Adventures in Ethics and Science

Freedom in the classroom.

Perhaps you’ve already seen the new(ish) AAUP report Freedom in the Classroom, or Michael Bérubé’s commentary on it at Inside Higher Ed yesterday. The report is such a clear statement of what a professor’s freedom in the classroom amounts to and, more importantly, why that freedom is essential if we are to accomplish the task of educating college students, that everyone who cares at all about higher education ought to read it.

Some of the highlights, with my commentary:

On concerns that professors “indoctrinate” rather than educate:

It is not indoctrination for professors to expect students to comprehend ideas and apply knowledge that is accepted as true within a relevant discipline. For example, it is not indoctrination for professors of biology to require students to understand principles of evolution; indeed, it would be a dereliction of professional responsibility to fail to do so. Students must remain free to question generally accepted beliefs if they can do so, in the words of the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, using “a scholar’s method and . . . in a scholar’s spirit.” But professors of logic may insist that students accept the logical validity of the syllogism, and professors of astronomy may insist that students accept the proposition that the earth orbits around the sun, unless in either case students have good logical or astronomical grounds to differ.

To the extent that we professorial types teach classes with subjects, it is part of our job to convey the content of those subjects, and the patterns of reasoning used by those in our discipline to understand and explain. A chemistry class that left its students innocent of the chemical view of matter and its combination and transformation wouldn’t be much of a chemistry class. Conveying the chemical worldview to students, and asking that they demonstrate some facility in using it on problem sets and exams, is not indoctrination. Compelling students at gunpoint to become chemists might be, but I have yet to see that pedagogical approach in action.

Instructors indoctrinate when they teach particular propositions as dogmatically true. It is not indoctrination when, as a result of their research and study, instructors assert to their students that in their view particular propositions are true, even if these propositions are controversial within a discipline. It is not indoctrination for an economist to say to his students that in his view the creation of markets is the most effective means for promoting growth in underdeveloped nations, or for a biologist to assert her belief that evolution occurs through punctuated equilibriums rather than through continuous processes.

Indoctrination occurs only when instructors dogmatically insist on the truth of such propositions by refusing to accord their students the opportunity to contest them. Vigorously to assert a proposition or a viewpoint, however controversial, is to engage in argumentation and discussion-an engagement that lies at the core of academic freedom. Such engagement is essential if students are to acquire skills of critical independence. The essence of higher education does not lie in the passive transmission of knowledge but in the inculcation of a mature independence of mind.

College-level courses shouldn’t be just about transmitting knowledge; they should also convey something about how that knowledge was produced. We’re not trying to pour facts into skulls (or snap knowledge-cartridges into ports) but rather to prepare our students for the thinking they will want and need to do on their own, in the world, when they are no longer our students. I’ve noted before that this is the sort of thing that is more robust than a particular specialized set of skill (that may become obsolete if the market takes an unexpected term). As well, learning how to think critically, how to frame good questions, and how to ask for and evaluate evidence for claims ought to make you less susceptible to indoctrination.

Honest to goodness, if college professors were brainwashing armies of college students, don’t you think education funding would be in better shape?

On concerns that college professors fail to provide appropriate “balance” in their courses:

To make a valid charge that instruction lacks balance is essentially to charge that the instructor fails to cover material that, under the pertinent standards of a discipline, is essential. There may be facts, theories, and models, particularly in the sciences, that are so intrinsically intertwined with the current state of a discipline that it would be unprofessional to slight or ignore them. One cannot now teach biology without reference to evolution; one cannot teach physical geology without reference to plate tectonics; one cannot teach particle physics without reference to quantum theory. There is, however, a large universe of facts, theories, and models that are arguably relevant to a subject of instruction but that need not be taught. Assessments of George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda might be relevant to a course on her Middlemarch, but it is not a dereliction of professional standards to fail to discuss Daniel Deronda in class. What facts, theories, and models an instructor chooses to bring into the classroom depends upon the instructor’s sense of pedagogical dynamics and purpose.

To urge that instruction be “balanced” is to urge that an instructor’s discretion about what to teach be restricted. But the nature of this proposed restriction, when carefully considered, is fatally ambiguous. Stated most abstractly, the charge of lack of balance evokes a seeming ideal of neutrality. The notion appears to be that an instructor should impartially engage all potentially relevant points of view. But this ideal is chimerical. No coherent principle of neutrality would require an instructor in a class on constitutional democracy to offer equal time to “competing” visions of communist totalitarianism or Nazi fascism. There is always a potentially infinite number of competing perspectives that can arguably be deemed relevant to an instructor’s subject or perspective, whatever that subject or perspective might be. It follows that the very idea of balance and neutrality, stated in the abstract, is close to incoherent.

