10 May 2006

Freedom and Discomfort in the Classroom

"The primary task of a useful teacher is to teach his students to recognize 'inconvenient' facts - I mean facts that are inconvenient to their party opinions. And for every party opinion there are facts that are extremely inconvenient, for my own opinion no less than for others. I believe the teacher accomplishes more than an intellectual task if he compels his audience to accustom itself to the existence of such facts. I would be so immodest as even to apply the expression 'moral achievement' though perhaps this may sound too grandiose for something that should go without saying." - Max Weber, "Science as a Vocation" (1918).

The essay by Weber from which I have extracted this passage is, of course, typically seen as a classic brief for separating facts and values in academic settings, especially in the classroom. Let's set aside the large question of whether it is possible coherently to defend anything like a fact-value dichotomy. (On this I recommend Hilary Putnam, The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy & Other Essays. Harvard UP, 2002.) What Weber is saying here is that, as a practical matter, teachers, especially university teachers, are not in the business of making the classroom a comfortable place. Their task is to challenge the opinions and values students bring with them, to make the students think and question. That may seem "inconvenient" to students seeking simply to confirm their own views, political or otherwise, but even Weber seems to view this difficult and admirable task is central to the teacher's vocation. (Of course, among the "inconvenient facts" that many students find most disturbing is that the world is full of folks who disagree with us about important things like politics, who think our own views are nutty or worse.) And the point of academic freedom, on my view, is that it allows faculty to make the campus and the classroom inconvenient and uncomfortable.

What has prompted this post? Last night I was reading a short item in Inside Higher Ed entitled "Fact Checking David Horowitz." Turns out that in his zeal to unmask "dangerous" faculty Mr. Horowitz stumbles repeatedly in terms of his own criteria of truth, fairness and so forth. The passage from Weber ought to illustrate just how far out on the fringe Mr. Horowitz and his acolytes actually have strayed. Normally I would not post even on such matters. However, this morning I arrived at my office to find a business card touting RochesterWatch (www.rochesterwatch.com) tacked to the bulletin board directly outside my office door. (There were none left on the other boards in the department, so I can only surmise that this was intended as a "special" message.) This is a group of right wing zealots who have made some inroads among the students on campus here. So, I suppose I am being "watched." Perhaps whomever left their calling card outside my office should read Weber too. Perhaps, having done so, they would say that they are simply tryig to make campus an "inconvenient" place for me too. That is fine. I am simply talking back without the veil of anonymity.

PS: Although I think that playing the "fact-checking" game with Horowitz and his minions is more or less of a time/energy black hole, there are pages that take he and they to task for (let's be polite) "dissembling." For example, see Free Exchange on Campus. (5/13/06).



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Horowitz and friends have gained so much traction because there actually is a measurable number of professors who abuse their positions in the classroom. While I was an undergrad at UR, I rarely felt my grade was in serious jeopardy because of my politics, but I did waste an entire semester in a history course because the prof decided that the innumerable evils of the White Protestant Male warranted the hijacking of a 100-level American history course. Apparently, Vietnam's most notable historical impact was the oppression of the minorities who disproportionately fought in the war. The whole course was like that. It was a great review of real moral failings in the US, but it bore little resemblence to the course description.

Horowitz may be slanderously sloppy, but there is a real problem.

15 May, 2006 00:45  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

I guess the fact that you didn't like a course, or didn't like the view a faculty member put forth is unfortunate. It would be great of all the ocorses I've taken over the years were thought-provoking and so forth. They have not been. It would be great if there was correspondence between the course as advertised and what it actually covered in each instance. That didn't always happen either. All that may be a problem. But let's be clear - it is NOT the problem Horowitz and his minions are whining about. They accuse faculty of intentionally grading students based on whether or not they have the "correct" political beliefs or affiliations. and frankly neither Horowitz not any of the students at UofR who complain about such things have offered a single instance in which it actually happened. THAT is the problem, conservatives complaining about matters that exist only in their over-active imaginations. And the fantasy world they spin is meant to do one thing - to stifle the views of those whom they deem "dangerous" ....

15 May, 2006 21:30  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is very disturbing and disappointing to see that groups such as RochesterWatch have made an inroads at the UofR. During my time at the UofR (’97-’01) there were students who had an internal “RochesterWatch” where they discouraged students from taking classes with particular “liberal” professors, but fortunately most of them were so socially awkward that no one ever paid any attention to them. Hopefully, most UofR students will be able to see through the most recent campaign of intimidation of organizations such as RochesterWatch.

15 May, 2006 23:52  
Blogger JoeCollins said...

Students talk about professors from all sorts of angles. Easy/hard grader, good lecturer, learned a lot, smells funny, etc. I was at UR at the same time (97-01) but I never heard any discussion about bias to the point that would discourage me from taking a class. However, if I had felt my grade was based on the extent of my intellectual capitualtion then I would probably tell my friends to steer clear as well.

As the owner of the original anon comment here, and despite the serious problems with Horowitz' witchhunting, I mean to emphasize that this whole movement has gotten beyond Horowitz' core audience because it has touched a nerve. If only the problems with my aforementioned history course where as mundane as being an issue of mere disagreement or disinterest!

Speaking of mundane, grading bias happens all the time in courses that aren't politically charged. A philosophy prof tends to give a better grade if you agree with his position, it's just that few people get too excited about Cartesian epistemology. I don't think it's crazy to think that similar biases in more overtly political contexts are necessarily imaginary.

18 May, 2006 00:20  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

thanks for the comments!

I really have to say that I find the notion of faculty grading students based on their poliical views quite simply ludcrous. That accounts, I think, for the inability of those who complain about it to cite a single actual instance of the supposedly rampant practice.

While it will seem trite, it is nevertheless true that my favorite students often are among the most conservative ones in any given class. A couple years ago when I was engaged in a very public dispute (over free speech and tolerance of others) with both conservative students on campus and the UofR administration I also was giving the very best grades in my two classes to the single most conservative students.

I grade papers anonymously - it really is easy to do and that really take "me" out of the equation almost completely. (And it IS easy to grade assignments anonymously.)

So I guess if the Hormowitz campaign is hitting a nerve it is, in my view, actually tapping something other than the common complaint about "political" grades. What could it be?

My sense is that the problem rests with the notion that higher education is a consumer good, one that ought to "satisfy" the student inthe same way as a new car. But that is simply not the case. I think higher ed ought to teach you to think and you learn how to do that in circumstances where your views (on whatever the topic) are challenged. A new car is not the same in that sense ...

18 May, 2006 21:15  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that students at every level - high school, college and professional schools are viewing education much more as a consumer good than an actual learning opportunity. They want to be constantly entertained and amused. If you challenge their views there clearly must be something wrong with you.

26 May, 2006 20:06  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As the operator or www.rochesterwatch.com, I find it rather hysterical that you found one of our cards and assumed that it meant someone was out to get you.

Have you considered that perhaps one of our members simply had a few cards in their pocket, saw an available bulletin board on a college campus and decided to stick it there for any interested party to notice? I assume that your office is in a political science area, or some other area relevant to political discussion.

And, just to put your mind at ease, I stumbled across this blog entry because, as the site administrator, I occasionally google for anyone linking to or mentioning rochesterwatch. I wouldn't want you thinking I was following you around or anything :)


24 July, 2006 16:24  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about "freedom and discomfort" in the faculty?

Complacent prick.

Plenty of better minds out there have different views to your prejudices, Jimbo.

16 February, 2007 12:48  

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