From Ideology to Inquiry
Anne Colby and Thomas Ehrlich offer advice on how professors can promote political engagement by students -- without drowning in hot water.
Two years ago -- before David Horowitz, the Academic Bill of Rights, and other pressure points on political and ideological bias made the topic such a hot one -- we were speaking at a national conference in Washington about a study that we are now just finishing. The study is called the Political Engagement Project and examines 21 undergraduate courses and programs that aim to strengthen the understanding, the skills, and the motivation needed to be politically engaged citizens.
As a way to make the work in these courses and programs come alive, we told what we thought was a compelling story about a Duke University student in one of the programs, called Service Opportunities in Leadership. The student interned in a New York City textile workers union, and subsequently helped organize Students Against Sweatshops at Duke, which led to a new code of conduct for Duke licensees, the first in the country.
We finished the talk at the national conference that included this tale, turned to questions, and were faced with this one at the outset. “What,” the questioner asked, “does the Duke program do to ensure that conservative students have opportunities if they want to work in businesses or with conservative political or Christian organizations for their summer internships? Why,” the questioner went on, “did you refer only to a liberal group and not a conservative one?”
The question was a good one, and it forced us to stop and think, not just on the podium, but for some time thereafter. Fortunately, the program leader was in the audience, and she was able to say that she did make special efforts to ensure a range of internship opportunities, including some with conservative organizations. The question caught us off guard, however, and caused us to reflect hard on issues of ideological and political bias. Without intending to do so, we had implied that working in a union and protesting sweatshops were ideological prototypes of the kinds of political engagement that we were promoting. We should have used some other examples as well, and we should have explicitly addressed the issues involved in encouraging student political engagement without promoting particular ideologies or political positions.
We have come to see those issues as critical, and we are addressing them at length in a book on educating for political engagement, to be published by Jossey-Bass. In that book, we encourage colleges to make education for political development an explicit goal for undergraduate learning and suggest ways to accomplish that goal. We underscore that, in order for this agenda to be legitimate, it is crucial to create a harmonious relationship between the political development goals we are advocating and the special character and core values of higher education. These values include academic freedom, norms of faculty professionalism, standards of intellectual discourse, open-mindedness, and civility.
Academic freedom implies that, within the boundaries of departmental and institutional needs, it is up to professors to determine the specific goals and content of the courses they teach and to decide what material and assignments will best accomplish those goals. This includes making judgments about whether and how to address controversial issues in whatever domains are relevant to the course, including political and public policy issues.
But academic freedom is not unlimited. It is bounded by another central cluster of academic values, which establish standards for both scholarship and teaching. These standards represent a shared understanding of academic discourse as requiring reasoned justification of claims, presentation of evidence, and consideration of plausible alternative explanations of the evidence and of objections to proposed interpretations. When education for political development is introduced into academic coursework, it must conform to these standards -- just like any other subject matter is.
In this way, academically based education for political development contrasts sharply with political advertising and with much informal political discourse in everyday life. Often those non-academic forms of political “education” use all available means to achieve their goals, whereas education for political understanding in the academy has to be shaped by reasoned argument, warrant or evidence for one’s views, consideration of alternative points of view, and a knowledge base that is as free of ideological bias as possible. In good teaching, faculty members back up their claims and assertions and take seriously alternative points of view for which a credible case can be made. In a course on U.S. immigration policy, for example, a professor may offer evidence that undocumented workers in this country do not take jobs away from U.S. citizens and legal aliens, but he or she should also expose students to the views of economists who have a different view. The responsibility to teach in conformity with standards of academic discourse also means that students are free to put forward ideas that conflict with positions taken by the faculty member, and those ideas will be judged on their merits.
Open-mindedness and respect for multiple (credible) points of view are important in all teaching and are especially critical when teaching for political understanding and engagement. Faculty members ought to help their students develop a quality of openness to new ideas as well as the capacity to make and evaluate arguments and justifications for their own and others’ positions. These two goals are linked, since students need some basis on which to make judgments about the new ideas they are considering.
When courses involve serious engagement with provocative ideas and multiple perspectives on controversial topics, students’ views are likely to differ sharply from each other or from the teacher’s point of view. Maintaining a respectful and civil tone in this kind of discussion is another hallmark of the best academically based political communication, which unfortunately contrasts boldly with much political communication outside (and even sometimes inside) the academy.
Leaders at every university agree that educating students in the practice of open-minded inquiry is a key component of undergraduate education, and most recognize that political issues cannot and should not be excluded from the mix. But creating a classroom and wider campus climate that is truly open to multiple perspectives on contested political issues is not easy to accomplish. One strategy for achieving this that has received a great deal of media attention in the past year or two is a call for legislation that would require colleges and universities to adopt an "Academic Bill of Rights." We believe this legislative strategy is seriously misguided. Perhaps most importantly, this kind of legislation threatens the time-honored freedom of academic institutions from outside political interference. Furthermore, we do not believe that a legislative solution will work. The problem with a legislative approach to ensuring open inquiry is that it casts the issue in negative terms, as a matter of policing the faculty -- and the campus more broadly -- to stamp out “indoctrination.” Given the complexity and ambiguity of both political and academic discourse, this kind of policing would be impossible to implement objectively. And cast in negative terms, the effort itself would be destructive to the goal of civil discourse across ideological boundaries. By contrast, a positive approach, in which administration, faculty, and students from different political perspectives join together to develop strategies for the positive pursuit of open inquiry, can itself contribute to a climate of open mindedness, respect, and cooperation.
