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Thin line between debate and advocacy

Jenn Metz | Monday, September 15, 2008

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a series examining the place of politics in the classroom.

This semester, many courses at Notre Dame, in many different disciplines, share one topic of discussion – the 2008 presidential election.

The Democratic and Republican national conventions dominated the media for the first two weeks of the semester and became grounds for discussion in the academic setting. The election will continue its presence in the classroom even after Election Day.

In a classroom setting, there’s a thin line between academic discussion of certain platforms and outright advocacy for a certain partisan belief. The political views of professors may influence the readings they assign, the manner in which they teach their courses, and the direction of discussion in the class. While professors have certain freedoms, too much emphasis on strong political beliefs may make students, who might not share in those beliefs, uncomfortable in class.

A question arises, then, that could cause debate in its own right: Should political discussion play an integral role in the classroom?

The easy answer, University Vice President and Associate Provost Dennis Jacobs said, is yes. But that yes comes with certain caveats, both for professors and students.

Academic freedom

Professors in all fields of study have certain obligations to uphold with their students, outlined in a University document called the Academic Articles, Jacobs said.

The most relevant part of this document, in terms of political discussion in the classroom, he said, has to do with academic freedom that, like every other freedom, comes with expectations.

“I think there are certain responsibilities that faculty have in the practice of academic freedom, to be respectful of others and to understand the boundaries of their expertise or their particular discipline,” he said.

Article III, section 2, titled “Academic Freedom and Associated Responsibilities,” says principles of academic freedom include the “freedom to teach and to learn according to one’s obligation, vision, and training” and “respectful allowance for the exercise of these freedoms by others.”

A third principle calls for the “avoidance of using the University to advance personal opinion or commercial interest.”

These three principles are crucial in any discussion regarding political debate at an academic level, Jacobs said.

“There should never be an issue of advocacy – a professor should not be an advocate of a particular position politically,” he said.

Individuals at the University, faculty and students alike, have an opinion on a political topic. A question for professors, however, is “to what extent in the profession of being a professor do you reveal that,” Jacobs said.

In terms of relevance to the subject matter, Jacobs provided the example of a mathematician expressing an opinion around a political subject.

“That would be inappropriate,” he said.

There are many courses across the University, however, where political debate would be appropriate, “where policies decided on either the national or international, global level would be absolutely at the heart of what the course is all about,” Jacobs said.

Individuals in the classroom should express their ideas and opinions in those cases, but in a respectful manner “that in the end would make us all better informed citizens,” he said, and political debates, where appropriate, should remain present in the academic setting.

“We want students to be actively engaged citizens, to be citizens of the political process. And so to say that those kinds of discussions or debates are barred from the classroom would be doing something damaging, I think, to an educational institution,” Jacobs said.

Debate at an academic level is one thing, he said, but advocacy for a particular side is improper.

“It would be naive to say, that when any of us speak, what we say does not reflect our personal beliefs,” Jacobs said. “Faculty members are not there to advocate for a position, but to help students understand how reasonable debate in a political sphere takes place.”

Where is the line?

The line between political advocacy and debating a certain position at an academic level is a hard one to draw, Political Science Department Chairperson Michael Zuckert said.

“It’s hard to draw the line between political science – political analysis – and political advocacy because what’s involved in political analysis is the judgment of the adequacy or inadequacy of various political proposals,” he said. “And that may or may not end up favoring particular positions.”

The evaluation of a political position, an integral part of the study of political science, is different than the evaluation of a work of art, Zuckert said, because it may seem appropriate for a teacher of art to make a distinction between better or worse.

“It’s not as controversial,” he said.

However, controversies related to politics are unavoidable, due to the nature of the discussion of differing opinions regarding a position, he said.

In the field of political science, he said, there is sometimes an “aspiration to be completely value free.”

“But I don’t think that generally works out or is what [political science] should do or be,” Zuckert said.

Professors should keep in mind the power differential between their position and the position of students in the classroom when deciding the amount they integrate their own beliefs into their curriculum, he said, and their “ability to make people feel uncomfortable.”

Drawing the line, though difficult, is a mark of good teaching, Zuckert said, and different professors may take different strategies in presenting political opinion in the classroom setting.

“You can’t just draw this line in a firm way – but I think there are ways of presentation which are more sensitive to the classroom situation,” he said. “However, sometimes, in moments of heated partisan debate, it can be easy for people to forget where they are and what they’re doing.”

The next part of this series will present professors’ strategies of presenting politics in their courses relating to the 2008 election.