How Do Our Teachers Teach Our Children? · 15 June 2007

By Jay Bergman
Filed under: Press Coverage

The Day 

College professors sometimes make perfect fools of themselves when they comment on issues of public interest. This happened at Duke University last year.

Three Duke lacrosse players were accused, falsely and in flagrant disregard of their constitutional rights, of raping a black woman. Before their culpability had been determined legally, and even before the public had information on the facts of the case, Houston Baker, the George D. and Susan Fox Beischer professor of English at the university, wondered “how many more people of color must fall victim to violent, white, male, athletic privilege” before Duke will finally be a place “where minds, souls, and bodies can feel safe from agents, perpetrators, and abettors of white privilege, irresponsibility, debauchery and violence.”

Baker assumed that the players had raped a woman because they were white, male, and athletic — and according to Baker that is what males who are white and athletic do, or secretly wish they could do. Of course professors are citizens as well as teachers, and like everyone else they are free to express their opinions, no matter how repugnant or foolish these may be, outside the classroom. But within the classroom teachers' freedom is limited, and not just in the obvious requirement that they teach their subjects, so that professors of mathematics cannot teach Spanish, and professors of Spanish cannot teach mathematics.

There are other, more substantive and significant limits that exist, or should exist, on what professors can say and do in the classroom. According to the 1940 Statement of Principles of the American Association of University Professors, “teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.” In other words, professors are prohibited from indoctrinating their students, and are required correspondingly to teach their students. There is a profound difference between the two activities.

Exerting pressure

At Central Connecticut State University, where I am a professor, this distinction is sometimes ignored. Last fall a professor sent the students in one of her courses more than 100 e-mails containing articles advocating the professor's opinions on matters entirely extraneous to the course — for example, that Israel committed war crimes while fighting Hamas in Gaza last summer, and that comparisons between the Bush administration and Nazi Germany are not unreasonable. She also invited students to join her in attending seminars, such as workshops on peace, that were designed to advance the professor's political agenda. What is even worse, during one class, as a way of demonstrating how the American colonists stole Indian land, the same professor took a student's backpack without permission and in front of all the students emptied its contents onto the floor, naming each item one by one.

It is hard to imagine a more egregious violation of a student's privacy, or a more flagrant abuse of the power professors have over students by virtue of their grading them and writing recommendations for them for jobs after they graduate. Unfortunately, this kind of thing is not uncommon. In my 17 years at CCSU, about 50 percent of my students have told me, either on their own initiative or in response to my asking them, that one or more of their professors not only interjected their political opinions in class on a regular basis, but that they did so in an effort to convert their students to their political point of view.

This figure is consistent with the results of a survey — admittedly of a small number of students — the student newspaper conducted in 2005: 54 percent of those polled agreed that “some professors use the classroom to present their personal political views,” and 53 percent agreed that “there are courses in which students feel they have to agree with their professor's political or social views in order to get a good grade.”

The remedy for these abuses is oversight, followed by appropriate action where it is necessary, by university administrators and trustees. In the case of state institutions, legislators and other government officials whose responsibilities include the supervision of public education can make clear their disapproval without dictating the content of the courses professors teach, or how they teach them.  

Perhaps because they consider what they do beyond the intellectual abilities of ordinary people, professors like to think of universities as autonomous and self-regulating entities. As a result, they condemn as “McCarthyism” efforts by David Horowitz, through his Academic Bill of Rights, and organizations such as the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and the National Association of Scholars, to publicize the politicization of college classrooms. Indeed, the mere possibility that the general public would be sufficiently concerned about this politicization to register their objection to it evokes cries from professors that the dark night of fascism is about to descend on American college campuses.

The unwillingness of professors to subject themselves to external scrutiny brings to mind what the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1933, namely that in righting societal wrongs, sunlight is the best disinfectant. May the sun shine brightly on American colleges and universities.

Jay Bergman is a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University and president of the Connecticut Association of Scholars. He can be reached at bergmanj@ccsu.edu.