A Well-Balanced Education

I just finished reading this rather long but well-worth-reading essay, from the December 2003 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, written by the lefty blogger and English professor, Michael B?rub?.

Any outspoken conservative or libertarian college student who has taken courses in liberal arts or social sciences other than economics should find many of the incidents B?rub? mentions strangely familiar. I read the following paragraph twice just to make sure he wasn't talking about me:

But the dynamic of the class had been changed. From that day forward, John spoke up often, sometimes loudly, sometimes out of turn. He had begun to conceive of himself as the only countervailing conservative voice in a classroom full of liberal-left think-alikes, and he occasionally spoke as if he were entitled to reply to every other student's comment -- in a class of 17. He was forceful, intelligent, and articulate. Sometimes he was witty, and he was always knowledgeable about cyberpunk and postmodern science fiction. Often, however, he was obstreperous and out of bounds.

This is me in a nutshell. ("Help! I'm in a nutshell! How did I get into this bloody great big nutshell? What kind of shell has a nut like this?") I've always had difficulty waiting for my turn to speak, especially when I feel that I have something important to say.

It's not so much that my fellow students are all leftists - Georgia Tech is solidly conservative relative to other schools. Rather, the majority of students in any given class are simply apathetic, and I don't blame them. I don't get excited or outraged in math or science classes; I can easily understand why many others are bored to tears in sociology or philosophy. Different strokes for different folks, and all that jazz.

No, what really gets me animated is when a professor presents a controversial ideological claim as if it is generally accepted common sense. The professor has a bully pulpit, and if students remember anything at all, they will remember what the professor said and consider it to be the God's honest truth. Most students, including myself, do not go into class on the first day planning to exercise the same skepticism or critical thinking skills we would use if we were reading a newspaper editorial or listening to a sale's pitch. Nor should we have to, as that would make a student's life much more difficult than it needs to be. Imagine using such a criterion in a Physics class - should I trust the professor when he tells me that force equals mass times acceleration? Most of us don't worry that the science we are taught is tainted by the professor's personal ideological biases; rather, we assume that what the professor tells us is generally accepted by the field. But what to do when a sociology professor claims that nearly all gender differences, other than the obvious biological ones, are socially constructed? That the Great Depression was a predictable result of unrestrained capitalism? That institutional racism, sexism, and classism are so great in America that it is nearly impossible for anyone but rich white males to succeed?

When the claims are this outlandish, I recognize them as controversial and engage them with extreme skepticism. But if the claim is about something I am not familiar with, I accept it in the same way I would accept a scientific theory. Long after a class is over, I often come across a claim made by a professor that I considered non-controversial when I first heard it, but that turned out to be a hotly-disputed issue with important political ramifications. Just as I don't like to be bamboozled, I don't like to sit passively by and watch my fellow students have the wool pulled over their eyes by the professor. This is what greatly upsets me - not any ideological victim/minority mentality.

When a professor makes a claim that I know is clearly wrong, or at least extremely controversial (and I know so not just because I have always believed it or because it agrees with my ideology, but because I am familiar with the work done in the relevant field), I have an uncontrollable urge to dispute it. So too if a fellow student makes a similar claim and the professor acknowledges it in silence.

On the rare occasions (not so much at Tech, but at other universities I've attended) when I am truly the only non-leftist in the class, and when a significant portion of the other students are not apathetic, but actively leftist, we encounter what I like to call the "Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher" problem.

Anyone remember the now-cancelled ABC political show "Politically Incorrect"? Bill Maher, the host of the show, would invite four politicians, celebrities, or other Important People to discuss and debate various political issues. And almost every single episode, the ideological breakup would be three leftists of various degrees and one conservative/libertarian. Sometimes the token non-leftist would get lucky and one of the other three would be some Hollywood nitwit who doesn't know an electoral college from a fashion college. But you could bet money that the conservative or libertarian would be ideologically outnumbered every episode by a majority of the other guests, not to mention Maher himself.

In order to be "fair," Maher, in his capacity as the moderator, would try to regulate the length of each guest's sound bites so that the allotted speaking times would be distributed equally. But the egalitarian metric was based on speaking time per person, not speaking time per ideology, so the show would invariably turn into a leftist pile-on, with the conservative or libertarian struggling to simply make himself not look like as much of an idiot as possible (and often failing in his efforts).

This "Bill Maher" effect has happened to me in the classroom, and it happened to the student described in B?rub?'s article. I sympathize with B?rub? and all professors in his situation; unlike Bill Maher, professors don't choose their students. The purpose of a classroom discussion is not simply to reach an ideological balance, but to give each student a chance to express his or her views. At the same time, though, it is incredibly frustrating to be the only person in a group with a different political ideology and not have the opportunity to respond to everyone else's criticisms.

B?rub? tried to reach some kind of compromise:

For the remaining weeks of the semester, I tried to split the difference: John spoke more often than any other student, but I did not recognize him every time he asked; when students criticized his remarks, implicitly or explicitly, I did not validate their criticisms, but I did try to let them speak in rough proportion to their numbers. For a while, order was restored.

This is reasonable; I can't think of a much better solution. The only thing I might have done differently, were I in B?rub?'s position, is to occasionally play the devil's advocate if it seems that a single student is the lone voice in a sea of echoes. This will challenge other students to reconsider and defend their own views; otherwise, you're simply preaching to the choir.

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To hear Bill Maher tell it,

To hear Bill Maher tell it, he is a libertarian.

I played this role myself in

I played this role myself in the few classes where it mattered (PoliSci 101, Business Ethics, Soc 101). I suppose I had a reasonable amount of success, the the most vivid memory I have of it is that it was extraordinarily tiring and frustrating.

During one Business Ethics class session, the discussion got onto the topic of "sweatshops" and the use of cheap foreign labor in general. I tried to explain the massive purchasing power of $1/hr in a third world country, to little avail. In desperation I delivered this challenge to a particularly moronic student on the other side of the ideological divide, "Well why don't we raise the minimum wage to $100/hr then?" Her response, wait for it, "Well why not? They give a million dollars away on those TV shows don't they?" I cannot recall any statement that has left me more thoroughly speechless. When it's all-against-one, these episodes can be frequent enough to discourage further attempts.

The worst was probably Economic History of the U.S., which had a few Econ majors like me, but mostly Education majors (it fulfilled some bizarre requirement for my school's very popular teaching certificate program). Arguing with them was, as the saying goes, like teaching a pig to sing.

That was me in the tenth

That was me in the tenth grade, already. That was the year that the State of Louisiana taught civics in those years. I declared outright war in the first week, and I set records failing that class. It's one of my proudest moments.