Friday, December 02, 2005

Thoughts on University professors and teaching biases

Well, I just completed the final mailing group for my graduate school applications, and I couldn't be happier to be finished, and more excited at the prospect of more school, more research, more writing, and hopefully teaching--4 years at MU certainly hasn't worn me down; if anything, these years have fired me up.

But, all morning--and for most of the week--I have been thinking about a debate that is ongoing about university professors and teaching biases. This is a debate that was addressed in some part in an article in this semester's first Warrior publication, in the Tribune last year , as a College Republicans display last spring, and also, of course, on blogs.

The popular opinion is that the University is a "liberal" place--but not in the good sense of the word. There is a great aspect to universities that are "liberal"--challenging to tradition, forging new territory in research and writing, challenging to students' opinions, knowledge, and biases, fostering an "open-minded" atmopshere in general. In this sense, a "liberal" university is very much something that ought to be obtained, whether it be on the part of staunch Natural Rights conservatives, or radical Maoists on the other end of the spectrum.

Of course, the problem in America is those other "liberals"--the perceived trouble with the University is that there are too many professors that vote for Democrats, contribute to liberal or left-leaning causes--having too many professors of one orientation is a bad thing, and in some cases leads to increased intimidation of students that disagree, as well as indoctrination for those students that are wide-eyed and bushy tailed upon entering the University.

There is one very important presupposition to all of this; or rather, a series of related presuppositions: (1) that political orientation matters, (2) that political orientation is important in the classroom, and (3) that personal biases inevitably accompany professors into the classroom...

I agree with the first premise; political orientation does indeed matter. I disagree, however, with the second and third premises. First off, political orientation does not matter in the classroom, especially if a teacher is not teaching political subjects. Secondly, I don't agree that personal biases are "inevitable" (and thus, appropriate) in the classroom.

Why do I disagree with these two presuppositions? Precisely because both fall on the wrong side of a division between "good" and "bad" teachers...a good teacher can overcome his or her own biases in the classroom, and in this sense conform to the first definition of "liberal" I offer above, equating "liberality" with challenging questions, cutting edge research, and "open-mindedness." It is imperative that good teachers push aside their biases for one great reason: in education (and this is a presupposition on my part, I suppose), a professor ought to be interested in the pursuits of knowledge and truth over anything else--if a student is not accumulating knowledge, and rather accumulates an agenda, that student has not been educated.

Because truth and knowledge compose the greatest educational agenda possible, any teacher that merely pushes an agenda in the classroom is merely a bad teacher. This goes for liberal as well as conservative professors (in the American political senses of the words).

There are, of course, pragmatic problems with this template for education. One such problem is the esoteric nature of the American Research University, which has trickled down into the liberal arts college--the creation of very specific research fields inevtiably creates some fields that are of an overtly "politicized" nature--this specialization in itself can be considered a bad thing insofar as it is a great culprit for some of the "Liberal" problems in the university...

A few examples...

-A teaching/research post for Feminism, Race Studies, Cultural Studies will probably fall on the side of supporting Feminism, multiculturalism, etc.

-A post for Marxism will probably sympathize with Marxists

-A post for Capitalist and anglican-liberal philosophy very well may be a fiscal conservative

There are many more possible examples.

Which brings me to my final point: there are more important "biases" that universities and departments need to address when they are hiring professors and creating programs; these biases transcend the "Liberal"/conservative divide...I am going to use political and philosophical examples because of my familiarity with the issues in such departments...

-for Ancient philosophy, the Aristotelian/Platonist divide is much more meaningful than a liberal/conservative divide...

-for ethics, I am more worried about whether or not my prof. is a utilitarian or a deontologist...

-is your professor of German philosophy a Right-Hegelian or a Left-Hegelian? This greatly affects the whole interpretation of Hegel's geist

-of contemporary philosophers, how many analytic philosophers of language does a department have? What about poststructuralists?

-in an epistemology course, I am more concerned about the divide between idealism and realism/materialism than I am with left/right

-in an international politics course, is your prof. a nationalist or a cosmopolitan?

-in your comparative politics course, how is your prof. aligned on the quantitative methods question?

-for political theory, does your prof. define democracy in procedural or normative terms?

And so on...these questions get at the root of the issues, and it is much more important to provide balance on these questions than on the left/right scale...for, if a student is given a diverse education in these types of divides that get at the heart of a topic, and departments are committed to hiring on multiple sides of these sorts of issues, a student will be much closer to the truth than if everyone is worried about political bias rearing its ugly head in the classroom.


Anonymous vinnie said...

One for civil and environmental engineering--those who believe in resource efficiency and those who go by fiscal efficiency (By the way, good first few entries...I already plan on checking back often.)

1:17 AM  
Blogger Nick Z. said...

Vinnie, thanks a ton for the response. I like the engineering example--you've got the spirit of my concern for those types of biases.

Also, thanks for the kind words. I will keep updating as much as possible!

6:37 AM  

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