Politics in the classroom

First, I want to thank Jenn and Jenn for coming to my support as Jane impugns my teaching; it’s heartening to know that at least a couple of students are willing to speak out against what they see as unjust accusations.

However, for the sakes of both honesty and analysis, I need to qualify their statements.  I certainly do bring my politics into class, just not in the way Jane is accusing me of.

The position Jane took originally (“Shut up and teach”), to give it the benefit of the doubt, assumes that there’s a neutral stance from which to articulate arguments for and against issues.  It also assumes there’s neutral (apolitical) content a teacher can teach.

Neither of those are true.  Certainly in the sciences, it’s easier to make the argument that the material is apolitical (chemicals are chemicals are chemicals, laws of physics are laws of physics, etc.), although if any scientist wants to take up the debate that the sciences are politicized I’d be happy to.  The humanities came to the understanding a long while ago that socio-political contexts are always in play in our teaching and our scholarship.

This is one of the pressure-points upon which the debate about politics in classrooms hits.  Whereas humanities faculty understand and acknowledge our politics and do our best to *account* for them in our classrooms, conservative critics of higher education see those politics as *injections* into an otherwise neutral setting.  I can understand why they see it this way.  If you believe in neutrality as a possibility, then anything undercutting that neutrality is an intrusion.  If, like me, you don’t believe in neutrality as a possibility, then any attempt to feign neutrality is disingenuine–even if the teacher attempting it means well.

For example, it’s become commonplace in teaching to use real-world examples from students’ lives and possible futures in order to make concepts clear and interesting to them.  It’s not unusual in a math class, for instance, for a teacher to motivate students to understand a concept by saying something like, “When you graduate and get married and have a family, you’ll need to be able to ….”  Nothing wrong with that, right?  Unless a student is lesbian or gay, in which case he/she can’t get married and is therefore excluded from the example.  And not just excluded, but alienated from the rest of the group to whom the example may well apply.  And not just alienated from his/her classmates, but made to feel pathologized for his/her sexual orientation.  And all that, likely, from a faculty member who would say he/she supports LGBT rights.

This kind of thing happens every day in classrooms all across the country.  In good faith, teachers try to make material interesting and relevant to students, and inadvertently alienate students.  Economics professors reinforce the inevitability of corporate domination; historians reinforce the inevitability of war.  And yes, there are liberal professors who thickly lay on descriptions of racism, sexism, ageism, etc in reference to issues where they seem neither obvious nor relevant.

My point is that politics are already in every classroom, and people like me, rather than trying to pretend otherwise or ignore them, are more inclined to be honest about them so that students know where we’re coming from.  It’s a lot easier (and more interesting and more intellectually sound) for students to know our positions so they can assess those positions better.  That is, if I try to hide my politics, students first have to figure out what they are (which in my case isn’t hard, but in many cases it is) and then decide how to work with ideas/material in relation to those politics.  If I’m honest up front, then we can do the really interesting work of figuring out how different political commitments and lines of thinking play out in relation to each other without having to answer riddles first.

Which leads to another of those pressure points in this debate: trust.  I firmly believe that one of the major differences between me (and my ilk) and the conservatives who attack higher education is that I trust my students to be able to think through complex issues and make their own decisions about what they believe.  Even if I wanted to “convert” them to my “liberal agenda,” I don’t believe I could.  I have tremendous faith that the students in my classes are very smart, capable thinkers who can assimilate, process and argue with any ideas I present to them–and who are willing to listen to me do the same with any ideas they present to me.  That is, learning and teaching aren’t about presenting information for blind consumption and duplication, but are instead about collaborating to figure things out.  That doesn’t happen if students and teachers don’t trust each other, and leave each other space to develop, elaborate, discuss, defend, and alter their positions.

On the other hand, conservative critics who contend that “leftist” faculty are “indoctrinating” conservative students clearly don’t trust the students to be able to handle the give and take.  They inevitably sound like they’re defending students from some insidious conspiracy–which doesn’t sit well with the claim that it’s happening everywhere all the time–as if the students can’t defend themselves.  What they see as protection, I see as something else.  I’m not even sure what to call it; it’s conventional to accuse conservatives of either coddling their own or of using these arguments as smoke-screens behind which they hide their own attempts at indoctrination.  I’d certainly accuse David Horowitz of the latter, but I’m by no means convinced that people like Jane mean to be doing this.

A point of clarification: when I talk about students and teachers working together to figure things out, I’m not talking about coming to any sort of agreement or consensus on issues.  Asserting a consensus certainly invites the charge that the consensus is built on the teacher’s agenda.  Instead, I’m talking about working together to understand the terms of the debate, who takes which sides and why, how those sides are argued and elaborated (and ignored), the implications of taking those positions for their takers and for others.  I don’t expect anybody to agree with anything I say about any obviously political issue, and I say that over and over and over again.  For every conservative student who has told me that he/she would never have considered an issue from my point of view (and I can only think of 3 who have said that to me), I’ve had a liberal student tell me that they’d changed their thinking to a more conservative point of view because of the arguments they’d heard in class or read in their classmates’ papers.  If I were inclined to keep a scorecard, that would sound like a tie.

So in short, my contention is that honesty and trust have to happen before any real learning can happen.  A professor who adopts a position that isn’t open and honest makes trust much more difficult to achieve.


5 Responses to Politics in the classroom

  1. BobSacamano says:


    You’re really letting these comments get under your skin. For someone who has grades due, you certainly seem to be over justifying yourself and writing more than is necessary. Such a lengthy explanation will only arouse more suspicion. Say what you mean, mean what you say and move on. Only a criminal would try to justify his bad behavior so much. Even though I’m kind of neutral politically, I think Jane got the best of you here because you are the one who can’t seem to let it go and you are the one who retreated from her by ending the dialog. Although from what the mainstream media reports, liberals are quite skilled at retreat. Anyway, remember that it’s a dog eat dog world and everyone is wearing Milkbone underwear! Chill, bro. Give peace a chance.

  2. Jenn Halligan says:

    I think Seth should be rightfully angry….I would be….

  3. sethkahn says:

    This is one of the issues I write about professionally, Bob, so today’s post isn’t particularly complicated to me–it took less than 10 minutes to write. Neither is it aimed at Jane, or you, so much as it’s some drafting of ideas I’ve brooding over for a long time.

    And yes, people who go after my teaching without justification piss me off.

    Interesting to me that you see it as “protesting” and “justification.” I can’t decide whether you think I have something to hide, or whether you’re simply pointing out that you think I sound like I do.

    I ended the conversation with Jane not because I didn’t think I could “win,” but because she ended the “dialogue” with the treason accusation. Maybe she and her ilk don’t find that as offensive as I do, but this is my blog and I get to make that call.

    Last but not least–when have you ever heard of an academic “letting something go?” We get paid to pick bones of arguments and ideas. I’m only half kidding.

  4. Nick Hiller says:

    I know that this is an old article but i stumbled across this and i thought it was relevant to this discussion. Its a debate between Ward Churchill and David Horowitz on politics in the classroom. Its really long but its interesting to listen to.

    [audio src="http://rightalk.listenz.com/!ARCHIVES/ChurchillVSHorowitz2-64-44M.mp3" /]

  5. Drubbing says:

    Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Drubbing!!

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