We have 15 week semesters. You can’t fit everything into 30 class meeting. Designing a good course means selecting a good range of models or views or phenomena worth examining to convey the critical skills and patterns of thought you’re trying to convey. Unless you want students to spend a lifetime (and then some) in class, we have to leave stuff out.

However,

The ideal of balance makes sense only in light of an instructor’s obligation to present all aspects of a subject matter that professional standards would require to be presented. If a professor of molecular biology has an idiosyncratic theory that AIDS is not caused by a retrovirus, professional standards may require that the dominant contrary perspective be presented. Understood in this way, the ideal of balance does not depend on a generic notion of neutrality, but instead on how particular ideas are embedded in specific disciplines. This is a coherent idea of balance, and it suggests that balance is not a principle that can be invoked in the abstract but is instead a standard whose content must be determined within a specific field of relevant disciplinary knowledge.

One of the things we hope to convey to our students is that disciplines involve ongoing discussions (or battles, depending on your point of view) over what is known, how well it’s grounded, and what the most promising ways to build more knowledge in that discipline will be. This means that minority opinions are perfectly appropriate fodder for instruction, but they only do the pedagogical job when presented in the context of the majority view and the reasons practitioners of the discipline offer for preferring one view over the others.

Again, the goal is not to tell students what to think so much as to give them the resources and the practice to figure out how to think.

On the charge that college classrooms are a hostile environment for students who don’t share the political or religious views of their professors:

[T]he current application of the idea of a “hostile learning environment” to the pedagogical context of higher education presupposes much more than blatant disrespect or harassment. It assumes that students have a right not to have their most cherished beliefs challenged. This assumption contradicts the central purpose of higher education, which is to challenge students to think hard about their own perspectives, whatever those might be. It is neither harassment nor discriminatory treatment of a student to hold up to close criticism an idea or viewpoint the student has posited or advanced. Ideas that are germane to a subject under discussion in a classroom cannot be censored because a student with particular religious or political beliefs might be offended. Instruction cannot proceed in the atmosphere of fear that would be produced were a teacher to become subject to administrative sanction based upon the idiosyncratic reaction of one or more students. This would create a classroom environment inimical to the free and vigorous exchange of ideas necessary for teaching and learning in higher education.

Disrespect toward anyone in the college classroom is a bad thing. But the examination of ideas, beliefs, and what we take to be reliable knowledge, is at the core of what higher education is about. If we can’t examine what we think, and the grounds on which we think it, how do we know if what we think is any good? How are we in a position to evaluate the new claims people want us to buy, whether they bear on who to vote for or what toothpaste to buy?

Examining what’s in your head can be scary business, there’s no denying that. But living in the real world as a grown up who has never cultivated that ability is even scarier.

On claims that professors routinely introduce “irrelevant” material into their instruction (possibly as part of their indoctrination drive):

Read what Bérubé has to say. The AAUP report notes:

The group calling itself Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), for example, has advised students that “your professor should not be making statements . . . about George Bush, if the class is not on contemporary American presidents, presidential administrations or some similar subject.” This advice presupposes that the distinction between “relevant” and “irrelevant” material is to be determined strictly by reference to the wording of a course description. Under this view, current events or personages are beyond the pale unless a course is specifically about them. But this interpretation of “relevance” is inconsistent with the nature of higher education, in which “all knowledge can be connected to all other knowledge.” Whether material is relevant to a better understanding of a subject cannot be determined merely by looking at a course description…

Might not a teacher of nineteenth-century American literature, taking up Moby Dick, a subject having nothing to do with the presidency, ask the class to consider whether any parallel between President George W. Bush and Captain Ahab could be pursued for insight into Melville’s novel? Might not an instructor of classical philosophy, teaching Aristotle’s views of moral virtue, present President Bill Clinton’s conduct as a case study for student discussion? Might not a teacher of ancient history ask the class to consider the possibility of parallels between the Roman occupation of western Mesopotamia and the United States’ experience in that part of the world two millennia later? SAF would presumably sanction instructors for asking these types of questions, on the grounds that such questions are outside the purview of an official course description. But if an instructor cannot stimulate discussion and encourage critical thought by drawing analogies or parallels, the vigor and vibrancy of classroom discussion will be stultified. …

How an instructor approaches the material in classroom exposition is, absent breach of professional ethics, a matter of personal style, influenced, as it must be, by the pedagogical goals and classroom dynamics of a particular course, as well as by the larger educational objective of instilling in students the capacity for critical and independent thought. The instructor in Melville or classical philosophy or Roman history must be free to draw upon current persons and events… Instructors must be free to employ a wide variety of examples in order to stimulate classroom discussion and thought. If allusions perform this function, they are not “irrelevant.” They are pedagogically justified.

