Biased or Bipartisan?

by Nelly Mendoza-Mendoza | 2/18/16 7:42pm

In the midst of this presidential election year, politics have permeated Dartmouth’s campus. A few weeks ago, our small state of New Hampshire held the rapt attention of the rest of the country as its residents decided, with ground breaking results, which presidential candidates would triumph.

Now that the primar is over and national attention is no longer as focused on New Hampshire, it might seem that politics are not as prevalent to students on campus anymore. However, although attention on politics brought on by the primary might have subsided, political discussions on campus continue.

When thinking about politics, my mind immediately turned to my “International Politics” class. I wondered — how do professors’ political affiliations influence our government department as a whole? Or more importantly, should politics influence it?

Specifically, I questioned how bipartisan Dartmouth is — especially our government department, as the hub of political ideas on campus.

With this in mind, I went on a mission to learn more about the politics of the government department. In particular, I wanted to explore professors’ efforts to be bipartisan when selecting material and while teaching. How does the government department pay equal attention to both sides when educating students? It sounds like exhausting work for professors, who all come to the job having already carved out their own political opinions and insights.

Remaining bipartisan in a setting where politics seem omnipresent can, ostensibly, be hard to achieve. I consulted students and professors to see how successful efforts to do so are.

Government professor Russell Muirhead said that his goal is not to necessarily to be apolitical, but to teach students to appreciate bipartisanship and how it contributes to a deeper understanding of political issues.

“I teach students to understand partisanship in a broad way,” Muirhead said. “Such that they have a deeper understanding of both conservatism and liberalism and other fundamental ideologies or fundamental ideas about politics.”

His goal is for students to be informed about all perspectives so that they leave his class with a comprehensive understanding of how governments work.

The students that I interviewed expressed a similar sentiment to Muirhead. They said that the government department offers courses that expose students to a wide range of ideas, through both readings and class discussions, that span the political spectrum.

Freya Jamison ’17 , a government major, said that she doesn’t think her professors are trying to influence her politically, but rather that their goal is to expose the students to a wide breadth of ideas. She said that one way they try to do this is through debates.

“Professors intentionally structure the classes in terms of debates,” Jamison said. “So whether or not the professor’s political views are clear, you are getting multiple perspectives.”

Government professor Joseph Bafumi expressed a similar sentiment. He teaches classes in a way that reflects a wide range of ideas, not just his own singular opinion, he said.

“We try and offer both sides of any issue and represent all the major point of views,” Bafumi said.

I asked Bafumi more specifically about how he manages to stay bipartisan during election times, even when students ask questions about candidates and their stances on political issues.

Like Muirhead, Bafumi said that the goal is not necessarily to be apolitical or avoid discussing current politics, but to be very comprehensive in describing every part of an issue. He said he makes a concerted effort to do this especially when discussing how candidates performed during political debates.

“I try my best to not lean them to one direction or the other, but sometimes we talk about how candidates did in a debate,” Bafumi said. “I always try to do it in a way that is fair for all candidates.”

Tara Burchmore ’19 echoed the sentiments of the other interviewees. She noted that in her public policy class, her professor teaches multiple sides of an issue without expressing his views.

Muirhead explained that for his part, he does not shy away from revealing his own political stances, adding that they don’t bias the way he presents material.

“I am not teaching my own political views in the class, but I am transparent about them,” Muirhead said.

Students also said their government classes have not affected their political standing, but rather enriched their knowledge about politics.

“It hasn’t changed my leaning in any way,” Jamison said. “It just made me think in a different way about government.”

Clara Wang ’17 , a government major, explained that the academic nature of the government department makes revealing political biases unlikely.

“The government department is very professional,” Wang said. “So I would assume that there isn’t much of a political leaning.”

Zachary Davis ’17 , also a government major, expressed a similar sentiment. He said that the government department offers a variety of courses and that professors ensure students leave their class with comprehensive understanding of the material.

“The government department has been phenomenal,” Davis said. “Just from what I have seen professors really want to make sure that you are getting the most out of their class.”

I asked Bafumi and Muirhead about the process of electing which courses are offered each term.

First, the department establishes who will take basic required courses, and then they can offer their own course ideas based on their individual fields of research. If the department wants to offer a certain course, but none of the current professors are experts in that field, then the department hires visiting professors, Bafumi and Muirhead explained.

Although the department offers a wide range of courses, I have noticed that most of them ­— in the economics department as well as the government department — tend to focus on politics from an American perspective, often focusing on capitalism.

I asked Burchmore, who is pursuing a minor in public policy, if this bothered her at all. She said that she doesn’t mind, personally, since capitalism aligns with what she wants to study.

However, other students said they would like the government department to offer more courses on different political theories, as these theories would enrich their knowledge about different global ideas of government.

Wang said, for example, that she has become interested in communism because of her time spent in China. She remarked that she would enjoy taking a class exclusively about the system, but such a course isn’t likely to be offered here,

From my perspective, if the government department wants to be truly comprenehensive, it should more equitably teach economic theories. Why aren’t students staying up until 4 a.m. in the common room, guitar in hand, debating the merits and weaknesses of socialism? Is it the burden of the government department to spur this discussion by offering these courses? I was a bit surprised by the lack of varied classes and I wanted to know whether other students noticed a similar dearth in options.

When I asked Jamison, she said that she is interested in governments around the world. Although the department offers a wide variety of topic, she would like to see more classes offered on the intersection of international ideas, Jamison concluded.

Wang is interested in learning more about different political systems, yet she understands that the content of the classes in the government department makes sense as capitalism and democracy are the prevalent systems in America and other systems are not directly relevant to how the American system works.

Finally, I asked Bafumi about why he thinks the government department doesn’t have more courses on non-capitalist or non-democratic systems.

“In this country, the American ethos, the American idea the American ideology is one very much that corresponds with individualism and free markets and liberty and these kind of things. We firmly believe that these things advance civilizations and make for better nations and cultures of people. So, that element of the American ethos ends up becoming embedded in the academic teaching and research we do, whether we notice it or not,” Bafumi said.