by Don Richards
Professor Stanley Fish has recently written a series of opinion pieces in The New York Times concerning the broad topic of academic freedom. In one of these articles he considers the question of whether or not a professor can properly express his own political views in the classroom without over-stepping the appropriate exercise of academic freedom. Fish's position is that he can not express personal political views, and that the point of the classroom is instruction and not indoctrination. I have mixed feelings about the first part of Fish's assertion. The focus of the classroom, after all, should be, as Fish suggests, on the academic discipline at hand and not on the professor teaching the class. The question remains, however, as to what amounts after all, to the "academic discipline at hand." In some cases this is more easily determined than in others. For example, a course in the Principles of Physics would only gratuitously include a professor's critical remarks on the President's macroeconomic policies. In a course on the Principles of Macroeconomics, such critical evaluation would seem to be entirely appropriate. Does the altered context, however, make the economics professor's remarks any less political than the physics professor's?
One can argue that the economics professor renders his evaluation apolitical by presenting a range of evaluations of the President's policies that are representative of the professional debate surrounding those policies. This is a defensible position though it leaves unanswered the question of how that range is itself delimited. The choice of what amounts to a ìwell-balancedî approach necessarily implies an inherently political (even if well-concealed) choice on the part of the professor. The students themselves are unlikely to be aware of the range of possible evaluative arguments. They are more likely to be aware, however, of the conventional wisdom on an issue. A professor who presents the range of critical arguments that falls within the majority received wisdom is unlikely to ever stand accused of taking a political position in the classroom. This, however, would be a false conclusion, since the failure to challenge the majority's received wisdom is itself its tacit endorsement. The seemingly "well-balanced approach" to intrinsically political issues also must confront the question from the occasionally reflective student who asks, "So, who's right?" At this point, the self-stylized apolitical professor may respond "Thatís not for me to say" or "That's up to you to decide." It seems to me, however, that responses of this sort sacrifice what we often like to refer to as "teachable moments." A more intellectually honest and pedagogically effective answer would make clear the professorís normative priors, would be advanced on the basis of cogent reasoning, and would be well supported by evidence. In failing to respond in this fashion, and in attempting to hide behind a false veneer of objectivity, the professor eschews an opportunity to provide a valuable example of critical thinking for his students to emulate. Critical thinking after all sometimes requires making choices.
How then does the classroom not become a mere vehicle for the political indoctrination of students? The first requirement is that the professor must strive for a proper balance between presenting the conventional wisdom in a discipline and personal, critical reactions to that wisdom. Where that balancing point rests precisely is hard to determine as a general matter. I think it is fair to say, however, that it depends in part on the breath of ambition appropriate to the class. A survey course dedicated to general thought and principles in a discipline will permit less "professing" by the professor than one more particularly focused. This seems necessary given that the finite amount of time involved and the need to allocate it in a proper survey of a discipline simply allows less time for critical interpretation and challenge. Recognizing this constraint, however, should not deceive us into thinking that survey courses are devoid of the evaluative preferences and political choices of the instructors who teach them. The injunction that professors make clear their normative assumptions then still applies.
It should be added that while it may be difficult (even impossible) to insist that professors assume an apolitical position in the classroom, the evaluation of student performance must be apolitical. There is nothing more disheartening to the pedagogic project or classroom experience than the feeling, correct or not, that the way to academic success is to mimic the political preferences of the instructor. To avoid this, it is essential that students understand and believe that their evaluation is based on their command of the material taught and not on their subjective feelings one way or another about what is taught. Finally, students must also understand that an instructor who does not address their own favored position on an issue, or addressed it in a way they find satisfying, has not thereby violated the principles of academic freedom. A student who finds a course or an instructor to be insufficiently "balanced" or otherwise satisfying always has the option of other instructors, or even better, of books. Ultimately, a successful instructor, in my opinion, is one who stimulates in his students this search for truth after the close of their formal professor/student relationship.
[Don Richards is Professor of Economics at Indiana State University, and a longtime active member of AAUP.]