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March 31, 2008 [feather]
Tautological polling

The Chronicle of Higher Ed has conducted a poll about politics in the classroom--and has framed it in such a way as to render its findings substantially less useful than they could be.

Working with Gallup, CHE asked Americans, "How often do you believe that college professors use their classrooms as a platform for their personal politics?" Here is what they found: "Only 29 percent of those age 25 to 34, and who are more likely to have spent time on a college campus in recent years, responded that professors 'often' use their classrooms to espouse their political views. But that response grew to 41 percent of those between the ages of 45 and 54, and to nearly 60 percent of those over age 65."

CHE goes on to quote numerous academics ruminating on the poll's "findings." The poll indicates that those who are furthest removed from the college classroom are the ones most likely to believe that professors proselytize, they said, clearly implying that there is nothing to the notion that professors bring their politics into the classroom in inappropriate ways, and that those who know what they are talking about don't believe such canards.

Building on this, some of the people CHE asked to comment on the poll argued that the real problem it reveals is that negative myths about higher education are damaging its public reputation, and are thus harming its ability to get funding and jeopardizing its autonomy. It all looks awfully pat--but then, that's pretty much how CHE seems to have planned it.

It's interesting to see how large swathes of those polled are discounted; would they have been equally discounted if they didn't believe political ranting was going on? It's also interesting to see how the older, discounted populations polled are used to minimize the results from those younger participants whose opinions presumably do count. It's only by contrast that 29 percent can be seen as "only" 29 percent. There are more than 14 million college students in this country at any given time. 29 percent of that figure is a whopping number, and would seem to deserve a little more consideration than it gets from the Chronicle and its more dismissive commentators.

Percentages aside, it's worth stepping back to look again at the question, which is phrased so as to guarantee that it will fail to elicit an accurate or comprehensive picture of the problem. It is probably true that a minority of people between 25 and 34 were "often" subjected to political ranting in class. But that's a caricature of the issue.

The image of the political demagogue stumping for lefty causes in class is a straw man--this person exists, but is the exception to the rule. The debate--and the acquisition of knowledge--will remain handcuffed and polarized until we can banish that straw man to the wings where he belongs and start talking in good faith about what Mark Bauerlein has aptly characterized as the soft bias that is rampant on campus. As Anne Neal told CHE, "The problem of the PC university is not so much unrelenting political rants, although they exist, so much as it is that certain topics are not taught, certain disciplinary perspectives are not covered, and certain questions can't be asked."

posted on March 31, 2008 1:18 PM




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Comments:

As Anne Neal told CHE, "The problem of the PC university is not so much unrelenting political rants, although they exist, so much as it is that certain topics are not taught, certain disciplinary perspectives are not covered, and certain questions can't be asked."

Interesting.

I wonder: how many faculty consider that the issue of Anthropogenic Global Warming is still open?

Not that every faculty member consciously touches on the topic, but when "touching happens", which perspective is favored: that AGW is a fact, or that the jury is still out?

Posted by: minerva at March 31, 2008 6:41 PM



Great post Erin. At the Big State U I attended there were very few professors who injected their personal political views on classroom discussions. Still, those occasions were some of the most unpleasant classroom experiences I've had in my life. Classes that pertained to race or gender were generally the worst, with students being belittled for impolitic questions or statements. This was particularly bothersome because the ideas being discussed were important, but one did not want to disagree with the classroom orthodoxy out of fear of being excoriated by the professor or fellow students. This was not the unpleasant-but-proper give and take of the Paper Chase, but the sort of ad hominem attacks that one would expect left out.

Posted by: Kevin at April 1, 2008 7:32 AM



"Only 29 percent," indeed. "One in Four" can be a fairly important statistic when academics want it to be -- and I note that 29 percent is closer to One in Three.

Because the link to the poll requires a subscription, I was not able to read it, but I did find myself wondering how CHE/Gallup defined "political views" "George Bush is a tyrant" or "The U.S. should pull out of Iraq" are obvious political views. But so, too, is "Gender is socially constructed," "Women are oppressed," or "Capitalism causes global warming." Maybe younger people have grown up being force-fed the latter kind of "soft left" opinion -- so much so that they don't necessarily see it as "political." Older people, however, are more likely to remember a time when a teacher's job was to teach, not to opine on a cause du jour. I imagine that could count for much of the disparity in the figures.

