Worth Fighting For
One of the things I enjoy most about my job is the opportunity to teach undergraduates about American history. I teach courses in war and American society, the American Presidency, and the Civil War and Reconstruction; at ASU I’ve also taught on the American Revolution and the Early Republic, although other colleagues have taken up those courses. I won’t even go into the broad number of courses I taught at Wofford College, except to say that I found delightful the student evaluation praising me for my expertise on the Enlightenment and that, like fellow blogger Kevin Levin, I taught women’s history.
As a teacher I believe that one of my primary responsibilities is to teach critical thinking and learning skills. Another goal is to teach my students to construct good arguments making skilled use of evidence and reason. A third goal is to show students ways in which an understanding of the past can shed light on the present by setting the present in the context of the past. These goals are of equal importance to me.
Thus I found this notion disturbing.
Let me be painfully clear in what I find troubling about the proposal. I do not believe that professors in class should explicitly support or oppose candidates or support or oppose legislation and litigation. Nor am I interested in opposing military recruiting on campus. The Pandora’s Box, however, is to be found in the fourth clause, because it is so clearly subject to abuse.
If, for example, I highlight contradictions in political arguments (say, the issue of personal military service for politicians who attack the patriotism of opponents, including those with documented records of military service), is that an observation or an act of advocacy? If I highlight the moral case against slavery, is that taking just one side (never mind that I review the proslavery argument as well). If I point out that people who claim to oppose illegal immigration because illegal immigrants take jobs away from US citizens nevertheless turn a blind eye to employing companies that employ illegal immigrants for tasks such as construction and landscaping, is that getting involved in partisan controversy? Is suggesting the inherently political nature of Supreme Court decisions somehow wrong?
It is enough to say that my students don’t know my political affiliation because they have debated it and asked me about it (in 2000 two students walked up to me after class: the Republican student asked whether I was a Democrat, while the Democratic student asked whether I was a Republican, so that should give you some idea of what goes on in my class). Students ask me all the time what I think about this or that, and I’m very careful in my answers. I’ve been the token liberal in organizations that are heavily conservative and the token conservative in organizations that are heavily liberal. But you can see how one unhappy student who feels slighted can raise quite a ruckus.
Let me put it this way: if you don’t care to be offended, never set foot on a university campus. Everyone can find something offensive, especially if they are looking for it. That’s what the free exchange of ideas is about. I don’t care for those professors who use their time in the classroom to engage in outright political advocacy for candidates, legislation, or litigation, but we might be well advised to ponder just how much we as Americans are willing to tolerate the chilling effect of such legislation at home at the same time we promote freedom of thought and expression abroad.