One wonders how professors are supposed to show their students the relevance of the course material without reference to anything at all beyond the bounds of the course material. Given that the question many of us anticipate when thinking about how to present challenging course material is “How does any of this matter to me?” this isn’t an abstract question. Sometimes the stuff that matters to our students isn’t easy to locate in the details of quantum theory or the rules for conjugating Latin verbs. That might mean making reference to issues of day to day life in a physical world (perhaps as a dog), or of communicating clearly while texting a friend. We need to build bridges between what they already care about and the kinds of things they could do with the bodies of knowledge we’re trying to open up for them.

And sometimes, we’re trying to offer memorable analogies to help the new information stick better.

Anyway, go read the report.

Comments

  1. #1 Harry
    September 12, 2007

    One thing I found interesting in both the report and the Berube column to which you linked was their off-handed insistence that professors don’t have a serious obligation to stick to a course description. They insist that a professor can focus on whatever he or she wants in their class in the name of “academic freedom” or at least under the auspice that he or she is challenging the student in a more general sense.

    To quote the report, “An instructor in a course in English Romantic poetry is free to assign the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance so long as the course remains focused more on John Keats than on Langston Hughes.”

    The authors state this within the same document in which they claim that there is so much to cover within one particular topic that one should not expect to cover everything. Well, this is especially true if you stray too much from topic. Within the confines of the classroom, IS IT too much to ask for a class on English Romantic Poetry to strictly cover English Romantic Poetry?

    Maybe this baffles me because I’m in an engineering department, which mean we have professional obligations when it comes to educating students. I overheard some other graduate students complaining today about a graduate course in biomaterials being nothing more than a course on hydrogels (the professor’s research). I think a course description IS some sort of binding agreement between the institution, the professor, and the student. While you may not get to everything on the syllabus or in the course description, you should make a legitimate attempt to do so. If you want to make larger points or expound on “off topic” issues, feel free to do so outside of the classroom.

    On the indoctrination/hostile environment issue: in a freshman lit class I took, the professor was a huge Arthur Janov disciple. “Primal Scream” was an assigned text for the class, and we had to analyze every book we read in the class through the filter of primal therapy. While I can appreciate that in some way we were developing critical thinking and analytical skills, I remember the class being unnecessarily uncomfortable as the professor was rather confrontational with students who would question the validity of Janov’s arguments.

  2. #2 Justin Moretti
    September 12, 2007

    I quite like this, and I intend to link to it from my blog, if that’s okay.

    Might not a teacher of nineteenth-century American literature, taking up Moby Dick, a subject having nothing to do with the presidency, ask the class to consider whether any parallel between President George W. Bush and Captain Ahab could be pursued for insight into Melville’s novel? Might not an instructor of classical philosophy, teaching Aristotle’s views of moral virtue, present President Bill Clinton’s conduct as a case study for student discussion? Might not a teacher of ancient history ask the class to consider the possibility of parallels between the Roman occupation of western Mesopotamia and the United States’ experience in that part of the world two millennia later?

    I think they might do all those things, and be perfectly justified in doing so. Where they would be out of line is in implying, in the way they set their assignments or marked such essays already completed, that a certain conclusion (or set thereof) was expected for successful completion of the course.

    Professors, like students, need their world views challenged; and they need to be great enough to be able to assign good marks to the person who produces a well-argued viewpoint which is diametrically opposed (and possibly morally abhorrent) to their own.

  3. #3 Neuro-conservative
    September 12, 2007

    These points would be more valid if there were any meaningful intellectual diversity amongst college liberal arts faculty. As it stands, your arguments miss the forest for the trees.

  4. #4 Mike
    September 14, 2007

    This is a straw man essay. The author spends considerable time building strawmen, such as evolution should not be taught in college biology courses, and ignores the actual problem. I had one professor of political science in a political theory course who spent half the time either advocating for more money for Appalachians welfare or criticizing those who opposed his plans. This type of indoctrination by professors who have the bully pulpit is what is the problem. For what it is worth, it is just as bad when a conservative professor does it, though I have no first hand experience of having taken a course from a conservative professor.

