Blogs > Liberty and Power > Classroom Bias: Real and/or Imagined

Feb 16, 2004 4:01 pm

Classroom Bias: Real and/or Imagined

This whole issue of classroom bias is one that I think about a lot. Having survived The University of Michigan as an "out" libertarian, and then doing graduate work at George Mason, I've both been the outsider and the insider politically. And now being at a small liberal arts college whose faculty is probably near the mean in terms of their "leftiness", I get to see these issues from both sides: leftist colleagues and conservative/libertarian students who complain to me.

Let me start by saying that I have no doubt that there are faculty whose goal in the classroom is to get students to think like they do on a political level. I also have no doubt that there are faculty who evaluate their students work based on the same criterion. However, I do think that such faculty are not as common as the conservative press, and blogosphere, often makes it seem. Moreover, I don't think that all the complaints that conservative students have about liberal bias in faculty are always legitimate. We've recently had a re-formation of our College Republicans group on campus, and it has drawn several dozen students to meetings. For us, that's an unbelievable level of political participation for ANY cause! And the one issue that's drawing them is "classroom bias." I have a theory about why this has become such an issue recently, but I'll save that for another post (it's not that original anyway).

But when I talk to these students, what they say is that they feel "silenced" in the classroom. (You can see that they in fact HAVE learned from their professors about the power of the rhetoric of being silenced; after all, certain groups on the Left can be very loud about how they've been silenced.) When I prod them as to what this means, they say "I don't feel like I can say what I think." Okay, why not? "Well when I do, I get attacked." Now what exactly constitutes an "attack?" Are they being called names and being told they're stupid? They say no. What they report is that some students will challenge them and faculty will respond to them with more questions and requests for evidence.

Often, what it sounds like to me, is that the conservative students are being forced to articulate and defend their views in ways they haven't had to in the past. I think this is especially true with respect to war-related issues. They hear a prof, or another student, argue against the war, or argue that US policy bears some real blame for 9/11, and they feel like the US is being attacked. They love America and they try to respond. The prof, or the students, push back, suggesting some evidence to the contrary and asking for the same from them. But perhaps they can't provide it. They know what they believe, and they know it's not what the prof believes, but they struggle to articulate it. (I should add that I think this is the broader problem with the conservative students on my campus - they are notoriously non- or anti-intellectual. I cannot think of more than 2 or 3 conservative students who I would call intellectual in any real sense of the term. All the student-driven intellectual energy on campus - and it's not a lot - comes from the Left.) In their inability to articulate their views and provide evidence, they feel silenced and attacked.

The first speaker that the CRs brought to campus was this guy Dan Flynn to speak on his book Why the Left Hates America. The guy was embarrassingly awful. Just terrible. The campus lefty students showed up en masse and were polite to a fault. They asked him great questions and more or less showed him to be the uninformed anti-intellectual that he is. (Some lefty students also defaced several of the CR's posters, which led me to think we'd have a nastier situation during the talk, but they behaved themselves.) He was so bad that the CRs privately apologized to some of their friends on the left for bringing him. The question for me is why they didn't think to bring a serious conservative or libertarian intellectual. Dinesh D'Souza spoke on campus a couple of years ago and was treated very respectfully by students and colleagues. The answer, I fear, is that most conservative students (at least here) are just not intellectually engaged in the ways my colleagues and I would like them to be. That's the real problem.

As I said, I have no doubt that there is classroom bias that is real, but I also believe that conservative students too often adopt the very victim mentality that they complain about in other venues. If the CRs came to me for advice, I'd tell them to forget about bringing guest speakers and to spend their time in some reading groups that can help them learn what they need to know to at least try to level the intellectual playing field with leftist students and faculty. I know I'd much rather teach a room full of smart, well-read lefty students than one full of anti-intellectual country club conservatives. And, if my colleagues are to be believed, they'd rather have a room full of smart, well-read conservatives, than one full of apparently leftist students who are just parroting what they heard from other faculty.

More to follow....

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