Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Biased Teaching?

The above 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.


Palooka said...


Glad I can comment without pestering you and poking holes and/or fun in your argument.

I agree, more or less. There should be, of course, those classes you mention--a study of socialism and its merits, a study of capitalism and its merits, etc. I'd even defend them even if they were greatly biased (so long as that was apparent to students enrolling). However, I think you only addressed part of the problem. Survey courses are taught more like the socialism and pacifism special courses you alluded to. That's not right.

he second problem, which you briefly mentioned, is that grading is often tainted by political persuasion. Unfortunately, this is not a matter of abuse of power. I think, sadly, it's more of a matter of incompetence and closed-mindedness. Many professors think the only right answer is their answer. It's emotional and impulsive that any different conclusion is "wrong" and without merit. They're not even aware of their bias. Too many view capitalism as inherently evil, if one argues differently, then it's just wrong--no need evaluating the merits of the argument. Too many view abortion, capital punishment, criminal procedure, gun control, affirmative action, etc through the myopic lens of leftist academia. It's simply irrational to disagree. And is that really that surprising when 90% of their colleagues agree?

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