Higher education needs a few good advocates

June 12, 1995|By Linda Seebach

THE INVASION of higher education by politics is one of my favorite subjects, so I decided I couldn't pass up a conference titled "The Role of Advocacy in the Classroom."

I couldn't tell whether the topic would be the propriety of professors' using the classroom to further their personal and political views, or if it would skip the ethical question as having a self-evident answer -- yes -- and get right to the question of how to go about it. Either way, I thought, there was a column lurking in there somewhere.

The conference was held at the Pittsburgh Hilton June 2-4, a venue that gave at least one member of the professoriate a chance to display her exquisite sensitivity to the oppressed.

"The next time we have a meeting like this," she said at Sunday morning's question-and-answer session, "we should have it at a university campus, where we won't see the homeless right outside the door."

The conference, which drew about 300 people, was sponsored by 16 academic organizations in fields such as anthropology, history, art and law. That's unusual. Professors love to go to conferences -- I love to go to conferences -- and stand around and talk shop, but they tend to flock together with others who speak a common language. The principal motivation for the conference was the bad press higher education has received in recent years.

"Even a single controversial episode can attract extraordinary public attention and have significant consequences for institutions and individuals," the organizers reminded people in their promotional brochure.

As someone who has pounced gleefully on a few of those "controversial episodes" in print, I tend to think universities get just about the kind of coverage they deserve. Also, knowing how rare my political views are among journalists, I am dismayed that there are so many faculty members who think the mainstream press is biased in favor of the right wing.

That means that even if they try to be objective in their classes, they're likely to get it wrong.

Or, as I heard one young man say to a friend in the hotel coffee shop, "I thought I was a leftist, but these people make me feel like a refugee from the Heritage Foundation!"

The traditional view of professorial disinterestedness is that deliberate advocacy of political positions ought to be kept out of the classroom. That view was scarcely expressed at the conference, except by people who wanted to dismiss it for various reasons.

Some people argued that it was impossible for teaching to be objective and others that it would be undesirable even if it could be done.

"I'm there to instill values," said Minna Kotkin of Brooklyn Law School, "and these are my values." She spoke at a session on "service learning."

The problem is that not all values are equal. If a student wanted to do service with "some right-wing 'pro bono' organization," Minna Kotkin said, putting the words "probono" within sarcastic air quotes, "some faculty would see that student didn't get a grant."

Many speakers argued for a more nuanced position that advocacy was permissible as long as it didn't turn into proselytizing or indoctrination. One difficulty with that is telling them apart. One person's permissible advocacy, said Gerald Graff of the University of Chicago, looks like objectionable indoctrination to someone else.

Another is that so many of the unabashed advocates are in favor of the same things.

There were two self-declared conservatives among the 20 speakers at the plenary sessions, and a couple of people who kept their personal politics out of the papers they presented, but the rest were pretty clearly on the political left.

Now, "left" in this context does not imply "sinister," and the conference cannot fairly be blamed for the people who didn't attend it. If the political spectrum on view in Pittsburgh simply reflects the views of the typical faculty in departments of humanities and the social sciences, that could mean merely that all the bright young conservative things have simply gone off to do corporate law or investment banking. I'm not in favor of affirmative action for anyone, and certainly not for conservatives, who, being correct as well as right about most things, don't need it.

But there are other explanations that are less benign. If all the people willing to be advocates in the classroom are on the same side, young people who don't agree with them are likely to become so fed up with a steady diet of politically flavored instruction that they don't want to spend their lives listening to it in faculty meetings.

Such suspicions are widespread on both ends of the political spectrum.

"There's so much mileage in attacking women's studies, it's scary," said one audience member at a panel on feminist pedagogy.

At the same panel someone asked whether it was a good idea to include views contrary to the professor's own in the course or the readings.

"I do it," said Mr. Graff, who was in the audience. "I thought it was necessary to draw that out." If critical voices aren't included, he explained, "in a curious way, it exempts them from the discussion," but if they are taught, students "understand the good guys better."

But Mr. Graff is more even-handed than some listeners wanted to be.

"A couple of times I taught anti-p.c. [politically correct] articles," one woman said, "and I was horrified because the students picked it up, they thought it was great."

Similarly horrified was another woman who chimed in, "They hear that 20 hours a day from Rush Limbaugh, I don't think we have to run out and bring it in."

If teachers won't even let students hear opposing views, they've clearly moved into the "objectionable indoctrination" category. And all their news coverage will continue to be "bad press."

Linda Seebach is editorial page editor of the Valley Times (Pleasanton) and San Ramon Valley Times (Danville) in California.

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