Politics in the Classroom

What is OK to share?

September 8, 2013

Is it condemnable for academics to share their political convictions from their position as university teachers? Or is it de rigueur to come forth with one’s personal opinions, and share them from the speaker’s podium?

This is the dilemma that I was met with during a discussion with several Ph.D. students during a summer course. The issue came up during a lecture about the welfare state, a mode of state-society relations rather typical for Scandinavia, but contested in other parts of the world, in particular the United States (as an anecdote, you may remember that Sweden has been used as an example  of a socialist country – oh, those negative undertones - during an American presidential campaign).

The lecturer presented the case of welfare as a dominant narrative for all the political parties in the North. His presentation was given in an objective tone, without taking sides – at the end of the lecture, one could not detect if lecturer’s politics influenced his treatment of the welfare state as an academic subject. During the discussions that ensued, both in the subsequent seminar and in the less formal coffee breaks, some of the participants in the summer course deplored the detachment of the presenter and made a passionate case for the engaged academic: one taking sides, making arguments, defending a (political, but not only) specific point of view.

An engaged intellectual, as it emerged from the discussion, is not distant to the matter studied, but outright and normative. Her or his academic interest in the subject is personal as well as scientific. The arguments that she/he puts forward are rigorous and methodologically unquestionable. At the same time, these arguments are supporting a specific way of action, in the case of policy-relevant research, or are based on normative convictions made explicit, in the case of theoretical works.

Some academic subjects have been born out of a political movement of emancipation; they have been fought for politically. Think about gender studies, or women’s studies, or Puerto Rican studies, to mention but a few. Can we expect, demand even, that the higher education teacher leaves her/his politics outside the room?

Recently, a New York Times article takes up the limitations imposed on American university campuses located in illiberal states (Shanghai or Abu Dhabi). Another case that illustrates the extremes to which this issue can be taken comes from Turkey. One Turkish academic in an International Relations department told me that a colleague of hers lost his job after having given in class some examples that were seen (by his students) as insulting Turkey, the Turkish ethnicity, or Turkish government institutions (these insults are punishable as a crime according to article 301 of the Turkish penal code). I do not recollect if the person eventually had been taken to court by his students or if the university fired him without a trial. The point is that because of his politics (explicit or not, as it may have been the case) a teacher was removed from a university.

To summarize, my questions are:

When is it OK for a university teacher to express political views and when is it not?  If the respective lecturer makes a case for a specific political view/action in an academically accepted way, for example by following the methods and logic of arguments of her/his discipline(s), should she/he be allowed to profess these opinions? Or should we attempt to prevent the university chair from being a platform for politics, of any kind?

I am very interested in your take on these questions, or if you have examples that support either alternative.

Anamaria writes from Lund, Sweden. She is one of the founding members of the editorial collective at University of Venus.

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