Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Whose Thinking Matters?

What is the role of the professor at the university level? Is it to indoctrinate, to persuade, to challenge? It is to objectively report facts? Is objectivity even possible in some subject areas, like history?

I find this article from the Huffington Post, about the firing of an American History professor, disturbing for a number of reasons. First and most viscerally, I find the professor's tone really unpleasant. I know he's angry about what happened to him, but he seems to be trying very hard to prove that he's not a "professor," that he's incredibly hip and edgy (when we knew that the truly hip and edgy don't waste time trying to take on poses). He talks about his hippie childhood in class; he talks about sex; he curses. His students call him "Bad Thad," and he wears it as a badge of honor. Ho hum.

More important is his attitude towards his teaching. He has a radical and revisionist take on American History, and that's fine--he's entittled to it. If the college he worked for didn't like it, it's their own fault for hiring him and giving him free rein without checking his background. Either you give a professor a curriculum to teach, and therefore expect some accountability, or you give him freedom to teach whatever he thinks is important, in which case you shouldn't act shocked when he does just that.

But a teacher has an individual responsibility to his students, regardless of how much or little control the university holds over him, and that's what I think is interesting here. This professor feels it is his responsibility to bring "the truth" to his students. He has a non-mainstream view of history, and feels he is fighting against a very loud and conformist point of view. If he is not forceful in his teaching, he simply will not be heard--he's a whisper in a hurricane. I totally understand that point of view and that frustration. And I accept the argument that history is not objective--that there is no universal "truth" that's accessible to anyone but God, probably. Everyone has a point of view; everyone has a bias. If we pretend it isn't so, we're hiding things from our students.

But. Even accepting all of these arguments, is your job as a professor to teach the majority argument, to teach a counter-argument, or to teach students to think for themselves?

I had a friend, years ago, who was a classics and theatre professor, and a happily unreconstructed hippie. He argued the same line as the history professor in this article: in the face of mass media and mainstream politics, someone with an opposing point of view needs to be loud, forceful, and charismatic in order to be heard. He was alone on the barricades, waving the flag.

"But," I said, "If they've been swayed to the Right by propaganda and charismatic salesmen, and you sway them to the Left using your own charisma and forcefulness, how do you know the next guy down the line won't just sway them back to the Right? Do you want them to remain sheep, but on your farm, or do you want them to stop being sheep altogether?"

I would not argue that a professor, especially at the college level, should avoid controversy to protect the sensibilities of parents, students, or the administration. Eighteen is certainly old enough to start hearing the ugly facts about the world we live in. But I would argue that the professor has a responsibility to engage students in an examination of the controversy, presenting different and contradictory facts and arguments and helping students form their own opinions--opinions that the students can defend when challenged...even if the students end up
deciding that the professor is wrong. Some of the kids will end up agreeing with you; some of them won't. That's the price you pay for working in the marketplace of ideas. The students should always have the right to buy what you're peddling or walk away. If you overwhelm them with emotional arguments or the force of your personality, your victory may seem total, but it will be short-lived.

My theatre professor friend absolutely disagreed with me, and I suspect the professor in this article would, as well. So did a grad student whom I saw leading a huge theatre survey class, who portrayed every bit of dramatic writing, from ancient Greece to today, as a battle between the master class and the proletariat. This was a survey class--an introduction to this literature. The students likely had never read these pieces before. And the grad student was seeing to it that they all saw this literature through his lenses. Is that education, or indoctrination?

Why do they do this? It's not just because these professors believe what they believe very deeply. It's also because these professors are performers at heart, and they want to keep the audience in the palm of their hands. What they do in the classroom is more important than what the kids do--the kids are simply there to take it in and nod their heads and say, "this guy is a genius!"

The problem is that no one teaches professors how to teach. People come to academia with hardenend ideas, born of their own research, and they immediately set about sharing those ideas with the next generation. Or one might say, "cramming those ideas down the throats of the next generation." No one teaches them how to teach Socratically, dialectically, or dialogically. No one tells them to respect the independence of the students they are teaching. No one tells them that the students are more important than the teacher.

Of course, they don't teach those things to high school teachers, either. They just hand them a textbook and say, "try to stay a couple of chapters ahead of the kids."

Some professors--and some K12 teachers--seem to know this. God knows where they learn it. If you've had teachers like this, you've been lucky. If you are a teacher like this, you're a godsend. But there's certainly nothing structurally built-in to our education system to ensure that teachers approach their work this way.

And--as a coda to all of this--if we teach our children dogmatically--if we spend 12 or 16 years pounding it into their heads that Mr. or Ms. Authority Figure has all the answers, and their job is to swallow the swill and sneer at anyone who disagrees, is it really a wonder that our politics is what it is, today?