Saturday, September 11, 2004

Biased Teaching, Part IV

A commentator on Biased Teaching, Part III said he thought that a labeling scheme for courses with an ideological slant would be impracticable. I disagree. In fact, this is probably the simplest mechanism one could possibly design in this area, since it's based completely upon self-identification. Professors who want to teach a class that is designed as a forum to present their own views would simply identify it as such, possibly with a special code (so courses like this would be 205-B, with the B as the identifier). Students would know what they were getting, and they wouldn't have to take a class such as this if they didn't want to. On the other hand, classes without such an identifier would carry an expectation of even-handedness in the selection of reading, and at least a serious effort by the professor to present a reasonable selection of alternative views, even if the professor severely criticized them in class.

Once again, I don't think there should be a formal sanction involved here, although university's should certainly be able to take fidelity to the identification system into account in rating professors' teaching for the purposes of tenure, promotion and salary review. I also think that if ALL the classes that were identified as presenting the professor's views nearly exclusively were obviously on the left, that would visibly suggest a problem that someone should consider remedying. But again, I think the solution here involves information and visibility, not some bureaucratic system for collecting information and creating a quasi-affirmative action system on the basis of ideology. This is a problem that is subject, at least at the margins, to a libertarian remedy.


McGruff said...

Labeling would be simple for the simple cases, but the simple cases are rare--and probably not what most people are concerned with. Where I teach there used to be a course called "Toward a Socialist America." No problem labelling that course, and no one had any doubts about its aims. But that was one, small course in a curriculum that also featured courses by the same professors on less immediately identified topics--say, political philosophy. I'll bet dollars to donuts those people were convinced that they were making even-handed presentations of their material, despite that fact that at the end of the day, or the semester, no one had many doubts of their political orientation. When they taught, say, that Locke advanced a philosophy of possessive individualism and that Marx had the penetrating theory of modernity, they didn't think they were presenting _their_ views; they thought they were giving an informed and reasonable account of the truth. Likewise, when I learned in college that romantic poetry was soft-headed and that T. S. Eliot was the cat's pajamas, my teachers didn't think they were just spreading their tastes; they thought they were teaching what was obviously the case to any thoughtful observer. David Horowitz may jump on some easy examples, but when people talk about bias in the academy, it's this much more complicated kind of situation they're more substantially concerned with, and there's no obvious solution for it--unless you imagine that its' possible to design the vast part of a university curriculum around a neutral presentation of info., where people didn't argue for what they thought was true.

MWS said...

It seems to me that part of the solution to bias has to come from the departments themselves. This doesn't mean that all classes have to be evenhanded. I agree that it is often much more interesting and stimulating to hear a particular point of view. But the professor has to leave some space in the class for other points of view; i.e., he or she should respect opinions that diverge from theirs, not simply dismiss or condemn them. The only way to insure this is to make fairness a part of the hiring and tenure criteria. Departments should insist that professors exhibit a committment to quality teaching, not simply research and publication. The impression I get is that students who dissent from the prevailing consensus are often ostracized or receive lower grades.

When I was in college in the mid-70s, I took several political philosophy courses from avowed conservatives (although I didn't really know this until I took the courses). In general, they were good teachers and it was easy enough to see their bias--they weren't subtl about it. To this day, when I hear the name James MacGregor Burns, I half think of it as as epithet. The problem was that everyone knew what you had to do to make a good grade on exams, ie, write the answer that you knew the teachers wanted. This wasn't so hard to do. But in retrospect (even at the time I had some sense it was a problem), especially after being a teaching assistant myself in graduate school, I was disturbed at how easy it is to indoctrinate 18 or 19 year olds with your own political agenda. That doesn't mean you have to be totally evenhanded, but the professor should be aware that he or she needs to leave some space in the class for different perspectives. In the case of my professors, they essentially created a cult of young right wingers with little tolerance for different perspectives. Today, I suspect its creating young left-wingers with little tolerance.

One of the problems today seems to me that leftist thought considers "fairness" to be a conservative bogeyman designed to suppress progressive ideas. In my opinion, people like this, regardless of their politics, should not be teaching. If they don't believe in fairness, let them go write books. I don't think you have to be evenhanded to be fair, but academic departments have to make a committment to fairness in hiring and tenure decisions.