Liberal Higher Education Intimidating Students, and Other Baseless Nonsense

My lesson plans for my five courses on Monday changed in the wake of the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh and this headline in the WSJ: Most U.S. College Students Afraid to Disagree with Professors.

Yet another mass shooting provided a disturbing but effective entry into discussing, as the survey referenced in the WSJ addresses, the nature of political speech in classroom settings and what constitutes “opinion.”

Apparently a survey to be released soon shows:

More than half of those students (52 percent) said that their professors or course instructors express their own unrelated social or political beliefs “often” in class, according to the poll results that are due to be released next week, but were seen in advance by The Wall Street Journal found.

But unlike their professors, the young people find it more difficult to speak up. The survey found that 53 percent of the students polled often feel “intimidated” in sharing their ideas, opinions, or beliefs if they differ from their professor’s. That’s an increase of four percentage points from three years ago.

As a college professor for nearly 20 years (with another almost two decades prior to that as a high school teacher), I found this data pretty misleading.

I embrace critical pedagogy, which argues all teaching is political; and thus, I practice being transparent with students about my informed positions but reject that I or any teacher/professor can be objective, neutral.

My students all know this, and I think, respond quite well.

At my university, for example, students are solidly right of center, many quite conservative, in general, and the faculty is moderate, with many openly Republican and most taking the traditional view that professors remain objective and neutral about “politics.”

To interrogate this survey from the WSJ, I began classes by sharing a poem, “America Is a Gun,” and exploring the research on the extreme outlier statistics on mass shootings and gun violence when the U.S. is compared internationally.

From there, I asked students to consider the consequences of having guns in the home—the tension between the belief in gun ownership for self-defense and the contradictory data: “For every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.”

To step outside of the gun debate, I also discussed my own experiences advocating against corporal punishment while working and living in the South, the Bible Belt where spanking remains very common.

What these issues serve to illuminate, I think, is why the conservative versus liberal framing is deeply flawed, and often misrepresents what happens at all levels of education.

Support for gun ownership and spanking are primarily traditional values, and thus conservative, norms of American culture.

The research base (what primarily drives professor teaching and scholarship) run counter to those conservative values because the data encourage change, what is fairly seen as progressive.

As I have discussed recently, we are in an era when being well informed prompts charges of being liberal, a slur that is meant to discredit.

Many if not most people who attend college, then, will experience some levels of intellectual discomfort (my experience was pretty traumatic, in fact) as they move from provincialism to being well informed, or educated.

This process is one of change, not stasis (to be conservative), and thus, it is a sort of natural tension between traditional beliefs and progressive intellectualism.

None of us enjoy coming face-to-face with the fact that what we have always believed turns out to be wrong. In an extreme case, I was raised in racist ideology, but I had to come to terms with how all of that was baseless, and inhumane.

In a much different way than people express in popular discourse, all education is very much about moving from being conservative to liberal.

This WSJ-reported survey, however, is not that examination, I suspect, but more fodder for people who confuse “political” with “partisan” and pretend that everything is just “opinion.”

When I share with students that corporal punishment is ineffective and often harmful, that grade retention is also ineffective and harmful, and that the U.S. patterns of gun violence are rooted in quantities of guns and gun access (not mental illness, for example), I am not merely spewing my liberal opinions to brainwash America’s youth.

I am being scholarly and encouraging those students to also be well informed.

Those topics are no different than teaching the Holocaust without giving time or credence to Holocaust deniers, no different than teaching evolution as overwhelmingly established science without reducing it to a “both sides” false debate infused with religion.

Being partisan (endorsing candidates or political parties) is not a line educators should never cross, but all teaching is political and all educators have ethical obligations to be well informed—even or especially when the evidence refutes traditional beliefs that are harmful (from racism and sexism to corporal punishment and grade retention).

To be informed in ways that change your positions is progressive, and thus, a rejection of being conservative.

I am hard pressed to see our colleges and universities as “liberal” as the popular slur, especially if we place them in a wider context including Canada and Europe. And I also find the effort to suggest that a rising tide of partisan professors are “intimidating” students.

Class after class as we discussed these issues exposed what students have told me for many years: Students refrain from talking in class, mostly, to avoid appearing to be wrong in front of professors and to avoid tension among their peers.

More broadly and again having almost nothing to do with partisan politics, students seem overwhelmingly convinced that their grades are linked in some ways to how much a teacher/professor likes a student.

This, I think, is not an indictment of too much partisan politics by teachers/professors but of the culture of grading that does more harm than good for teaching and learning and a cultural distrust of teaching as a profession.

Current efforts to paint higher education and college professors “liberal,” as a slur, sit in a long tradition of conservatives seeking ways to maintain the status quo—which is of course what “conservative” means, as in to conserve, keep the same (traditional).

My bias, as a professor and a scholar, is projected in my classes, my writings, and my public pronouncements, and that bias is very clear, not something I hide or pretend doesn’t exist. That bias is toward the weight of evidence, even when that evidence refutes those beliefs and ideologies that people cling to in desperation.

In the current climate, I will repeat, to be informed, to express evidence-based positions is to be labeled a “liberal.” To me, this simply means “educated.”

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