On the campus level, faculty and administrative leaders should be self-conscious in raising the values of open-mindedness, civility, diversity of perspective, and judgment grounded in intellectual standards, fostering conversation about what these values mean, why they are important, and what they imply for higher education both inside and outside the classroom. Conversations should address the implications of these values for political discourse on campus, as well as for academic discourse more broadly.
Campus life offers many opportunities to foster political understanding and engagement in ways that embody these key values of the academic enterprise. Materials sent to newly admitted students, for example, should set an expectation that the campus will be a community of discourse and that students will be exposed to diverse opinions about many issues, including political issues.
Another place for establishing a campus-wide respect for diversity of opinion is in the choice of campus speakers and in guidelines for their treatment. Depending upon the issues being addressed, it can be particularly useful to sponsor sessions in which participants engage in deliberation about important issues, addressing not “both sides” of the issues but multiple sides. It is often valuable for these events to draw attention to the fact that many issues, such as immigration policy generate many different perspectives within as well as across political parties. Invited guests should also include those who represent positions and accomplishments that are hard to classify on a simple left-right dimension. If campuses want to foster respect for diversity of perspective, speakers should also include respected exemplars of open-mindedness and civility who (despite their own convictions at one or another point on the political scale) truly believe that effective, engaged citizens need to be skilled at communicating and forming alliances with people whose perspectives are different from their own. This might include, for example, a conversation among Democratic and Republican elected officials about the importance of bipartisanship. In a recent radio interview, Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy talked eloquently about the productive collaborations he has pursued with Republicans such as Orrin Hatch and John McCain. He points out that “even though you differ one time, you try and find ways of working [together] at another. And I think unless you have that kind of temperament, if you’re just going to get upset with somebody that’s going to oppose you, you’re in the wrong business.” Surely Senators Hatch and McCain would agree.
As important as it is to strengthen norms of open mindedness, intellectual pluralism, and civility at the campus level, if faculty members who address political issues in their courses do not ground their teaching in those norms, the wider invocations will ring hollow. This is not easy to accomplish, and seldom happens without conscious effort. Even the best teachers can sometimes be unaware of ideological biases that limit the breadth and openness of discourse in their courses. Professors should plan ahead to ensure that students encounter a wide array of credible perspectives in assigned readings on the political and public policy issues addressed by their courses. Bringing invited speakers into the classroom is another engaging and vivid way to represent and stimulate discussion of diverse political perspectives that may not otherwise be represented.
In deciding the range of perspectives needed, much depends on the particular course and its context. We see nothing wrong with a course on the Marxist interpretation of history, but it should not be the only history course open to students. It is not surprising to find pro-business courses in business schools and pro-labor courses in labor-studies departments. But students should understand clearly what those courses are about and what perspectives are being offered, and faculty should root their analyses in reason and evidence not in unexamined political or ideological assumptions. Especially in general education courses, care should be taken to ensure multiple ideological lenses are used and that none are championed as having a monopoly on truth.
Of course, diversity of opinion can come from students as well, and professors need to be mindful to draw out and support students who express minority positions. Faculty members should also establish standards for civility, while acknowledging that some degree of conflict is unavoidable when talking about issues that evoke strong emotions. Establishing a sense of community in the group can be extremely valuable in allowing students to engage vigorously without causing or taking offense. In the process of engaging across differences of opinion, students can learn to overcome the polarization and demonization of the opposition that often seem to characterize contemporary electoral politics.
Faculty members who teach for political understanding and engagement often struggle with the question of whether concealing or revealing to students their own political beliefs would best uphold norms of professionalism, including the careful avoidance of even the appearance of proselytizing. Some feel that it is preferable for a number of reasons for them to tell students where they stand on the issues and why. This decision is based in a desire to model the process of taking and justifying a position and to be honest about their own beliefs and possible biases. Others prefer to keep their political opinions to themselves, believing that neutrality on their part will be more conducive to a climate that is open to multiple points of view. We believe that either choice is consistent with an open classroom climate as long as faculty members provide and encourage multiple perspectives, including those with which they personally disagree, and take care not to impose their views on students.
The key is to teach students to engage differences of opinion, to evaluate arguments, and to form their own opinions based on the best available evidence. To develop their own critical judgment -- and judgment is key -- students need the freedom to express their ideas publicly as well as repeated opportunities to explore a wide range of insights and perspectives. But students do not have a right to be free from troubling questions that may challenge the assumptions and beliefs they bring to the class. To the contrary, that tough questioning of unexamined assumptions is an essential part of a good undergraduate education in all domains.
These are difficult challenges. It is absolutely essential that we not take the easy road and eliminate or even dampen discussion of political issues on our campuses. To the contrary, we need to promote thoughtful inquiry about those issues. We need to prepare our students to grapple with complex public-policy concerns. They will be the stewards of our democracy.
Anne Colby and Thomas Ehrlich are senior scholars at the Carnegie Endowment for the Advancement of Teaching.Â
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