Scent of a herring

Stanley Fish weighs in on all the chatter about "political indoctrination" at American Universities.

Once again, the question is how many of them are there? Anne Neal, president of the conservative watchdog group the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, asks that question on camera, and answers it by reporting that in a survey of students a “significant percentage…complained that politics was being introduced in the classroom” and 42 percent “said their book lists were one sided.”

Here again there’s the part we should take seriously and the red-herring or fake-issue part. Book lists take their shape from the instructor’s judgment that a particular text is important to the area of inquiry. There is no reason – at least no pedagogical reason – to demand that a book list contain representatives of every approach out there. The judgment that a list is “one sided” is a political not an academic judgment (and the fact that students are making it makes it even more suspect), and enforcing it, as some state legislatures now want to do, would be a blatantly political act.

But then there’s the part we should take seriously: professors who use the classroom as a stage for their political views. Maloney speculates that perhaps one out of seven perform in this way. I would put the number much lower, perhaps one out of twenty-five. But one out of 10,000 would be one too many.

This kind of crap makes academics bristle. We’re paid, believe it or not, to have well-grounded views on things within the purview of our expertise. For some of us, that expertise includes knowing what makes a view well grounded. It is inevitable, therefore, that professors (even those in the humanities) will pronounce on "political" questions.

The more important thing to remember, however, is what one letter writer to the New York Times said (in reference to some David Brooks’ griping about leftist academics): If I could only indoctrinate my students to do the reading, proofread their papers, and show up to class on time, I’d consider myself a success.

2 thoughts on “Scent of a herring”

  1. To all at thenonsequitur: Greetings from a mall in central Warsaw.

    Every time I try to read this guy’s articles, I find myself wondering what the hell he is saying. What exactly does it mean to use the classroom as a stage for your views, i.e. to “confuse advocacy with teaching?” Is there a means of determining when this has taken place, other than to refer to polls of students who are just as much, if not more, biased?

    University life is about learning facts and methods that can put us in a position to challenge the status quo (oh, and to get a better job), or at least that’s what I’ve been brainwashed to believe… Surely, of all people, students should not expect to only hear things that reaffirm what they already believe, whether it is presented in an unbiased manner or not. In fact, “biased” teaching is often, I find, more stimulating because it provides me, as a student, with an actual frame of reference (located in reality) from which to pick and choose what I want to agree/disagree with (remember, we do have choice whether we want to agree!); additionally, when presented with a view that I am inclined to disagree with, it stimulates further research, i.e. learning, in order to solidify/modify my own position.

    Any good student will know how to pass a course and maybe even learn something, while at the same time avoiding political brainwashing… So, I guess I’d say that the problem has less to do with the professors and more to do with students not wanting to do any thinking of their own.

    So go ahead and hold a position, Dr. Casey.

    Also, remember that conservative professors tend to outnumber the liberals in the business/economics-related departments…

  2. All the politically-oriented bloviating I’ve heard from professors during lecture has been of a very preaching-to-the-choir, isn’t-it-nice-that-we-all-disapprove-of-this-administration nature. It was clear the comments had a phatic function. That was true in liberal arts undergrad and grad studies in NYC, and it also holds true down here in Texas in a large biology dept.

    I used to prefer taking classes with tendentious professors: at very least their own overt biases provided a clear framework for the course material. Also, it’s more engaging (i.e. easier) to deal with information presented as an argument. Aiming for neutrality in the lecture and in the reading list doesn’t sound like a worthwhile goal. There are worse things than taking a class with a professor whose take on the subject matter is at odds with your own. It seems naive to think, like this Anne Neal, that students enter the classroom as blank slates or that we are helpless to fend off all this lamentable leftist brainwashing.

    College cohorts are complex groups that arise from a lot of self-selection on the part of both students and admissions staff. Other factors like geography play a huge role as well. There weren’t a lot of self-identified “conservatives” in my freshman class at Columbia, and this had nothing whatsoever to do with indoctrination via professorial bias.

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