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Professors strive to balance views

Michael Busk | Monday, February 7, 2005

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series exploring the role of partisan politics in classes at Notre Dame.

On the first day of his American Foreign Policy class, professor Daniel Lindley began his lecture by telling his students he was going to spell out the truth to them, then outlined a number of hard-line, Machiavellian policies as unquestionably correct. Afterward, he asked for their responses, but the students, afraid of contradicting their professor on the first day of a large lecture class, remained quiet.

Lindley then brought up the first slide on the DeBartolo projector – a huge sign with the phrase “TRUST ME” circled in red and crossed out.

“I’ve started in a variety of ways,” Lindley said. “I sometimes start by looking at the American Communist Party Web site, any old extreme place I can find, then say before we start class that I’m going to lay down the truth for you. I do that, then I say, ‘Do people have any thoughts?’ Often people don’t for a while. Then I say, ‘Do you know what you’ve just heard, you bunch of sheep? Think for yourselves here.’ People aren’t here to receive truth. Political scientists have very little truth to offer.”

Lindley’s first-lecture strategy is a unique approach to the situation that confronts all professors who teach politically-sensitive classes – the tension between their own convictions and the subject matter of their courses.

“It’s such a big issue,” said Thomas Guglielmo, concurrent professor of history and American studies. “I think my views of the world, and obviously part of those views have to do with politics, shape everything. I think it’s a challenge to every professor to understand that, be aware of that, and to be particularly vigilant about presenting multiple perspectives.”

Guglielmo said he believes the best method to take with students is to present and explain his beliefs in a way that is neither one-sided nor dogmatic.

“I try to say, ‘These are my perspectives, clearly it’s coloring the way I view this recent history, and the way we understand this history should be an open conversation,'” he said.

At schools across the country, the academic right to free classroom dialogue is occasionally disrupted by professors and administrators unwilling to listen to views that are not their own.

In 1994, an Army ROTC student at Bowling Green took a class on the Vietnam War, and as it happened, one of the times he was required by ROTC to wear his fatigues overlapped with one of his Vietnam War classes. His professor, antagonistic to the U.S. military in all its forms, would point out the student as a tool of the “imperialist enemy,” i.e., the United States, according to David Horowitz’s “The Heterodoxy Handbook: How to Survive a PC Campus.” Uncomfortable with being the butt of his professor’s spite, the student asked the professor to allow him to drop the class, but the professor refused and at the end of the semester, failed him.

More recently, the University of North Carolina-Wilmington’s administration last year retracted its official recognition of the university’s College Republicans on the grounds the group limited its membership to Republicans. Only after serious protest did UNC Wilmington reinstate the group.

Notre Dame philosophy professor David Solomon knows of a former student who faced a similar conflict at Bryn Mawr. The student, who was the head of Bryn Mawr’s two-person pro-life group, was allowed to attend a pro-choice talk and discussion only after signing a legal document in which she guaranteed she would not ask a question, Solomon said.

Although these cases of professorial and administrative bias are the exception and not the rule, they have nonetheless generated a great deal of media attention and have been cited by conservatives as evidence of the disproportionate liberal majority in American academia.

At Notre Dame, professors are well aware of this issue and consider it of the utmost importance to maintain complete impartiality with respect to their students at all times. However, the extent to which they tell students their views differs greatly from professor to professor.

Political science professor Alvin Tillery, like Guglielmo, said he presents students with his political beliefs, but only as his personal conclusions, not as undeniable truth.

“I tell students what I would do in a certain situation, but I always say it’s just my own struggle,” Tillery said. “Is that right? It’s right for me, but they have to figure out what’s right for them.”

Solomon, who teaches a number of medical ethics classes whose subjects are often controversial, stressed it was important both for both he and his students to present and refine their own views.

“I tell students they will know what I believe on the moral issues, and I want them to tell me what they believe,” Solomon said. “I think moral debate can’t go on unless people put their own views out on the table.”

But political science professor Peri Arnold took a different perspective, believing professors should keep their own political views outside the classroom as much as possible.

“I rarely broach my own partisan political preferences in a classroom setting,” Arnold said. “This is not political theology. Our first responsibility as students of politics is to put aside our ideologies and develop intellectual and analytical rigor.”

American studies professor Robert Schmuhl agreed. Keeping in mind the current contentious political climate, professors have a particularly deep obligation to keep their own views to themselves, he said.

“Especially at this time of deep political division, impartiality is critical,” Schmuhl said. “If there was a perception that a teacher thought one way or the other, that could create a barrier to understanding or to fostering an open mind about political issues.”