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September 11 and the Politics of University Teaching

6 December 2001

At various time in my teaching career -- more than ever since Sept. 11 -- I have been advised by faculty colleagues that I should avoid being "too political" in the classroom. To the degree that the advice is simply pragmatic -- avoid being political to avoid being criticized -- I can understand it. But I find the suggestion hard to reconcile with my conception of what higher education should be in a pluralist democracy. Embedded in that advice are several key reasons for this culture's intellectual and political crisis, and in the particular the failure of the contemporary university.

Teaching is political.

I teach in a journalism department, where I have a role in training people who allegedly will provide the information citizens need to participate in a democratic system of governance that is based on the idea that those citizens are the sovereign power. Most journalists practice that trade in large corporate institutions that are themselves at the heart of the system of power in the society. Is there a way to imagine teaching journalism in a manner that isn't intensely political?

I use the term "political" not to mean partisan -- for or against any particular politician, policy, or party -- but instead to refer to the play of power in a society. Everyone lines up in some relationship to power, either in defense of, or resistance to. Claims of taking a neutral stance -- especially when made by privileged professionals -- are illusory; neutrality is simply another way of supporting the existing distribution of power. (Just imagine how we would examine a claim by Soviet academics that they were neutral as to the system of power in their nation and were teaching so as not to take political positions. What would we say about them?) To challenge power is political. To support power is political. To avoid the question is political.

Take the question of the forces that shape the news. One approach to that issue is Edward Herman's propaganda model, which highlights the role of ownership and ideology in the formation of mainstream news. I teach that model in my introductory journalism class because I believe it is the most compelling way to help explain how commercial journalism works. My decision is informed by my intellectual evaluation of the work, but no doubt my politics play a role as well. If someone consciously rejects the model and refuses to teach it, that decision is political in the same sense. And if one claims to be neutral and avoids the issue, that too is political.

So, it is not the case of some professors being political and some not. We all are political, which affects both what we take to be relevant intellectual questions and how we frame the presentation of those questions. In a healthy system, there would be ongoing engagement about such intellectual and political matters among faculty members, who are bound to have differing views. One or another of these views might emerge as more compelling than others. One or another might emerge as dominant based on the interests of power. But all the positions are equally political.

How does one come to hold political opinions?

A deeper problem with the advice to avoid being political is the notion that intellectual work somehow separate from politics. But we should ask: How does one come to hold a political position? Is it arrived at randomly? Is it based on wholly arbitrary assertions? Or, does one have a clear argument with credible evidence to support those opinions? If so, is there not always intellectual work behind a political position?

This culture too often treats political opinions as if they were merely subjective judgments. Certainly some component of our political decision-making includes statements that are subjective in some sense -- they are about principles that cannot be proved by reason and evidence, such as the answer to the question "what does it mean to be a human being?" But statements of such first principles are the beginning of a coherent political argument, not the end. The formation and articulation of political viewpoints requires intellectual work if those viewpoints are to be of value in public dialogue.

So, if most of what we talk about in a journalism class is inextricably political, and if it is important to provide a coherent argument for one's political judgments, professors should make clear their own political positions that are relevant to the class and explain to students how they came to hold those positions. That is not the same thing as proselytizing. It need not be coercive but can be a healthy process in which professors model an intellectual method that can counter the shallow, superficial political discourse that dominates in news coverage, television talk shows, advertising, and political campaigns. This should be one of the central goals of a university.

That task can, of course, be done badly. Professors can lose sight of the need to create the most open atmosphere possible for that intellectual work and political thinking. We can lose track of the central goal of helping students develop their own critical thinking skills. We can forget that our job is not simply to tell students what opinions they should hold but to challenge them to think deeper about their own positions, or in some cases to think enough to form opinions for the first time. I assume every professor, myself included, at some point has made such mistakes. At that point, the crucial question is whether students feel free enough to challenge the professor. Has the professor created a truly open and engaged classroom so that the class can help the professor correct herself or himself?

