Professors’ political opinions provide worldly context

    On the Web site for NoIndoctrination.org, “a nonprofit organization promoting open inquiry in academia,” a total of eight complaints originate from UCSD, the most out of any institution listed on the site. It would appear that UCSD professors can’t seem to shut up about politics, and many students are opposed to this outspokenness.

    First and foremost, professors who let irrelevant political commentary infringe on the course’s official subject matter do their students a disservice. They were hired to teach the syllabus to the best of their ability, and that task should come before anything else. This view is reiterated in the UC Faculty Code of Conduct, which states that “significant intrusion of material unrelated to the course” is unacceptable.

    But what if a professor’s politics are inserted into the class in a more subtle way, one that doesn’t compromise the instruction of the material? Here, the situation becomes complicated.

    As sources of opinions go, professors are one of the best around. Professors, especially if they are employed by a public university, are often heavily involved with politics, and the subject matter of nearly every course has some political component. Furthermore, they are highly educated, have connections to other highly educated people and are presumably rational, critical, thoughtful people with an extraordinary interest in intellectual pursuits. These qualities are the basis for our reliance on professors to teach high-level subjects, and are also the framework for well-thought-out political opinions. As a member of the intellectual elite, a professor who espouses his political opinions in front of students is apt to have intelligent, well-researched opinions.

    But what to make of non-humanities professors who espouse opinions in the classroom? As long as they still cover the course’s material, a dose of politics can make an important contribution to the breadth of a student’s education. Students majoring in math or science may become insular in their coursework, and an intelligent discussion of politics or current events can make them more well-rounded people and increase the meaning of their college education. Going to college should entail more than learning to do advanced math problems or the intricacies of quantum physics: It should entail being exposed to a wide range of opinions, political and otherwise.

    The traditional university is a forum for intelligent, free-thinking people who express and debate a whole spectrum of opinions, where viewpoints are challenged in light of newfound information and insight. Intentionally quashing an aspect of this vision — that which comes from university professors — is to deny students a legitimate learning opportunity.

    Why do people attend university at all? To learn. Math, science — indeed all academic subjects — exist in a political context. To distill math, say, to nothing more than the manipulation of numbers is to do a disservice to both the subject and the students learning it. Connecting history to the present day is a valuable teaching tool that good teachers often use to pique interest in students. The same applies to all subjects. University classrooms are, by their very nature, political. And if anyone is qualified to espouse a political opinion, it’s a university professor.

    However, the specifics of the present controversy must be addressed.

    In reality, this debate is about more than professors’ freedom to espouse opinions in classrooms. Complaints about “indoctrination,” such as those listed on www.NoIndoctri-nation.org, are invariably of one type: conservative students complaining about liberal professors. This gives the argument an entirely new dimension — it’s not simply about professors expressing opinions, it’s about students getting upset about their professors holding opinions in opposition to theirs.

    It’s natural to feel uncomfortable or offended when your opinion is challenged, and the feelings are intensified when an authority figure is doing the challenging in front of a captive audience of students. But let’s be clear. Professors may have prestige on their side, but students have brains, ideologies and critical thinking skills also; we still choose whether we accept or even listen to someone’s opinion.

    It’s a mistake to imply that professors have some sort of mind control over students and that they have any power whatsoever to even sway anyone’s opinion. If a professor were to “crack jokes that bashed Bush and conservatives,” as a UCSD posting on NoIndoctrination.org’s site alleges, that’s hardly going to persuade a Bush supporter to switch to a left-wing ideology. In fact, it does exactly the opposite: It creates a sense of indignation in the student, which cements their ideology. This effect is heightened if the opinion seems particularly inappropriate, ignorant or radical, and is bound to happen if the professor’s opinion is radically different from the students’.

    In short, when people cry foul about professors expressing opinions, they’re grossly underestimating the power of college students to think for themselves. Since these opponents are invariably conservative, the argument devolves into a disguised attack on left-wing ideology. They object to the idea of liberal viewpoints in a classroom. But exposure to an opposing viewpoint is eye-opening, not force-feeding — and that goes for people of all political persuasions.

    Students thrown into the political climate of a university have the potential to evolve in their beliefs. But above all, a person’s politics are inherited from one’s parents and reinforced by life experiences. Being won over by liberalism takes more than a liberal professor or slanted course materials.

    It seems that right-wing professors either don’t exist, aren’t vocal about politics, or are unchallenged when they do voice their opinions. Because of this apparent imbalance in professors’ politics, this controversy is one-sided and difficult to settle. It’s clear, though, that students and professors alike would benefit from having a more multifaceted discussion of politics in the classroom. Since the liberal ideology is already present in the typical university classroom, and nothing can make it go away, we might as well encourage the conservative viewpoint to be heard also.

    In a university like UCSD, set in a relatively conservative area such as San Diego, professors can hardly expect to get away with having one-dimensionally liberal courses. Such courses might make liberal students happy, but they simply galvanize conservative students against opposing political viewpoints, the professor and the course. It does all students a disservice by unfairly representing the material. As an anonymous student wrote on the NoIndoctrination.org site, “While there is nothing wrong with learning the leftist (in this case excessively leftist) viewpoint, it is not OK to omit the other side of the story.”

    Telling both sides of the story, not entirely removing politics from the classroom, should be the goal of all educators. Professors will always have a bias, but they still have an obligation to teach their courses and, if their politics have a direct bearing on the course’s material, to acknowledge the existing range of opinions.

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