes with instructors whose political viewpoints differ from your own is that you can develop strong debating skills.

I have never met an instructor who tried to force their views on other students, and I suspect that the difficulties are to be found as much in students who are stubborn ideologues as they are in "proselytizing professors."

This, by the way, is a phenomenon as likely to be found on the left as the right. Some of the most intolerant people I have met have been diehard leftists whose obsession with their version of "truth" made them incapable of friendly dialogue with anyone who did not match their doctrinnaire zealotry.

What the debate over professorial politics really centers on is the freedom of professors and students to engage in thought-provoking discussion about the world. Despite the fears of UCLAProfs.com that political discourse may not be "relevant to the class topic," politics pervades every aspect of human existence. Even "pure" and "scientific" disciplines like biology are subject to political debate; one need look no further than the issue of stem cell research to see this connection.

The specter of fascist Germany seems alive and well in the political witch hunts that masquerade as attempts to rein in "radical" professors.


Anonymous said...

These people are idiots and Nazis.

McCaskey said...

"These people are idiots and Nazis".


Lisa Renee said...

I thought that was interesting when I read about it. I think Horowitz is supporting something similar yet there is no money involved.

I can't comment on college much except my children that attend have not complained about a professor being abusive. There have been some issues with a few that do not communicate as well in English as they should, but that's not abusive in the typical sense of the word though it causes alot of difficulty.

I do think though if a professor was truly that "extreme" that students would stop taking the class and/or complain to the administration of the college.

Anonymous said...

As an academic currently teaching at a community college, I have made the decision to keep my politics completely out of the classroom since many of my students are at the developmental (or remedial) level, and I fear it would complicate, rather than enhance, our discussions. However, that is a personal choice I have made as an educator based on my institutional culture, and I respect all of my colleagues--red state, blue state, radical--who share their beliefs in the classroom. I personally find this UCLA fiasco highly ironic since it shows conservatives calling for greater regulation simply because they are not equally vocal or equally represented in some regions of this country (such as Southern California). Ultimately, when higher education ceases to be about 1.) empowerment and 2.) respectful, analytical debate for both students and faculty, it sacrifices its core mission.

historymike said...

I had a class in which a student complained about liberal bias.

He blathered on for about 10 minutes, at which time the professor (who is pretty centrist) politely asked if he was through.

The kid, angered, started complaining about being "shut down" very time he brought up the subject.


In this case (the only time I have heard any real discussion about this in a campus setting) it was the complainer who dominated the debate, while the rest of the class drummed their fingers while waiting for the ideologue to finish.

I make it a point to note when I am editorializing during a lecture (I usually say something like "BIAS ALERT") and encourage others to weigh in.

If no one speaks up, I then present the opposite argument ("a social conservative might say that....") for balance.

Anonymous: I understand your struggle. Sometimes it is better to stay away from some topics because they can be divisive. In my online course there is a chat room that students must attend for 50 minutes a week for guided discussion.

One student recently dropped this bomb: "Evolution is an example of a false theory being forced down peoples' throats."

Uh oh.

About 10 people chimed in derding him for this belief before I could regain control of the virtual class and move the discussion forward. Even though I disagreed with the sentiment, the kid was getting crucified and I had to bail him out by taking his side.

Now I'll probably be thought of as a religious fundamentalist!

liberal_dem said...

The question, 'what is learning?' is being questioned.

That fits quite nicely with the way everything is going these days.

Stephanie said...

I had no problem with this (one-sided professors) in college. In junior high and grade school, where I was much less equiped to cope with it, was a whole different matter. THAT concerns me a lot more than professors doing the same thing, since the students are exposed to a lot more ideas than that of a single professor at college.

Anonymous said...

Up front, I will say that I deplore this effort as intimidation and ugliness.

However, I can honestly say that I was once victimized by a professor with a liberal bias. I was accused of having "incorrect" views on race, class, and gender.

I sought a remedy through a dean rather than intimidation and I actually got it. I won, so to speak and got my grade fixed because the bias was so transparent.

However, I had many liberal professors, particularly in the UT history department, who I debated consistently. They challenged me. I wanted to beat them badly and went out to get the knowledge I felt I needed. I value that experience and I appreciate what they did for me. They were good people who believed something different than me.

If you fear having your views challenged, I suspect that you either doubt your own intellectual capabilities or are holding on to beliefs you know you can't defend.


Hooda Thunkit said...

Radical professors espousing their version of the truth is nothing new, and professorial politics is as old as education itself.

Stifling thought-provoking discussions will be harmful to the free exchange of ideas, and should not be in any way restricted.

If students can’t get past a certain professor’s individual biases, they will soon avoid him and his classes. Ultimately, market forces do work…

historymike said...

Great comments, Hooda and MeMyself&I.

I am aware of a situation at the other end of the spectum with a professor who is hardcore right wing. The only way to get a good grade is to parrot back his pro-military, pro-conservative beliefs (historymike played the game and didn't make waves - let someone else be the martyr).

Also, Hooda correctly predicted the result of an intolerant ideologue - hardly anyone takes this professors courses.