Bauerlein and Neal's argument that certain important topics and perspectives are no longer widely taught seems indisputable. For instance, history departments no longer widely teach courses on military, religious, or diplomatic history -- a remarkable fact, given how military conflicts, religious strife, and diplomatic negotiations have literally structured the world as we know it. English departments now seem to privilege nineteenth- and twentieth-century prose written by women and minorities -- but don't place so much emphasis on literature before the nineteenth century. These are all "political" facts, even if it takes a canny (and perhaps experienced) eye to see it.

In short, bias can be as much in what the professor is *not* saying than what he *is* saying.

Posted by: Jack Fields at April 1, 2008 11:31 AM



I'm glad if political ranting or even widespread overt political bias in the college classroom is becoming a "straw man". Because the straw man originated on rightwing websites like the David Horowitz Frontpagemagazine, which made it seem like every other professor is a Ward Churchill. It's just not like that. And when Horowitz visited my campus, and I attended his own evening rant session, I got more than my fill. Some of the more mainstream sites like National Review's Phi Beta Cons are only slightly better. Outlets like these -- and others -- are helping turn off this rather conservative faculty member to the conservative critique of higher education. Even groups like the National Association of Scholars show signs of succumbing and outlets like the Wall Street Journal show signs of succumbing. It does not bode well.

Posted by: Mike at April 1, 2008 7:34 PM



I'm wondering on what basis Jack Fields concludes that English Departments "privilege" prose by 19th and 20th c. women and minorities and "don't place emphasis on" literature before the 19th century. His assumption fails to accord with my experience in the three English departments I've taught in since finishing grad school, all of which instead put many requirements in place that ensure that students get broad coverage across the spectrum of British and American literature.

Posted by: maria at April 2, 2008 3:20 PM



I'll admit that I'm following this issue from a very big distance, mostly because I don't identify with conservative, liberal, or progressive thinkers on higher education. I find that "critics" like Horowitz very rarely know what they are talking about, and "defenders" of (liberal) higher ed, like Michael Berube, spend far too much time dignifying blockheaded attacks from Horowitz et al. Personally, I find the whole debate depressing because it doesn't seem that many academics--you know, the most "educated" group in our culture--have come up with compelling arguments on any of the myriad sides to this issue.

That said, I can't help but be really, really, really suspicious of the "threat" that is being posed to higher education by "conservatives" from the "outside." I'm not denying that American culture can be anti-intellectual, particularly at the governmental level. However, from what I've seen, higher education still remains safe behind its ivory tower force field. In my years of graduate study, I witnessed my program mismanage its funding, dole out assistance to students erratically and irrationally, allow dissertation advisors to disappear for semesters at a time, reward graduate students for "excellent" teaching when they never held office hours, and generally foster an environment of itellectual silliness. Whatever the threats from the outside might be, the system seems to be moving along unimpeded (and unquestioned) as always.

Posted by: anonymous at April 3, 2008 6:59 AM



Maria writes "I'm wondering on what basis Jack Fields concludes that English Departments 'privilege' prose by 19th and 20th c. women and minorities and 'don't place emphasis on' literature before the 19th century."

I'm disappointed that Maria, a veteran English professor, cannot manage to quote me accurately. I actually wrote that "English departments now seem to privilege nineteenth- and twentieth-century prose written by women and minorities -- but don't place so much emphasis on literature before the nineteenth century" (emphasis added). Surreptitiously deleting the words "so much" from what I wrote allows Maria to bristle at her self-created straw-man argument.

I acknowledge that English Departments do still teach earlier literature; to argue otherwise would be manifestly silly. However, when Maria refers to departmental requirements "that ensure ... broad coverage across the spectrum," she fails to note how such requirements generally mandate only a token few classes in earlier literatures. At Penn State for instance, a major must take one course in British literature before 1800, along with one survey course of English literature before 1798. That's all. Is it enough? I don't think so.

A perusal of university course catalogs will show indisputably that most English classes now deal with prose works written after 1800, and that a disproportionate number are concerned with women's and minority literature (or, worse, things that are not strictly literary at all). It's hard not to conclude that some aspects of the "spectrum" get more attention than others. It's also hard not to conclude that students today can get degrees in English by reading only a token smattering of works that are more than two hundred years old.


Posted by: Jack Fields at April 3, 2008 8:37 AM