Neutrality in the Classroom

A friend of mine recently shared this Chronicle story on Facebook. In this piece, Professor Timothy Hill explains why he refused to tolerate what he saw as a bigoted student opinion. While I don’t agree with everything Hill writes, I agree with the spirit of the piece: it is not our job as instructors to coddle superficial and potentially offensive student positions in our classroom. It is for this reason that I’m appalled by some of the comments, particularly the one that suggests professors have no business deciding what is true or false (“But where does any teacher get off playing God and deciding what is or isn’t true?”). While professors don’t know everything, and while it is part of our job to be attentive to the limits of our knowledge, I thought it was in fact our business to help students sort out truths from falsehoods—that is, deciding what is true or false is exactly what we do.

In any case, I’m just using this story as a prompt for the following thought: instructor neutrality between political views in the classroom is neither possible nor desirable. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard instructors suggest that students should be able to take any political position they want in a paper or classroom discussion, so long as they provide a good argument for the position they take. It’s become my view, however, that some positions are so superficial that they are incapable of having a good argument. That is, some positions are so ridiculously bad that any defense of them is bound to fail. For instance, I was recently told that governments do nothing other than restrict the rights of otherwise free individuals. There is no way to build up a sophisticated defense of this position, because it is little more than a slogan.

In many cases, the jury is still out on where we should draw the line between certainty and uncertainty. But not in all cases. And pretending that the defensibility of every social or political position is entirely in question can do real damage. One of the comments on the Chronicle story includes the following anecdote:

A couple of years ago after attending a presentation given by my students, a colleague told me that she was initially surprised that a student gave a presentation on the immorality of homosexuality in front of his openly gay professor. Then she thought, “How great is that!”

That shouldn’t be a rhetorical question; the answer is not obvious. What about openly gay or closeted gay students in the classroom? Such a presentation could border on bullying, depending on the intensity or tone. In addition, would we cheer on a student presenting a racist view in front of a tolerant black professor, or a student presenting a sexist view in front of a female professor? I’m not sure that we would or that we should.

My guess is that being tolerant of superficial or offensive student positions may sometimes contribute to a professor-student rapport, which is a necessary condition for further conversation. If we alienate students by “slamming” them we are unlikely to make any headway at all. But it’s not clear to me that building rapport always trumps pointing out the truth—sometimes an easygoing “well, you’re entitled to your opinion” can encourage the student’s confidence in his or her own ignorance and alienate the minorities offended by the student’s views.

Either way, neutrality should not be a goal, because knowledge is never neutral between all views. If we aim for neutrality then knowledge is no longer our business; we will have traded down for social niceties and the status quo—both of which tend to serve the interests of dominant groups.

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One Response to Neutrality in the Classroom

  1. donovanschaefer says:

    I really agree with this. I think that there is a certain ideology of “freedom” (a word understood least by those who use it most) that permeates American life. One of the byproducts of this in the American classroom is a sort of “anything goes” attitude that is antithetical to scholarship–the production of an abstract space where all value and measurement has been bleached out.

    I also like your reference to arguing against “slogans.” There is a certain kind of person out there who thinks that anything can be settled through “reason.” Anybody who has ever been in a real debate, though, knows that debates are settled by the audience–not by some abstract mechanism of reason, and certainly not by the debaters themselves. Richard Dawkins’ example of one of his professors at Oxford admitting he was wrong about cell structure notwithstanding, most debates–certainly not humanistic debates surrounding questions about justice, freedom, religion, politics–don’t end with one side admitting defeat. People are going to be able to find ways to “defend” slogans like “We know how to spend our money better than the government does” until the cows come home using “reason,” but in the end, what counts as persuasive is settled by bodies, affects, and the regimes of information that we build in our classrooms.

    When a student tells me that evolution is not real, they are wrong, and it is that simple. How I go about drawing them to that realization is a question of strategy, but at the end of the day it is my job to change bad ideas like that into good ones. There are wrong answers.

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