I was happy to learn last week that a conservative student group at the University of Texas had published a “professor watch list” of instructors who “push an ideological viewpoint on their students through oftentimes subtle but sometimes abrasive methods of indoctrination.”
I have long held that one of the most serious problems on our campus — the largest in the country, with more than 51,000 students — is that the student body is largely depoliticized. Given that lack of political engagement, I’m grateful for anything that gets students talking about politics, especially the role of politics in the university.
So, when my name ended up on the list of the alleged indoctrinators (with no clear indication whether I am subtle or abrasive), I wasn’t upset, even though the group’s description of my “Critical Issues in Journalism” course doesn’t quite square with my experience in the classroom. While I teach about the role of economics, race, and political ideology in journalism, but there’s a bit more to the semester than “a crash course in socialism, white privilege, the ‘truth’ about the Persian Gulf War and the role of America as the world’s prominent sponsor of terrorism.” (The watch list is here. My syllabus is here.)
But more important than arguing about the accuracy of these course descriptions is challenging what seems to be a key assumption of the project: Professors can, and should, eliminate their own politics from the classroom. For example, the list valorizes one professor who “so well hides his own beliefs from the classroom that one is forced to wonder if he has any political leaning at all.”
These illusions of neutrality only confuse students about the nature of inquiry into human society and behavior. All such teaching has a political dimension, and we shouldn’t fear that. The question isn’t whether professors should leave their politics at the door — they can’t — but whether professors are responsible in the way they present their politics.
Every decision a professor makes — choice of topics, textbook selection, how material is presented — has a politics. If the professor’s views are safely within the conventional wisdom of the dominant sectors of society, it might appear the class is apolitical. Only when professors challenge that conventional wisdom do we hear talk about “politicized” classrooms.
The classroom always is politicized in courses that deal with how we organize ourselves politically, economically, and socially. But because there’s a politics to teaching doesn’t mean teaching is nothing but politics; professors shouldn’t proselytize for their positions. Instead, when it’s appropriate — and in the courses I teach, it often is — professors should highlight the inevitable political judgments that underlie teaching. Students — especially those who disagree with a professor’s views — will come to see that the professor has opinions, which is a good thing. Professors should be modeling how to present and defend an argument with evidence and logic.
For example, in both my introductory and law-and-ethics classes, I offer a critique of corporations in capitalism. For most students, corporations and capitalism have been naturalized, accepted as the only possible way to organize an economy. But the modern corporation — a fairly recent invention — should be examined critically, not taken as a naturally occurring object. Given the phenomenal power of corporations, including media corporations, in contemporary America, how could one teach about journalism and law without a critical examination of not only the occasional high-profile corporate scandals but the core nature of the institution?
The conservative group claims its goal is “a fair and balanced delivery of information” in the classroom. If that really is their concern, I have a suggestion: Check out the business school. I’ve heard reports that some faculty there teach courses in marketing, management, finance, and accounting that rarely, if ever, raise fundamental questions about capitalism.
Wouldn’t that be shocking, if we were to discover that there really are places on campus where the classroom is so thoroughly politicized that the myriad alternatives to how to produce and distribute goods and services are not explored? Would it not be unfortunate if students were being indoctrinated into corporate capitalism, whether by means subtle or abrasive?
ROBERT JENSEN is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the forthcoming “Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity” (City Lights Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.