Verbum Ultimum: Politics In The Classroom

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 11/7/08 4:37am

A number of recent studies and an article in The New York Times ("Professors' Liberalism Contagious? Maybe Not," Nov. 2) have prompted a resurgence of the debate over the role of professors' political views in the classroom. One study has shown that professors who express political perspectives in the classroom do not easily indoctrinate students; another indicated that, in fact, positions on some key political issues are difficult to change after the age of 15. Though professors cannot easily overturn students' political and ideological leanings, they can, and should, encourage students to examine the presuppositions that inform their blossoming political beliefs.

Tuesday's election results provided a great opportunity for mature conversation on a topic of universal importance. Yet many Dartmouth professors have eschewed discussing -- or even mentioning -- the recent election. It seems that in this postmodern academic world, we have let indecisively walking on eggshells water down serious discussion.

While there is certainly something to be said for pure impartiality on behalf of the professor, such an ideal is often unattainable. Another of the varied recent studies' conclusions is that students are able to gauge the political leanings of their professors, despite professors' efforts to hide them.

In any case, college students, particularly students at Dartmouth, are not impressionable sheep willing to blindly accept gospel from the podium. We can handle some answers to go along with all the questions. And even if we maintain that many questions have no single right answer, some answers are still inherently better than others, and professors should not be afraid to provide them. Such firm perspectives provide starting points from which students can then generate their own questions and strengthen their own positions by evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of other worldviews. After all, a key purpose of a college education is to constantly challenge students to think critically and to reflect on opinions held by their professors, their peers and themselves.

At the same time, professors should still be careful to make sure they are not constraining students into a single, fixed frame of reference. Along with answers, they clearly should also offer appropriate context and venues through which students can express their opinions about those answers -- without penalty. Exposing students to a multitude of perspectives through the curriculum lays an appropriate foundation for professors to assume their own stances on issues during class discussions.

Professors expressing their qualified political views in the classroom can help students learn how to both stand by and re-evaluate their own perspectives. After all, how else is a student to learn how to effectively defend his or her own stance without a defined perspective against which to value it?