CONNOLLY: A balanced approach

Students should attempt to recognize and appreciate the differing perspectives of their teachers

At some point in every student’s career, he or she encounters a teacher who incorporates personal bias into teaching. This has important implications on the educational process. Teachers and professors heavily influence the thinking of their students, and are crucial in a student’s development of beliefs and biases, be they political, religious or economic. How should professors go about their work, with personal biases in mind? Should they be upfront in their beliefs? Should they try and be unbiased? And what are the responsibilities of students?

I would argue that professors should attempt to keep their personal beliefs out of their work and present material from a disinterested perspective. If teachers are forced to reveal their beliefs, they should be careful to mention alternative viewpoints. Students have a responsibility themselves: to challenge and critically evaluate instructor viewpoints, taking nothing for granted. Further, universities have a responsibility to recruit a diverse faculty, with professors representing different outlooks and viewpoints.

These considerations are particularly relevant in an era of highly politicized academia. According to a study done by psychologists at Tilburg University, a college in the Netherlands, more than a third of academics in the social psychology field admitted that they would discriminate against conservative colleagues. And as the Washington Times reported, one survey respondent wrote that, “if department members ‘could figure out who was a conservative, they would be sure not to hire them.’” The political bias is not limited to psychology departments. In a 2007 survey, researchers found that approximately 80 percent of college professors identify as Democrats. In contrast, only about 20 percent of the general population identifies as liberal, with 40 percent calling themselves conservative.

This political distortion holds important lessons for students. For one, students should be aware, as they enter the classroom, that their professors are more likely to be liberal than conservative. If nothing else, this knowledge will allow students to prepare to critically evaluate the course information. Additionally, students armed with this information should actively seek out conservative professors. Learning from a variety of perspectives is an important component of a complete education; actively seeking out conservative professors will help students gain a more balanced education.

This political distortion also has notable implications for university faculties. Any faculty with homogenous viewpoints will suffer from the confirmation bias; professors will not be challenged, and their views will not be questioned if their colleagues are universally liberal or universally conservative. It would be a grave blow to intellectual freedom and discovery if universities hired only professors of a certain mindset

From a personal standpoint, I would prefer that professors keep their biases out of the classroom, in recognition of the fact that their worldviews are, fundamentally, opinions that are not necessarily correct. But if professors must incorporate biases, I would encourage them to be upfront about it, to allow students to better critically evaluate the material. For instance, Professor Gerald Warburg of the Batten School, the instructor of “Public Policy Challenges of the 21st Century,” has been extremely forthright with his political beliefs, yet he does not allow them to detract from the classroom experience. Instead, Professor Warburg never fails to mention alternative viewpoints. When discussing politics, he is quick to point out that both political parties have flaws, and even quicker to point out that both have strengths. As a student whose political views are not fully formed, I appreciate Professor Warburg’s candor, and I am grateful that though he brings a personal viewpoint into the classroom, he is tolerant of other opinions.

The University has done a fair job of attracting liberal and conservative professors, and I have found the intellectual diversity to be refreshing. In light of this, I would encourage the University to host more events highlighting the contrasts in professors’ views, to emphasize the University’s multitude of opinions. I would love to watch professors debate the budget, or immigration, or any pressing issue of political controversy. Offering these debates, which could possibly occur as Flash Seminars, would help to emphasize the spirit of intellectual curiosity that I know appeals to the students and faculty of this University.

In an era where politics are highly polarized, it is important to have a diversity of opinions, and it is also important to be tolerant of others’ beliefs. Professors might hold biases, but should be upfront about them, and should seek out debate with others of a different mindset. Students have a responsibility as citizens to develop and explore viewpoints, something best done with an atmosphere of curiosity. The University, to my experience, has done well to promote this atmosphere. I would love to see it continue more down this path of discovery.

John Connolly is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at j.connolly@cavalierdaily.com.


Published April 25, 2014 in Opinion





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