The bargain professors make

I take most of these points to be not terribly controversial. I have made these claims often and have yet to hear a colleague offer a serious rebuttal. If that is so, then why do people keep telling me to avoid being political in the classroom?

It may be that the advice is shorthand for "you do a bad job of teaching material that has controversial political content" or "I don't like your left/radical political positions and I wish you would stop teaching material related to those positions." If the former, then I would ask that my critics tell me what they think I am doing wrong so that I can have the chance to evaluate the criticism and make necessary changes. If they mean the latter, then I would ask them to critique my political positions (and defend their own) so that we could have an intellectual and political discussion that might be valuable for all concerned.

After a dozen years of teaching, I have come to believe the reason for that advice is much more troubling, and is rooted in the bargain with power that allows us our privilege.

We should start by being clear that professors are an incredibly privileged lot -- at least those of us who have steady jobs at reasonable salaries with reasonable benefits. (More and more teaching work is performed by large numbers of adjuncts and part-time instructors who do not have those protections, but even they, by comparison with most of the rest of the population, have considerable privilege.) Professors are relatively autonomous and do work that is generally invigorating and enjoyable. I feel privileged, and I'm grateful for the privilege.

As is almost always the case in hierarchical systems with unequal distributions of power, such as the contemporary United States, people are given privilege with the expectation that they will serve that system. It is my experience that values such as a sincere belief in the value of free thought and liberal education motivate people to join the university enterprise. But it is equally clear that the system has its own demands. Because it is a liberal pluralist institution, not a totalitarian monolith, there is some variation in how successfully individuals can resist the demands of the system. But in general, to the degree that professors accept the existing configuration of power they will be accorded the privileges with minimal interference. To the degree they challenge that power, rewards will be less forthcoming and the potential for interference enhan ced.

Rather than confront this, it is much easier for professors to imagine that they are outside that system of power and can evaluate the world from some more-or-less neutral position. It's easier to say things such as, "I try just to teach the facts, not my political opinions" and ignore the way in which every decision in teaching -- from the choices of subject matter and texts to the way the course is organized and the way power is distributed within the classroom -- is deeply political.

Teaching is about our opinions. The relevant questions are: How well can we defend our opinions? How well can we articulate the unstated assumptions that frame our questions as well as our answers? How willing are we to subject our teaching to scrutiny? How well do we listen to feedback from colleagues and students?

September 11

All of these questions have been very much on my mind since September 11, but they also were very much on my mind on September 10. In that sense, nothing changed for me in my teaching. But because of my antiwar writing and speaking, and the heightened level of public visibility that has come with those activities, the questions are also quite clearly on the mind of my critics and, I assume, my students. Because of the intensity of the emotions around the events of September 11, it has been more important than ever for me to foreground these questions in my classroom.

Based on reactions in and out of class, I know that many students are angry about things I have said or written outside of class, and about some discussions we have had in class. I am well aware that I have made many students uncomfortable. I do not consider that to be a problem, for I can't imagine a meaningful higher education experience that does not make students uncomfortable at some point. One shouldn't attend university simply to have existing beliefs reinforced. Students should confront alternative explanations, including those that conflict with their own deeply held beliefs. Inevitably, if one is dealing with topics that are important, that will mean students will be uncomfortable.

More than ever, this semester I have tried to monitor whether I present material in a way that makes it difficult for students with contrary opinions to speak. I have not always been sure I did all that I could to create the ideal classroom. I have on some days left the classroom wondering whether I talked too much and shut off student discussion too early; on other days, I fear that, in the interests of airing the maximal number of views, I let some students ramble on too long in a manner that bored others. I thought about those questions regularly before September 11. I hope I will continue to ask myself those questions as long as I am teaching.

I cannot speak for my students; I do not know for sure that I have taught in a way that makes the discomfort they might feel intellectually and politically productive. But I do know that at many moments I have felt uncomfortable. I assume that if I am in territory that challenges my own beliefs and forces me to think more deeply about what I am saying in class, then at some level I have succeeded.

Robert Jensen.
(c) Robert Jensen.

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