Teaching, not Preaching, Controversies in the Classroom

Fighting the indoctrination of students.

At the college for which I teach philosophy, I recently delivered a lecture in which I provided tips as to how faculty should proceed in teaching controversial subjects in the classroom.

For starters, I noted, a conscientious teacher must be able to know when he is in fact dealing with a topic that is indeed controversial. Given the apparent ease with which far too many instructors throughout the academic world introduce into their lectures contentious issues, one can be forgiven for thinking that these professors aren’t even aware that the issues to which they speak are in fact contentious.

In other words, it would appear that they are oblivious to the fact that the issues that they cavalierly address are issues.

Unless one understands that the topics in question are topics over which people, specifically students, disagree, topics that tend to elicit impassioned, yet divergent, responses, one is that much more disposed to reveal one’s own bias with respect to that topic. This can be a disastrous move for a teacher, for in disclosing his own biases, prejudices that may very well be at odds with those of at least some of his students, the teacher places his students on notice that he is a partisan and, thus, not someone whom they can trust to fairly discuss the issues at hand (a point to which I will return shortly).

That a college professor could inadvertently walk into a controversy while in the classroom—that professors do this with a remarkable degree of regularity—is not as unlikely a scenario as one may think. Academics are no different from the members of any other class inasmuch as they are susceptible to peer pressure. To put it more directly, the average academic is a herd animal, and the more habituated he is to living, breathing, and moving among the herd, the more oblivious he is to the fact that the dogmas routinely espoused by his colleagues are not the universal self-evident truths that he assumes them to be.

While some professors allude to and comment upon controversial topics in their classrooms without even realizing that they are controversial topics, others do so deliberately. Of the members of this latter group, they are of two types: There are those professors who introduce disputatious subjects that are germane to their classes, while others introduce subjects that are of no relevance to theirs.

A mathematics professor, for instance, should not be using his class time to wax indignant over, say, President Trump, “climate-change,” or “White Privilege.” These are controversial issues (in the sense that they provoke conflict between people), but the professor’s views on them are no more relevant to a mathematics class than are the views of engineering and science professors on abortion and the existence of God relevant to engineering and science classes.

Back in the late 1990s, when I was enrolled in the Master’s program in philosophy at Baylor University, another member of my cohort complained bitterly one day after he attended one of his philosophy classes. He had been excited about hearing the instructor’s lecture on the readings that had been assigned. That excitement gave way to exasperation, though, when the instructor instead chose to talk about Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearing.

Those professors who raise issues that are relevant to their courses can do so in one of two ways:

They can either teach on them or preach on them.

The difference between them is a difference in kind. It boils down to nothing more or less than the difference between a good teacher and a bad one, a teacher and a preacher, an educator and an indoctrinator. 

The student is the charge of the instructor. A teacher’s is among the most honorable, indeed, the most holy of vocations, for the teacher’s calling is that of educating the heads and the hearts of his students. Put another way, it is the teacher’s responsibility to cultivate within his students both intellectual and moral virtues by helping them to develop a fuller understanding of and appreciation for their civilizational inheritance: Humility, patience, courage, self-discipline, curiosity, analytical prowess, and, yes, wisdom—these are the excellences of character cultivated through careful attention to the “voices,” the disciplines, that constitute a liberal arts education. 

However, it is precisely because students’ minds are not yet equipped to analyze the issues with which they’re presented that it is a betrayal of their calling for instructors to substitute preaching for teaching. It is a dereliction of one’s duty as an educator to tell students what to think, for an educator’s duty is to teach students how to think.

Students, by definition, are not yet capable of forming thoughtful judgments on issues presented in their classrooms for the very simple reason that they are only then learning about those issues to an extent that is required before they can draw informed conclusions. In essentially telling his students what to think, the instructor preempts the whole learning process, thus depriving his students of the intellectual resources necessary for genuinely understanding the issues at hand.

So, since they will inevitably have to address controversial topics, how should educators proceed?

First, educators must be hospitable. For as important as it is for educators to be “tolerant,” hospitality is something else entirely. The hospitable educator has the proverbial “bedside manner.” He is friendly, yes, but even more so, the hospitable teacher makes every effort to make his students feel entirely at home in his classroom. Each student is made to feel like a member of the family, so to speak, and, to as great a degree as possible, as relaxed as they could feel in their own homes.

After all, those classes in which controversial topics are taught aren’t just lecture-based; they are as well discussion-oriented  If the discussion of these topics is to be genuine discussion, a conversation, than a significant degree of informality must be allowed. It isn’t just the profitability of a conversation, but its very possibility, that require the parties to it to be relaxed.

In welcoming the student into the home that is his classroom, the hospitable educator affirms the student.

Second, educators must be humble. This is to say that for however much conviction an educator may possess over an issue to which he directs his class, he must remember that in a very real sense, he is still a student himself. In fact, an educator, more so than anyone else, is aware of the extent of his own ignorance. Each time that he presents on the same topic, he should strive to learn that much more about it.

And this brings us to the third virtue of a college educator: charity. The educator is charitable to his students by providing them with the education to which they’re entitled—despite whether the student actually desires to lay claim to this entitlement. This in turn means that the charitable educator must impose upon his students standards, rules the exactness of which are determined by their conduciveness to the educational progress of his students.

If the educator is to fulfill his calling and promote liberal learning, then the only constraints that it is permissible for him to place on the exchange of ideas in his classroom are those of civility and mutual respect. Indeed, it is imperative that he demand of students that they express themselves civilly and respectfully, for in the absence of these virtues, no conversation is possible.

But note: It is the expression, and most definitely not the substance, of ideas that must be limited by the rules of civility and respect. Civility and respect are virtues that, like all moral virtues, pertain to conduct, not mere thought.

The educator, in short, doesn’t countenance the notion of “hate speech” in his classroom. He recognizes this as but another political fiction, and a particularly insidious one at that, for inasmuch as it is wielded by political partisans in their efforts to silence their opponents, it is wholly inimical to liberal learning.

In short, an educator committed to liberal learning is all too rare a phenomenon in today’s university.

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Photo from Billy Hathorn at Wikipedia Commons