This week, the University of California at Irvine rescinded its job offer to distinguished Duke law Prof. – and eminent liberal – Erwin Chemerinsky, because, according to Chemerinsky, the chancellor “didn’t know how controversial I would be” and “some conservative opposition was developing.”
Chemerinsky, who has represented Valerie Plame and a Guantanamo Bay detainee, penned op-ed pieces for major publications and offered a liberal point-of-view to various talk shows, had been offered the position of dean at UC-Irvine’s fledgling law school.
Even conservative scholars were puzzled by UC-Irvine’s decision, because Chemerinsky’s deanship would have given the law school a formidable start, and it is unlikely that other equally qualified individuals will be vying for the opening. Although the university’s chancellor insisted politics had nothing to do with it, the job offer was coincidentally withdrawn after a piece by Chemerinsky appeared in The Los Angeles Times criticizing the Bush administration.
Whether or not UC-Irvine’s decision was politically motivated, it adds another dimension to the debate about the role politics should play in education. College instructors often opt to skirt political issues in their classrooms, but should they also curb their political lives outside of it?
At that question, some conservatives are probably asking: “Since when do college instructors avoid political discussion? Our public universities are nothing if not liberal indoctrinators!” But I can assure you as a university instructor that many of us have pondered how vocal we should be about our political leanings in the classroom, in fear of sparking an inextinguishable debate. As I prepared my syllabus this quarter, I found that, given the textbook graduate students are required to use in teaching college composition, political discussion would be unavoidable.
I have decided to be open about my political views, and all instructors should have the right to do so, as long as they encourage open debate in response. One of the most invaluable offerings of a college education is the ability to think critically and determine your stance on the important issues of our time. Sure, we could churn out student after student who is armed with specialized job skills and conservative pragmatism, but what about the rest of what constitutes becoming a part of the greater society?
I could teach my students the rhetorical strategies but never give them an example of these rhetorical strategies at work in a political argument, or I could teach them about how to present a convincing argument but not encourage them to actually have opinions to argue. I refuse to do so. This generation’s students are going to be in the position to make this world a better place, and thus the last thing they need is more political apathy.
When I was a freshman in college, the war in Iraq was just beginning, and my roommate (a Muslim) and I had watched the first bombs light up the sky on our tiny little dorm television. I thought myself adamantly anti-war, yet when one of my professors played for us an audio clip of an Iraqi-American woman praising America for helping her native country escape a tyrannical dictator, I wasn’t angry and I didn’t cry “indoctrination!” Instead, I listened, as my college education had taught me to.
Indoctrination does happen, and I am certainly not encouraging that here. However, fear of being called an indoctrinator should not limit a professor in their teachings, and certainly should not limit their activities outside of the classroom.
This past June, the American Association of University Professors published a piece titled “Freedom in the Classroom”, which discusses the difference between education and indoctrination. They got it right when they separated the two in this way: “Indoctrination occurs only when instructors dogmatically insist on the truth of such propositions by refusing to accord their students the opportunity to contest them . . . The essence of higher education does not lie in the passive transmission of knowledge but in the inculcation of a mature independence of mind.”
In other words, instructors should be open to criticism themselves as they teach their students how to be open to it. If a student makes a valid point that contradicts the professors, they should congratulate them, not kick them out of the classroom. In my own instruction, I plan to offer various facets to every argument I present in class. And while I may tell them which side of the debate I happen to be on, I would expect those who disagree with me to come forward. If students in my classroom feel unable to do so, then I am doing something wrong.
If political discussion becomes taboo in a college classroom, or if suddenly all politically active instructors, conservative or liberal, were kicked off college campuses, college education would suffer immensely. Not only would it be a despicable affront to free speech, but the students would be missing a key part of their education.
Let’s hope the situation at UC-Irvine is not repeated elsewhere.
© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.