Why Classroom Bias Now?
In my prior post, I promised some unoriginal theorizing about the heightened interest in the classroom bias issue. As the example I used there suggests, I think much of it is related to 9/11. What 9/11 did was to blow the lid off of the politics of many faculty, and make those politics clear to the broader public. Those of us in academia have always known what many/most faculty thought about the US and its foreign policies, but I doubt that Joe and Jane Sixpack did. The events of 9/11 changed all of that. The combination of a perceived "blame American first" on the part of faculty with an "America, love it or leave it" instinct on the part of students, made for a dangerous brew. The result is that many conservative students all of a sudden felt the perceived classroom bias more palpably and, more important, they found support for their reaction in the media, both print and electronic. The bias was in their face, and their perception of it found sympathetic ears elsewhere.
Now feeling empowered that their perception of bias is right, conservative students have gone on the offensive. I don't think this is a bad thing, in and of itself. Of course, it's even a really good thing when it translates into more than just whining and complaining and maybe even leads to real intellectual and political activity. I'm willing to predict that this issue will not go away. I think we're entering an era of a widening gulf between the mean political position of college students and that of their faculty. This gulf might have been wide 30 years ago, but with students on the left and faculty on the right! Now, the positions are reversed and I'd argue the gulf is even wider.
I think another factor in the rise of the classroom bias issue is the Internet, and the blogosphere particularly. Students can more quickly identify support for their perceptions of bias, and the outrageous examples can more easily get press coverage. Groups like FIRE are doing great work in shedding light on real problems. In addition, students who wish to take advantage of it can easily and quickly find arguments and evidence that contradict what they are hearing in class. This enables them to label things as "bias" much more frequently than has been the case in years past. Thinking back to my days at Michigan, if I wanted to prove some faculty member wrong, it would have required some serious research at the library. Today, a student can just Google up a bunch of material in 30 seconds. Part of me would like to think that left-leaning faculty are more frequently being challenged in substantive ways by well-informed conservative students. I'm not sure though. If not, there's no excuse for conservative students not trying. The information is out there for the taking.
If I had the time and energy, I'd set up a web site that served as an information clearing house for students (of any political persuasion) who wanted a perspective on an issue that differed from what they'd heard in class. The kid who wants a history of the Middle East that doesn't turn the Israelis into Nazis and the Palestinians into innocent victims could go to the site and get an info sheet and/or links to other well-respected scholars and writers. Same for the kid who wants to defend same-sex marriage at a religiously-oriented school.
One last thought: it's easier to use the classroom for "indoctrination" when your institution doesn't put much weight on teaching, and especially when it doesn't talk about teaching very much. If nothing else, a politically correct classroom is really bad pedagogy. If, and it's an if, we really do care about student learning, then staying away from the forms of bias that are the subject of so much discussion today is a very good idea. Students learn best when the classroom atmosphere is both open and full of intellectual challenges, from faculty and from peers. Another prediction (who says Austrian economists can't predict?): if American higher education paid more attention to the quality of undergraduate instruction, concerns about political correctness and classroom bias would begin to fade away fairly quickly.
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