Friday, July 13, 2007

A modest proposal

According to a Zogby's poll, a majority of the American public believes that political bias is a serious problem on college campuses and doubts that tenure promotes quality. Admittedly, the question asked was: ''Do you agree or disagree that a professor who does not have tenure is more motivated to do a good job than one who does have tenure?" I think I'd be pretty much inclined to agree too.

As for ''bias'', what bothers me is that people use the word in two different ways interchangeably. In some cases, ''political bias'' means that the person is beholden to certain ideological beliefs. This has always been a problem for the academy, whether the issue was professors who were beholden to the beliefs of social Darwinism, Catholicism, or Marxism. Interestingly enough, most of the ''political struggles'' that we have in academia have been going on in one form or another since the Renaissance. Are professors subverting society? The survey always says ''yes''.

In the other sense, ''political bias'' seems to mean that the person has any political opinions at all. What we want is either educators who have no opinions of their own, or who won't share their opinions, or perhaps we want to pair them with an ideological opponent who will give students ''the other side of the issue''. The widespread belief that ''there are two sides to every issue'' is, in itself, ideological, but no matter. So be it.

The real problem is that nobody makes it clear whether they want professors who aren't beholden to a particular political viewpoint, or just professors who don't have any personal opinions that they themselves disagree with. More times than I can count I've read articles about ''political bias in college classrooms'' that are actually talking about people's political bias outside of the classroom, as if their having supported a leftist organization in their private life clearly implies that they ''indoctrinate'' students during the day. Certainly, there must be some closet lefties, right? I can't be the only one who just assumes that my students don't care about my political opinions and keep them to myself, right?

Most people want professors to keep their damn opinions to themselves on political issues. The reason that professors don't keep their opinions to themselves is simple- it's an old teacher trick to get the students talking in class. The students apparently have no opinions whatsoever on King Lear, but if you ask them a pointed question about Goneril and Reagan and what women's role in society should be, suddenly they're participating. Most people have been conditioned by cable news to believe that they should have an opinion on every political issue, even the ones that couldn't possibly affect them, and not to care strongly about much else. Teachers try to capitalize on that in order to meet the constant demand to explain ''how this stuff applies to our lives''. Frankly, I don't do this, but mostly that's because I feel no need to force them to participate if they don't want to.

I have to admit that I'm starting to find the whole issue boring anyway. There are plenty of people pushing to end tenure in the United States because it's an institution that makes it hard to ''root out'' the remaining leftists, and frankly, they'll probably win their struggle, if only because non-tenured instructors are much cheaper to employ than tenured professors. So be it. I'm planning to teach in Canada anyway.

As for the students, what I see in them isn't so much the ''conservatism'' that we always hear about: they're not reading Russel Kirk or Philip Reiff or Edmund Burke, unfortunately. If they're conservative in any way it's that they want to hear their lazy middle class assumptions parroted back to them: yes, people are poor because they're lazy; yes, everyone hates foreigners; yes, we need a strong state to protect us; yes, racism is no longer a problem, etc. etc. To be honest, I don't find that there's much in World Civ that is controversial, aside from the weird belief that many of my students have that Germany became Nazi because they were just pushed too far.

If anything, I probably come off as a conservative anyway. I've never liked History classes that dragged the students through every atrocity that ever happened in the vain hope that it will make them somehow more compassionate. It just reinforces their youthful cynicism. I tend to focus on greatness- the great thinkers, artists, and leaders, because they're more interesting to me. They give succor to my soul. For reasons that I don't entirely understand, most students and educators see this as a ''conservative'' position to take. So be it.

Here's a modest proposal in the Swiftean sense: if professors must discuss politics in class (and they will do it to make the courses livelier!), why don't they pretend to be conservatives? The last time that students protested conservative professors was in the early 1990s, in Berkeley. Outside of a few universities like Evergreen or Brown, most student populations are ''conservative'' now. More importantly, the ''progressive'' students that I have encountered seem to have no problem with conservative professors. The two right-wingers in our department are beloved by students, probably because they wear bow ties every day. Surprisingly enough, our left-leaning students are now able to hear ideas that they disagree with, which wasn't the case in the early 1990s, in Berkeley.

The real crybabies that we've encountered have been conservative students. They were the ones who stormed out of the lecture hall because our professor noted that homosexuality was accepted in ancient Greek society and this offended their ''Christian sensibilities''. They were the ones who are still trying to get one of our professors (from Israel!) fired for not being sufficiently "pro-Israel''. I'm guessing that, if you look at the controversies at most big universities, the so-called ''PC thought police'' are generally conservatives.

Supposedly, the department heads are the embittered old 60s leftists anyway, right? I haven't found this to be true at all, but no matter, I keep hearing it. If you have to pretend to be a Marxist or a radical, it's clearly more profitable to do so at the higher levels of the ladder. So, if you must discuss politics, remember your audience. Pretend that you're a conservative when dealing with the students and a radical leftist when dealing with academic journals and department administrators. Make everyone happy! Keep your thoughts to yourself as much as possible- we're heading into a time in which even our private opinions will be subject to the will of society. For some reason, this scares none of us. But we should start bunkering down nonetheless.

Postscript: But seriously folks, has anyone else found that developing a critical eye has made them less able to support any political positions whatsoever? I'd be a terrible member of any party I think.

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