Comment on “Lawmakers target collegiate politics”

W. A. Barrett

(Article by Michael Janofsky, appearing in SJ Mercury-News, Sunday, Dec. 25, page 10A)

 

 

[Janofsky’s article reviews several issues related to partisan politics and campus teaching, and measures pending in several state legislatures to discourage “pollitical or ideological indoctrination” by teachers.  Read the full article here].

 

As a lecturer in computer engineering at San Jose State for some eight years, I feel impelled to say something about the issue of politics in the classroom.  I’m dismayed at Ms. Brown’s physics professor [York campus, Penn State University] who, according to her, regularly belittled President Bush.  If that’s the case, he should know better.  It happens that I too disparage many of President Bush’s policies, for many reasons that I can’t go into in this letter, but I would never expound on that from a lecture podium in a classroom unrelated to politics.

I tell my students that I do have strong feelings about national, state and local politics, but that they will not hear my opinions expressed in my lectures.  They can visit a section of my web site, or discuss them with me outside of the classroom.  I would also be happy to meet with them or any campus group with the express purpose of discussing such issues.  The reason I feel that this is an appropriate position for any college lecturer to take has nothing to do with academic freedom.  It has everything to do with the nature of political (or religious) discussion—there must be an opportunity for give and take, on an equal footing.  That’s hard to do when I appear as a kind of “preacher” at a lecture podium in front of a classroom of dozens of students.  It’s also not part of the contract that the students and I agreed to as part of the course, which is that I would teach the subject matter described in the course catalog to the best of my ability, and they are expected to study that subject matter, and demonstrate that they understand it.

It’s very tempting for a lecturer, given that captive audience, to vent one’s personal feelings about national issues, parties and political figures, but we simply must resist that temptation.  Preaching from the lectern is in many ways less respectful of the audience than preaching from a church pulpit.  In church, the members can walk out on an offensive sermon.  In the classroom, the students can’t walk out without forfeiting their course credit.

Most college instructors appear to agree with me.  Schrecker’s 1986 book “No Ivory Tower: McCarthism and the Universities” claims that virtually none of the professors suspected of being Communist by the McCarthy investigators was ever accused of distorting his teaching.  More recently, a special faculty committee at Columbia investigated classroom abuse by members of the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department, and could only substantiate one incident, and that only in a highly qualified manner (see www.columbia.edu/cu/news/05/03/ad_hoc_grievance_committee_report.html).

A secondary issue often raised by conservatives is why it appears that most faculty of most colleges and universities are “liberal” or “Democrat” (depending on how the question is phrased).  Surely some form of hiring discrimination is going on!  And we must combat this “evil” by requiring the universities (the public ones, anyway) to “balance” their faculty, presumably through a program of affirmative action for conservatives, if not clumsy attempts to muzzle free speech on campus.  [The hypocrisy of conservatives being opposed to affirmation action in college admissions for blacks and other minorities, yet apparently in favor of affirmation action for conservative faculty hiring, has not escaped my attention].

Several fallacies are involved here.  The first, “post hoc ergo propter hoc”, essentially is mistaking the cause for some effect.  The “effect”, one of more liberals than conservatives in college faculties, is supported by the evidence of surveys, opinions, etc.  The “cause” (to conservatives) is a conscious effort on the part of the colleges to hire only true-blue liberals.

Having been involved in the process of hiring several dozen faculty at SJSU and also at Lehigh University, I can assure our conservative friends that no candidate for a faculty position has ever been asked, directly, or indirectly, about their political affiliations.  We would no more do that than base a hiring decision on the color of their skin or their professed religion, or absence of same.  In fact, most universites go out of their way to promote “diversity”, which means diversity of gender and ethnic background.  The central issue in hiring someone to a faculty position is, “Is this person the best qualified to teach this subject?  Has he/she a record of refereed publications in their field?  Has he/she a positive attitude toward teaching?”  It has never been, in my modest experience, “Does this person agree with me about the war in Iraq—or the President’s response to Katrina, etc. etc.”

The second fallacy, “argumentum ad Hominem”, in this case, assumes that the personal opinions of the teacher must necessarily color, if not dominate, what he or she is teaching.  If the writer of a popular novel was a member of the Communist party in the 1930’s, then his or her book must be banned, as obviously promoting that cause.  One should also reject Newton’s Principia, since Sir Isaac also dabbled with Alchemy, was a devout Christian, and hated any form of criticism of his works.  Einstein’s theories should also be rejected by certain devouts, on the grounds that he married twice.

A further fallacy is that a single teacher in a single subject, be it politics, comparative relgion, or physics, will somehow “corrupt” the minds of all (or most) of his/her students.  Well, I wish we were that influential.  Unfortunately, every student has not one but dozens of different teachers during their college stay.  Their public school experience has already provided dozens of influences from teachers, neighbors and friends.  They also find new friends on campus with many diverse (and often weird) opinions.  Then there’s Mom and Dad, whose voices echo in their heads throughout their lives.  The religious have had endless sermons and church hymns busy at work in their memory as part of their upbringing.  Finally, the better students will read countless articles and books, while in college and after graduation.

 We strive not to tell our students what to read and what not to read, only how to assess any piece of knowledge with a critical attitude.

 

  William A. Barrett, PhD

  Lecturer, San Jose State University

  Computer Engineering Department