  5. #5 Mike
    September 14, 2007

    This is a straw man essay. The author spends considerable time building strawmen, such as evolution should not be taught in college biology courses, and ignores the actual problem. I had one professor of political science in a political theory course who spent half the time either advocating for more money for Appalachians welfare or criticizing those who opposed his plans. This type of indoctrination by professors who have the bully pulpit is what is the problem. For what it is worth, it is just as bad when a conservative professor does it, though I have no first hand experience of having taken a course from a conservative professor.

  6. #6 Drugmonkey
    September 14, 2007

    “your arguments miss the forest for the trees”

    ah, but dear Neuro-conservative, the talking point (and established fact i’ll admit) that SLAC faculty trend leftward misses not just the forest but perhaps the entire ecosphere. :-)

    so-called conservative positions are antithetical to the college enterprise. in terms of independence of thought, inquiry for its own sake regardless of profit, altruism of teaching others instead of viewing them as life competitors, the willingness to overlook what is clearly so for ideological and, more importantly generally selfish, concerns…the list goes on.

    more significantly, the college professor’s life is antithetical to individual conservatives’ life plans for many similar reasons. you can start with, for lack of a better concept, altruism. or perhaps compassion. and then step right on to personal economics.

    the rightwing meme overlooks these broader concepts entirely. That first, self-selection of career produces a big bias in and of itself. You can lay this at the door of nobody but your ideological fellows who are not interested in being professors. Second, that for that pool of conservatives that think they wish to be professors anyway, there are certain structural aspect of, particularly liberal arts approaches, that are antithetical to them. Again, there will be a self-selection and, admittedly, some beginnings of the external selection to which you, presumably, object. Here it gets murky but where you can show cause, I’d be on your side. Take the Sherley case, if we come to the conclusion that his approach to stem cell research was a big factor in tenure denial because it was associated with a rightwing political position, I’m right with you.

    the remaining concern of “denied tenure because he was conservative” is I suppose, the meat of the rightwing meme pushing for a false balance of political position in academia. I would bet it is a vanishingly small concern in comparison with the above issues, particularly self-selection. I’ve been around a few academic departments which had the token conservative. He (always a he) was generally an asshat. I will acknowledge that the parallels with the “bitchy” female professor or “uppity” (fill in your own euphemism) minority professor are unmistakable. but from my perspective, asshat. many other left-leaning types, including techs and trainees of said asshats, tended to agree. the point being that i will acknowledge that there might be some pressures there to deny, say a science prof, tenure because of uncomfortable political positions. or, because he’s an asshat :-)
    …flame away.

  7. #7 Harry
    September 14, 2007

    I don’t know if you necessarily need to have a large amount intellectual diversity within a department, but you do need to have professors who are well-informed of, and able to defend, multiple viewpoints.

    I agree that students need to have their viewpoints challenged, and making a conservative student learn to substantively defend his beliefs (or else change them) is fair game. But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If we want to be fair, then what they’re saying is that professors need to be able to act as the devil’s advocates. If professors spout their liberal beliefs simply because they’re challenging conservative students, then they should equally challenge left-leaning students who already agree with what the professor. A bible-thumping creationist from Alabama can be just as sheltered as a hippie Unitarian from Berkeley.

  8. #8 Neuro-conservative
    September 14, 2007

    Drugmonkey — I was about to pull out my flame-thrower, but then I realized you were just pulling my chain. That was a pitch-perfect parody of a close-minded liberal academic! Bravo! ;>)

  9. #9 The Argonaut
    September 15, 2007

    Has anyone looked at the website of Students for Academic Freedom, one of the groups mentioned in the AAUP report?
    http://www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org/

    Reads like the same sort of propaganda and unbalanced presentation they claim to abhor in the classroom. And David Horowitz, who figures prominently into many of the recent articles on the SAF site, just attacked UCSC for being “Anti-American” on (speaking of balance) Fox.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lDrtTtRzwo0

    Mmm. Smells like a witch hunt. Some anecdotal evidence has been bandied about on this thread regarding indoctrination or unbalanced presentation by professors, but let’s be scientific here. From the AAUP Report: “Although contemporary critics of higher education have alleged that widespread abuse of the classroom is a fixture of the academic scene, the many legislative hearings and investigations nationwide have failed to substantiate the charge. Nevertheless, with more than half a million full-time faculty in four-year colleges and universities teaching more than seven million students, it would seem statistically certain that sometime, somewhere, some instructor will step over the line.”

    Sure, we need to maintain vigilance. But this is not a rampant crisis as some are trying to paint it.

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