Biased Teaching? · 09 September 2004

PolySigh Blog: The political science take on things.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

This link sends you to an article from one of the finest journalistic enterprises in the country, Brandeis' student paper. It's an article about accusations by David Horowitz's operation that a professor at Brandeis is a textbook case of left-wing bias in the classroom. Because: a) the professor in question is my colleague (albeit in a different department) and; b) I'm up for tenure; I have nothing to say on the specific matter. But the larger question is important and worthy of intellectual scrutiny.

Let's set the matter of the specific content (left or right) of any particular professor aside. Let's also set aside the matter of the overall distribution of such professors at any particular institution aside as well (although this can and should matter--if every professor who teaches from a particular perspective is of one ideological persuasion, that's significant). Let's also assume that, even if a professor teaches from a particular ideological perspective, his grading is completely fair and neutral (if it's not, that's obviously out of bounds). Let's focus for now simply on the matter of whether, as a general question, it is legitimate for a professor to forthrightly teach a course, including the readings, from a single ideological perspective--that is, to use the class to present his/her own positions on a particular subject.

First and foremost, we have to note that the practice of a professor lecturing in a way to simply and purely present their own views on a subject is probably the oldest form of formal university teaching. Adam Smith's "Lectures on Jurisprudence," for example, were, well...lectures on jurisprudence. There was no pretence in his university teaching that he was supposed to present "all views"--he set out to present his own views, pure and simple. This is still a fairly common practice in many European universities--students expect that when they go to class, they are getting one professor's take, in an extended fashion, on a particular issue. In fact, that is much of what, at its best, European teaching is--students go to hear the evolving thinking of professors on the specific matters they are investigating, not to get a tour d'horizon of an entire field and a balanced, neutral assessment of all the scholars in a particular area.

The question is, what, if anything, distinguishes this form of teaching, which is widespread in Europe and has a noble lineage, from the sort of thing that Horowitz and his ilk think is creeping all over American campuses and corrupting American education.

One is the distinction between "political views" and "scholarship." Perhaps it's ok to present, at length, one's own views on the latter but not the former. But what if one presents a class which is a series of lectures on distributive justice, or an argument for the free market? I think the line between "ideology" and "scholarship" here fades to disappearance, but I can also see that such a class, taught by a great teacher with serious views, could be a remarkable intellectual experience, even if the professor made no pretense of presenting all views equally (although he would obviously have to present those alternative views sufficiently to argue why his position was superior to the alternatives). I can't imagine that Horowitz et al would really be opposed to having Richard Epstein teach a semester-long course called, "The Libertarian Vision," and if not, why not a course called, "Arguments for Socialism" or "The Green Utopia?" or, for that matter, "Pacifism and the Need for Civil Disobedience" (which is close to what I take it the Brandeis professor in the article above was teaching).

I'm not saying that this form of teaching is necessarily the best form of university education. I don't teach that way, for instance--I'm much more of a "here are all the positions on the subject, and I'll defend them all, in sequence" kind of guy. But I can't see that the alternative above, properly labeled (and I think that's an important distinction), isn't pedagogically valid. Ideally a particular university would have a mix of classes, some where professors presented, at length, their own views, and others where they surveyed the literature (although, as noted before, in grading professors have an obligation to set aside their own views and grade simply on the basis of the logic and cogency of the students' arguments).

Here's the rub, however, and this takes us back to where we started. If the faculty as a whole is relatively balanced in their views on various issues, then students can get balance by taking "Libertarianism" with one professor and "Socialism" with another. So the issue shouldn't be the specific content of any particular class, but whether universities as a whole have enough balance on their faculties that students can, in fact, get a full range of views by taking classes from different professors who teach based on their own take on things. And here I think there is a real issue, albeit one that is very, very difficult to do anything about, without creating a huge bureaucratic mess of the kind that conservatives already complain about when it comes to the enforcement of anti-discrimination policy. But that's a matter for a future posting.

posted by StevenTeles at 10:39 PM

Biased Teaching, Part II

I generally agree with Steve that there's nothing wrong with courses that present a subjective point of view, so long as the professor grades all students fairly and without regard to whether the student agrees or disagrees with the professor. I do, however, believe that there should be truth in advertising so that a course titled, "Introduction to American Politics," it should offer a survey of various political and methodological perspectives. If such a course presented only one perspective then it should let potential students know that with a title like "Conservative Perspectives on American Politics" or "A Socialist Critique of American Politics."

I also think that if a professor decides to present a particular ideological point of view, they should not be surprised if they are criticized for it. Too many academics act like hothouse flowers when someone takes them to task for the statements they make. Academic freedom allows faculty members the freedom to speak and teach about controversial subjects, but it doesn't mean that they are immune from criticism for doing so. Freedom of speech goes both ways. In my own case, I've gotten a fair amount of heat for things that I've written. In particular, David Horowitz once wrote that a statement I made was "anti-American, anti-white, and astoundingly ignorant." Strong words (though I should add that he has since retracted them). Some academics view criticisms like this as an effort to stifle them and create a chilling climate for those with unpopular views. My view was, to quote John Kerry, "Bring it on!" My views are certainly subject to criticism and if I didn't want criticism, I shouldn't have said them in the first place.

