Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Yes, professors are biased. So what?

"Like, I know you're not going to agree with me on this, but . . . "

If I had a dollar or some other equally worthless form of currency for every time a student said that to me in or out of class in twenty-two years of college teaching, I could retire and live off the interest for the rest of my natural life. And yes, that takes into account the very real possibility that the life expectancy of relatively fit, non-smoking white men in non-physically demanding jobs will increase by three to four year years by the time I teach my late 70s. That, according to the people who keep statistics on such things, is when I'm supposed to die. But they could be wrong. According to the Weather Channel, I should have died approximately 16 days ago when Terrorist Hurricane al-Irene huffed and puffed through Washington, D.C. I don't know if the Weather Channel thought I was going to die because the Hurricane was just that bad, or because it knew that PEPCO is my power company.


Of all the things that seem to preoccupy so many students about their professors -- whether our socks match, how often we wear a particular tie, sweater or an old sweatshirt that says "McGovern/Shriver," what kind of car we own (at American University, usually one less expensive than our students), what our husbands or wives look like, our lack of attention to ill-sprouting hair in our noses and ears -- our "bias" heads the list for the more politically minded undergraduate. Conservative students, in particular, are the most attuned, or so they believe, to our "liberal" views and spend a good deal of their time attempting to sniff out radicals in their midst.

An example: "My professor said that President Bush's decision to invade Iraq was the worst foreign policy mistake of the post-World War II era. He is so biased and unfair to those of us in the class who think it was the right thing to do!" a young conservative might fulminate.

Another: "I saw my professor getting into her Honda Civic and she had an "Obama/Biden" sticker. She also had a sticker that said, "Arms Are For Hugging." So how I can say that I support Mitt Romney in class or suggest that my Second Amendment rights include the right to own a flame-thrower?"

So what? What if the professor took the opposite position? Would if a professor said in class that President Obama was simply the latest in a long line of Democratic presidents that punish the successful to support an inefficient and morally problematic welfare state? What if a professor said in class that the modern feminist movement is at odds with the biologically determined path of men and women? Would that mean that s/he was being unfair to liberal proponents of the socially and economically active welfare state? Unfair to students who support gun control or, at minimum, don't believe that American citizens have a "right" to own flame throwers, handguns or automatic weapons of any kind? That student would probably not even think the professor was biased. Rather, this professor was telling the "truth."

It works both ways: "Like, I said in class this morning that I so totally supported abortion rights, and then my professor jumped all over my ass and told me that my position was an opinion, not an argument. I thought he was liberal. Or I really think he just doesn't like me because I don't agree with him . . . " is an often ever-so-insightful comment from a student holding a more conventional liberal belief.

Here's a secret of the professorial trade: most professors aren't altogether that concerned with a student's politics. I don't care at all about the opinions of any of my students -- save for those that might think the "Unabomber had a point." They can vote for whomever they want as often as they can and take whatever positions they want. They are free to insist to think that whatever they believe is true. I do care quite a bit, though, whether a student can distinguish between an opinion and an argument. Support abortion rights? Fine. Support capital punishment? Great. That the United States has the greatest health care system in the world. Your choice.

But can that student tell me why? That's the key issue. For many students, falling back into "the professor is biased" defense as an excuse for their inability to form a cogent, well thought-out argument for an opinion they've asserted is quite convenient. It's also really lazy. College is supposed to teach young people that the world of ideas is a much more complicated place than they have been led to believe. Every time I hear a student asked me, "Is it okay if I take the other side of the issue as long as I back up my argument?" I'm not sure what to say. How does a student get to his or her first year of college intimidated or afraid to voice an opinion for fear of punishment? Just what the hell is going on in our secondary schools?

Of course, supporting a position that you believe in is a good thing. But assuming there are only two sides to any given problem is too simplistic a way to think about abstract issues. In some ways, this is the consequence of attending college in Washington, where students often enter the world of politics as part of their undergraduate experience, and get caught up in the "liberal/conservative" dichotomy that drives what passes for "debate" here. Players in the Washington culture are driven by the need to acquire power and keep it. If they can't acquire very much power or keep it, they want to pontificate on television just to let the world know what the rest of us should be thinking and why. Professors are not immune from the temptations of membership in the Washington political-media complex that operates as a sump pump against the seepage of any thoughtful commentary or discussion of contemporary issues facing the country. There is no shortage of professors on our campus who would rather talk to reporters and camera crews than students and believe their every thought is so important that it must be "tweeted" as often as possible.

In Washington, ideas are simply a means to an end, commodities to be cleaned and sanitized so that everyone stays "on message." Everyone -- politicians, lobbyists, think-tankers, reporters, professors, bureaucrats, for starters, -- is in on the game. A few months after I moved here, in 1989, a reporter from the Washington Post called to ask me a question about a Supreme Court decision. I don't remember all the details, but I remember the reporter's frustration with me after giving her a "it could mean this, or that, or this, or that, or maybe nothing at all"-type answer. Or perhaps that she realized I was 27 years-old and didn't know much about anything.

"Just give me a three-sentence summary!" she demanded.

"But I can't," I responded.

"Well, then I guess you won't make it into the Washington Post! Remember, this will help you," she sniffed.

I had to admit I was curious. "Help me how?" I asked.

"It will get your name out there, and you'll get more calls for quotes."

"Honestly, I don't really care about that."

"You have a lot to learn," she said. And then she hung up.

Oh, well. I didn't go to my high school prom, and I managed to survive that, too. I mean, it was tough, but . . . .

So here it is: a professional academic who has spent a decent amount of time thinking about and studying a particular subject is going to have opinions. And it is perfectly reasonable for that person to share those opinions with students or whomever. Dentists, internists, hardware specialists, baseball scouts and many other professionals have opinions on what they do, and that is perfectly fine. Imagine going to an orthopedist for an examination to find out why your knee or shoulder hurts so much, and the doctor responded by saying she didn't want to offer you her opinion because that might come across as biased.

A student's responsibility is to absorb as much information as s/he can before forming an opinion that s/he can defend. Are universities disproportionately occupied by liberals? Uh, yes, just as the banking, real estate and communications industries are disproportionately run by conservatives and the arms business is run by people who favor politicians who want to spend more on weapons systems, regardless of whether those systems have any real value. The difference is, and this is something that gets easily lost on students concerned about "professorial bias," that the English department of Duke or the sociology department at the University of Indiana have far less influence in the real-world of politics and power than the men and women who run the country's most powerful institutions. This might come as a shock to my colleagues at American University, but the people who run this country don't really care about what we think or what we're teaching our students in class.

So, my young friends, if you are reading this, worry less about me and more about yourself. What I believe or think doesn't really matter. It's getting you to grow up a little and take charge of your own mind that does.

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