Teach Only What You Know
About two weeks before the 2004 presidential election, one of the students in a government class that I was teaching raised his hand and demanded to know who I was supporting for president. I paused for a moment, somewhat taken back by the stridency of the student’s request. Noticing my reaction, he offered some background, explaining that he was not the only one in the class who had this question. We had, after all, been talking about the election during nearly every session, and my reticence with regard to what seemed to the students to be a crucial point was a source of confusion.
Despite his protests, I refused to answer, and quickly moved to the topic of the day. Later on, however, I had some time to consider the exchange. And the more that I thought about the student’s question, the more pleased I became. This was, I thought, one of the best evaluations that I had ever received. Here was real evidence that I was doing my job!
Here’s why: My students should not be able to tell, at least from what I say in class, who I prefer to sit in the oval office. For one thing, this would be a form of “bait and switch,” since nothing about the sharing of my political opinions appears in the catalogue that the students presumably consult before paying their money and scheduling my course.
More to the point, however, is that I am not qualified to teach students about who should be elected. In fact, I am no more qualified to tell people who they should vote for than I am to teach a class in quantum mechanics. I have colleagues over in the physics department who are qualified to offer a course in the latter subject; none of us has the same credibility when it comes to the former. Indeed, in an important way, this blanket incompetence is a part of the class lesson -- particularly, though not exclusively, in a class on American government. It is an implicit argument for democracy, or at least democratic equality. It is also, however, an argument about education.
If professors, or anybody else for that matter, actually "knew" who the president should be, then voting, especially by those who did not know, would be unnecessary, and probably counterproductive. This is easy to illustrate by considering the following example: Suppose that I feel ill, and would like to know what I might do to feel better. One approach would be to poll my friends, asking each of them what I should do. But suppose that among my friends was a medical doctor. Would it not make sense to follow her advice, eschewing the opinions of the rest of my friends? Now, what if I were on a deserted island, with no trained medical professionals available? Then, I might as well seek out the advice of friends, summing their opinions. When we are all equally ignorant, we might as well vote.
Most Americans seem to intuitively grasp this notion, and have gradually moved our political system away from any form of “rule by the experts.” The best example of this may be found within the evolution of our electoral system for choosing the president. .If one reads carefully through the Constitution, one finds that the document does not call for the popular election of the president. Instead, state legislatures are charged with appointing presidential electors (the real voters) in any manner which they see fit.
By practice, though not amendment, Americans have reformed this process. Indeed, fairly quickly, legislative appointment was replaced by the popular election of presidential electors. The reason why elections like the one in 2000 -- in which the electoral and popular votes do not reach the same outcome -- are so disturbing is because most Americans think that they do, and should, select the president. No one stands up for an independent board of electors, because scarcely anyone believes that a qualified electoral elite exists. Again, where there are no experts, let’s let everyone have their say. This should serve as a reminder -- particularly to my colleagues in the academy -- about equality. We are all equally entitled to our opinion on electoral matters. That is why we vote.
This understanding has implications for the classroom that extend beyond politics. What we know, we should teach. We ought to keep our opinions to ourselves. This is an important point to keep mind as we read polls, including a recent one by the Zogby organization, that suggest that the public thinks that political bias among academics is a real problem. The public might well have a valid point.
Too much is made of the fact that the views expressed by these academics seem at best out of the mainstream, and at worst dangerously radical. One would, after all, expect those who have dedicated themselves to the careful study of a subject to know more than most about their area of expertise. And those who know should not be bound by -- or be expected to teach about -- the opinions of those who do not know, even if those opinions are held by a majority of people.
This leads to the real objection that ought to be lodged against those who bring their political opinions into the classroom: Do they know what they are talking about? In the classroom, a basic distinction ought to be maintained between knowledge and opinion. To return to my earlier example, I “know” how the mechanics of the electoral system work. I have an opinion about who should be elected using this system. Therefore, I should teach only the former; not because I might offend the delicate political sensibilities of my students, but rather because this distinction between knowledge and opinion is fundamental to any academic endeavor.
Ideally, what scholars seek -- indeed what every educated person hopes to attain, however partially -- is to replace opinion with knowledge. Through both what and how we teach, instructors inspire in their students a sense of both what is known, and how much remains to be discovered. This is what the philosopher Socrates meant when he argued that the first step in the educational process is "to know what we do not know." By becoming aware of how little we know, we are motivated to learn.
The sin committed by any teacher who spouts his or her political views in the classroom is, therefore, not political, but academic. By feigning certainty where there is only opinion, they encourage ignorance in their students. Teachers are free to hold and express (outside of the classroom) any opinions that they wish. What they must not do (in the classroom) is to pretend to know more than they do.
As the writer G. K. Chesterton wisely observed, "It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong." This type of bigotry does not serve our students or our democratic system. Avoiding it is not always easy, but it is our job.
Paul A. Sracic is a professor and chair of the political science department at Youngstown State University.
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