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Students see profs as liberal

Michael Busk | Wednesday, February 9, 2005

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

With the prevailing trend in academia leaning to the left, as many students and professors noted, Notre Dame’s always Catholic and often conservative tone can sometimes lead to tension within departments and even between professors and their students. Last semester, philosophy professor Kenneth Sayre taught a class called Environmental Philosophy. Subjects discussed included Western consumerism, global warming, Alaskan oil-drilling and other controversial subjects. Sayre said that although he generally keeps his political views in the background in his more conventional philosophy classes, this class soon developed a different tone. “It’s good not to let your own views enter into the discussion, if you can have any control over it,” said Sayre. “I began the course with the point of view of keeping my own political views completely in the background. As time went on, that became less and less possible.” Sayre said that since many of his students who took the class were already concerned with the current state of the environment, many had more progressive points of view. Nonetheless, he maintained that the classroom discussion never descended to the level of sermonizing.”But by the end of the course, in the written evaluations, there were a couple of students who were complaining about the leftist orientation of the course,” he said. “And I understand where that was coming from.”Although many political science students feel their professors often have liberal worldviews, they also generally say their professors’ opinions did not hinder class participation or lessen the classes’ intellectual rigor. “I would definitely agree with the popular position that college professors, on average, are very liberal,” said senior political science student Aaron Thomas. But Thomas did not believe that a liberal-leaning stance made those professors demagogues or proselytizers. “They are not so interested in molding young minds to conform to what they believe to be the best political ideology, but are more concerned with challenging students to be critical of all convention,” Thomas said. “For example, if you make a ‘liberal’ argument, they will most likely give you the ‘conservative’ rebuttal as a way of fostering debate and challenging you to think from multiple perspectives.” Political science professor Daniel Philpott is one of the professors who utilizes this method. “I try to provoke the students, and if nobody’s bringing up a more conservative perspective, then sometimes I’ll see it as my role to play devil’s advocate,” said Philpott. “Now while all that sounds equally balanced and open and pluralistic, often the way you frame an issue or set up an issue can direct the way a conversation goes, and that’s where the professor’s agenda often comes into play.”In disciplines that attract as diverse a cross-section of the student body, such as political science, some Notre Dame students feel that professors can cross the bounds of fairness in a way that hampers the intellectual quality of the course. John Skakun, a senior political science major, took a class whose subject included current American politics, and was surprised at what he considered to be the professor’s obvious prejudices. “I was honestly astonished at how poorly, if at all, he presented ‘conservative’ perspectives on various issues,” Skakun said. “He presented [conservatives] almost universally as straw men, often pointing out their flaws, and then would present a more ‘liberal’ perspective, but interestingly, rarely pointed out flaws in these perspectives.””It was a rather frustrating experience,” he added. “Not so much because I disagreed with him about things, but because the course did not seem intellectually rigorous.”Andrew Hochstedler, a senior political science and German major, said he noticed some partisanship among professors. “Generally, my teachers are very good about separating their bias from that which they are teaching,” Hochstedler said. “I definitely have had teachers who push their own [opinions] in the class, but these are generally easy to pick up on, especially since you often go into the class having read a couple of the articles that the professor published and so you should know what their pet subject/views are.” Some professors believe Notre Dame’s relative conservatism, compared to other universities, counterbalances the liberal tendencies of American academia, making Notre Dame a home for diverse academic dialogue. “There’s a kind of political orthodoxy on most of the major issues,” said philosophy philosophy professor David Solomon. “It’s one of the things that makes Notre Dame a little more interesting, because the orthodoxy is not quite so strictly enforced on certain issues.”Political science professor Daniel Lindley praised Notre Dame as a place free from the partisanship that can deaden academic discussions. “Notre Dame is wonderfully not politically correct in that no one view or other is enforced and I am free in the classroom to discuss a wide variety of views,” Lindley said. “I love Notre Dame for its explicit invitation to discuss moral views and raise ethical dilemmas.”Sayre, on the other hand, thought that the conservatism of some Notre Dame students kept them from engaging deeply with the course material. “It’s not good in the first place for students enter college with the specific view that they’re not going to change their basic view on life,” said Sayre.Political science professor Alvin Tillery said he found an unhelpful “us versus them” mentality in some of his students. “I think this generation has got this Republican movement/liberal movement rhetoric built into it that’s very new,” said Tillery. “University is about freedom of expression, and that’s for people that call themselves conservative and people that call themselves liberal.”Many professors are aware of students’ perception of their political views.”A student wrote me up in a Republican mommies’ group on the web, saying I’m so biased against conservative students,” said Tillery. “I think some students just have a personal axe to grind, and then you’ve got this whole system telling them the University is a liberal place, that the University is out to corrupt you.”Tillery recalled the purpose of the university, a melting pot of people and ideas, where students and faculty can think creatively and critically together about ideas and issues that are relevant to the world they live in. “I’m indebted to my students who disagree with me from the left and from the right, because I’ve learned a lot from them, and I thought that’s what university is about,” said Tillery. “I think we have a culture of pugnaciousness and vapidity that is really trickling down to the University and it really makes it hard to have robust conversations.”