Thursday, April 20, 2006


Tim Burke has another of his typically brilliant posts on modern academia. This part especially stood out in my mind:
"The sin here would be to create a course where all the answers are dictated in advance, where there is no exploration, where every time the course is taught, the journey is entirely dictated as a command exercise, where the professor not only has an opinion but makes clear an expectation that everyone must share his or her opinion in order to be a legitimate part of the course. The sin is to fail to protect, to fail to actively produce a kind of pluralistic space within the classroom. This NOT a space of “tolerance”. I hate that formulation, because it takes every student as a sort of fixed identity with fixed opinions who must be made to feel comfortable or safe. Classrooms are unsafe space, and should remain so at all times. What I’m talking about is an expectation that everyone at all times, including the professor, is expected to navigate the entire range of conceptual possibilities, open questions, and actively argued premises that fall within the course’s boundaries."

I think the "unsafe space" idea has always been the major problem I have with much discussion of academic bias. I've had some very good professors who presented certain politically charged ideas not because they were whole-heartedly committed to them, but because they believed it would generate discussion and challenge students' thinking. After all, the idea of a liberal arts tradition is not just to gain cultural literacy, but rather to prepare to participate in culture, very broadly defined as perhaps the totality of one's community practices and beliefs.

In other words, students need to be actively engaged in a world of ideas, especially those that challenge their existing ones, forcing them to think critically even if they decide to retain whatever beliefs they came into the course with. I certainly believe the class I'm now teaching at Beloit College contains enough ideas and perspectives to shake up anyone from a closet Islamophobe to devout Muslims, and the pedagogical justification need be nothing greater than the fact that even if certain ideas contradict your deeply held beliefs, you need to know they are out there and how to deal with them in an intellectual manner.

There are, perhaps, some exceptions. I can understand, for example, how certain Ethnic Studies classes can become "safe spaces" for examining and coming to value in community a cultural tradition under siege or misunderstood, and in fact I see situations in which I might pitch my own class on that level. A lot depends on knowing the students, which is why I think smaller schools automatically make for better pedagogy. However, the belief that a professor is turning out liberal clones just because of the readings he or she assigns or the ideas they throw out in lecture or discussion does a disservice to students who have minds of their own which they seek to develop.


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