I also agree with Steve that the ideal situation would be ideological pluralism across the whole of academia and that making every class at every college relentlessly even-handed would be a terrible thing. Students should have the choice of picking schools that are extremely liberal, conservative, moderate, or any other viewpoint. At those schools that don't profess an ideology (a category that includes most schools) they should make every effort to bring about ideological diversity. In fact, I'm less opposed to taking affirmative steps in this area than is Steve. Much of what Horowitz and others have done is to using the diversity rationale that applies to racial or ethnic minorities and ask why it shouldn't also apply to religious and political conservatives. I, for one, can't think of why it shouldn't. So while I strongly support measures to increse the numbers of women and minorities in academia, also suppport measures to increase the presence of religious and political minorities. If nothing else, it wouldn't be a bad thing for faculty on hiring committees to say, "Gee, we all pretty much agree politically, so wouldn't it be good for us and our students to get a different point of view once in awhile." Such steps probably wouldn't completely overcome the self-selection process that tilts academics to the left, but it would help.

I think this is an important issue because academics are becoming increasingly distant from the society in which they operate. To some extent, this is inevitable (the ivory tower) and probably a good thing (critical reflection requires some distance and perspective). But only to an extent. When departments have partisan ratios of 9 or 10:1 and when academics inadequately address differing political views, they risk alienating the people who provide them with the resources necessary to do their jobs--students, parents, trustees, state legislatures, etc.--and provoking a backlash.

P.S. If any of my colleagues read this, please, please make sure that I never serve on another committee.

P.P.S. If any of my students read this, I'm still not changing your grade.

posted by Philip Klinkner at 1:06


Biased Teaching, Part III

Thursday, September 09, 2004

I agree with Phil that courses should be clearly distinguished when they represent the views of the professor, rather than an attempt to neutrally survey a body of literature. It's probably best to create a separate classification scheme for such classes, especially given that they represent a distinct pedagogical approach. I also think it's best that these not be mandatory classes, either for general or departmental curriculum requirements. In classes that are no so identified, professors could then be legitimately criticized for an absence of neutrality or breadth in their reading list.

On the matter of ideological or religious diversity, I would say that, yes, in most elite schools there is little question that they would be better intellectual institutions with greater substantive breadth of professorial philosophy. In practice, this means more conservatives and libertarians. My main problem comes with how you get there. Phil seems comfortable imposing something close to the existing anti-discrimination regime on departments. I'm uncomfortable with this. I think in a liberal society that the anti-discrimination cure, especially in its stronger, affirmative action mode, is very strong medicine indeed, and should only be imposed where there is a pervasive problem unsuited to more libertarian cures.

On the one hand, I think that the problem of an absence of conservative/liberal professors is a supply problem (less so in law schools, though, I might add, since they hire out of the pool of JDs, some of whom go into academia, and some of whom go into practice--there we have a reason to believe that it is a selection rather than a supply issue). This supply problem is, in part, a consequence of rational expectations of the future labor market they will face, and so in that sense the problem is akin to that of African-Americans, who may, in anticipation of discrimination, alter their behavior (for example, going into professions that are more public-sector-dominated, where they anticipate lower discrimination or network hiring). The solution, in my mind, is for elite graduate institutions to make a greater effort to recruit conservatives into PhD programs in the social sciences and the humanities, and give them as much room to pursue research programs that reflect their beliefs as they allow graduate students on the left. Currently smart conservative college graduates often head into the Washington, DC think tank world instead of going to graduate school, because of their expectation of future discrimination, and in the short term of differential treatment in graduate school. So I think part of the problem is not overt discrimination (although there is some of that), but rational adaptation to the expectation of future discrimination, which may in fact be less pervasive than conservatives think.

The trickier issue is what to do about overt discrimination in hiring, which certainly happens, although, again, it's hard to tell what the magnitudes are. If maximizing substantive outcomes were all we cared about, it might be that imposing something like affirmative action obligations on hiring departments might be the solution, not just to the discrimination problem, but also the supply problem (since this would alter conservatives' rational expectations of future discrimination, thereby inducing more to enter graduate training). The problem is that, as I noted before, this is a fairly illiberal solution (do we really need to add MORE bureaucratic rules on the hiring process than we've already got?), and also that, unlike race or gender, the problem of identification is infinitely trickier. Are we going to ask everyone to take a 25 question test of their political views, and give preference to those who come out on the minimal government/ social traditionalism end of the test? Do we even want to start collecting data like this? What about the "stigma" of affirmative action hiring that conservatives always complain about when it comes to blacks?

In the end, I think the answer to this problem, to the degree that there is a solution (and any good conservative would say that there are some problems that, regardless of their severity, are not worth the treatment, or are not susceptible to treatment), is good old John Stuart Mill-ish: publicity. Large departments that continue to fail to hire or train conservatives are, probably, engaging in either overt or covert ideological bias. They should be shamed into at least becoming sensitized to whether they are importing into their hiring decisions ideological decision-making. To the degree that this is what Horowitz et al are doing, I think there is nothing wrong with it. But I think as good conservatives they should foreswear the use of the anti-discrimination paradigm here, which has its own problems where it is already applied and certainly doesn't need to be extended to every possible human difference.

posted by StevenTeles at 6:32 PM 2 comments