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Politics in the Classroom

There's some interesting article in Inside Higher Ed about the issue of professors bringing politics into the classroom. It's based on a study that interviewed 57 professors from a broad swath of disciplines about their politics and pedagogy. I doubt that it will do much to sway the David Horowitzes of the world, considering that it's based on what professors say about how they run their classrooms. But it does touch on what I think is an important point.

Debate about the alleged politicization of the academy tends to set up two ideal-type pedagogical strategies: neutral objectivity and indoctrination. But as I see it, these are just two sides of the same coin. Both make a sharp distinction between objective facts (which are true in the same way for all people in all times) and pure opinion (which, no matter how deeply held, is a matter of taste that can't be supported with reasons that could convince others, and which is not connected to any of the claims in the fact domain). The only difference is that indoctrination sees a wider swath of things as objective facts, things which neutral objectivist critics would consider opinions. Both focus on presenting (what they hold to be) facts to students, and getting students to adopt those facts.

Those two forms of objectivism ought to be contrasted with the strategy of criticism. A criticism-based pedagogy holds that any claim worth talking about ought to be defensible by some sort of reasons or evidence, while not presuming those reasons and evidence will always be conclusive in any real-world forum*. This goes equally for the simplest "facts" and the most contentious political ideologies. A criticsm-based approach has the virtues of not dismissing politics as mere opinion, of revealing how knowledge -- even well-settled knowledge -- comes about and what types of knowledge-production are more reliable, and of being resilient to strategic or disingenuous attempts to shift the fact-opinion border (e.g. by claiming that "everyone knows" certain claims about inherent gender differences, or turning the well-established tenets of evolution into mere opinion by stridently denying them). A fuzzy-bounded difference can sometimes be drawn between claims whose supporting evidence is so conclusive that holding a particular claim (e.g. "water boils at 50 degrees Fahrenheit") is necessarily evidence of flawed reasoning, versus those where students' reasoning quality must be assessed more directly.

An important aspect of criticism-based teaching is that if done right, it is able to correct the teacher's own flaws. Objectivist teaching depends on the teacher to correctly draw the fact-opinion border, and to select the correct facts to teach. A criticism-based approach, done correctly, enables students (particularly those coming from a different perspective than the teacher) to challenge the teacher's unexamined assumptions -- and, crucially, to give both sides the tools to work through the dispute to see to what extent evidence and reason support one side or the other**. The alternatives are passive indoctrination, sullen refusal to accept the teacher's word, or a shouting match usually resolved by declaring the whole thing mere opinion. Finally, I think a criticism-based approach is equally compatible with teachers who hide their own conclusions on political claims that are legitimately contentious and teachers who are up-front about believing that a certain ideology is the correct one -- but it is not compatible with teachers who want to present their political views as indisputable facts or introduce them through the back door.

*Granted, the value of openness to criticism is itself a political stance -- there is, for example, a strain of conservative Christianity that holds that questioning the truths of the religion is itself a bad thing even apart from any risk of changing one's mind (to an erroneous non-Christian viewpoint) as a result. But critical thinking fora can and should be open to wrestling with arguments for unthinking acceptance -- and I would even suggest that there are (limited) contexts in the world outside the classroom in which explicit critical consideration of ideas is not appropriate.

**This is not to say that all political disputes necessarily ought to be settled in this way (that is, I side with I.M. Young and Seyla Benhabib against Juergen Habermas and (one reading of) John Dewey here), but only that this suits the purpose of the particular setting of the classroom.


Blogger gregladen said...

I am tempted to print this out, make a zillion copies of it, fly around over the university campus in a small plane and leaflet with it. Nicely done.

7:36 AM  

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