Politics and Education


If you want to teach students to think, you have to challenge them—challenge their beliefs and assumptions. Confirming what they (or their parents, or their communities) already believe does not serve that purpose. You also need to teach students to be honest with themselves and to examine their own beliefs by standards outside of their past experiences. This requires that the teacher be challenging her own beliefs, and that he be far enough from the mainstream to look at it quizzically. For this reason, if for no other (and there are plenty of others), it is ridiculous to complain about teachers whose political leanings are out of step with your own, to feel they are going to corrupt your children or to argue that teachers, as a whole, should reflect the political divisions of the population at large.

At the Conservative Political Action conference this week, a workshop was held with the intent of teaching students how to intimidate their “liberal” teachers into silence by filming them:

“People are so used to their professors’ just constantly ranting and indoctrinating with their liberal values that they don’t realize that’s not OK,” Cabot Phillips, a contributor to the conservative website Campus Reform, told audience members….

Campus Reform, which was created by the Leadership Institute, a group that trains conservative activists, calls itself a watchdog for higher education. Mr. Phillips told the audience that the site, which relies heavily on content written by campus contributors, would help spread their messages.

“If you have a professor who’s going crazy on video, we’ll get you on TV,” Mr. Phillips said.

A “watchdog”? It sounds more like Campus Reform wants to remove “education” from our colleges and universities, replacing it with conformity, something antithetical to thinking.

Professors, even leftist ones like me, rarely rant and even more rarely successfully indoctrinate liberal “values” (which, generally speaking, are the Enlightenment values that sparked the United States Constitution).  Students can change in college (most do), but the change isn’t toward the beliefs of their professors any more than it is away from their parents. That is, the change doesn’t come from indoctrination or rebellion, but from growth. From learning to think for oneself.

We professors don’t want students to agree with us or even to pretend to. It’s a relief when a student stands up and challenges me, for I know that’s when education in the classroom can really begin. I have often thought of filming my own classes but I don’t—for I don’t want to hamper student expression. What Phillips wants is to hamper professor expression, something just as dampening to education as shutting up students.

When I was an undergraduate during the Vietnam War, it wasn’t the professors who were our leaders. Most of them, in fact, followed the lead of us students. In terms of mass movements, that’s the more likely scenario, no matter when or where. When we shut down the campus of Utica College after Kent State, the Faculty Senate endorsed our action, it did not lead it. Instead, the faculty joined us in workshops and discussions, attempting to keep the education process going even while formal classes were in abeyance. There was no silencing of any voices by those with power (even the administration joined in), no threat to freedom of speech.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, also at CPAC, said:

The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.

Not only does DeVos not understand the Bill of Rights, whose First Amendment is a restriction on Congress, not on faculty or educational institutions (though it certainly can be extended to public ones in certain respects), but she doesn’t understand the process of education. AAUP President Rudy Fichtenbaum tried to set her straight:

 Faculty get paid to tell students what to do. We give them reading assignments to prepare for class. We assign them papers, projects, have them do experiments and make presentations and tell them when they are due. We tell them what they should study for exams. If we didn’t do these things, we would not be doing our jobs. No faculty member that I know tells students what to say, nor do they tell them what to think. Faculty may give students their own opinion, where opinions can differ. But faculty members also know the difference between facts and lies, and the overwhelming majority of faculty members I know, whatever their political views might be, will generally encourage debate and differences of opinion, and grade students on the basis of whether their argument is logical and backed up with facts, something Secretary DeVos seems incapable of doing.

There’s nothing “ominous” in how professors do their jobs. What’s ominous is the threat from politicians who want to made education into indoctrination or simply certification of the prevailing popular beliefs. A State Senator in Iowa wants to codify that in law:

A bill in the Iowa Senate seeks to achieve greater political diversity among professors at the state’s Board of Regents universities. Senate File 288 would institute a hiring freeze until the number of registered Republicans and Democrats on the university faculty fall within 10 percent of each other.

“I’m under the understanding that right now they can hire people because of diversity,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa. “They want to have people of different thinking, different processes, different expertise. So this would fall right into category with what existing hiring practices are.”

This perversion of the desire for diversity would mire education more than ever in the minds of the past, thwarting original thought and exploration. Not only would this allow the unqualified to subvert the system but it would limit real diversity, replacing it with conformity.

That wouldn’t help anyone’s education. No more than DeVos intends to, or Phillips. None of their intents are educational; all are political.

Politics can be used within the educational process, and often is. Education, on the other hand, should never be a tool for political ends. This is a difference we educators understand full well, but one that eludes Chelgren, DeVos and Phillips.

3 thoughts on “Politics and Education

  1. Oh, I don’t think it eludes them at all. They’re deflecting attention from their own radical agenda by asserting that we’re the radicals. It’s the same old song.

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